“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This memorable rhyme recalls the “discovery” of the New World by the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus. History books often add that the Spanish colonists that followed Columbus came for “gold, glory and God.” What actually happened in the first decades of Spanish conquest had very little to do with God and glory. It had everything to do with gold.
Many of the Spanish conquistadors enslaved the Native Americans and worked them like beasts. They got their gold and became wealthy men; the natives lived and died in brutal working conditions. To make matters even worse, the Spaniards saw to it that their indigenous slaves were not taught the Christian faith so that they were not afforded the protections of being baptized members of the Church.
In 1510, a group of Dominican friars arrived on Hispaniola to serve the spiritual needs of the Spaniards and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the natives. What they saw troubled them. Instead of attracting the Native Americans to the faith by their good example, the oppression practiced by the conquistadors made the natives loathe Christianity.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent in 1511, the Dominican community decided it was time to call their flock to Christian obedience.
One of the friars, Father Antonio Montesino, preached these words to the Spanish overlords that Sunday:
“I am the voice of Christ in the desert of this island. For this reason, it is fitting that you listen to what I am about to say with your whole heart and mind. Listen because what I am saying is something you have never heard before. It is the most difficult, bitter, dangerous and fearful thing that you could ever imagine hearing.”
“All of you are living and dying in mortal sin because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you are using these innocent people.”
“What right do you have to put these Indians in such cruel and wretched slavery? By what authority do you wage such detestable wars against these people in their own humble and peaceful lands? Why have you wearied and oppressed them so much that they die from the excessive work that you impose on them? Why do you refuse them medicines when they are ill? You are killing them every day in order to extract your gold.”
“Do you give any thought that they learn the faith and come to know their God and creator, be baptized, go to Mass and rest from work on Sundays and holydays? Are they not men? Do they not have immortal souls? Are you not obligated to love them as yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? How can you slumber so deeply? Know this, in the state that you are in, you cannot be saved…”
The Dominicans refused to grant absolution and give communion that Christmas to anyone involved in oppressing the Indians. These actions raised the ire of the Spanish colonists. Despite furious opposition, the friars stood their ground. Eventually, they appealed to the Spanish Crown and won legal protections for the natives who lived in Spanish colonies. These priests’ intervention laid the foundations for the development of the ideas of international law and universal human rights.
One of the members of the congregation that day was a young man named Bartolome de las Casas. Bartolome had already made a fortune in gold by enslaving and oppressing the Indians. At first, las Casas was a bitter opponent of the Dominicans. He rejected what they had to say because he did not want to admit that his fortune had been acquired sinfully. But God’s grace eventually changed his heart and moved him to repentance. Several years later, Bartolome de las Casas joined the Dominican order and became a tireless advocate for the Native American population in New Spain. When he became a bishop, his defense of the indigenous people in the Spanish colonies led to him receiving the official position of “Protector of the Indians” in Latin America.
While the Spanish colonization of the New World continued to have its negative points, the heroic efforts of those Dominicans did much to ensure that Native Americans in Spanish colonies had basic legal protections and the opportunity to hear the Gospel proclaimed to them. Unlike those who live in former British colonies in North America, a large percentage of those who live in Latin America today are descended from indigenous peoples on account of the work of churchmen like Father Antonio Montesino and Bishop Bartolome de Las Casas.