On Columbus' Day, a 'short account' from one of his contemporaries

October 10, 2011

On this Columbus Day, an excerpt from Bartolomé de las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, the first protest against the excesses of European colonization in the Americas by one of their own. A Catholic friar who travelled wih Columbus and accompanied many a Spanish mission, de las Casas was also fairly controversial, even in his own time. A strong defender of the indigenous, he helped promote the idea of Africans to replace them in slavery. A critic of Columbus, he also re-wrote a good portion of Columbus’ diaries.

Written in 1552, the Short Account was meant as a warning to the Spanish king, in the hope that he would save the Americas before it was too late. De las Casas, who had been there from the beginning, understood all too well what Columbus has wrought:
 

God made all the people of this area, many and varied as they are, as open and as innocent as can be imagined. The simplest people in the world -- unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive and submissive -- they are without malice or guile and are utterly faithful and obedient both to their own native lords and the Spanish in whose service they now find themselves ... 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 their 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 Spanish 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 ...

When the Spanish first journeyed there, the indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola stood at some three million; today, only two hundred survive. The island of Cuba, which extends for a distance almost as great as that separating Valladolid from Rome, is now to all intents and purposes uninhabited; and two other large, beautiful and fertile islands, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, have been similarly devastated. Not a living soul remains today on any of the islands of the Bahamas, which lie to the north of Hispaniola and Cuba, even though every single one of the sixty or so islands in the group, as well as those known as the Isles of Giants and others in the area, both large and small, is more fertile and more beautiful than the Royal Gardens in Seville and the climate is as healthy as anywhere on earth. The native population, which once numbered five hundred thousand, was wiped out by forcible expatriation to the island of Hispaniola, a policy adopted by the Spaniards in an endeavor to make up the losses among the indigenous population of that island ... A further thirty or so islands in the region of Puerto Rico are also now uninhabited and left to go to rack and ruin as a direct result of the same practices. All these islands, which together must run to over two thousand leagues, are now abandoned and desolate.

On the mainland, we know for sure that our fellow country-men have, through their cruelty and wickedness, depopulated and laid waste an area which once boasted more than ten kingdoms, each of them larger in area than the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. The whole region, once teeming with human beings, is now deserted over a a distance of more than two thousand leagues: a distance that is greater than the journey from Seville to Jerusalem and back again.