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A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

Bartolome De Las Casas

I came across this book again after a gap of a fifty years after reading The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey. She recommended three books in The Guardian, one of which was A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome De Las Casas. She described the book thus:

The book that changed my mind A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, by Bartolomé de las Casas. ‘If you want to know anything about the Caribbean, start here. It’s written by a Spanish priest who sought to spread Christianity to the natives. This is an account of the hideous crimes and barbarism he witnessed perpetrated by the Spanish on the indigenous Taino people. A horrifying account and yes, a game changer; witness testimony of how a region was Christianised. Should be compulsory reading.’


Here are a few horrifying selections chosen by me.


A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

Bartolome De Las Casas

(Priestly Eye Witness Accounts)

PROLOGUE

‘ … atrocities which go under the name of “conquests”: excesses which, if no move is made to stop them, will be committed time and again, and which (given that the indigenous peoples of the region are naturally so docile) are of themselves iniquitous, tyrannical, contrary to natural, canon, and civil law, and are deemed wicked and are condemned and proscribed by all such legal codes. I therefore concluded that it would be a criminal neglect of my duty to remain silent about the enormous loss of life as well as the infinite number of human souls despatched to Hell in the course of such “conquests”, and so resolved to publish an account of a few such outrages (and they can only be a few out of the countless number of such incidents that I could relate) …’

PREFACE

‘It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned, that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold, or like tigers and savage lions who have not eaten meat for days. The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly. We shall in due course describe some of the many ingenious methods of torture they have invented and refined for this purpose … ‘


‘There are two ways in which those who have travelled to this part of the world pretending to be Christians have uprooted these pitiful peoples and wiped them from the face of the earth. First, they have waged war on them: unjust, cruel, bloody and tyrannical war. Second, they have murdered anyone and everyone who has shown the slightest sign of resistance, or even of wishing to escape the torment to which they have subjected him. This latter policy has been instrumental in suppressing the native leaders, and, indeed, given that the Spaniards normally spare only women and children, it has led to the annihilation of all adult males, whom they habitually subject to the harshest and most iniquitous and brutal slavery that man has ever devised for his fellow-men, treating them, in fact, worse than animals. All the many and infinitely varied ways that have been devised for oppressing these peoples can be seen to flow from one or other of these two diabolical and tyrannical policies.’

‘The reason the Christians have murdered on such a vast scale and killed anyone and everyone in their way is purely and simply greed. They have set out to line their pockets with gold and to amass private fortunes as quickly as possible …’


HISPANIOLA

‘They forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet, and, ripping them from their mothers’ breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders into a river, shouting: “Wriggle, you little perisher.” They slaughtered anyone and everyone in their path, on occasion running through a mother and her baby with a single thrust of their swords. They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it. Some they chose to keep alive and simply cut their wrists, leaving their hands dangling, saying to them: “Take this letter” – meaning that their sorry condition would act as a warning to those hiding in the hills. The way they normally dealt with native leaders and nobles was to tie them to a kind of griddle consisting of sticks resting on pitchforks driven into the ground and then grill them over a slow fire, with the result that they howled in agony and despair as they died a lingering death.

It once happened that I myself witnessed their grilling of four or five local leaders in this fashion (and I believe they had set up two or three other pairs of grills alongside so that they might process other victims at the same time) when the poor creatures’ howls came between the Spanish commander and his sleep. He gave orders that the prisoners were to be throttled, but the man in charge of the execution detail, who was more bloodthirsty than the average hangman … was loath to cut short his private entertainment by throttling them and so he personally went round ramming wooden bungs into their mouths to stop them making such a racket and deliberately stoked the fire so that they would take just as long to die as he himself chose. And, since all those who could do so took to the hills and mountains in order to escape the clutches of these merciless and inhuman butchers, these mortal enemies of human kind trained hunting dogs to track them down – wild dogs, who would savage a native to death as soon as look at him, tearing him to shreds and devouring his flesh as though he were a pig.’


THE KINGDOMS OF HISPANIOLA

‘All I can say is that I know it to be an incontrovertible fact and do here so swear before Almighty God, that the local peoples never gave the Spanish any cause whatsoever for the injury and injustice that was done to them in these campaigns. On the contrary, they behaved as honourably as might the inmates of a well-run monastery, and for this they were robbed and massacred, and even those who escaped death on this occasion found themselves condemned to a lifetime of captivity and slavery.’


CUBA

‘In 1511 the Spanish set foot on Cuba …home to a great many people. The Spanish set about treating them all in the manner we have already described, only more cruelly … One of the leading lords … had fled to the island from Hispaniola … he gathered most if not all his people about him, and addressed them, saying: ”You know that rumour has it that the Christians are coming to this island, and you already know what they have done … Does any of you know why they behave in this way?” And when they answered him: “No, unless it be that they are innately cruel and evil”, he replied: “It is not simply that. They have a God whom they worship and adore, and it is in order to get that God from us so that they can worship Him that they conquer and kill us.” He had beside him, as he spoke, a basket filled with gold jewellery and he said: “Here is the God of the Christians …”

It was later decided to hunt down the natives who had fled into the mountains, and the subsequent hunting parties were responsible for carnage beyond belief. Thus it was that the whole of the island was devastated and depopulated, and it now affords, as we discovered on a recent visit, a moving and heart-rending spectacle, transformed, as it has been, into one vast, barren wasteland.’


THE MAINLAND

‘ … in the early hours of the morning, when the poor people were still innocently abed with their wives and children, they would irrupt into the town, setting fire to their houses, which were commonly of straw, burning women and children alive and often the men, too, before the poor wretches realised what was happening. They would slaughter the people with impunity and those they took alive they either tortured to death in an attempt to get them to tell of other towns where there might be gold or the whereabouts of more gold in their own town, or else they branded them as slaves. Once the fires had died down or gone out, they conducted a house-to-house search for gold.’




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