One Eventful Sunday
On December 21, 1511, on the island of Española (today divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti) an extraordinary event took place. A small group of Dominican missionaries were about to change history by means of a homily. During Mass on that particular Sunday, Friar Antonio de Montesinos,made a statement on behalf of the whole Dominican community to the Spanish authorities of the New World. He declared that the indigenous people were true human beings, that they had “rational souls,” and that the Spaniards were obliged to love them as they loved their equals. This key moment has been regarded by many as the birth of today’s struggle for human rights.
Friar Antonio and his three companions had arrived barely one year before. They had been horrified at the way their fellow-Spaniards were treating the indigenous people. Pope Alexander VI had given over the whole of Latin America to the Spaniards on condition that they would evangelize those peoples. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had threatened to punish those who did not “treat these people well and in a loving manner.” Royal mandates were one thing, but what happened on the ground on the other side of the known world, was something very different.
The astonished congregation on that Sunday morning could not believe what they were hearing. “How can you dare treat these unfortunate people so badly?” asked Friar Antonio. “How can you so oppress and overwork them without giving them sufficient food, or curing their ills, so that you are in fact killing them for the sake of gold every day? Have they not got souls? Are you not bound to love them as much as yourselves?” The authorities could hardly wait for Mass to finish. The Royal officials immediately visited the Governor and then went to the Dominican house to apprehend the preacher and demand that he be punished “as a scandal, a preacher of an unheard of doctrine.”
Then the Superior, Friar Pedro de Cordoba, revealed that the homily had been prepared by the whole community, and that the homily was more than merited because Spaniards were treating the Indians “as if they were the beasts of the field.” The authorities replied with a threat: either the friar would recant all that he had said on the following Sunday, or else the whole Dominican community could pack its bags. One week later Friar Antonio again climbed the pulpit, but far from retracting anything he had said, he declared that the Dominicans would not absolve anyone who continued to treat the Indians in such a tyrannical manner. They were free to write to whomsoever they wished in Spain to complain. As he finished his homily, the whole congregation turned against the friars.
Why Such a Strong Reaction?
Why did Friar Antonio’s homily cause such a reaction? Despite Pope Paul III’s Bull Sublime Deus, which had clearly declared the indigenous peoples of the New World fully human beings with all the rights of Christians, the conquerors had argued for a “just war” against the Indians on the grounds that they were clearly inferior. They argued that because the Indians practiced polygamy, idolatry, or “other sins against nature” that they had lost the right to liberty, to hold property, to embrace Christianity, etc. People were still following Aristotle’s opinion that slavery was “the natural condition of some human beings.”
As for the Dominicans of Española, how did their story end? The authorities denounced them to King Ferdinand who told their Provincial in Spain to order the friars to be silent. Three letters were sent ordering them to stop preaching such a doctrine or else return to Spain. Antonio de Montesinos and his superior Pedro de Cordoba returned to Spain to make their case before the King. They had some success because by 1512, 35 laws and ordinances were issued concerning the indigenous: they were free in principle, had the right to own houses and lands, had the right to just remuneration for their labor, and the right to rest for forty days after every five months of work. The Dominicans were not satisfied with these measures. Friar Pedro died of tuberculosis in Santo Domingo in 1521. Friar Antonio, died at the age of 55, in 1540, after evangelizing Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
One Happy Result
One Spaniard converted by the famous sermon was Bartolomé de las Casas, who freed his slaves, shared his lands among them, and became a Dominican. Later as Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, he became the most famous defendant of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. It was extremely difficult to change the mode of action of the Spaniards in the New World, particularly when changing their attitudes to the indigenous involved loss of profits. Proof of this is that almost 40 years later, in 1550, las Casas was still fighting the same battles back in Spain in a series of celebrated debates with Juan Ginés de Sepulveda. And almost five hundred years later, another prophetic Spaniard, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Dom Samuel Ruiz (1924-2011), was still fighting for justice for the indigenous peoples.