What is a summary of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de las Casas?
In 1542, Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish friar of the Dominican church, wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies to protest the oppression of the native inhabitants at the hands of Spanish colonialists under Prince Philip II, King of Spain.
Bartolomé particularly protests the fact that millions were being murdered for the sake of gold. The professed purpose of the Spanish conquistadors in the Caribbean and Central America had been to convert heathen inhabitants to Christianity; yet, Bartolome points out that the true motive appears to be to accumulate wealth in gold. Thus, the Spaniards are murdering millions of natives all for the sake of gold.
Bartolomé also points out the fact that the natives are very gentle people, a point supported by other Christian missionaries. According to Bartolome, everywhere the Spanish went in the islands, the natives greeted them in friendship and offered them any provisions they had. Sadly, the Spaniards in return used the gentleness and generosity of the natives to easily plunder the natives' villages, enslave the natives, and collect all their gold and jewels. The Spaniards were guilty of massacres, rape, and even infanticide. Those who were enslaved were sold for excellent prices in Peru and Hispaniola, the Spaniards' first colony in the Caribbean.
However, sadly, all of Bartolomé's accounts of the atrocious treatment of the native was not enough to move the king to action. While the king professed that conversion of the natives was the motive for colonization, accumulation of wealth was really the true motive. More importantly to the king, the conquistadors who took gold from the natives only sent a tiny amount back to the Spanish royal treasury, keeping most of the gold for themselves. Hence, the king was more interested in prosecuting the conquistadors for theft than for murder charges.
Though the suffering and death continued in the Spanish Caribbean islands, Bartolome never let go of his commitment to saving the natives.
Bartoleme de la Casas wrote this work to try to persuade the king of Spain to pass laws forbidding the abuse of native peoples he witnessed during 50 years as a missionary in the New World. He writes the following:
I am persuaded that, if Your Highness had been informed of even a few of the excesses which this New World has witnessed, all of them surpassing anything that men hitherto have imagined even in their wildest dreams, Your Highness would not have delayed for even one moment before entreating His Majesty to prevent any repetition of the atrocities which go under the name of ‘conquests’: excesses which, if no move is made to stop them, will be committed time and again . . . (given that the indigenous peoples of the region are naturally so gentle, so peace-loving, so humble and so docile.
The book documents these abuses, and is a valuable historical record because it is an eye-witness account written early in the colonial period—1542. The book is split into chapters that cover many countries or regions in Latin America, including Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Nicaragua, parts of Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, and more.
The book describes the slaughter of indigenous people, who did not, like the Spanish, have guns or horses, as well as torture, enslavement, dismemberment and other atrocities. In Guatemela, the Spanish leader, who Bartoleme called "the butcher," was angry that there was no gold and on that "count alone and without any due process of law directed that they [native leaders that greeted him] be burned alive."
Bartoleme attributes this treatment to the greed of the conquerors, who sought wealth through gold and then obtained it through selling masses of natives as slaves, and said he feared that God would punish Spain for these acts. His book led to the passage of the News Laws, which to some extent helped limit the enslavement and abuse of native peoples in Spanish territories.