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Brazilian Dialogue

Stories of Black Legend still anger some

In his old age, Bartolome de las Casas lived in the Dominican convent in Madrid. The whole Iberian Peninsula knew of his valiant struggle to protect the Indians of the Caribbean islands, and Central and South America.

A few supported las Casas. The majority, however, in both Spain and Portugal, including also their counterparts in Brazil and the Spanish possessions of the new world, hated him.

Most hated him because his defence of the Indians interfered with their get-rich-quick activities. Maximized profit is, after all, not a new concept.

But many, especially in Spain, were furious with him for giving the English ammunition in their propaganda campaign against Spain. To this day Spanish tempers soar when the Black Legend is mentioned.

Of course, it was hypocritical of England to use las Casas' denunciations in this way as England was equally ruthless where its citizens settled on American shores.

All authors, beginning with Columbus, describe the new world as a paradise and have in many places high praise for its inhabitants. The lakes, the coastal waters, the rivers of Hispaniola were crystal clear, revealing fish and all the other creatures that live in water. The Natives swam as though they too were creatures of the sea.

For the most part, the Spanish and Portuguese encountered gentle tribes, especially in the Caribbean and along the Brazilian coast.

Darcy Ribeiro, Brazilian sociologist, writes that the newcomers leaping from their ships on to pristine Brazilian beaches saw "naked on the beach, people splendidly built, people from a land rich in birds, in fish, in roots, flowers, seeds, fruits -- people who enjoyed hunting, fishing, planting, gathering, people whose athletic bodies were built for running, for swimming, for dancing."

And these gentle people (later the conquistadors would meet more war-like tribes) universally praised by Columbus and his successors were so enslaved, so brutalized, so decimated in "wars of pacification," so worked to death in 16-hour work days, that they "allowed themselves to die as only they are capable of doing."

The 90 million inhabitants of the Americas at the time of Columbus were soon reduced to five million, European diseases having contributed to their extermination.

The Europeans simply replaced the lost Indian populations with slaves brought from Africa, and the exploitation continued unabated.

But back to the aged las Casas in the Order of Preachers convent in Madrid. His Dominican brothers had supported his defence of the Indians all along (it seems to be a charism of the OPs). They, along with all Spain and the rest of Europe, had read his denunciations of the new rulers and their mining and plantation projects, to say nothing of their wars.

But, they said, Brother Bartolome, you've written nothing about your early years. We know you yourself, even after being ordained a priest, had gold mining and land concessions on Hispaniola and later large holdings on the island of Cuba. What we want to know is, how did you move from being one of them (i.e., a rich owner of mines, plantations and slaves) to becoming a Dominican friar and defender of Indians, in one short "one of us?"

And so before his death, las Casas wrote his memoirs of boyhood in Spain, young manhood in Hispaniola, ordination to the priesthood in Cuba, his hearing of the great Friar Montesino, OP, preaching hell and damnation to the Spanish authorities, soldiers and encomenderos (those with land and mining concessions) for how they were treating the Indians.

With Montesino's preaching begins the Black Legend. But for Bartolome de las Casas it became his liberation. He tried to confess to Montesino, mentioning some slight mistreatments he had meted out to Indians, but Montesino challenged him to free his slaves altogether, not just treat them better. In the end, Montesino denied las Casa absolution, in las Casas' own church where the next day he would be preaching the Pentecost sermon.

Al Gerwing