After hearing a sermon by Fray Montesinos in 1511, Bartolome de Las Casas entered a moratorium to display his feelings about the treatment of the indigenous people through a manuscript entitled: An Account, Much Abbreviated, Of The Destruction Of The Indies With Related Texts. In this written work, Las Casas proves his case to the people of Spain that many of the conquistadors in the Caribbean had veered from their intended purpose. It was no longer about the colonization of the people and their conversion to Christianity. It was now about subjugation: treating the natives as objects to be bought and sold as slaves, to be mistreated to the point of starvation, or death from disease. The driving force for the Spanish conquistadors was gold, even though there was little or none to be found throughout the Caribbean as a whole. Yet, they never stopped searching for it, and would stop at nothing to prove that they were almighty and powerful. The conquistadors stated that Christianization was their real intent, but we all know, including Las Casas, that it was really greed that set these plans in motion. This wasn’t just the deaths of a few natives here and there in smaller places, this was wide scale world genocide.
The conquistadors and Spanish settlers ultimately feared what they didn’t understand. The natives wore different clothing, spoke different languages, and had different cultural customs. They also practiced their own religion, which was very different from Christianity. The Spanish saw the natives as vulgar, especially when they observed what they thought to be ritual human sacrifices and cannibalism amongst them. The Spanish felt that the only way they could convert the natives to their religion, and ultimately understand them, was by force and imposition. They never really gave the natives a choice. This process is called Christianization. The natives who chose not to convert were resigned to slavery. In his manuscript, Las Casas asked the king of Spain to not grant charters for native slaves, as the only thing the conquistadors wished to do was kill the natives.
Once a glimmer of gold had been found, the Spanish made it a point to canvas the entire Caribbean for it. The Spanish conducted a series of raids on villages, looking for the material. Whatever gold the natives had was taken by force. Las Casas mentions that many natives were decimated as a result of this practice. The Spanish were greedy because they had never seen this kind of wealth before. Las Casas describes a specific event in which the Spaniards raided one of five kingdoms in Hispaniola. One kingdom of Hispaniola was the kingdom of Magua which is described as “extraordinarily rich” in gold. Las Casas stated that the natives of the land had little knowledge and skill in taking gold from the mines and the king of Magua even offered a large piece of land if the Spanish did not ask for gold because they lacked this skill.
Instead of taking the offer which would have benefited the king, the Spanish wreaked havoc and murdered and enslaved many natives. After conquering many kingdoms and lands for their gold, the natives were enslaved and sent to work in the mines. Large numbers of natives enslaved were overworked and were not given anything to eat which resulted in many deaths further proving that Spanish greed for wealth resulted in the decimation of the natives.
Yet the Spanish didn’t stop there, as their greed reached new heights in terms of torture. Many of them began experimenting on ways to get the natives to reveal the sources of their gold. They were tortured, burnt alive, and attacked by wild dogs. The conquistadors imposed a requerimiento system, which let the natives know that if they didn’t submit to Spanish rule and religion. that war would be waged on them and they would be enslaved. This requirement would be abused by the Spanish, especially on raids when they would be looking for gold and other riches.
Las Casas mentions that the Spanish were supposed to send all the riches they found back to Spain to be put into the royal treasury. They wouldn’t send it all, not even half. They would keep most of the haul to themselves. This selfishness on the part of the Spanish conquistadors resulted in thousands of deaths among the natives who died as a result of hard labor and starvation as they were working in the mines. Although many were converted to Christianity, but it wasn’t common during the period of raiding in the mines. Las Casas mentioned this: “conversion and salvation of those peoples - a thing which they have always put off for another day.” This tells us that converting the natives to Christianity was of no importance, and ultimately was secondary compared to finding gold.
The institution of repartimiento was also an example of how native slaves benefited the economy of Spain and the Spanish people in general. They were similar to the encomienda system in that they served as a free labor force which consisted of natives who were owned by the Spaniards, their job being to work in the mines looking for gold to provide for the Spanish. Many slaves tried to run away from these institutions, but ultimately they were caught and perished. Las Casas mentions that when the Spanish entered New Spain in 1518 all they did was rob and kill, once again in search of riches which fulfilled their greed.
It wasn’t just on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, the same fate awaited the natives in Mexico under Montezuma, who initially greeted the Spanish peacefully. The first thing the Spanish did was notice how much gold was present, then they enslaved everyone and waged war upon them. Once again, the Spanish made it a point to raid kingdoms that had gold. Las Casas makes the point that this practice had now become interiorized by the Spanish and carried out almost daily. It should also been pointed out that encomiendas and repartimientos continued for a long time and practice by the Spanish even after most of the natives had died out. They began to look at Africans as a new source of labor.
The same thing that occurred in these previous kingdoms also occurred to the kingdom of Guatemala. As the Spanish made their way through the kingdom they raided all the villages and once again there was much bloodshed. The Spanish demanded that the natives bring them gold, even though the natives told them that their land didn’t have any deposits. The Spanish became infuriated and the result was devastating, bloody murder. Many fled but may died as well. The same occurred in the province of Cuzcatlan, in which the natives welcomed the Spanish with open arms but ultimately didn’t have what the Spanish really wanted. When they noticed that there was no gold, the Spanish captain ordered all of the natives to be enslaved. Las Casas offers his insight that these vicious and inhuman acts were unjust by stating that many of the cities built by the Spanish after conquering these lands were destroyed by natural disasters which he believes was done by God, further proving his argument that the Spanish were drifting away from their religion and becoming evil men made greedy and ambitious by the idea of attaining wealth.
Las Casa’ work shows how the decimation of the native people was a result of Spanish greed for gold and not Christianization, although they did use it as an excuse to justify their genocide. They themselves drifted away from their religion, becoming tyrants and enemies of God who contributed to the destruction of innocent and peaceful natives. The Spanish would not stop pillaging and destroying large areas of lands and kingdoms until they found their gold. Even to this day, the actions of these tyrants leave marks on many of these lands, which are not what they once were. All the riches and people of the native lands and their customs were mostly eradicated to do the Spanish desire for gold. This was purely for economic benefit for the Spanish conquistadors and oligarchy.