A Dominican Voice in the Wilderness: Preaching Against Tyranny in Hispaniola


Bartolome de las Casas

(1550)

 

The Dominican friars had already pondered on the sad life and harsh captivity suffered by the natives on the island and had noticed the Spanish lack of concern for their fate except as a business loss which brought about no softening of their oppression. There were two kinds of Spaniards, one very cruel and pitiless, whose goal was to squeeze the last drop of Indian blood in order to get rich, and one less cruel, who must have felt sorry for the Indians; but in each case they placed their own interests above the health and salvation of those poor people. Of all those who used Indians, I knew only one man, Pedro de Renter --of whom there will be much to say later, if God so wills--who was pious toward them. The friars, then, weighed these matters as well as the innocence, the inestimable patience and the gentleness of Indians, and deliberated on the following points among themselves. Weren't these people human beings? Wasn't justice and charity owed them? Had they no right to their own territory, their own kingdoms? Have they offended us? Aren't we under obligation to preach to them the Christian religion and work diligently toward their conversion? How is it that in fifteen or sixteen years their number has so decreased, since they tell us how crowded it was when they first came here?...

The most scholarly among them [the Dominicans] composed the first sermon on the subject by order of their superior, fray Pedro de Cordoba, and they all signed it to show that it represented common sentiment and not that of the preacher alone. They gave it to their most important preacher, Fray Anton Montesino, who was the second of three preachers the Order had sent here. Fray Anton Montesino's talent lay in a certain sternness when reproaching faults and a certain way of reading sermons both choleric and efficient, which was thought to reap great results. So then, as a very animated speaker, they gave him that first sermon on such a new theme; the novelty consisting in saying that killing a man is more serious than killing a beetle. They set aside the fourth week of Advent for the sermon, since the Gospel according to St. John that week is "The Pharisees asked St. John the Baptist who he was and he said: Ego vox clamantis in deserto." ["I am a voice crying in the wilderness."] The whole city of Santo Domingo was to be there, including the admiral Diego Columbus, and all the jurists and royal officials, who had been notified each and every one individually to come and hear a sermon of great importance. They accepted readily, some out of respect for the virtue of the friars; others, out of curiosity to hear what was to be said that concerned them so much, though had they known, they would have refused to come and would have censured the sermon as well.

At the appointed time Fray Anton Montesino went to the pulpit and announced the theme of the sermon: Ego vox clamantis in deserto. After the introductory words on Advent, he compared the sterility of the desert to the conscience of the Spaniards who lived on Hispaniola in a state of blindness, a danger of damnation, sunk deep in the waters of insensitivity and drowning without being aware of it. Then he said: "I have come here in order to declare it unto you, I the voice of Christ in the desert of this island. Open your hearts and your senses, all of you, for this voice will speak new things harshly, and will be frightening." For a good while the voice spoke in such punitive terms that the congregation trembled as if facing Judgment Day. "This voice," he continued, "says that you are living in deadly sin for the atrocities you tyrannically impose on these innocent people. Tell me, what right have you to enslave them? What authority did you use to make war against them who lived at peace on their territories, killing them cruelly with methods never before heard of? How can you oppress them and not care to feed or cure them, and work them to death to satisfy your greed? And why don't you look after their spiritual health, so that they should come to know God, that they should be baptized, and that they should hear Mass and keep the holy days? Aren't they human beings? Have they no rational soul? Aren't you obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Don't you understand? How can you live in such a lethargical dream? You may rest assured that you are in no better state of salvation than the Moors [Muslims of Spain] or the Turks who reject the Christian Faith." The voice had astounded them all; some reacted as if they had lost their senses, some were petrified and others showed signs of repentance, but no one was really convinced. After his sermon, he descended from the pulpit holding his head straight, as if unafraid--he wasn't the kind of man to show fear--for much was at stake in displeasing the audience by speaking what had to be said, and he went on to his thin cabbage soup and the straw house of his Order accompanied by a friend. ...

[Although the settlers request that the Dominicans apologize, Frey Montesino preaches again.]

To return to the subject: they left the church in a state of rage and again salted their meal that day with bitterness. Not bothering with the friars, since conversation with them had proved useless, they decided to tell the King [Ferdinand] on the first occasion that the Dominicans had scandalized the world by spreading a new doctrine that condemned them all to Hell because they used Indians in the mines, a doctrine that went against the orders of His Highness and aimed at nothing else but to deprive him of both power and a source of income. The King required an interview with the Castilian provincial of the Order--the friars of Hispaniola had not yet been granted a charter--and complained to him about his choice of friars, who had done him a great disservice by preaching against the state and causing disturbances all over the world. The King ordered him to correct this by threatening to take action. You see how easy it is to deceive a King, how ruinous to a kingdom it is to heed misinformation, and how oppression thrives where truth is not allowed a voice.

 


Credits: Bartolome de Las Casas, History of the Indies, trans. and ed. Andree Collard (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 181-187.