Identify the author
The full name of the author of this historical document, an eyewitness account written over four hundred years ago in 1542, detailing the abuses committed by the Spanish against the Taino Indians of the Caribbean, is Bartolome de Las Casas.
Identify the title of the document
The historical document chosen for this analysis assignment, is entitled ‘The Slaughter that Came With the Arrival of Christopher Columbus.’
Identify if the work is a primary or secondary source
The work begins with a modern introduction to the document by Nigel Griffin and is, therefore, a secondary source, followed by an extract from the original text by Las Casas, a primary source.
Identify when and where the document was written
The document was written in Seville, Spain, in 1542.
How does the subject matter fit into the larger historical picture? Consider the social, political, economic, cultural, and diplomatic forces on the area of study
What is striking, first and foremost, about the subject matter of this document and how it fits into the larger historical picture, is its graphic nature. One that despite its being over four hundred years old, still can shock the modern reader’s sensibilities. It does not make for comfortable reading. This occurs further, on two levels, which impact heavily on the way we view the forces at work during this historical period. First, as suggested, in its fully describing the horrors the author claims to have witnessed.
Las Casas’s graphic description of the brutalities committed against these peoples are deliberately written as such – as the means through which to shock and involve others, presumably first, those within his own native country of Spain. The fact that Las Casas was once party to the early conquests of America (page 36) and was eventually moved to reject the methods used becoming a Dominican Friar (page 36) and since then worked tirelessly to end these continuing cruelties (page 36) also adds to the impact of his writings than, and now.
The many translations throughout Europe of Casas’s writings, often accompanied with gruesome reproductions of his drawings of atrocities, gave rise to the ‘Black Legend’, that further shed light on Spanish inhumanity throughout the Americas (page 36), particularly those against the Taino Indians of the Caribbean, who could offer but little resistance against their new colonizing master’s.
Secondly, and as put forward in the remainder of this article, quite possibly, most disturbingly of all, in doing so, it acts to powerfully counter traditional views of how Europeans, that is, these brave, intrepid, Christian explorers from the Western (civilized?) world, the discovery of this new continent, conducted themselves towards the indigenous populations. In many ways, this long-established story, popularly told in American schools, is wholly contradicted (video lesson 2).
Similarly, what was long thought almost exclusively as Columbus’s great discovery of America, is also considered as catastrophic, notably in terms of its decimation of these native peoples (video lesson 2).
Striking also, about this document, is its hugely contradicting another common view held at the time, that ‘primitive’ peoples, such as the ‘Indians’ of America, as Columbus first dubbed them (page 3), required civilizing. In this respect, even the ‘Indians’ themselves, once estimated as numbering a hundred million (video lesson 2), became a ‘limited resource’, through the systematic depopulation of the ‘new world’s’ Native American inhabitants.
What is your personal reaction to this reading?
Modern reactions aside, at the time of its writing this document was already – and rightly so in my view – a source of much controversy, yet again, for it’s exposing the fictions that passed for truths regarding the ongoing conquests of the new world, as told to the Spanish (and later European-wide), peoples. In this, we find what is interesting, appalling and tragic about this document.
For although Casas, with brutal honesty, deliberately describes (as far as he is able), these acts of torture, massacre and murder committed as shocking atrocities, they might be said to only add to the list of many other documents containing similar descriptions. In one sense, merely documenting what we have long known to be true, of man’s inhumanity to man.
That said, this does not take away from the horror, for instance, that comes from reading these. Nor how disturbing it is to read of the ready and apparent glee with which the perpetrators’ of these atrocities apparently experienced in work. For these and other reasons, this document stands as an important and necessary one for developing our understanding of a key and often misperceived historical period.