Light Replacing Darkness:
A Story of Spanish Colonization in the Americas
It is fashionable, even expected these days, to vilify the efforts of early explorers and conquistadors from Spain, hurling upon them defamatory accusations of “cultural genocide”, “militant fanaticism”, and “imposition of brute force”. The oligarchic tribal orders balancing atop pyramids of skulls and nourished by rivers of blood are by this paradigm viewed to be a lost Eden desecrated by the “vulgar greed of Western capitalism”. But what had truly taken place? Were the Spanish a horde of devastating oppressors or pioneers carrying with them a bright future? While revisionist theories advocate the former standpoint, genuine historical truth points to the latter. Considering that their rule replaced that of far more barbaric societies, resulted in a moral and cultural reformation among the natives, and amplified technological and economic progress, it is by far more appropriate to laud the conquistadors as dauntless liberators than as the wretched slime they do not deserve to be called.
In his day Dr. Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573) was a noted Classical scholar, lawyer, and theologian who defended the efforts of the Spanish crown and its agents in the New World against the accusations of Bartolome de las Casas within the realm of Spain itself and the smear campaign that had been launched by Spain’s political opponents in Europe. Dr. Sepulveda had taken cognizance of the fact that, for the sake of undermining the morality of the Spanish effort, the enemies of colonization (or more likely those who did not wish to compete with Spanish efforts in the New World) portrayed Native communities as idyllic, harmonious, and hospitable. However, he was able to look past this veneer and realize that dominant cultures in Mesoamerica and South America maintained a stranglehold on an oppressed populace through mass sacrifice and cannibalism. “If we are dealing with virtue, what temperance or mercy can you expect from men who are committed to all types of intemperance and base frivolity and eat human flesh?” was a question he had posed to the audiences of sixteenth-century Spain which bears ever greater relevance today as a host of scientific facts emerges to ascertain his claims. Estimates of annual induced deaths at the hands of the Aztecs alone range from 250,000 (Dr. Woodrow Borah of the University of California) to 7,300,000 (Our Lady of the Rosary Library), which implies an average daily death toll from 865 to 20,000 innocent civilians and helpless war captives with hearts torn out for the sake of an absolutely unwarranted religious superstition! And these were mere averages. Single day casualties on special occasions, such as the dedication ceremony of the Inner Pyramid of the Sun in Tenochtitlan, where 80,400 people were slaughtered, rose to even more unnerving heights. Moreover, a recent theory by American anthropologist Michael Harner suggests that the Aztecs, under religious guise, practiced systematic and widespread consumption of their own citizenry, cannibalism if you will, due to a general shortage of protein in their environment. To support his claims are numerous dismembered, mangled, and fractured skeletons discovered in Aztec graves for sacrificial victims. The conspicuous lack of heads and limbs on the remnants of these unfortunate victims suggests that they had been picked apart like chickens by a population of parasites who required the ultimate suffering on the part of their human counterparts for the sake of their sloth, not wishing to expend the mental effort and physical labor to develop an alternative and humane food source. As for the Incas, in their society sacrifice had developed a depraved psychological twist to it. Karen N. Peart, a pro-Inca author, sought to justify their despotism’s eradication of the most intelligent and physically attractive young boys and girls by stating that “in Inca culture, it was considered an honor to be chosen for sacrifice, and the victims went willingly.” So warped and backward was their so-called “culture” that the destruction of the most innocent, promising, and pleasant of its specimens was viewed as an “honor”, that death was the guiding premise instead of life and generations of unsuspecting commoners were normalized into, obeying the antithesis of morality without raising a squeak. Inducing that manner of submission requires a far more substantial degree of coercion and brutality, both chronic and flagrant, than the suppression of a revolt or the execution of a group of dissenters. Having witnessed carnage, sacrifice, and murder across-the-board, the Incas have become not merely desensitized but obsequious to it, and it was that manner of ingrained barbarism that Sepulveda condemned and that it took the Spanish to reverse.
How do those atrocities compare with the policies of the Spanish crown and its New World agents toward Native Americans? The Aztecs’ primary pool of sacrificial victims had been drawn from hundreds of subordinate Mesoamerican tribes, who, according to World Cultures, despised and feared the tyrannical empire for their systematic terror and theft of their fittest, most apt citizens to be taken to the altars. Those hundreds of tribes, including the Tlaxcalans and Tabascans, sided with Cortes and assisted him in deposing the Aztec yoke. In return Cortes, as his first edict upon entering Tenochtitlan, forbade the savage practice of human sacrifice and forever freed his allies from bondage to their vicious overlords. The Spanish sought to establish cooperative and mutually beneficial relations with the Natives through a system of encomienda, wherein any Indians dwelling on a colonist’s plot of land were granted the option of remaining there and being paid for their services with money, shelter, education, job training, health care, and defense against aggression, a package in many respects the precursor of today’s capitalistic employer-worker relationship. While it is true that particular individual settlers had abused this arrangement to impose unbearable burdens upon their laborers, the crown acted with a commendably righteous intention and diligent striving to remedy such crimes. According to historian Gregory Cerio, King Ferdinand of Spain passed the 1512 Laws of Burgos, which had ordained that Natives be treated by their contractors in a manner deserved by a human being. “No Indian shall be whipped or beaten or called ‘dog’ or any other name unless it is his proper name,” stated this legislation, echoing the philosophy of Ferdinand’s wife, Queen Isabella, who respected the Indians as free crown subjects and granted them identical political rights and obligations as were expected of the Caucasian inhabitants of the kingdom. Even the scalding criticism of colonization on the behalf of men like las Casas was a matter of serious consideration for Ferdinand’s successor, Emperor Charles V, whose government in 1542 devised the New Laws of the Indies, outlawing Native American slavery, forbidding the Natives from being laden with burdens beyond their range of comfort, further reforming the encomienda system, and dispatching Audiencias, bodies of investigation and enforcement of said laws, to the New World. As for the violators of such edicts, the Audiencias were authorized “if there had been any excesses, on the part of the [offenders], or should any be committed hereafter, to take care that such excesses are properly corrected, chastising the guilty parties with all rigor conformably to justice.” Moreover, Spain’s government maintained a thorough consideration for honest, reasonable accounts of the genuine situation in the New World in order to become assured of the implementation of its laws. According to Cerio, “From Ferdinand forward, Spanish monarchs encouraged candid reports, favorable or unfavorable, on conditions in the Americas.” This was a remarkable, if only partial, development in free speech rights two hundred years prior to the emergence of individualistic philosophical systems which secured a general transition to liberty in Western culture.
Moreover, the mutual material gains from the monumental contact between two previously disjoint continents and groups of human beings cannot be underestimated when evaluating Spanish colonization from a moral perspective. A variety of breeds of livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and swine, which formed the crux of a stable food supply in a land previously marred by protein deficiency, arrived to the Americas via Eurasia. The horse, a sturdy and reliable beast of burden and transportation, enabled for not merely a swifter communication and trade network, but shaped the lifestyle of the Plains Indians north of New Spain for the subsequent three hundred years. Wheat, barley, rice, and oats, staple foods in the European diet, were now rendered available to Native Americans as well. Citrus, peach pear, and banana fruits, as well as grapes, coffee, and sugar were introduced from Africa with which Spain and Portugal had been conducting an active trade since the days of Henry the Navigator. The warm environment of Mesoamerica and the Indies permitted these crops to thrive in voluminous quantities, generating consumer goods, profits for some of the most adventurous capitalists of the time, and a massive amount of employment opportunities for the native population. This was not a reckless act of sacrifice and self-exertion on Europe’s behalf, either. The turkey populated farms on the Eastern side of the Atlantic, and corn, potato, and tomato became household words throughout the European continent Aside from this, a delicious luxury, chocolate, was now rendered available to Westerners, along with quinine, which was later furnished into a cure for malaria and enabled the habitation and introduction of rational, civilized commerce into Africa during the second Age of Imperialism. But was this not all a product of “greedy profit-mongering exploiters” seeking to earn an extra peso on their trades? Yes, and more justifiable because of it. For it is this driving force, the motor of self-interest and self-amelioration, that enriches and enlightens all parties involved, that, in the words of Ayn Rand, is the fountainhead of human progress. Crops, goods, and livestock in both continents fueled a population explosion at the onset of the Industrial Revolution as, for the first time in human history, famines, shortages, and commercial isolation were the exception, not the rule. A larger population in turn permitted for more extensive specialization and division of labor and, henceforth, swifter developments in every possible scientific and technological aspect of the globalizing economy. This is to supplement the fact that previously illiterate cultures, such as the Incas, became endowed with a written language of their own to begin erecting a sturdy technological edifice with the assistance of the Spanish.
Granted, Spanish rule was not a utopia and particular vigilante settlers did commit intolerable crimes in the New World. Nevertheless, much of the misinformation we are exposed to in the histories of today concerning the “atrocities of Spanish colonization” had been repackaged, misconstrued, and stained by Spain’s political enemies. William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant seeking to instigate a schism with the Hapsburg empire and carve himself a piece of it under religious motives alluded to Spanish “barbarism and cruelties” as far back as 1580, politicizing history to ignite a revolution which would not have possessed the fuel to linger prior to his rantings. Theodore DeBry, a Dutch printer who had never set foot in the New World, depicted horrifying scenes of mass butchery and execution of Native Americans by the Spanish, all out of his own imagination! DeBry is used even today as a source for such modern historians as James Loewen, seeking to pollute the image of the colonization of the Americas to bring about a multiculturalist, racial appeasement interpretation of history. The English government, led by first a Protestant monarch, Henry VIII, who yearned to justify war with the Hapsburgs on the irrational grounds of religious disagreement, then by a totalitarian usurper, Lord-Protector Oliver Cromwell, eagerly embraced any defamations which would assist them in blackening the image of “the enemy”. And their motives were not any humanitarian yearning nor a principle of Just War (the Augustinian doctrine to which the Spanish had adhered in the New World). Cromwell’s own words reveal the truth of the matter. He called Spain the “enemy abroad, who is head of… that anti-Christian interest, that is so described in Scripture… and upon this account you have a quarrel with the Spaniard. And truly he hath an interest in your bowels.” Such accusations of irreconcilable antagonism were leveled at the Spanish for what reason? Why, none other that they in their majority followed a divergent scheme of religious worship than the Protestants! And today, in an era of religious freedom and toleration, the majority of us nevertheless succumb to la leyenda negra, the pre-Enlightenment propaganda employed by the sixteenth and seventeenth-century counterparts of militant jihad.
Western culture itself during the sixteenth century had not possessed a majority of the splendid technological and philosophical discoveries that have distinguished it from stagnating societies throughout history. Nevertheless, colonization, a moral reformation for the Natives, and the expansion of global commerce and progress, was pivotal in contributing to such a dramatic surge in prosperity, innovation, resource management, and ethical understanding which resulted in the Enlightenment and the Gilded Age, two eras during which the advance of mankind had outpaced all the other time periods combined. The Spanish, as the forerunners or such a transition, should be admired and praised, not vilified, for their pioneering accomplishments.
Ahmad, Brodsky, et al. World Cultures: A Global Mosaic. Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1996. pp. 443-459.
Cerio, Gregory. “Were the Spaniards That Cruel?” Newsweek Magazine.
Loewen, James. The Truth about Columbus. New York: The New Press, 1992. “1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus.”
Meyer, Alfred. Science. November 1980. “Temple of the Aztecs.”
Modern History Sourcebook. “The New Laws of the Indies, 1542.” Available October 27, 2002: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1542newlawsindies.html.
Our Lady of the Rosary Library. “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Available October 27, 2002: http://olrl.org/prophecy/ladyofg.html.
Peart, Karen N. “Empire of the Sun.”
Sepulveda, Juan Gines de. “Democrates II, or Concerning the Just Causes of the War Against the Indians.”
Williams, Scott. 2002. “The Columbian Exchange.”
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist,
poet, contributor to Enter Stage Right Internet Magazine, and Editor-in-Chief
of The Rational Argumentator, a publication championing the Western principles
of reason, rights, and progress, to be found at http://www.geocities.com/rationalargumentator/index.html.
He is also a writer for Objective Medicine, a philosophical forum for advocating
the right of physicians to freely practice their trade, at http://www.objectivemedicine.org.