I get why we focus so many of our exploration-era narratives on the conquistador types. They were daring warrior-explorers who wore crazy hats and searched for lost cities of gold and fountains of youth (especial points of emphasis half a century ago) and killed a ton of Native Americans (especial points of emphasis these days). And certainly my somewhat in-depth engagement with the life and writings of their founding father, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea himself, Columbus, makes clear that they weren’t just one-dimensional cartoon villains by any stretch. But what a difference it would make to our national identity and narratives if the first years of European arrivals became the story first and foremost not of Christopher C. and his fellow explorer-conquistadors, but of the Spanish Priest (later Bishop) who befriended Columbus and even edited his journal: Bartolome de las Casas.
Toward the end of his life, Las Casas published The Destruction of the Indies (1552), an incredibly honest and scathing account of the treatment of Native Americans by Spanish explorers, colonists, politicians, soldiers, and commercial interests. He would spend his final decade and a half expounding on that topic at the Spanish Court, pleading for a more just and mutually beneficial Native policy. But those events were simply the culmination of half a century of impressive efforts and actions—beginning almost immediately after his 1502 initial arrival in Hispaniola, Las Casas worked on behalf of the island’s and region’s natives on a variety of levels: certainly religious, attempting to convert them to Catholicism (not a particularly appealing thought from a 2010 perspective, but far more inclusive than most of the early arrivals’ perspectives); but also social and communal, proposing and working for a variety of experiments and initiatives intended to better integrate the European and Native communities and give proof to his steadfast beliefs that the two cultures could coexist peacefully and successfully.
One of my favorite early arrivals is Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish naval officer who was shipwrecked on coast of Florida in the 1530s, spent nearly a decade wandering across the continent and living with numerous Native tribes and nations, and developed a complex, hybrid new perspective and identity as a result; in my forthcoming second book I identify de Vaca as one of the first Americans because of that hybridity and identity. But whereas de Vaca’s shifts were the result of extraordinary circumstances, Las Casas simply observed what was happening in the Spanish New World, responded to it as a truly moral and good person should but so few of his peers did, and then, more impressively still, wrote and acted on that response, consistently and unceasingly, for the remainder of his life. His efforts did not, of course, fully counter-balance the horrors of genocide and enslavement and destruction, and no one person’s could; but they help us to see that America began not only with those horrors, but also with fundamentally good people seeking a more perfect union of the diverse cultures present here.
If it’s way too easy to be a jingoistic patriot about America, it is, in some ways, also too easy to be purely cynical or pessimistic about what we’ve been and are. Resisting that second perspective partly means acknowledging and engaging with the complex humanity of even a Columbus. But it also, and more optimistically, means remembering and reclaiming the legacy of a Las Casas, as evidence that even the most horrific and destructive moments in our history have contained their voices of hope as well. More tomorrow, on two multi-vocal and –lingual novels from three centuries after Las Casas that narrated what divides and, potentially, what unifies America’s cultures and communities.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The full text of Destruction: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20321
2) A site where both the scholarly work on and activist work inspired by Las Casas continue to unfold: http://www.lascasas.org/
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