Las Casas, part one: Spain

I have been doing some research on Catholic contact—and war—with non-Catholic nations, for a small part of a book I’m writing. I thought it would be helpful for me to write out a narration, and I thought it might be interesting to some of you.

Today, the back story of Bartolomé de las Casas. Soon, more of his story.

Las Casas was one of the early Spanish Conquistadores in the Americas. He came with his father to Hispaniola (“Little Spain”), Columbus’s main island, and now the location of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1502, the year of Columbus’s fourth voyage. He seems to have been about eighteen. We know about Las Casas primarily through his own extensive reports.

The Spanish colonists imported a system they called encomienda. Understanding it needs a brief history of pre-Columbian Spain. 1492, the year Columbus sailed, was also the end of the Reconquista, the re-conquering of Spain from the Muslims. The verbal similarity between the Re-conquista of Spain and the Conquistadores in the Americas points to the deeper legal and cultural similarities: Spain brought to America the ideas they had developed fighting Muslims in Spain.


Muhammed died in 609. For whatever reasons (beyond the scope of this post) conquering bands picked up his new religion and spread quickly. In 710-711 these Muslims invaded and conquered almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. 732 was their first major defeat, by Charles Martel (martel means “the hammer”), all the way at Tours, about three-quarters of the way through France to Paris (which is in the far north). The French nation was born of beating back the Muslims into Iberia, which they had mostly done by 759. After that, France moved on to other things.

But Spain had another seven hundred years to fight. They gradually got a foothold in the north, then expanded slightly south, century by century, until in 1492, among other things, the Spanish drove the Muslims out of their last redoubt, Granada, in the very south.

File:Reino de Asturias.jpg

Was this a just war? I may come back to that in a future post, after we (and they) have figured out what just war means. The Spanish could make the claim that they were taking back land that had been taken from them: hence they call it re-conquista: not the conquering, but the reconquering of what had been taken from them. Their case looks a little better when you watch the development: they established Asturia, in the far north, around 720, when it was clearly the Christian Visigoths retaking their land from Muslims who had invaded in the last decade. The next move south, the Kingdom of Léon, founded maybe 910, was a small expansion of Asturias against their neighbors. It was not a major invasion, just a pushing back of borders. Castile, founded about 1065, was an expansion eastward, from Léon toward Christian allies in France. And they continued to push forward their borders. Grenada, in the far south, was the last to fall (and the least obviously just war), in 1492.

I don’t want to prolong this discussion. What I do want to point out is that most of Spain’s history was forged in these wars. In fact, if you think about the dates 720 (the foundation of Asturia), 1492 (both Columbus and the final conquest of southern Spain), and 2020 (today), Spain spent 772 years fighting the Muslims, and it’s only been 528 years since they stopped. Spain is the Reconquista. And it certainly was at the time of Columbus: the only thing they had ever known was this war of (re) conquest.

So when they got to the Americas, that’s what they did. A standard method of the Reconquista was this system of encomienda.


In all of Feudal Europe, society was organized around knights: guys who could devote their whole life to learning to fight on horseback. Fighting on horseback takes a lot of skill, so it’s something you need to devote your whole life to, but before guns (and long bows), it was also incredibly effective, so everything military revolved around it. It was also expensive, so you had to be rich.

Beneath the knights, you had serfs who supported them. The knight wasn’t working the land, so he had other people work the land for him. Was it slavery? Kind of, kind of not, but that’s not our point here. The point is, knights needed people to work the land for them, so that they could ride horses.

Above the knights, kings could only be effective if they kept the knights happy. Everything revolved around these warriors on horseback. (Interesting sidenote: the same was true of the Mongols, though there they didn’t even bother with farming: similar and different.)

In Spain, where war was the entire way of life, the way a king got knights to fight for him was by offering him serfs. Encomienda means something “commendation,” “handing over.” The basic idea was: if a knight conquered an area for his king, he got control of the land—and of the people who would farm it for him. That was the way Spanish kings encouraged the knights, the re-conquistadores, and that was the way they paid them.


So, naturally, conquest and encomienda was the idea the Spanish brought to the Americas. It had no roots in anything especially Christian (or anti-Christian). It was just the way of life of the Conquistadores.

With two differences. First, where in Spain they were pushing up against their Muslim neighbors, who had previously conquered them and who, at least sometimes, could arguably be seen as agressors, in the New World the Conquistadors were completely invading someone else’s country. Though the Spanish came up with other arguments—which we shall consider later—none of the arguments for the re-conquest of Spain applied to the conquest of America.

Second, where in Spain they used encomienda for farming, in America what they wanted was gold. This has to do with Spanish materialism, which is shocking. But it also has to do with the distance from home. In Spain, they wanted to make a home. In America, the Spanish wanted to get rich and then go home. It is an interesting difference between Spanish America and English America that the English were coming here to settle (which had its own problems). The Spanish were coming here to extract gold and silver and head home.


So when Las Casas came to America, he came looking for gold. But the encomienda system was adjusted in some strange ways. In Spain, you had to prove yourself a conqueror before you got the slaves: that is how the kings urged the knights to fight. In America, you just had to take the boat ride over: that was awful enough that the king needed to offer recompensation—and the compensation was slaves.

And in Spain, the people you were conquering were people an awful lot like you, people you had fought with on equal footing for hundreds of years, and people whose technology and way of life were pretty darned similar. In America, the Indians were really different.

A key part of this difference was weapons. The Spanish had guns. They had steel armor. And, of course, they had germs. I have been reading the recent popular histories 1493 and Guns, Germs, Steel. There are some fascinating reasons, having nothing to do with cultural superiority, that gave the Spanish huge advantages. For example, the East-West orientation of Eurasia meant that germs could travel over huge areas and encounter similar climates. It also allowed the spread of farming technologies (because farming in East Asia works about the same as farming in Western France) that supported the growth of cities. Whereas the north-south orientation of the Americas meant that a germ or farming technique that thrived in Argentina would not make it north to Mexico, etc. The upshot is, Eurasia had developed much more virulent diseases, as well as immunities, than had the Americas, and it was a pretty unfair advantage. Eurasian germs laid the Indians waste. Indian germs had no effect on Europe. (Whether advances in weaponry and the willingness to use it made early-modern Europe culturally superior or inferior to the Indians is a question I will leave open.)

So settlers like Las Casas came to Hispaniola and then spent the bulk of their energy enslaving Indians and demanding that they find gold and silver. And they called it encomienda, the Spanish way.


I’ll end this post with a thought about (cue spooky music) “The Black Legend.” Anti-Spanish northern-Eurpean Protestant historians like to talk about how horrible Spain is. The Inquisition and the treatment of the Indians are exhibits one and two in anti-Spanish history.

In response, Catholics whine about “the black legend”: black because it’s bad, legend because it’s false.

One of my purposes in the study of history is to get the story right. And part of getting the story right is realizing that history is bad: the history of humanity, from a Christian perspective, is the history of fallen men, hell-bound but for the Savior. Part of the reason I am studying this Spanish history, I admit, is because I, not as an English Protestant but as a Catholic, abhor triumphalist claims that some countries are without sin. No country is without sin: not Spain, not America, not the Indians, no one.

Certainly not England. I got into this reading about the Indians reading about Anglo America’s history. I knew it was bad. When I read it carefully, it’s way worse than I thought. The United States was built on the destruction of the Indians, whose country we invaded, and whom we largely defeated not on the field of battle but by burning villages and killing women and children. (There’s a word for that . . . .) The English have nothing to brag about when they talk to Spain. And I think everyone should read Evelyn Waugh’s life of Edmund Campion, not least so that we can see that the Spanish Inquisition has some pretty stiff competition from England when it comes to horrific religious persecution.

In other words, my point isn’t to take sides with one nation against another. My point is, first, to get the history right—but even more, to think about the world like a Christian. A Christian does not look around the world and think things are fine and history is a long story of wonderful people being nice to one another. Human history is a parade of horribles. My salvation is in Jesus Christ (and his body, the Church), not in the awesomeness of Spain, England, the United States—or the Indians, for that matter.

“Black Legend”? It’s no legend that human history is black. It’s the truth. The lie is that we are fine without Jesus. A parallel lie is that whole nations are saintly: the Church rightly treats saints as the exception in human behavior, not the norm. There were saints in Spain and in the Americas, and I’m going to write about them. But encomienda and the Conquistadores? It’s no legend to say that they were not saints, they were fallen men, and their behavior was very dark, ugly, and un-Christian. I think we’d all do a lot better if we stopped treating any nation as holy, and find our identity and salvation in the Church, and in Jesus Christ.


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