Social Reform vs. Social Criticism: Las Casas and His Limitations
"Las Casas was far more successful as a chronicler of Spanish misdeeds than as a true social critic. He cannot be said to have been a social reformer. Characterizing colonial society as a set of extremes renders Las Casas unable to establish any coherent alternative to the economic and political exploitation he condemns. Were there other ways Spanish colonial society could have developed? " -- Bill Donovan
To evaluate whether Donovan’s statements about Bartolomé de Las Casas are correct, we must first denotatively define his terms; we must be able to discriminate between a ‘chronicler’, a ‘social critic’, and a ‘social reformer.’ A chronicler leaves behind a chronicle: “a chronological record of events; a history” (Webster 264). A social critic is one who criticizes, or makes “judgments as to merits and faults” (345), society: “a highly structured system of human organization for large-scale community living that normally furnishes protection, continuity, security, and a national identity for its members” (1351). In contrast to these intellectual processes, the social reformer actively creates social reform: “the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory” (1206). Upon examining Las Casas’ life and his popular 1542 work A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, it becomes apparent that Donovan’s take on Las Casas is neither wholly accurate nor wholly inaccurate. While it may be true that Las Casas did not establish a coherent alternative to Spanish colonialism, and he was not a social reformer, he was more of a social critic than he was ever a chronicler. Las Casas took the first step towards a relationship between the Spanish and the Native Americans which would have been healthier for both; sadly, no one took the next one.
The problem with claiming that Las Casas’ chief achievement was as a chronicler (besides the fact that A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies is not fully written in chronological order, in detailing the history of each region of Spain's ‘New World’ separately, it is forced at times to skip between decades) is that this claim does not take into account Las Casas’ use of rhetoric and the manner in which he shapes his text to prove a point. A mere chronological record of events should not have a point; it should only have a sequence. Now, to believe that less than 100% of histories created have some sort of agenda behind them requires a more-than-healthy dose of either naivete or idealism. However, the issue of whether or not the author was aware of this agenda while writing the history makes all the difference. Las Casas was fully aware of the agenda behind A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, and he consciously directed every word of it towards achieving that agenda. This agenda actually gets spelled out by Las Casas in the Short Account’s prologue: “once Your Highness perceives the extent of the injustices suffered by these innocent peoples… Your Highness will see fit to beg and entreat His Majesty to refuse all who seek royal licence for such evil and detestable ventures, and to put a stop once and for all to their infernal clamour” (Las Casas 7). The Short Account is therefore not a history. In a record of events, there is no place for statements like “Oh, if one were to catalogue all those orphaned by him, all those whose children he stole, all those whose wives he took, all the women he widowed, and all the adultery, violence and rape that could be laid at his door” (63-4), because such words express general conditions, not specific happenings. Rather than a chronicle, the Short Account is a persuasive attempt to enlist the aid of the Crown Prince of Spain in changing Spain’s policy toward the inhabitants of the ‘New World’.
Las Casas certainly found this policy wrong, corrupt, and unsatisfactory-- he refers to “the unforgivable behaviour and consummate wickedness of the Spaniards” (79) without a hint of apology for his strong language. Therefore, by striving to gain the agency of the Crown Prince to change this policy, the Short Account (and in fact all of Las Casas’ work) clearly strives towards social reform. However, Las Casas was never able to achieve this goal. An effort at social reform does not make one a social reformer, any more than swimming in the Olympics gives one a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly. To be a social reformer, your efforts must succeed. Regretfully, time proved Las Casas’ efforts “largely ineffectual in practice” (xxiv). The king he was addressing, indirectly through his son Philip, had granted Las Casas an audience years earlier, then had passed the buck off to the Council of the Indies (xxii-iii) and apparently never entertained Las Casas’ notions seriously again (if indeed he ever had). The New Laws of 1542 which Las Casas rallied for intensely “did little in the long run to alleviate the burden of the Indians” (xxiii) in the short time that they were on the books, and then got partially repealed in 1545 after engendering a revolt in Peru (xxvii). We can hypothesize that, if Las Casas’ powerful History of the Indies had actually reached an audience at some date close to the one in which it was written, it might have done some good. After all, in addition to being a more detailed and complete version of the shocking information previously published in the Short Account, the History also contains some autobiographical and narrative writing that had the potential to really drive his points home into the hearts and minds of his fellow Spaniards (xvii-iii). Unfortunately for the surviving ‘Indians’ he was trying to defend, Las Casas delayed the circulation of the History out of a fear that it might jeopardize Spain’s position as a world power. He intended for the History to be kept out of the public sphere until forty years had passed after his death, but circumstances he could not have foreseen assured its obscurity until 1875, when it was safely historical-— that is, when it could not be acted upon in any way because the peoples it meant to protect were thoroughly dead or subjugated (xviii). This made the History of the Indies useless as a tool for social reform, and we must sadly agree with Donovan that none of Las Casas’ writings had sufficient impact for him to be called a social reformer.
However, none of this has any bearing on whether or not Las Casas was a successful social critic. In fact, any sustained reading of the Short Account proves demonstrably that social criticism was what Las Casas did best. When it comes to gathering data, Las Casas is no scientist; the statistics he uses to prove his points are clearly estimates, such as when he casually tosses the phrase “teeming millions” into his conclusion (127). When it comes to telling a story, Las Casas is no Shakespeare; his characters are faceless and his descriptions of atrocities are clinical, such as when he relates a story of torture in the following terms: “They tortured him with the strappado, put burning tallow on his belly, pinned both his legs to poles with iron hoops and his neck with another and then, with two men holding his hands, proceeded to burn the soles of his feet” (118). But when it comes to judging the merits of Native American society and the faults of the conquistadores, Las Casas could go toe-to-toe with Cato in his skill with rhetoric. Throughout the Short Account, Las Casas maintains the natives to be “unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and submissive—they are without malice or guile, and are utterly faithful and obedient… never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous” (10). Most of the administrators of the Catholic Church at this time would have found this to be an exact description of the perfect Christian. In comparison, the Spaniards have an “insatiable greed and overweening ambition” (13) and are “more inhumane and more vicious than savage tigers, more ferocious than lions or than ravening wolves” (96). These sorts of burning assertions are some of the strongest examples of social criticism imaginable. Las Casas is even able to hold back such pejorative metaphors in order to paint other word-pictures that some Spaniards might actually be able to see themselves in and allow to affect their behavior. Examine the closing sentences of the Short Account:
…everyone, young and old alike, who journeys to the New World is either openly or in secret a fortune-hunter… and all such fortunes are made at the expense of the local people. That they serve their own ends while pretending to serve those of the crown is something that not only damages the Spanish interest but also brings dishonour on the name of God and on that of the King. (130)
These words mark Las Casas as not only a social critic, but also an intensely earnest one who had little fear for the possible personal consequences of his word, given the fact that he was living during the heyday of the Spanish code of honor
So far, we have paid all of our attention to the first two sentences of Donovan’s argument. It is quite possible that the heart of his (somewhat flawed) criticism of Las Casas can be found in the next two: Characterizing colonial society as a set of extremes renders Las Casas unable to establish any coherent alternative to the economic and political exploitation he condemns. Were there other ways Spanish colonial society could have developed?
First, it is worth noting that Donovan’s statement about Las Casas’ characterization of colonial society seems to contradict his earlier statement against Las Casas as a social critic, for any sincere characterization involves at least some degree of judgment. Even more importantly, this statement does not lead directly to the question that follows it. It rather begs another question: Is it the responsibility of the social critics to provide an alternative to whatever it is that they condemn?
Going off of the definition of ‘social critic’ previously established, to answer this question with a ‘yes’ is to conflate the responsibilities of a criminal’s judge and jury with those of a counselor or psychologist. One does not expect the judge and jury to provide alternative courses of action that a criminal could have taken instead of committing a crime; one expects the jury to determine whether or not the criminal committed the crime alleged, and the judge to determine the proper sentence if a guilty verdict is reached. (This metaphor is flawed, insofar as judges and juries are appointed by society’s laws, whereas a social critic is (usually) self-appointed, but this flaw is not so severe that the metaphor becomes inappropriate.) To answer the question with a ‘no’ leads to a second question: Whose responsibility is it to provide the alternatives? The most logical answer to this is ‘the visionaries’.
Visionaries are those “given to or characterized by fanciful, not presently workable, or unpractical ideas, views, or schemes” (Webster 1597). Las Casas was most emphatically not a visionary. Although adventurous enough to travel on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the ‘New World’, Las Casas was ordained there (Las Casas xix), and his priest’s mind was tied to the dominant paradigm of Spanish thought with bonds of both Catholicism and nationalism. This is clearly exemplified by his firm belief that Pope Alexander VI had the authority to grant Spain sovereignty over all lands in the ‘New World’ not already claimed by Christian princes (xvi). Hamstringed by his firm belief in such dogma, the most Las Casas could be realistically expected to do was witness the genocide he was immersed in and judge it to be un-Christian behavior on the parts of those who should know better. This is exactly what Las Casas did, and he went even further by agitating politically as the self-proclaimed ‘Defender of the Indians’. His failure as a social reformer did not make his social criticism any less valid, and neither should his failure as a visionary. After all, even flights of fancy are based on either personal experience or information that has been relayed to the mind that takes the flight. Without the words of Las Casas to spur the imagination and goad the conscience, how could anyone in Spain who actually was a visionary have been inspired to discover some alternative policy for Spain to follow?
The answer, of course, is that they could not have. Even with Las Casas’ publications, this task proved impossible. In the definition of ‘visionary’ given above, ‘not presently workable’ usually translates to ‘only implemented once the problem addressed becomes so severe that mainstream society can no longer ignore it’. The problem of how to acknowledge the basic humanity of the indigenous peoples of the lands it was taking over never became severe enough that mainstream Spanish society could not ignore it, mostly due to the fact that the vast majority of those indigenous populations were completely wiped out before Spain even became aware of their existence. Even after being alerted by Las Casas and others about the monstrous crimes being committed by the conquistadores, Spaniards who remained in the ‘mother country’ could rationalize them away because the benefits of those crimes (access to an abundance of material resources beyond the wildest dreams of anyone besides the most extreme of visionaries) were right before their eyes, while the carnage and waste before the eyes of Las Casas was an entire continent away.
The answer to Donovan’s final question, Were there other ways Spanish colonial society could have developed, is therefore most likely a disheartening ‘no’. Even those most extreme visionaries referred to above could not have predicted what Columbus would discover about the nature of the world when he made his fateful voyage in 1492. Once he returned, and Spain made the decision to colonize the land he had come across in his quest to reach the East Indies, the full-blown madness that followed was inevitable. After all, the policies of the conquistadores were perfectly in line with, in fact can be seen as the logical conclusion reached when one extrapolates from, the idea of colonialism. The moderated policies practiced in New England and New France were only formulated in response to the extremism of New Spain-— and in response to the social criticism of Bartolomé de Las Casas, a man who performs as well as his limitations allowed, straining for a reform his society could not award more than lip service. The only way New Spain could have evolved differently would have been for Spain to consider it not a colony whose purpose was to support the ailing economy of the ‘mother country’, but instead as the rightful property of its native inhabitants, as Las Casas fervently believed it to be (xvi). Whether a Papal Bull could rightfully turn those inhabitants into Spanish citizens is the subject for another node entirely.
Las Casas, Bartolomé. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Trans. and ed. Nigel Griffin. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1992.
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. 1989 ed.