Powell on Las Casas

Las Casas in print was, of course, even more formidable than before, as he undoubtedly intended. From all sides, and especially from America, came bitter blasts to contradict him. His Brief Relation was quickly castigated as a tissue of distortions, exaggerations, overgeneralization, and outright error. In it he reiterated, ad nauseam, the story of villainous, completely depraved, Spanish conquerors versus the "noble savage", making all Spaniards inhumanly cruel and greedy for gold and all Indians peaceful and innocent. Out of this shameful potpourri came the outrageous figure of some twenty million Indians killed by the Spaniards during the conquest - a statistic that remains popularly believed to this day. With his pen, Las Casas destroyed more Indians than all his countrymen could possible have killed. Professor John Tate Lanning puts it this way: "If each Spaniard listed in Bermúdez Plata's Passengers to the Indies for the whole half-century after the discovery had killed an Indian every day and three on Sunday, it would have taken a generation to do the job attributed to him by his compatriots."

Las Casas did not allow for diminution of Indian numbers by disease, epidemics, warfare in which Indians willingly participated as Spanish allies in order to massacre traditional enemies, or the obvious lessening of Indian numbers through miscegenation. Las Casas accused the Spaniards of killing more than three million on the island of Española alone, as area that probably could not have supported, with pre-Columbian agriculture, small trade, and small villages, any approximation of that number. And Las Casas' obviously exaggerated figures are repeated uncritically even in our own century by writers who should know better. In short, Las Casas simply did not let the truth or historical sense interfere with his horrifyingly exciting story; and he threw in just enough circumstantial material to give his work a ring of authenticity. (p. 34)


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