“A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” is a book written by the Spanish Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, in 1542. The short account describes the events that occurred in the Indies in the fifteenth century. It is about the mistreatment of Native Americans in colonial times which were sent to the then Prince Philip II of Spain as slaves. From the text, the Indies were discovered in 1492 and soon after the Spaniards migrated to the islands and established farms.
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The area had diverse geography with main islands, which were densely populated with the native’s populace being the Indians. The Spaniards, however, did not just settle in they decided to colonize the Indies and made the natives their slaves. This completely changed the islands’ natives who now survived under the rule of the Spaniards and worked for them without pay, and those who declined were ruthlessly punished.
Las Casas was born in the year 1845. As a young boy he witnessed the return of Christopher Columbus from his first voyage from the Indies with seven natives, he captured as slaves from the new world. His father then joined the second voyage, and on return, he brought Las Casas a slave. In 1502, Las Casas and his father moved to Hispaniola while on a voyage which he observed the harshness subjected to the natives.
Las Casas was intensely enthused by the mistreatment of the natives, which involved brutal persecution, enslavement, and mass execution. At the time invasion of Cuba, Casas acted as a chaplain and eye witnessed the merciless butcher of the indigenous people of Indies by Spanish soldiers. With no exasperation, large numbers of Taínos including women, children and men were murdered by the Spanish soldiers1.
Las Casas was approved as an encomienda and juggled his time between being a colonialist himself, and his responsibilities as an ordained preacher. He took part in the take-over of Cuba and was always alongside Christopher Colombus, and his works are the only source of information regarding the events that took place in those islands, and he also made copies of Columbus journal.
In his book, Casas explains how he decided to change from being a colonialist to a human rights advocator. It was a testimony given by a Dominican preacher, Fray Antonio de Montesinos, implicating the Spaniards of the atrocities experienced by the locals that awakened Casas on the inequalities that the locals were subjected to2. He decided to release his slaves and started to preach to the rest of the colonialists to do the same.
However, his teachings were not welcomed well and fell on deaf ears, so he decided to move to Spain and opposed the enslavement and ill-treatment of the native popular. He became completely rehabilitated, and his vision was to achieve a utopian society where natives would be treated as human beings and coexist peacefully with the Spanish community.3
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Once there, he appealed to be permitted to build a settlement in Northern Venezuela, which he was granted and instigated several changes such as equitable work compensation, construction of social amenities, and educate farmers on farming skills to empower them. The whole idea ended up brutally because the Spaniards eventually invaded the settlement murdered Casas’ men and also destroyed the settlement.
Las Casas decided to join the Dominican monastery, in 1524, to continue with the religious education and also to supervise the construction of a church in Puerto de Plata4. He embarked on writing about the history of the Indies to enable his to report on the numerous first-hand incidents that he observed during the time of invasion and colonization of New Spain.
Another Casas’ work was “The Only Method of Attracting All People to the True Faith,” which urged for nonviolent religious missions, and lobbied the Council of the Indies to fight against slavery5. Las decided to write the story because he feared that Spaniards would be under divine castigation and was worried for the souls of the natives. It was the first narration of the events taking place by a Spanish writer during the colonial era and specifically on the island of La Hispaniola.
Las Casas’s arguments in this text can be said to profoundly be in opposition to some of the Spanish system of colonization that as he explains, had adversely impacted on the lives of the natives. His account greatly attributed to the adoption of the new Spanish colonial provisions, which was referred to as “the New Laws of 1542,” which called for an end to the slave trade, which the Europe colonial masters found hard to adapt and it also led to the Valladolid forum.
Las Casas describes how the killings took place in the provinces and regions; he also explains the reason why those Spaniards were able to conquer the natives. Initially, the Indians considered the Spaniards as heavenly-sent, and they welcomed them to their land whole-heartedly. “In the world’s history Indians were considered the most candid and morally upright, they were very submissive and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they served”6.
Little did they know that they would turn hostile against them, kill, rob, and take their wives and food. Shortly afterward, the Indians realized that the Spaniards were not after all from heaven and decided to revenge. They hid their wives, children, and food in the mountains while the men were left to fight the Spaniards. This made the Spaniards angry, and they became even harsher. The Spaniards invaded the villages and spared the sword for neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in maternity beds7.
After the killings, very few Indians were left to continue with the fight; hence they gave in and were all enslaved. The men were taken to the gold mines, women to the fields to work all day without food while the children were left at homes with no food or anyone to take care of them. This further reduced their population because the children died of malnutrition and the males and females were put away from each other. Hence there were no marital relationships.
It was easy for the Spaniards to colonize the Indians because of various reasons: first, the Indies was made up of many islands and hence there existed rivalries between them, for example, the Aztecs were the most powerful. They would make a deal with the Spaniards to help them defeat other tribes, the invasion was also aided by the spread of contagious diseases especially smallpox, which was never in the new world but it killed many natives hence reducing their population.
The motivation for the man slaughter and annihilation of such large numbers of innocent souls was that the Spaniards wanted to get hold of the gold, that was in plenty in the Indies and to enrich themselves in the shortest time possible and at a low price too.
Las says that “those lands are so rich and felicitous, the native peoples so meek and patient, so easy to subject, that our Spaniards have no more consideration for them than beasts”8. This was the reason as to why the hostilities continued the Spaniards wanted more and more wealth while the Indians decreased in population;, therefore, there was no one to fight them.
Las Casas deserves respect for exposing the hostilities that were taking place in the Indies by writing this book. Acknowledging, it is his writings that led to the enactment of the “New Laws of 1542” that put an end to the slave trade. The book has however been criticized by several authors. Particularly, David Walker was ferociously against Las Casas arguments, and called him “a wretch…enthused by sordid avarice”, for advocating for the importation of African slaves from Portugal to America9.
Las Casas however afterward resentfully lamented and diverged from his view of advocating for African slaves instead of Indians after he also observed the way their masters in the American colonies treated their African slaves. There was no reason nevertheless for him to recommend Africans to be slaves for the Spaniards because regardless of the master, a slave is still a slave and that keeping human slaves is disrespect of human rights.
Other scholars claimed that it is indeed it was diseases that led to a decrease in population of the natives rather than killings and the harsh conditions. Furthermore, other critics believed that Las Casas inflated the Indies population decline in a bid to convince King Carlos to intercede and be given consent to import more slaves from Africa10. However, arguably, Las Casas views greatly impacted on the lives of the natives and the laws adopted by the Colonialists.
Bartolome, Las Casas. Apologetic History of the Indies. Bogota: Columbia University Sources of Medieval, 1997.
Bartolome, Las Casas. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. NY: Penguin Classics, 1999.
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Bartolome, Las Casas. Witness: Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas. Maryknoll: Orbis books,1993.
Bartolome, Las Casas. Indian Freedom, the cause of Bartolome de las Casas, Trans and Ed by Francis Patrick Sullivan. Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995.
Martin, Cheryl and Wasserman Mark. Latin America and Its People. New York: Longman, 2007.
1 Las Casas Bartolome, Witness: Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas, (Maryknoll: Orbis books, 1993), 2.
2 Las Casas Bartolome, Indian Freedom, the cause of Bartolome de las Casas, Trans and Ed by Francis Patrick Sullivan (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995), 128.
3 Las Casas Bartolomé, Apologetic History of the Indies (Colombia: Columbia University Sources of Medieval, 1997), 47.
4 Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, (NY, Penguin Classics, 1999), 65.
5 Las Casas Bartolomé, Apologetic History of the Indies, (Colombia: Columbia University Sources of Medieval, 1997), 49.
6 Las Casas Bartolome, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, (NY: Penguin Classics, 1999), 108.
7 Las Casas Bartolome, Witness: Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas, (Maryknoll: Orbis books,1993), 231.
8 Las Casas Bartolome, Indian Freedom, the cause of Bartolome de las Casas, Trans and Ed by Francis Patrick Sullivan. (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995)206.
9 Read more information from Cheryl Martin and Mark Wasserman, Latin America and Its People, (New York: Longman), 47.
10 Las Casas Bartolome, Indian Freedom, the cause of Bartolome de las Casas, Trans and Ed by Francis Patrick Sullivan. (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995)241.