The Good Colonist Myth

The *real* historical research I do is extremely specific in its nature: 16th century trans-Atlantic colonialism; specifically looking at the roles of religious influence in colonial institutions within the Spanish context. It’s the sort of stuff I’ve been told to keep on the back burner as I apply for jobs, attend cocktail parties and generally hang out with my friends.

Whoops. I’m not particularly good at following this advice. But this more generally goes for anything of interest to me. For example, there was a period in my third year while taking a class on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations where all I wanted to talk about was the beetle in the box. Of course, even at Chicago, this was a little too nerdy for most party company, and I spent a pretty lonely ten weeks attempting to describe language-games to my Solo cup.

HOWEVER, I have the good fortune of taking aim at a particular practice in our world WHILE making my research the most relevant thing possible. It’s literally as though Christmas has come early for me. This article has been a couple years in the making, I just didn’t realize I’d be writing it so soon.

I was inspired by The Oatmeal on Columbus day, precisely one year ago. Normally, I thoroughly enjoy the Oatmeal, and even this comic was pretty entertaining. He spent his usual time, ripping into the asshole that Columbus was (meanwhile, my brain is cheering YEAH! YOU CITE THOSE JOURNAL SOURCES I KNOW SO WELL! Oh god it’s so exciting to be relevant!) But then, he hit a snag. In an attempt to build his direction from throwing accuracy and context on Columbus, he decided he’d like to elevate an individual a little less known. I’m usually in favor of this process, but his suggestion was Bartolomé de las Casas. And here, I quote him directly:

“Unlike Columbus, however, de las Casas underwent a radical transformation in his life. After witnessing the violent atrocities committed against the Natives, he gave up his land, freed his slaves, and spent the rest of his life fighting the brutal colonization of the New World. The only way he could make peace with the horrors he witnessed was to try and help as many people as possible. His stand against the cruelty and imperialism of the Spanish Crown eventually earned him the title of “Defender of the Indies.”

Upon reading this for the first time, I wondered whether The Oatmeal had read the same history books I had. While we might say Bartolomé de las Casas was an advocate for acting as though the Taíno, Carib and other Indigenous populations ought to be treated as human beings, it’s a far cry from saying that he was dedicated to standing against imperialism and colonization on a whole.

I think, in part, I understand where The Oatmeal is coming from, though. I went to an elitist, largely self-aggrandizing high school, but it also assigned the Out of Many for AP US History, and my teacher often incorporated the work of Howard Zinn into the class room. As such, I’d heard about Las Casas early into my investigations of European-American history and I also fell into the trap of the Oatmeal. I call it “The Good Colonist Myth”, and it essentially refers to the use of an individual, or a movement within a largely-bad Colonial context who seemed to understand the inherent problems of Colonial rule. What was so helpful about this Myth is that it was someone I could point to and argue effectively that the colonists had not all been bad, and that their presence overall moved forward the great engines of history. I wanted to assert that countries like America, Cuba, Haiti, Argentina and the Dominican Republic could exist without any reference to the great corruption of colonial rule that allowed their initial formations. And it was integral that I believed an individual like Las Casas existed purely as a form of benign interest, merely wishing to help the colonized groups survive under Spanish rule.

Unfortunately, all dreams of true equality must be checked at the door of reality. My experience of reading not only Columbus, but Las Casas directly led me to realize that if one wants to take all experiences seriously, there isn’t a whole lot of room for colonial improvement. Of course, aspects like the sati in India, or the ritual sacrifice of opposing generals in Nahuatl sources were things that required reformation, but here I am concerned with the general question of the colonial experience: whether or not it was justified on a whole, and whether or not we might deem it as a useful enterprise. And the more I read about Indigenous knowledge systems, and the role of Spanish jurists and friars in developing methodological ways of converting and assimilating Indigenous populations, the less I could believe in a national history that continued to assert its presence as foretold, and its ideology as benign. Part of this was erasing the conception that any aspect of colonial rule was beneficial, insofar as the ideological basis behind it was focused on the re-production of autonomy as something given based on Euro-centric ideals.

I. Colonial Ideology

When I say re-production, what I mean is that colonial ideology tends to manifest itself not only in the colonizer, but also the colonized. This is an essential aspect of colonial rule, as a colonist will not last long in a region where she is outnumbered ten to one without the consent of the governed. Thus, to re-produce itself within the context of the colonized, it will often impose a series of ideas, judgments, or arguments that force the subjects of the colonial process to accept the rule of the colonist. These aspects of re-production are covered extensively by a number of writers on the ideologies behind colonialism. Ranajit Guha, for example, takes this as the starting point in his essay, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency”. See:

“When a peasant rose in revolt at any time or place under the Raj, he did so necessarily and explicitly in violation of a series of codes which defined his very existence as a member of that colonial, and still largely semi-feudal society. For his subalternity was materialized by the structure of property, institutionalized by law, sanctified by religion and made tolerable–even desirable–by tradition.” (Page 1)

Ranajit Guha was writing in the context of British colonial rule in India. However, I would suggest this is a colonial logic that is more generally applicable in history as the relationship between European states and their colonial counterparts. By creating a world-order in which the colonized must wait on the acceptance of the European for self-determination, any resistance to colonial struggle is resistance to civilization. It effectively takes the barometer of whether a people can be considered rational or not, and places it in the pocket of the intellectual elite of the colonial class. Whether or not they use it fairly is not the question: the question is on what grounds such a process can be considered justified. I would suggest that the justification is usually given in the presumption that to be non-colonial is to be uncivilized. These justifications can be found as early as the Ancient Greeks, and their ideas on populations they could not understand. Herodotus’ definition in his Histories is a famous citation, known by many a classicist (italics mine):

“First and foremost, the burning and destruction of the adornments and temples of our gods, whom we are constrained to avenge to the utmost rather than make pacts with the perpetrator of these things, and next the kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech, and the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life, to all of which it would not befit the Athenians to be false. Know this now, if you knew it not before, that as long as one Athenian is left alive we will make no agreement with Xerxes.” (8.144.2-8.144.3)

The question of Greek ethnicity relied on customs, on blood, and on language. If these qualifications were not met, then the individual did not belong to the Greeks, who had their own colonial expeditions throughout the Mediterranean. Of particular importance to the claims made here is the qualification of language. In fact, our word “barbarian” is derived from the onomatopoetic sound Greeks imagined outsiders to make “barbarbar”. This was an idea carried forth by the Romans, whose own civil and jurist laws required citizenship for full representation, part of which included fluency in Latin.

While centuries separate Herodotus and the Romans from the Spanish jurists, the former’s influence on the latter is undeniable. Anyone who desired to be “learned” had learned Greek and Latin since the middle fifteenth century, and would have had access to the full range of Greco-Roman texts, many of which emphasized the importance of kinship and speech to identity. And it is these sort of customs that are well-documented throughout the Spanish Medieval period. By the time we get to Columbus, the construction of Spanish citizenship all but required the language and religion of the Spanish people. As such, when we speak about colonial ideology on a whole, what i just as important as the violent aspects of colonial rule is how well-maintained colonial culture is maintained by the colonized.

Columbus’ infamous exploitation of the Indigenous populations is well-documented, and often emphasized. However, what is also well-documented and less emphasized is his deployment of friars within the Taíno and Carib peoples. The role of these friars was to learn as much as possible about the religion and societies of these groups, in order that they might be best converted to Christianity. This was imperative to Ferdinand and Isabel, if only because the documents that certified their control over the islands relied on the conversion process.

Ramón Pané was probably most influential in this regard. His text, An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians, composed in 1497, shortly after the second journey of Columbus, is one of the earliest documents we have in regards to the mythology and rituals of Indigenous populations. What is most telling about the account is how hard Pané works to make Indigenous ritual compatible with that of the Christian faith. As one example, he cites the religious elders as explaining that the varying spirits and ancestors of each family all descend from one all-knowing power, something Pané equates to the Christian conception of God. Throughout the text, he describes both the violent interactions of the Taíno with the Caribs as stemming from “primitive” disagreements about ritual, while emphasizing the role of the Christian martyrs he had personally baptized, and were executed for their departure for their perceived betrayal.

It was on these grounds that Columbus began to advocate for the enslavement of populations. For example, he sent a number of Caribs back to the Crown on the grounds that he had heard they were cannibals, and thus ought to be converted to Christianity in order that they might be civilized. He claimed that part of this civilizational process could be paid for by means of slavery. This was a similar sort of argument that he (and Cortés) would give to his defense of imposing labor upon Indigenous populations: through labor, he hoped to eliminate what he perceived as their natural laziness, something that could only be expected from a group of people who seemingly had not advanced past hunting and gathering.

Thus, while Columbus certainly imposed all sorts of physical violence and coercion, I would suggest the more long-term destruction that he set in motion was cultural. He sought to deconstruct Indigenous knowledge, world-systems, and ideas, in favor of converting them to the European modes of production. This production was not exclusive to the role of economies, and should not be only interpreted as a mode of capitalist re-reproduction. This is evident by the amount of emphasis friars and explorers put on the lack of a perceptible “written” language by Indigenous populations (Mignolo’s The Darker Side Of Renaissance is an amazing read on this subject matter.) Within the European tradition, written language was a big deal. It signified the concept of memory beyond speech, something that could secure and hold experiences from generation to generation. In short, for 16th century Europe (and indeed, thinking about the comments of some members of the academy, present day Europe) a people without written language was a people without history.

To go beyond this, even when Spaniards encountered objects that might translate into a written language, they could not accept the works, lest the devil be found in it. As such, I present Diego de Landa’s description of Indigenous language and written systems, as he discovered them in 1562:

“These people used certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books about their antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matters, made them known, and taught them. We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.” (page 82)

The concept of writing had been tied to holiness for so long. Throughout the Medieval Period, we see the concept of the written word as divinely inspired. It seemed as though any non Roman alphabetic words must not come from the Christian faith, and was suspect as a form of transmission from the devil. It was in similar ways that many aspects of Indigenous culture and life were construed as backwards, and needing to be rectified. Jurists like Francisco de Vitoria sought to make comparisons between Indigenous populations and children, citing both as needing guidance before they might be ready for self-determination.

II. The role of Las Casas

Bartolomé de Las Casas was born in 1484, to the son of a merchant, and spent most his youth studying at Salamanca, an area in which Vitoria had enormous influence. He left with his father in 1502, with Nicolas de Ovando, bound for Hispaniola. Upon arrival, he received a parcel of land, and participated in several raids against the Taíno, primarily for the capturing of slaves and other bodies to work the land. He was ordained in the priesthood in 1510, among the first in the Americas.

It was not until 1511 that Las Casas found his first insecurities about the system that he had adamantly defended for so long. A couple of sources mention that he was present for a now-infamous sermon given by the Dominican, Antonio de Montesinos. This was the first recorded condemnation of the encomienda system by a friar:
“And what care do you take that they should be instructed in religion, so that they may know their God and creator, may be baptized, may hear Mass, and may keep Sundays and feast days? Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Don’t you understand this? Don’t you feel this. Why are you sleeping in such a profound and lethargic slumber? Be assured that in your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks, who lack the faith of Jesus Christ and do not desire it.”

It was not until 1514, while studying the Sirach that Las Casas became convinced of the error of his ways. And from 1515 to his death in 1566, he compiled a series of arguments against the taking of labor and land against Indigenous populations.

This is as far as the Oatmeal will go in its assessment of Las Casas. I suppose, it is enough for modernity that Las Casas disavowed the violence required to keep this system in check. However, if we take the concept of colonial ideology as continually re-producing itself seriously, then we must look beyond simply the physicality of action. What was it that Las Casas himself desired for Indigenous populations, and how did he justify those desires?

Here, I look towards his engagement against one Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in the halls of Valladolid. In 1550, the two engaged in a series of debates over Indigenous rationality, and what role it ought to play in Spanish policy. Las Casas was convinced, through his brief proto-ethnologies, that the Indigenous populations could be demonstrated as rational, even in the tradition of Europe, often placing them in distinction with the Ancient Greeks and Romans. All he had to do was point to the instances in the journals of Cortés and Bernal Díaz, in which both expressed their awe upon entering Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City).

Yet, was this enough to eliminate the notion of a barbaric Taíno? Unlikely. One of his key distinctions in his pluralized concept of a barbarian was the barbarian who did not acknowledge the Christian faith. In this regard, Las Casas cited Paul in Acts 28:2. The more kinder forms of this line translate barbari to “native people”, but this does grave injustice to the line itself: the proper translation, and all it implies, is best given by

“And the barbarians showed us all no common kindness: they received us and lit a fire, because of the rain and because of the cold.”

The KJV: “And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.”

This line is indicative of the larger cultural logic in establishing that one can be kind, and good as a soul, yet it means little to the nature of the individual if one does not accept Christianity. To be a barbarian is to be, in some sense, against Christ, since the barbarian does not simply not know of Christ–they explicitly reject Christ.

Another suggestive concept of barbarian for which Las Casas argues is the conception of the barbarian without a written language. Here, Las Casas is concerned with the construction of Indigenous knowledge systems, again, as something that could use improvement. In the defenses offered by Las Casas, it is not that the Taíno are irrational–it is that they have no means of communicating that rationality to the European. The role of colonialism would be, in this sense, to connect the Indigenous experience with that of the European, by means of teaching Latin as a common language, while using its vocabulary to express the words of faith. From here, the Indigenous people might recognize the word of God–something that was suggested by a number of other friars on the ground.

While this seems like a reasonable set of propositions, I would suggest its reasonable-ness stems from its connection to our modern world. None of us can conceptualize an America without European intervention, largely because the policies of colonial rule ended up having serious historical consequences down the road. However, this takes for granted that a country like the United States must have occurred. In fact, the whole concept of Columbus representing the “opening” of the world is also suggestive of a logic in which modernity is the be-all and end-all of history. Any sort of deviation from the path of this narrative seems ludicrous by its very nature because we have no way of conceptualizing what the Maya, the Nahuatl, the Iroqouis or the Navajo would look like as fully autonomous subjects.

With this in mind, I’d like to point out that nothing of the intellectual projects of Las Casas was necessary to the development of the Indigenous populations. His interventions were only useful in regards to protecting the physical beings of land and property, but his intellectual and religious ambitions, especially in regard to language, suffered from the same sorts of blindspots that we do. And to substantiate this, I’d like to point to two sets of data of which we normally think little.

The first is the number of advancements the Maya made in regards to science and math without any intervention from the Europeans. What seems to have survived in the popular dialogue is the concept that the Maya calendar ends in 2012, thus that was when they predicted the world to end. This is ridiculous, and based on a single paper with no substantiation from 1966. Since Michael Coe, a number of ethnographers, archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists have stepped forward, pointing out that while the calendar did end, there was little to no evidence for the suggestion of an Armageddon-esque event in 2012. This was entirely fictitious, but it earned attention and cash, so who cares?

The second is the question of written systems itself. While Indigenous populations did not use the Roman alphabet, it is far from true that they could not write. The Jesuit friar, José de Acosta gives several chapters in his Historia natural y moral de las Indias to the varying writing systems found in Indigenous populations. Of particular interest is his description of the quipu, used by the intellectual elite in Peru:

“The Indians of Peru, before the Spaniards came, had no sort of writing, not letters nor characters nor ciphers nor figures, like those of China or Mexico; but inspire of this they conserved no less the memory of ancient lore, nor did they have any less account of all their affairs of peace, war, and government. And in every bundle of these, so many greater and lesser knots, and tied strings; some red, others green, others blue, others white, in short as many differences that we have in 24 letters, arranging them in different ways to draw forth an infinity of words, so too did they, with their knots and colors, draw forth innumerable meanings of things” (285-290, I’m borrowing largely from Mignolo’s translation offered in The Darker Side of the Renaissance, pages 85-86.)

As we can see here, even the oddest sort of writing systems–one in which the physicality of the text becomes as important as the visual queues themselves–still allowed for a plethora of meaning and understanding. However, studying the languages of Indigenous populations often earns derisive laughter, often from the “productive” elements of our society. Without delving too far down this road, I would suggest we are less likely to consider the power of these systems because the social value of them on a whole is far less than looking towards Mandarin, or Arabic.

I’ve not even discussed Las Casas as the progenitor of the African Slave Trade (okay, he wasn’t the progenitor, but he did offer strong, vocal support for the initial movement of slaves from Africa, and only rescinded it upon their arrival, some many years later.) I’ve not even gone into the question of how many Taíno we might expect died directly under the supervision of Las Casas while he was “struggling” with his own identity in regards to being for or against the encomienda system. What I’m pointing out is that each of these aspects, we’ve somehow managed to erase, because we buy the concept of redemption: Las Casas redeemed himself by spending forty years fighting against the violent domination of Indigenous populations after seeing the brutality of the systems.

However, even this logic has to fail when we consider the intellectual merits of Las Casas and the greater colonial project. We will get more deeply into the question of the value of modernity later, but here it is enough to assert that, at the time of colonial rule, Las Casas had no conceivable means by which to assert his civilization’s intellectual capacity over the Indigenous. That is to say, simply believing in a Christian God that would not steer Spain wrong cannot be the test of whether Las Casas had good intentions or not.

We perhaps should not judge them too harshly, as deconstruction would not come until the late twentieth century, and Las Casas did set the ground for the future of anthropology and ethnography on a whole. However, I’m not out to crucify Las Casas; I’m here to contextualize him. His commitment was not to the advancement of all groups worldwide, it was a commitment to moving forward the will of the Christian God, part of which included treating all human beings fairly. But it also implied a belief that these people might recognize Christianity in a better light, if taught to them without violence as an integral part of the conversion system. This is a similar form of cultural logic that Isabel and Ferdinand had dispatched to the very first governors of the Indies, although it was not often followed.

III. What is the big deal?

Thus far, I’ve attempted to show the problem of Las Casas not as one of physical violence, but of cultural assimilation. It’s important to remember that Las Casas, for all the Scriptural jumps he made, was never investigated by the Inquisition. This may seem hardly revelatory, but one has to remember that it didn’t take much for the Inquisition to investigate you. All it took was pissing off the wrong person, or having a neighbor who disliked your flowers. A report to the Inquisition was difficult to dissuade, and often their investigations had further implications for the individual in question. While Las Casas made plenty of political and economic enemies, he was never denounced as not following Scripture. With this in mind, we might more properly assess Las Casas as someone who was primarily concerned with the conversion process, and making sure that it was imposed in a more successful manner than the attempts of past groups.

But who cares? Why on earth does it matter that a group of people who believed woodpeckers drilled holes in their women no longer have those belief systems? If one takes Weber at his word, we might almost say it was a blessing in disguise that these Indigenous populations received the knowledge that they did.

Ultimately, these sorts of arguments tend to buy into the same investment: the one of the present day. I’ve hinted at this earlier, but I will state it more explicitly, here. I suggest that why we insist on holding onto The Good Colonist Myth is because we have to believe that a future in which the current geo-political map exists is one that was worth all the costs and struggles of the past. In this regard, we might view our commitment to the Good Colonist Myth as a way to salvage our history: if we can find one colonist who supported universal rights, or agreed with our forms of justice, then maybe we can more broadly accept the colonial framework as the only means by which progress could be made. It is a logic implicit in some of the most common arguments I hear in favor of Columbus Day. It doesn’t simply celebrate Columbus, or his accomplishments; it celebrates the ushering of modernity, and all the glorious innovations that would come with the modern age.

Unfortunately, the question of modernity cannot be one of unqualified goodness. The stratifications that have occurred while colonial rule is slowly re-coded into a language of culture, religion and politics seem to indicate that the only people who can accept modernity as an unqualified good are, frankly, the descendants of those who colonized the world. No matter how one looks at it, for example, the discrepancy between white and black Americans in health-related issues is undeniable. The continued assault on African Americans, and other dark-skinned individuals by police forces across the country send a number of individuals to an early death, or begin their process through our prison industrial complex. Even when we attempt to address how we might improve these numbers, we are first given the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, something that flies in the face of research like this: “There were elements of truth in each of these interpretations. Blacks’ educational advancements was primarily a reflection of their own efforts and their capacity to take advantage of public educational opportunities.” (La Fuente, on Cuban blacks advancing their own educational opportunities, page 149).

I’ve been using black as my primary example, but the mythology of modernity stretches to other groups. Indigenous populations in America, for example, have become targets for a number of breweries, while suicide rates for Native Americans are three times the national average. Even our perfect, “model minorities” often are replaced with white actors and playwrights, when people seek to portray them in our society. In short, modernity is not good for all, uniformly. Modernity is good for the people who have been at the helm of the control. It was the initial colonists who flattened out the experiences of Indigenous populations in America. It was colonists who destroyed lives and culture in Maní, 1562. It was colonists who suggested the solution to indigenous labor shortages was to import Africans. It was colonists who could afford continually pushing back the issue of slavery in North America, so far that they would accept slaves being three-fifths a person. It was colonists who raided and forced vaccinations of South Asians for their own good.

Of course, I wouldn’t hold that we ought to run back to Antiquity, and try things all over again. The advancements of science and medicine are good, and that overall rates of things like infant mortality are declining (even while the racial disparities still exist) is a good thing. However, being committed to advancements in science and technology, and making medicine accessible to all people without the faith-based initiatives that American foreign policy seems to take as necessary is not ideologically opposed to a serious re-evaluation of the histories we tell. It seems as though both in everyday discussions and in history, we cannot accept a narrative in which the Europeans are fully embraced for what they were: they did not create a modern state in which all things would eventually become equal. They imposed a world in their images wherever they could not find it. While we have made massive strides in identifying the paradigms that made such narratives possible, we still have huge fights over archival material that verify the atrocities of colonial regimes. We’d go so far as to outright lie to our children before exposing them to the truth of the world.

Often people ask, Well, what can we do? What can I do? One thing to do would stop the insistence on having the white savior complex as a necessary component of our lives. Do you want to learn about some badasses whose records we have? Bernardino de Sahagun, while half European, was also half indigenous, and spent all his life recording as much of Indigenous knowledge systems as he could both in Latin and Nahuatl. Read about Motecuhzuma, for how we might compare political structures, and gain a better sense of stratification of classes on a whole. Read about the struggle of La Malinche, the woman who accompanied the Spaniards, and gave birth to the first mestizo children on the continent. Each of these are people who might interest the everyday history buff, and will lead them to other narratives having nothing to do with Spanish conquest.

In short, we can understand that the exchange between Europe and America ended less than favorably for most non-European groups, in a temporal sense. When modernity starts accounting for its participation in a system set on by colonial, cultural rule, followed by the drive of capitalist expansion, then I will start taking claims about modernity as an unquestioned good a little more seriously. Until then, if you have today off, why not spend it looking away from traditional colonial paradigms? They don’t need to focus on Columbus, or his context at all! There’s a wide number of sources on slave narratives, on the Indian peasantry, on the slave fortresses off the coast of Africa, the list goes on.

If we’re serious about confronting a conversation about how colonialism plays a role in the existing world today, then we must be willing to let go of some rose-tinted images about our past. This includes one of our most dear beliefs; that history did not begin with Europe, nor will it end with Europe. From a thorough engagement with knowledge itself, we may begin the process of de-colonizing the world in which we live.


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