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The Influence of Religion in Latin American History (March 2017): Early Explorers and Conquest

By Joan E. Meznar

Early Explorers and Conquest

The first Europeans to arrive in the Americas were themselves acutely aware of the religious nature of their experiences. All expeditions brought priests who presided over Christian rites and worked to convert those not yet baptized into their faith. Among the most popular and widely read of these early accounts is Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain. Diaz participated in several expeditions sent from Cuba to explore Central America’s mainland, and was thus one of the more experienced soldiers accompanying Hernán Cortés in the march on Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Empire. Diaz’s vivid account shows how European soldiers believed they were on a mission from the true God, who led them in battle against their enemies. Many Spaniards saw the events in America as an extension of their struggle against Muslims in North Africa and in the Middle East. R. C. Padden relies heavily on Diaz in The Hummingbird and the Hawk, a retelling of the conquest in which Moctezuma and Cortés are pitted in a spiritual battle for supremacy in the region. 

Far more literate than the conquistadors were the priests who accompanied them. Scholars have relied on their writings to better understand both the mindset of the Europeans and their impressions of the people they encountered in the Americas. The classic account of the role of religion in the conquest of Mexico, Robert Ricard’s The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain, 1523–1572, was first published in French in 1933. Moving away from the traditional emphasis on military conquest, Ricard turned to the importance of Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians in bringing Indians into the Christian faith and thereby into the Spanish political sphere. In the early days of contact, before the Council of Trent formulated a Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, friars looked for connections between Native spirituality and Christianity. In The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World: A Study of the Writings of Gerónimo de Mendieta (1525–1604), John Leddy Phelan discusses the work of one of the early Franciscans ministering in New Spain. Reflecting the medieval expectations of many Franciscans that the millennium (the period when Christ himself would rule on Earth) was imminent, Mendieta believed that he and his fellow missionaries had been given a unique opportunity to usher in that earthly paradise in New Spain. To his dismay, however, his perceived golden age of the Native church ended abruptly when the more stringent policies emanating from the Council of Trent set strict limits on accommodating Native spiritual practices, leading to harsher treatment of Amerindians who were already succumbing to overwork and epidemic disease. Rather than peace and abundance, Mendieta witnessed increased conflict and poverty for the Indigenous inhabitants of New Spain. Ultimately Mendieta’s writings provide a political lament against the Spanish government in America at the end of the sixteenth century.

From the very first encounters, the pecuniary interests of the conquistadors differed in crucial ways from the spiritual mission of the clergy. No one spoke out more strongly against the abuses of the conquest than did Father Bartolomé de las Casas, whose A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, with its wrenching descriptions of the atrocities Europeans perpetrated against the Native peoples, was quickly translated and circulated throughout Europe. It provided the evidentiary basis for the Black Legend, the enduring indictment by northern Europeans of Catholics who, they claimed, behaved far more viciously against the Indigenous peoples of the New World than did Protestants. Yet there are no examples of Protestant ministers who so vehemently decried abuses on the part of European settlers against the Indians or sided as fully with the oppressed as did Las Casas in his In Defense of the Indians. He also debated Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, the Spanish humanist, on whether or not Indians should be considered natural slaves. Lewis Hanke carefully analyzes this debate in All Mankind Is One: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Religious and Intellectual Capacity of the American Indians. In his prize-winning Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America, Hanke debunked the Black Legend, demonstrating that in Spain there was a great deal of concern over assuring just rule of the newly conquered peoples. Las Casas’s unwavering insistence that the Spanish king had a God-given responsibility to rule his new subjects justly resulted in new laws meant to temper European greed and violence. Writing in the 1940s, when international human rights were debated and passed, Hanke’s portrayal of Las Casas helped to enshrine the Dominican friar as a model for humane treatment of the “other.” More recently, Daniel Castro challenged that praise by arguing in Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé de las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism that although Las Casas may have helped to reduce some of the worst violence against the Indians, the ultimate goal of the clergy, including Las Casas, was also to dominate the natives. The struggle for justice, to Castro, was little more than a different side of the imperial coin; both lay and religious authorities sought above all to expand the Spanish Christian empire.

Building on earlier work that analyzed the writings of missionaries, more recent monographs expand research into archival sources in order to render the complexity of the encounter between European and Indian faiths and cultures. Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517–1570 tells the story of Diego de Landa, a Franciscan missionary working at the fringes of New Spain, far from the center of government, who began his tenure in the Yucatan as a beloved protector of the natives before transforming into a violent inquisitor when he became convinced his Maya converts were actually mocking Christianity as they secretly incorporated some of its rites into their own pagan practices. Weaving together the various ambitions and illusions of Europeans who could not fully understand the cultures of the people among whom they lived, Clendinnen points to the endurance of Maya religious traditions, which included the  adoption of new practices in order to “remain the same.” The violence perpetrated against the Indigenous people of Yucatan under Diego de Landa played a role in the decision of the Spanish crown to remove Indians from the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.

Works Cited