REVIEW: An Account, Much Abbreviated

Etching of the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas © EFE

In An Account, Much Abbreviated, Fray de las Casas pleads to the King on behalf of the native peoples of the new world, describing the campaign of the past forty years prior (1542) by Spaniards to “dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty.” He recalls “islands both large and small, the least-favored of them more fertile and lovely than the garden of the king”, once so populous that they compared to ‘beehives’, now empty, “almost devoid of population.” “Into and among these gentle sheep…did creep the Spaniards.”  Pulled from their islands, the native people “were killed while being brought, and because of being brought to…Hispaniola when the stock of the natives (there) had come to an end.” De las Casas speaks of dozens of islands “despoiled of people”—“twelve million souls killed tyrannically and unjustly…perhaps above fifteen million” on behalf of the Christian faith. He claims that the “their ultimate end…was to stuff themselves with the riches of the Indians—in a very few days,” and to create large estates for themselves for which they did not earn by noble blessing.  A product of “the insatiable greed and ambition that they have had—greater than any the world has ever seen.”

De las Casas holds back little in his dialogue to the king, describing the devastation of the five native Hispaniola kingdoms. The acts that the Spaniards committed, as described by De las Casas were truly, in his words “so inhumane, so pitiless, and so savage” that their barbarism and pettiness wrought the wrath of God. In one duplicitous instance, he recounts “an evil Christian captain” having violated the wife of a native king, who himself fled, in an effort to regroup his people to take vengeance. This induced the Spaniards to a frenzied slaughter in their search to find him. When the native king was finally captured and sent by ship (with a large quantity of gold), bound for Castile, it was lost at sea, “His vengeance for such great injustices.” Snatched from their homes and “suspecting nothing,” the Indians were eventually eradicated or forcibly transported. Removed from their “admirable, healthful, and fertile” lands, the native peoples were perhaps displaced for the soils “where the most excellent sugar of the island is made.” Falling “ever lower and hurling themselves ever deeper in to accursed judgment,” the Spaniards would then move to the Islands of San Juan, Jamaica, and elsewhere to repeat the “abominable slaughters, tyrannies, and oppressions.”[1]

The type of labor that the native peoples in captivity would be forced into consisted of the destruction of their native lands via mining and deforestation; the land ‘legally’ acquired “paz por compra” (peace by purchase). No longer able to hunt and gather on their homelands, the native people soon were forced to rely on the Spaniards for food, who began to trade food in return for land. According to Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert and David Schecter, who studied The environmental dynamics of a colonial fuel-rush: Silver Mining and Deforestation in New Spain, 1522 to 1810, found the “effects on local landscapes and human communities and the pace, scale, and extent of mining-driven deforestation” in the area of New Spain “remarkable,” stating that “these changes radically reconfigured both the biophysical (ecosystems, soil composition, hydrology) and human characteristics of the colonial mining belt.” The discovery more precious metals and fuel rushes expedited frontier expansion Studnicki-Gizbert and Schecter argue that “the massive transformation of ecologies and land use patterns wrought by mining inevitably had an impact on the lives of aboriginal groups.” The hypothesis is that ‘purchasing peace’ only ratcheted “the inability of the (Indians) to provide for themselves with sufficient food from their own initiative” by undercutting their methods of subsistence.

This in turn rendered “rendered (the Indians) more susceptible to their incorporation or removal by Spanish colonial society.”  A new type of food scarcity forced them into roles as tenants and laborers, who in order to get by, pillaged their former lands for the Spaniards. The trees were removed, and “by scouring the landscape of trees, mining set the stage for the development of colonial forms of land-use.” The growth and demand of new world metals, especially silver, “which guaranteed a consistently high demand…and acted as a constant underlying factor in the expansion” of the colonial mining enterprise.  Because the processing of silver required great amount of heat, the forests became an over-relied upon energy source. The process would sustain itself until “the spread of fields and pastures in the areas surrounding the mines of New Spain foreclosed on the full regeneration of forests,” pushing miners and smelters further into the frontier “in search of virgin stands of trees.” Deforestation and the associated development of New Spain “transformed existing ecologies and the human communities that interacted with them” as well.  Mining also had a transformational effect on labor systems, creating a more organized and structured labor force according to Studnicki-Gizbert and Schecter, who believe that it “fuelled settlement and urbanization.”

This gave rise to the spread of agriculture (as opposed to foraging) “and the establishment of a new colonial society of indigenous, Afro-Mexican, and Iberian settlers.” and “was an important…motive for the cultural and socio-legal transformation of indigenous peoples into “Indio” subjects of the Crowns of Portugal and Spain.” [2] This would amalgamate into the rise of Mexico City, as a cosmopolitan point of trade. By the 17th century, exhausted of opportunity, Indian migrants would make their way to the vice-regal capital. Richard Boyer, author of Mexico in the Seventeenth Century: Transition of a Colonial Society, finds that this influx of Indian migrants “occurred during the demographic collapse of native people.” Remarking how the Indian population “declined relentlessly” since the arrival of the Spaniards, Boyer notes that epidemics created a labor shortage “precipitated…economic contractions” and “decreases in silver and agricultural production and the reduction of trade resulted,” both overseas and internally.  He finds that the Spaniards acquired their great estates from vacant Indian lands in the mid-1630s, when many debt-ridden miners were ruined and forced to abandon their mines.

“By the middle of the century the industry was controlled by financiers in Mexico City,” and that “it alone could supply capital for the reorganization of mining and farming.” Debt “bound the provinces to the capital.” Boyer argues that “the huge emporium of the capital exerted pressure on the surrounding region to specialize production for that market.”  Towns close to Mexico City became more oriented toward market crops, rather than subsistence agriculture. He also points out that the division of labor within the city “reached the point where many Indians, having severed their ties to the land and become permanent town dwellers, were completely ignorant of agriculture.” Food became pricier and in the 1620s, as costs of transportation increased. “Opportunism and trivial extortion were habitual,” as monopolies gouged Indian producers and consumers, who to pay the most, even though “directly or indirectly, virtually all food, fuel, and fodder used in the metropolis was supplied by Indian labor.” Archbishop Perez de la Serna intervened and demanded price controls from the viceroy.  Boyer remarks that the residents of Mexico City “viewed the ensuing quarrel between the viceroy and archbishop as a struggle between the secular defender of monopolists and the priestly defender of the poor.” [3]

On the havoc and devastation wrought during the ‘conquest’ of Cuba and the search for Indians who fled into the wilderness, Fray de las Casas laments upon the ‘bare’, waste’, “desert of solitude”—the depopulated land—and “great shame and pity” by the Spaniards who “so thoroughly laid waste to all that island and left it uninhabited.”[4] It was, as he said, greed and ambition, manifested in the ethic and will of the Spaniards to take material possession of the New World—under the license of King and Crown—under such conditions of depravity and force. To demand upon the Indian their labor, to extract their metals and cut their trees—to ultimately deprive them of self-sustainability and further, to confiscate their land—makes them worthy of the damning he rightfully placed upon them. The frontier continues to be mined and deforested, and the people of the land continually forced into migration, wage-labor, and at the pricing will of monopolies, merchants, and financiers for a piece of their earth.

[1] An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies.
Bartolomé de las Casas (1542) [excerpt]

[2] The environmental dynamics of a colonial fuel-rush:

Studnicki-Gizbert, Daviken; Schecter, David. Environmental History 15. 1 (Jan 2010): 94-119.

[3] Mexico in the Seventeenth Century: Transition of a Colonial Society

Richard Boyer. The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Aug., 1977), pp. 455-478

[4] De las Casas.

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