“As Fernando and Isabel saw it, Indian lands were not like the Islamic empires which they and their royal ancestors had fought for centuries. Muslim troops, in their view, could be legitimately enslaved – they had conquered most of Spain, exploited Spanish people, and, by embracing Islam, rejected Christianity. (For similar reasons, the Islamic empires freely enslaved Spanish POWs.) Most Indians, by contrast, had done no wrong to Spaniards. Because American natives had never heard of Christianity, they could not have turned away from it. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI resolved this dilemma of conscience. He awarded the sovereigns ‘full, free and complete power, authority, and jurisdiction’ over the Taino of Hispaniola if they sent ‘prudent and God-fearing men, learned, skilled, and proven, to instruct [them] in the Catholic faith.’ Conquest was acceptable if done for the purpose of bringing the conquered to salvation.”
- pg. 384, 1493, by Charles C. Mann, Vintage Books, 2011, New York
“ … the king was talking with Bartolomé de las Casas, a fiery Dominican priest who had just completed Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, an indictment of Spanish conduct that remains a landmark both in the history of human-rights activism and in the literature of sustained invective. Reading his first draft before the shocked court, Las Casas branded the conquest of Mexico as ‘the climax of injustice and violence and tyranny committed against the Indians.’ He denounced Indian slavery as ‘torments even harder to endure and longer lasting than the torments of those who are put to the sword.’”
- pg. 383, ibid.
Perhaps the most dramatic turn of events which has taken place in the Americas during my lifetime on planet earth, has been how all the hype surrounding Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) when I was a child, changed to skepticism, then anger, and now outright condemnation.
When we were growing up in British Honduras, the colonial masters were giving us October 12 as an annual holiday, October 12 being the date in 1492 when Columbus, an Italian sailor in the employ of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, first set foot on land (Hispaniola) in the so-called New World. October 12 in British Honduras was called “Columbus Day,” and the holiday was confined to the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts. At some point, and I suppose it was after the People’s United Party (PUP) got some say in the administration of the country, the rest of the country was included in the holiday.
Everything started to blow up around the Columbus story in 1992, when various people in the Americas were looking at the quincentennial of the landing. While Columbus’ voyage to the New World, and then his return to Spain the following year, had been epic achievements in seamanship, Columbus’ entry into the Americas led to what is referred to by historians as “The Conquest.” This violent invasion featured the Spaniards and the Portuguese in the first instance, but later included the English, the Dutch, and the French. The Conquest involved the destruction of Native American societies and civilizations by the invading Europeans, and then European military/political rule, from North America through Central America to the tip of South America with the Caribbean included, for the next three centuries, in the case of the Spanish dominions, and four hundred years in the cases of the others. We are speaking generally, of course. This is not an academic paper.
Let us focus today on the Spanish, because they were the first conquerors of the Americas, and they were the most successful. It is one of the great coincidences of history that the very year when Columbus set foot in the New World in the name of Spain – 1492, was the year when the Roman Catholic Spaniards finally managed to expel the Islamic Moors from Spain and to push them back into North Africa. The Moors had dominated Spain for 700 years.
The Spanish conquistadores who followed Columbus to the Americas in the early sixteenth century, men like Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, were brutal, battle-hardened soldiers, but they were also devout Roman Catholics. These men’s war expeditions were accompanied and blessed by priests, and as soon as the Aztecs were subdued in Mexico and the Incas slaughtered in Peru, Roman Catholic churches were established to give glory to the Spanish God. After that, these churches opened schools.
The first students in these schools were the children of the Spaniards, but as time went along, the schools accepted the children of those defeated Native Americans who were willing to submit to Spanish rule and accept their conquerors’ religion and way of life. Native American children in the Spanish schools also included the children of those who had been the early allies of the Spanish who had helped them to defeat the Aztecs and the Incas. Since it was the Church which was establishing the schools, God became a major part of the curriculum, and it was thus that the accepted, formal education of the New World featured God’s blessings as a part of the Conquest. The Catholic schools of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the Protestant schools of the English, Dutch, and French, all taught basically the same thing – that the Christian God had looked favorably upon European entry into the Americas, because the Europeans had thus been able to civilize, more importantly Christianize, the Native American “heathens.”
Essentially, that is where things stood when yours truly began life in 1947. The Europeans had done our ancestors a favor by murdering, raping, and enslaving them: God had agreed with whatever had been done, because it was through these mechanisms that salvation had been made available to the heathens.
Well, during my lifetime European propaganda has been blown to smithereens. They can’t even call October 12 “Columbus Day” in Belize any more, although the Italian-Americans in the United States still do so. Nowadays, in these parts the holiday is called “Day of the Americas,” or “Día de La Raza.” I don’t really understand what goes on up North on October 12. Why should the Maya celebrate the coming of the Europeans? It doesn’t make sense. Up North, of course, they wonder why we in Belize City celebrate the “Baymen’s glory” when we were still enslaved in 1798.
In any case, my problem is with the God part of the equation. You can see how totally dominated we were. In order to get an education, we had to accept, implicitly, that God had blessed people to do horrible things to our ancestors in order to have our souls be saved. If we questioned the “fact” that God had blessed our conquerors, then the power structure could damn us as being unbelievers. It’rough. We have to praise those who beat us down, and we have to accept our own inferiority and unworthiness. That’s if we want to achieve salvation.