Narratio Regionum Indicarum … (A Very True Account of the Destruction of the Indies by the Spanish)
When Columbus first landed in Hispaniola in 1492, Bartolomé de las Casas estimated that the island’s population was three to four million, ruled by chiefs and supported by highly productive agriculture; by 1516 only twelve thousand remained, thanks to the 'encomienda' system of semi-slavery introduced by Columbus, and infectious diseases also brought by Europeans.Full description »
When Columbus first landed in Hispaniola in 1492, Bartolomé de las Casas estimated that the island’s population was three to four million, ruled by chiefs and supported by highly productive agriculture; by 1516 only twelve thousand remained, thanks to the 'encomienda' system of semi-slavery introduced by Columbus, and infectious diseases also brought by Europeans. These dire casualties slowly dawned on de las Casas, who had first travelled to the Indies at the age of eighteen to manage land and Indians granted to his father by Columbus. At first keen to make his fortune, de las Casas became increasingly troubled by the fate of the Indians. He accompanied Columbus’s older brother to Rome to inform Pope Julius II of the opportunities in the New World for spreading the faith; there he became a priest, after which he returned to Cuba to run various agricultural and stock-raising enterprises. Having renounced his properties, he was back in Spain by 1516 and eager to inform King Ferdinand of the exploitation of the Indians. He had better luck with Ferdinand’s grandson, Charles I (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), who was concerned with curbing the increasing power of the conquistadors.
Throughout the ensuing years, de las Casas with his supporters promoted the right of the Indians to retain their land and to self-government. Becoming known by the title ‘Protector of the Indians’, he argued that the Indians had their own comprehensive (and commendable) society and made a comparative study of civilizations worldwide. His famous book recounting the mistreatment of the native peoples of the Americas was first published in Spanish - 'Brevissima relación de la destruición de las Indias' (Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies) – in 1552 and took its title from the first of its nine parts. It was dedicated to Charles’s son, Philip II, in the hope of his support; in need of money, however, this king ironically increased the burden of tribute paid to the Crown by the indigenous population. Although increasingly disillusioned, de las Casas continued to support the cause of the Indians and was fearful of ‘God’s force and wrath’, which might be vented on Spain for the sins of the colonists.
By 1626 the 'Brevissima relación' had been translated into six other European languages. It was seized upon by northern, mainly Protestant countries as propaganda against the Spanish and gave rise to the ‘black legend’ of Spanish atrocities. The edition in the American Museum collection is the first to have illustrations. Apart from the title-page, which depicts a chieftain being captured and his vassals bringing tribute, most of the illustrations are of the most lurid kind. The publishers, Jean Theodor and Jean Israel De Bry, nevertheless disavowed any intention to defame the whole Spanish nation and declared that, without supervision, any of us ‘would doubtless be equal to the Spaniards in savagery, cruelty, and inhumanity’.