Columbus, de las Casas, and the Undiscoverable Land

Once upon a time, in Iberia in the fifteenth century, there was a Genoese man with fanaticism in his soul and a dream in his heart, a dream of sailing West to go East. This made absolutely no sense to anyone but our hero, because the Iberian Peninsula, thanks to its years as several Moorish caliphates, was well-versed in science. One did not sail west into nowhere in order to go to India. This was absurd.

Our hero went first to the Portuguese to sell his Great Idea. In Sagres he waited, and waited, and waited some more: the Portuguese, brilliant navigators who’d been circumventing the globe for years, were unimpressed, and thought he was nuts. The Iberians, after all, were trained by the greatest navigators Europe had ever known: the Moors.1 And then Spain and Portugal forced out the Moors, and the Jews, and began an era of inquisitions.

Los Reyes Católicos: Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castille, likely pictured with their son. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In Sagres our hero called himself Cristóvão Colombo. When he moved onward, to Spain, and threw himself on the tender mercies of the hard-edged Isabel of Castile and her partner in crime Ferdinand of Aragón, flush with the triumph of the fall of the great Moorish city of Granada, he called himself Cristóbal Colón. We know him, in the United States, as Christopher Columbus, and Isabel of Castile gave him the go-ahead for his westward-ho to India.

I’m pretty sure Columbus didn’t look remotely like this, especially after months at sea, but de las Casas tells us he DID have green banners. John Vanderlyn’s 1847 Landing of Columbus. Wikimedia Commons.

So Columbus and his team, who I seem to recall included Moriscos, Moors, and Jews (likely hiding out under the banner of conversos, who were treated terribly under los Reyes Católicos–they weren’t, after all, Old Christian), sailed west to go east, and landed in what we now know as the Bahamas archipelago. He was fabulously lost and utterly convinced that God would tell him where he was going (and where the gold was, so he could finance his fanatical dreams), and the people of the archipelago greeted him warmly, bringing food and gifts, treating the wayfaring strangers with kindness and offering up, judging from Columbus’s own journal, all possible hospitality, despite not speaking the same language. We are all human, and we do find a way.

Or perhaps some of us have so corrupted our humanity as to lose that possibility of redeeming communication. Columbus was thrilled at the kindness of his reception by the Arawak and Taíno peoples of the islands–but not because it meant that he’d found buena gente or good allies. No, he was happy because they would be easy to enslave. Naturally, being a capitalistically inclined fellow who had been promised by God all the Glory, he took many captive, and sold many off. Despite being Christian, he condoned rapes, torture, and wholesale slaughter of the indigenous people of the islands. And he was rapacious, consumed by the thirst for gold, gold, gold: he had not found the founts of gold today, he’d acknowledge in his letters to the Reyes Católicos, but tomorrow–ah, tomorrow!–God would lead him there, and those savages would either give it up to him, or die.2

Everybody knows that when Columbus saw land, there were lots of giant sexy mermaid ladies in the sea. Theodor de Bry’s non-eyewitness account, under the misleading name “Columbus, the First Discoverer of the New World.” 1594. Wikimedia Commons.

Columbus revised his opinion of these indigenous people as he went through his viajes as well, depending entirely upon what he wanted from los Reyes Católicos: at first they were naïve, easy to enslave; finally, in the fourth voyage, they became flesh-eating cannibal monsters, out to consume Columbus and all other good Christian men, and even the beautiful land turned bloodthirsty. (It is worth noting that he did begin to run into resistance; people are intelligent, after all, the Taíno and Arawak quickly learned that the Spaniards meant them no good, and much ill.) Meanwhile, Columbus’s atrocities began to attract attention across the pond–as did his rather spectacular mismanagement of colonies under his thumb. People under his governance, you see, had a terrible tendency to die–European, African, indigenous, they didn’t make it long with Columbus lording it over them.

The Spanish were, understandably, not terribly fond of mismanagement; nor were they thrilled that the Taíno and Arawak people were dying off at such a terrible rate–though this had less to do with human care and concern and more to do with having a workforce already in place. One doesn’t want to kill one’s means of production, after all. Christopher Columbus was returned to Spain in chains following his third voyage, to face trial for his mismanagement. One wonders if all those rapes of Taíno and Arawak women, or the wholesale slaughter of villages, had anything to do with the decision. Regardless of his time in chains, or his mismanagement, he was able to convince Isabel of Castile to free him, as well as his brothers; they returned to sea–but he’d never govern again.

Our hero, in short, was not much of a hero at all. He stumbled across the Americas, discovering continents that had been discovered a long time before; he was welcomed, and gave death and destruction in return. And then, when Taíno and Arawak and Carib fought back, and when he didn’t find the gold he’d sought, he became more brutal, and his rhetoric turned uglier. He never ruled again, but the damage he’d started continued on apace, and soon around ninety percent of the indigenous population of the Caribbean would be dead, slaughtered by rampaging soldiers or felled by European diseases. One wonders if Columbus felt any grief for the pristine haven he’d destroyed, or the people he’d slaughtered. And then one reads his Viajes, and realizes, eh, probably not. And one is momentarily glad that one’s ancestors were still wearing kilts and skins and killing each other at home, too afraid of the dark to venture (yet) across the sea.3 So our not-hero died, not in obscurity, and was buried with almost absurd pomp, and today is remembered as the discoverer of a continent that had already been discovered, long, long before.

Pomp for a dead despot: Columbus’s tomb in Seville, with royal pallbearers cast in stone. Image by Miguel Ángel “fotógrafo” (page in Spanish) on Wikimedia Commons.

In the early sixteenth century, as Arawak and Taíno and Carib were tortured and enslaved and killed, as conquest and death spread their bleeding tentacles to the great empires of the Aztec lords in Tenochtitlán and, finally, to the Inca lords in Cuzco, a group of priests took action, arguing vehemently against the treatment of the indigenous peoples. Among their ranks were the Dominicans Pedro de Córdoba and Antonio de Montesinos, and they denied slave owners communion, and fought for those who had been stripped of their freedom and their lives.

Montesinos, remembered in stone by Mexican sculptor Antonio Castellanos Basich at the port of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, crying out his word for eternity. Image by Wikipedian Wilmer (no page). Wikimedia Commons.

A young dandy by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas heard them, and wasn’t impressed. He, after all, was a rich man’s son, and a slave owner himself; presumably Córdoba and Montesinos were denying him communion, too. He must have been delighted when Córdoba and Montesinos and their brethren were kicked off the island of Hispaniola for offending the all-powerful slave-owning class. He joined up with a group of conquistadores, and then everything changed. This new hero realized that he could not stomach the treatment of indigenous people: that those pesky Dominicans, Córdoba and Montesinos, had been right after all. And, because Bartolomé was a young friar of good, albeit slave-owning, family, he went to Córdoba, and to Montesinos, and he began to work, diligently, tirelessly, for the sake of the indigenous people. He even crossed the sea to Spain, and in the person of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda debated the idea that indigenous people deserved to be treated with brutality. They debated throughout Spain, as Sepúlveda argued that indigenous people were born to be slaves…and de las Casas argued that, indeed, they were not, and had the right to life and safety, just like any (free-born) Spaniard.

Our second hero, older, after the debates: Bartolomé de las Casas, in a 16th-century painting hanging at the Archivo de las Indias in Seville. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And our second hero, this reformed dandy Bartolomé de las Casas, won the debates. The young king Carlos (Charles I of Spain, and V of the Holy Roman Empire) partially accepted de las Casas’s words, and work, and, though they did not go as far as de las Casas and Montesino and Córdoba no doubt would have liked, the Leyes Nuevas of 1548 were upheld, but not strengthened. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas became known as the defender of indigenous peoples, and Sepúlveda went down into history as something of a monster. All hail our reformed hero, ¿de verdad?

Cover of the 1542 Leyes Nuevas, or New Laws, from Archivo el Comercio. Wikimedia Commons.

Except it is never quite that clean, not even with a man like Bartolomé de las Casas, who risks reputation and possibly life to argue for the lives of others. His Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias is a monumental work, and would tear at the heart of the most seasoned reader. Its scenes of blood and destruction and despair, without middle, without end, until the world shall end, are enough to make the strongest queasy, and to make most of us think back to our own colonizing ancestors, and flinch at the thought of what they have done. (The Brevísima relación also delighted Protestant Europe: they got to pretend that Spain was somehow worse than they, and thus was born the Leyenda Negra, or Black Legend, with men such as Theodor de Bry to illustrate it in lurid, horrific detail.) And yet, as I read the Brevísima relación (everyone who studies Spanish-American coloniality reads it, at least once), I was struck by the words used to describe the indigenous peoples. They were innocent, almost child-like: lambs, sheep, to be guided to God and protected.

Frontispiece of the Brevísima relación, 1552. Wikimedia Commons.

At least, I suppose, they were supposed to be protected. But, having grown up on tales of the wild west ranch where my great-grandmother grew up, a ranch worked by her gun-slinging Irish father and a great many Lakota cowboys–I didn’t think that they were sheep-like innocents, but rather intelligent, reasoning people, and I seethed every time I read those words. And here one could say, ever so easily, but Caitlin, you pinko, you’re judging de las Casas by the standards of the twenty-first century, and your oddball family tree, and in a way that’s true. But, you see, Bartolomé de las Casas knew that an economy based on forced labor needed laborers to work the land, and certainly one wouldn’t get so many free laborers from Spain, would one? And so he had a suggestion: use slaves from Africa.

The Portuguese, intrepid sailors and early capitalists that they were, had been busy at the import of human flesh for rather a while–after all, the Pope had even given them permission to do so, creating a new form of slavery in the process. There were people of African descent throughout Iberia; there were also Iberians of African descent along on the conquest. Many of them fought, and some were richly rewarded for their service to the Crown.4 The brilliant Siglo de Oro playwright and poet Juan Latino5 had already obtained his degree from the University of Granada by the time de las Casas advocated bringing (more) enslaved Africans to American shores. Thus, while our deeply flawed hero was certainly not the first to encourage the kidnapping, transportation, and use of enslaved Africans, there is a particularly striking horror in his advocacy: the man who would be known as the defender of indigenous peoples, advocating for the torture and enslavement of other people.

By the end of his life, I’ve been told (and have read), Bartolomé de las Casas deeply regretted advocating for the kidnapping, transportation, and enslavement of people from Africa. It was a bit too late, by then. By the end of the 1500s, African slavery in the Americas–particularly in Brazil–would be growing at an unprecedented, and horrific, rate.6 As the great Peruvian theorist Aníbal Quijano argues in “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” the conquerors had already created “race,” twisting it to justify slavery. He, and others, posit that the colonial brought with it the beginnings of capitalism as well as of race: a capitalism built on human blood and bondage.7 I like to think Bartolomé de las Casas would have been sickened, had he realized what he’d helped to bring,8 but I doubt Christopher Columbus would have cared. He’d have been angry only that he did not get his hands on all that Aztec gold.

In the meanwhile, we fête Columbus and his “discovery” of an undiscoverable land; we celebrate imperialism, and conquest, and despair without end. Some of us point to Bartolomé de las Casas as the better man–and, though surely he did take a stand, he too was deeply flawed, and stood, at least for a while, in support of the torture and enslavement of people from Africa. For that matter, his mentor Pedro de Córdoba became the first leader of the Inquisition in New Spain. One really has to wonder at the profound and unnerving irony: a defender of the indigenous, becoming leader of the Inquisition.

There is precious little from the Colonial we can fête without discomfort. The past is dark, the present is murky, and one can only hope that by working together, we may make the future a little brighter. We can celebrate Bartolomé de las Casas, but we must also remember, and criticize, his suggested remedy of using Africans as slaves, and thus his complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. We can acknowledge that a man named Cristóbal Colón, or Cristóvão Colombo, or Cristoforo Columbo, or Christopher Columbus, went the wrong way, and stumbled across the Americas–but we must remember that, in many ways, he was a terrible person. The past will always be there, behind us, a messy lodestone around our necks; it’s never going away, ever, and, as Faulkner once wrote, it probably isn’t even past anyway. Pretending it didn’t exist, pretending it was clean, or good, imagining that our idols9 were untarnished–it will not help us work towards a brighter future. Acknowledgement, and hard work, can do that.

1 From notes from Colonial Latin American History and Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America, Prado.
2 Cortés, at least, never really pretended to be anything but what he was: a guy out for gold.
3 Admittedly, that fear of the dark continues to dog me–and, of course, they came later, and made up for lost time.
4 The most famous is likely Juan Garrido, a freedman who fought under Cortés at, among other places, Tenochtitlán; fought for decades with other conquistadores; and was, apparently, a great farmer of wheat. For more on Africans and the conquest, see:

5 Juan Latino was born a slave; he achieved great literary success, married a white Spanish woman of good family (who had been his pupil), and was eventually freed. His courtship of his wife has been immortalized in an eponymous play by Diego Jiménez de Encisco.
6 Notes, “Colonial Latin American” and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates,” Prado.
7 See Coloniality at Large for more by Quijano and other theorists.
8 This may be wishful thinking on my part.
9 My idol, the Mexican intellectual and nun (because she didn’t want to get married), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was a slaveowner, even in her convent cell. My idol is tarnished, indeed.


This was built largely around years of study of coloniality in Spanish America, as well as a strong foundation in early United States history and a lot of research on my brother S’s part into our own dark, murky past. Information on the words of Columbus and de las Casas come directly from their works, the Quatro viajes and Testamento of Columbus and the Brevísima relación and the “Memorial” in which African slavery is advocated, by de las Casas. Specific classes deserve mention: Fabrício Prado’s “Latin America to Independence,” which he said should have been “Colonial Latin America” (since “independence” wasn’t some end goal, originally), and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America,” both taught at Chicago’s Roosevelt University; Lesley Tischauser’s survey course of Latin American history, at Prairie State; and Mariselle Meléndez’s colonial Spanish American literature courses, including “(Re)Imagining the Colonial Past” and “Geographies of Knowledge.” I owe more to Prado and to Meléndez than I will ever be able to say.

However, as always, I can and do arrogantly suggest further reading. I will try to divide it between scholarly and popular; I will also note when links are in Spanish.


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