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Dilek Kantar (Mersin University, Turkey)

Biblical Roots of the Discourse of Mass Destruction in Las Casas' Devastation of the Indies


            Bartholomé de Las Casas started out as an eighteen-year old soldier in a voyage to the New World in Nicolás de Ovando’s fleet in 1502, and he ended up as the first priest to be ordained there ten years later. After receiving the official title “Defender and Apostle to the Indians” because of his role in voicing the “Indian cause” in the Spanish court, he wrote a book called A Short Account of the Devastation of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias) in 1542, recounting what he claimed to be his first hand experiences of the massacre of the Indians in the New World. In 1543, he read his account aloud at a forum on Spanish colonization in Barcelona called by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  His book was immediately translated into every major European language, and “for three hundred years established the image of the Spanish conquest of America in the eyes of Europe[1]

            Although the Devastation of the Indies is widely used as a primary resource for many classes in History, English and Latin American Studies departments in American universities, there are very few academic studies on it. Because of its undeniable role in shaping early colonial consciousness, The Devastation of the Indies deserves more of scholarly attention today. This study is an attempt to bridge this important gap through a rhetorical analysis of the parallels between the discourse of mass destruction in the Devastation and Biblical apocalyptic discourse with special emphasis on the book of Ezekiel. It draws its method from New Historicism, whose aim, according to Stephen Greenblatt, is “to put cultural objects in some interesting relationship to social and historical processes.”

New historicism depends upon the uncomfortable, and what I hope is at the same time fascinating ability to see the object coming out and going in, to see it differentiated and also in powerful league with the world from which it has come[2]

The “historical” discourse of Las Casas in The Devastation is in powerful league with Biblical apocalyptic discourse, partly because interpreting colonial experience in Biblical terms was a common practice for early and late settlers in the New World. Las Casas’ presentation of the practices of the Spanish settlers in the New World in the manner of Biblical apocalyptic discourse in The Devastation could enter into an easy dialogue with a long standing Judeo-Christian tendency to read Biblical discourse as encoded historiography with a power of prophecy. According to Houtepen[3], apocalyptic visions fueled the missionary pursuits to the far regions of the world “in order to ‘reach the unreached’ and convert them to the Gospel ‘before the second coming of Christ’, or to hasten the day of the final reign of God,” and even Columbus’ sailing to ‘India’ was legitimated by theologians on the basis of arguments drawn from the Bible. For the Puritans as well, America was the “Promised Land,” the “New Jerusalem,” and they thought of their settlement there as the refulfillment of the Scripture”[4]

            Through Foucault’s[5] theory on the role of discourse in the legitimization of power, my study explains certain aspects of the complex relationship between religious and political motives behind Las Casas’ “true account” of the conquest, and of the reasons why it served as a propaganda pamphlet at the time. 

            My study will also analyze the following aspects of apocalyptic rhetoric in the Devastation:

a) exclusive claim to transcendent truth b) reveiling what is revealed c) textual panopticism d) dualistic definition of the good and the evil. Finally, I will present common methods of apocalyptic violence that we find both in the Devastation and in the Bible, which include pestilence, indiscriminate killing, blood & fire, enslavement, cannibalism, extracting gold, and the last but not the least, depopulation.

[1] Pagden, Anthony. Introduction. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. By Bartolomé de Las Casas. Ed and Trans. N. Griffin. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. xiv-xli.

[2] Greenblatt, Stephen J. “Steven Greenblatt: The Wicked Son.” Interview with Harvey Blume.” Bookwire Review Page. 14.5.2003

[3] Houtepen, Anton. “Apocalyptics and the Kingdom of God: Christian Eschatology and the ‘pursuit of the millenium.’” Exchange 28.4 (1999): 290-311.

[4] Csábi, Szilvia. “The Concept of America in the Puritan Mind.” Language and Literature 10.3 (2001): 195-209.

[5] Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Brighton, Susse: Harvester Press, 1980.