Book Review

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas

very early protest against colonialism

cw: colonial (inc. sexual) violence

Obviously, colonialism is bad.

We sometimes (I’m talking about my own demographic (millennial white bad boy) here) forget, though, just how bad it was.

I don’t mean that it’s easy to forget that colonialism happened, that it was unjust and that the repercussions of it will essentially last forever, but it’s easy to forget just how fucking violent it was.

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I’ve been reading a lot, since moving to Canada, about Canadian colonial history, which is very different from the kind of colonialism this book is about: that performed by the Spanish conquistadors from the end of the fifteenth century onwards.

Here in Canada, colonialism is spoken of a lot, almost too casually, with terms like “slow genocide” thrown about and the “land acknowledgements” at most Arts events doing a lot of nothing for anyone except the shameful descendants of settlers.

Of course, talk without action is better than the no talk/no action approach of my own native England (e.g. “whut no there only racism here 2 white ppl now cuz we cant sey nuffin to no one no more we r oppressed not them i have no privlid look im very ugglee u cant b privlid n ugglee!!?!?!?!?!”), and perhaps in the longer term the wide acknowledgement of the problem will help with the reconciliation part of “Truth and Reconciliation”. Sorry for the digression there. I hate England. So many racists.

You know who else was racist? The conquistadores.

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I recently listened to one of those six hour long history podcasts delivered by a millennial white man that stereotypical millennial white men listen to (yes, sometimes even I slip into gross caricature of my demographic (“bad boy” means “man with issues”)), which was about the collapse of the Aztec Empire.

Although I listened to this during the “down time” over the Christmas holidays (i.e. when I needed to withdraw from other people so I wouldn’t have a panic attack or – if the panic attack was unavoidable – so I could have a panic attack in private), a lot of the narrative stuck with me. The cruelty, the needless violence, the constant betrayal, the innate sense of superiority that was militaristically demonstrated (due to the inarguably superior weaponry and armour of the Spanish) and how, in a deeply riven, violent culture (as there was in Europe at that time), military dominance, metallurgy and basically nothing else were agreed to be the markers of superiority.

Every time Hernán Cortés mowed down an army of Aztecs that massively outnumbered his side, he and his men felt more justified in their sense of power.

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A powerful thing was the medieval, literal, belief in an omniscient, omnipotent Christian god: if all that happens, happens at his behest, if I torture a hundred thousand people to death and he doesn’t stop me after the first few, then God approves.

Or he doesn’t approve, but he is merciful and has chosen to forgive me for I am holy.

Or, more likely, it doesn’t count as murder and sexual assault and theft and genocide if it’s done to people who’ve never heard of Jesus, who don’t have horses, who haven’t bothered to invent guns, who live in houses we can set alight like kindling, who didn’t come and find Europe to trade all this gold with, who are not the same as us. They are different, they are lesser: what is done to them does not matter.

Too many people thought like this, historically.

This dickhead-thinking happened within communities all over the world and still does, but it was in the centuries-long period of European colonialism that this was taken to extremes. And it all kicked off in 1492, when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and he, his associates and – pretty soon – his rivals began the process of mass enslavement, mass torture and mass genocide that decimated populations across the continents now known as the Americas.

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Not everyone present, though, was on board with the slaughter. Too many people were to stop it for a loooong time, but the earliest public criticism of colonial violence came from the missionaries who returned across the Atlantic to Europe fucking livid that instead of getting to convert loads of people to Catholicism, they instead had to witness the slaughter of millions of unbaptised souls.

Bartolomé de las Casas left his native Spain at the age of 18, about a decade after Spaniards first began their transatlantic activities. For a bit, de las Casas was one of the many people gifted a “free” tract of land and some slaves to work it, but his discomfort with this situation quickly (though not instantly) grew, especially once he realised that he was exceptional amongst the settlers for not choosing to torture and starve his slaves just because he could.

De las Cases viewed his slaves and all other indigenous peoples as uneducated, potential Christians and fellow subjects of the Spanish Crown: for him, they were not disposable objects, but people.

He gave up his land, enrolled as a Dominican friar and began travelling back and forth across the ocean learning about and writing about the horrors that he saw. This text, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies was written in 1542, and is basically a teaser-trailer for his much longer and even more graphic follow-up, History of the Indies.

De las Casas doesn’t argue that the Spanish should withdraw from the Americas, but rather that their behaviour there should be moral, should be Christian, should be well-intentioned. He is not against colonialism, he is merely against the colonialism that all colonialism inevitably became.

He witnesses and is told about Europeans behaving with all concept of immorality and sin and shame abandoned.

Men commit violence and treachery, murder and defilement and torture and every horror imaginable in the pure embrace of greed. Greed for land, for gold, for food, for sex (De las Casas is not subtle in alluding to men and groups of men whose sexual assaults were homosexual and/or paedophilic).

He describes a very real-life Lord of the Flies, and though sometimes his counts of the dead are likely exaggerated, there is no act of genocide or torture or murder than doesn’t feel true.

There are descriptions of actions and modes of behaviour that are identical to those one reads about occurring in ISIS-held territories, in the dark moments of the Yugoslav Wars, in British behaviour on the island of Ireland… Humans, when we lose what is commonly called “humanity”, are the same. Our violence and our cruelty and our hungers manifest in the same ways. We are awful fucking creatures.

De las Casas’ text (translated here by Nigel Griffin) is blunt, is unapologetic and is direct (which basically means the same as blunt, I know).

It is written to be read by people he believes have the power to stop the conquistadors. But all this is before the slave trade, which was in part economically justified by the need for fresh, free labour in response to the catastrophic, continued deaths of the indigenous peoples who were being worked to death en masse.

It would be a long time before the world would change, unfortunately, but Bartolomé de las Casas realised he was involved in a bad project and did all he could to try and halt it. But colonialism is like an ocean liner: almost impossible to turn, and definitely impossible to turn fast.

What is conspicuous in this text – and an effect that is undercut by the addition of footnotes in this Penguin Classics edition – is that de las Casas goes out of his way to name as many indigenous people (both individuals and groups/nations) as he can, and as few conquistadors as possible. In this simple written act, he makes plain and long-lasting the truth of his convictions: he would prefer the victims of colonial oppression to be remembered and its perpetrators to be lost in the dust of time. This, he states directly near the end, is his hope. Moctezuma is well-known, but who else is?

Colonial violence, de las Casas wrote (and it’s kinda true) was a disgrace not only to every individual involved in the violence, but to every person who profited from it and to every person who has benefitted and continues to benefit from the advantages a country receives when it is the beneficiary of hundreds of years of colonial exploitation. Yes, that is me and that is almost certainly you.

Modern “Western” societies are rooted in colonial violence. Our institutions, our national identities, our cultures: they are tainted, and they are not de-taintable. All we can do, I suppose, is be grown ups about it and acknowledge that we are and remain at fault, which is exactly what Canada is doing.

In the UK, huge sections of the [racist parts of the] media are claiming an absence of racism in the UK. It takes real, deliberate, deeply mal-intentioned ignorance to convince yourself that there is no racism in the UK, and it takes deep fucking evil of the kind that perpetuated historic genocide to deliberately attempt to convince ignorant people of these hateful lies.

Sorry.

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies is an important text. Harrowing, self-deprecating but deeply well-intentioned.

I doubt anyone I know will read it, but it felt like a worthy thing to look over.


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