The last taboo

Another Face of Empire challenges myths about Bartolomé de Las Casas in a revisionist assessment that unmasks the imperial gift-giver


Another Face of Empire: Bartolome
De Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism

Daniel Castro
2007, Duke University Press
233 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

PERHAPS THERE is no better time to unravel the layers of mythology in which the story of the Spanish cleric Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) has been wrapped than the present, as the Latin American left begins from new positions of power to engineer a painful stocktaking of the region’s indigenous history with a candour that would not have been possible prior to democracy.

The announcement of her intention to stand for the Guatemalan presidency by Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel laureate whose Mayan cousins in Chiapas were those to whom Las Casas preached, is the latest evidence of the potential consequences both of indigenous empowerment in Latin America, but also of the accompanying revisionism.

For it is no coincidence that the intellectual critiques of a version of history written by and for Spanish colonialism, many of whose attributes were retained by the centralist states that prevailed after Independence and have survived into the recent period, now accompany this pattern of empowerment that is taking shape. History, after all, is literature, and we have no better example of that than the forms in which Las Casas has been, and is still being, depicted.

Defrocking the priest

While Daniel Castro’s challenging book helps to blow away the last (and only) legitimising myth of the colonial era by, in effect, partially defrocking the priest who has been invoked by generations of anti-colonialists, it must itself be seen and read in its context. Castro himself would be the first to admit how this uniquely controversial figure has been deployed by others to specific ends, and in particular as the only moral lifebelt available to an expansive power literally drowning in the blood that it had spilt.

He writes: “It may be that the inordinate attention paid to the Dominican friar evidences more a preoccupation with trying to find recuperable elements in the dark and bloody origins of American society than a primary interest in Las Casas himself.” (p. 160)

And just as Las Casas provided a foil for the Spanish crown to use against the rugged, independent-minded colonists, he also offered the enemies of Spain fertile seeds with which to propagate their leyenda negra as they competed over land and chattels in a time of rapacious expansion. It was as much in the interests of Spain’s enemies to subscribe to the Las Casas myth as Spain itself, but for entirely different reasons. During the wars of independence, Las Casas subsequently became synonymous with resistance, appropriated by patriots to denounce a remote and uncaring master.

The first resident Bishop of Chiapas, Las Casas was galvanised into becoming a champion of the rights of the indigenous population after the genocide unleashed against them by the Spanish conquistadores. His 1552 book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias), gave an uncompromising description of the atrocities committed by the conquistadors in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico. He went on in other works to defend the rights of the indigenous people of Peru and to question Spain’s right to take Inca treasures and valuables stolen from their burial sites. As a result, Las Casas is revered as the first anti-imperialist for his unrelenting denunciation of Spanish atrocities, and as Castro points out this legacy is so profound as to be impossible to define.

Another Face of Empire, however, conducts a well-researched challenge to past assessments of Las Casas, using his writings and career to reveal the flaws of a man adept at playing court politics yet ultimately content to place his faith in imperial policymakers.

While recognising the unanimity that surrounds his labour as an avowed defender of the Indians, Castro sets to unmasking the friar, arguing that Las Casas practised an ecclesiastical imperialism on behalf of what he saw as a superior culture, dedicating himself to imposing on the natives the colonisers’ religion by divine mandate. The author suggests that, despite the years he spent in the Americas, in fact Las Casas spent little time among the indigenous people themselves, made little effort to learn their languages and that his court advocacy had little impact on their lives.

Castro also weighs up why Las Casas has been so mythologised, arguing that the myth responds to the need to recreate the Indoamerican past in a more compassionate way and to provide an heroic redeemer for a people unable to save themselves. He makes the interesting observation that the veneration of Las Casas also helps us assuage our own feelings of inadequacy about transforming existing reality.

But Castro’s book is even more interesting for what it represents – another and not inconsequential crack in a version of history written largely by Europeans and their offspring that increasingly appears anachronistic. The author implores those who sympathise with the cause of the downtrodden Indian not to make the mistakes of the past: “Like Las Casas before us, we, the general population, are called on to empathize and sympathize with the indigenous, but the call retains the same level of separation that Las Casas advocated. That is, we are called to sympathize and empathize with the downtrodden, but from a privileged position, without integrating with the cause of the exploited, and without bridging the chasm that separates these disparate segments of society. Identifying the problem, empathizing with the poor from afar, is tantamount to once again abandoning them, leaving them alone and isolated, feeling pity for them rather than actively taking part in their process of liberation.” (pp. 181-182)

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books