- Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé de las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism
In 1953, while still a student, Enrique Otte was given the following advice by his mentor, the economic historian Ramón Carande: “Always bear in mind that research brings surprises and, even when one does not find what one is searching for, one can discover matters that may lead to future endeavor; and it should not bother you that these matters may be far from what you wish.” Such advice was uncommon at the time, especially in the analysis of colonial Spanish America, a field dominated by the study of institutions, laws, royal authority, and administrative bodies, and by the belief in their hegemony, that is, the effective and monolithic control of the Spanish crown as an imperial power. Otte would win distinction as a scholar of early America, and many others have profited from Carande’s counsel due to its publication by Otte (“El archivo: confesiones de un autodidacta,” Archivo Hispalense 68, nos. 207–08 : 169). There is, indeed, value for all of us, whether historians or literary critics, in the instruction to be independent and adaptable, yet rigorous, and, above all, scrupulous and open-minded in the face of evidence that contradicts our own ideas and sympathies.
Regrettably, Daniel Castro spurns this advice in Another Face of Empire— a reassessment of the life, work, aspirations, and legacy of Bartolomé de las Casas (1484?–1566)—and the result is deficient on several accounts. In its zeal to maintain that “the difference between Las Casas and his compatriots was one of form and not of essence,” for which, Castro insists, [End Page 497] “we must see the Dominican friar as the incarnation of a more benevolent, paternalistic form of ecclesiastical, political, cultural, and economic imperialism” (8), this study ignores, or chooses to ignore, recent scholarship on Las Casas, missionary culture, governance by Spaniards and natives at the macro and micro levels, and, equally important, the resilience and agency in colonial Spanish America of indigenous peoples, many of whom had experience, before the arrival of Europeans, not only with the ills of empire (conquest, enslavement, denigration, forced labor, tribute, and taxes) but with the imposition of other religions, as works such as the Codex Mendoza make clear. Instead, this study summarily asserts that “the absence of external sources of information presents some insurmountable difficulties in reevaluating the legacy of the reformer” (5) and that “the coming of the Spaniards signified the loss of freedom and traditional cultural identities . . . ; it created a state of collective depression from which the natives never recovered” (52). Contending that “the main source of information about Las Casas is the subject himself ” (5), Castro disregards change over time, treating the first seven decades of Spanish rule, until Las Casas’s death in 1566, as a monolithic whole, while often misconstruing his words and those of his contemporaries. It mines its sources for statements that agree with its thesis (or appear to agree, since some statements are taken out of context), while ignoring those that do not. Worse yet, it dismisses others by vilifying their authors.
This is a slim book, with 185 pages of text given to the reiteration of examples and a very few arguments. The introduction (1–15) is cobbled together from quotations and claims presented in the same order on later pages, while the final two chapters (135–76) on Las Casas’s “followers and disciples” (who should more properly be called fellow reformers), critics, and legacy mainly summarize what came before. For those familiar with Las Casas’s life and writings, there is little new here because Castro relies exclusively on published sources and, indeed, for information on Las Casas’s activities and impact, on a handful of well-known studies and biographies published between 1949 and 1992. This end date is unfortunate, given the wealth of material that has come to light during and after the Columbus quincentenary; yet it is not surprising in a book based...