Slavery, Colonialism, and the Catholic Church Slavery in the New World and the Spanish and Portuguese Catholic priesthood are directly tied correlated in the history of Latin America. The enslavement and atrocious treatment of the Indigenous peoples and Africans by the Spanish and Portuguese nobility were both similar and different. By examining “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” by social reformer and Dominican friar, Bartolome de Las Casas, and excerpts from Robert Conrad’s “Children of God,” we are able to look into the treatment and “black legend” descriptions of the enslaved peoples by the Iberian colonists.
The Spanish treated their captives brutally, regardless of the slaves’ origin. In contrast, the difference between the enslaved Africans and the enslaved Native Americans is that the Natives had people in the priesthood advocating for them, while the Africans did not. The Natives had men like De Las Casas on their side who, from the beginning, pushed for their rights as conquered people. Catholic priests saw the treatment of the Natives to be “worst than [of] animals” by conquistadors who had an “insatiable greed and overweening ambition that knew no bounds” (De Las Casas 13).
The “unassuming, long suffering, unassertive, submissive” peoples were forced to work in the most gruesome conditions and “enslaved or foully murdered” (De Las Casas 6, 29). Casas felt the need to write the truth about what was happening during these “atrocities, which go by the name of conquests” because, as a good Christian man, he tried to save as many innocent souls as he could (De Las Casas 6). The Spanish, who “had become so anaesthetized to human suffering by their own greed and ambition that they had ceased to be men in any meaningful sense of the term,” ironically used
Christianity as justification for murder (De Las Casas 3). While the conquistadors were supposed to be spreading Christianity by converting the conquered peoples, they were actually “of themselves iniquitous, tyrannical, wicked, and were all condemned and proscribed by all such legal codes” (De Las Casas 6). Along with any indigenous people, the captured Taino leader Hatuey, “chose to go to hell to ensure that he would never again have to clap eyes on those cruel brutes” (De Las Casas 28).
Despite the great importance of sugar to the history of colonial Brazil, few accounts of slave conditions on colonial sugar plantations existed. Although murder, rape, and terrible working conditions all were normal for the two different enslaved peoples, there were not many accounts of nobles arguing on behalf of the African slaves. The varied excerpts from the “Children of God” readings have a contrasting tone compared to De Las Casas. Priests also wrote these passages but, unlike De Las Casas who argued for the humanity of the natives, this author seemed less concerned about it.
The narrator starts off the document with a “businesslike advice” tone on the slave’s “alleged attributes, weaknesses, qualifications for plantation occupations, and practical advice on master-slave relationships” that revealed the information about how Brazil was indeed a “hell for blacks” (Conrad 55, 54). This text is equivalent to a manual of rules on how to make a slave work hard to the best extent possible and how to treat them with “special care” (Conrad 58).
It is “customary” to provide slaves with the “three p’s that is: plio, pao, and pano [bread, a stick, and a piece of cloth)” so they do not act out (Conrad 58). The slave owners essentially say that they can beat slaves as long as they give them clothing. In the eyes of the slave owners, there was at least spiritual salvation for the slaves. In this “series of suggestions to sugar planters on the management of their workers. ” slaves would have “Sunday’s and Saint’s D free, hear mass, know Christian Doctrine, and confess annually” (Conrad 55, 77).
The reason the colonists taught them Christianity was to teach them obedience so they would not question their owners. A difference between Indigenous slavery and African slavery is that indigenous peoples faced constant pressure to assimilate into Spanish society at an inferior level. The Spanish had two goals in mind during Indian assimilation. On one side, they had secular conquistadors who wanted the Indians to work to death and, on the other, they had priests working to convert the Indians.
This even extended to the prisoners set for execution, such as Hatuey who “was tied to the stake, [when] a Franciscan friar who was present, a saintlyman, told him as much as he could in the short time permitted by his executioners about the Lord and about our Christian faith, all of which was new to him” (De Las Casas 28). Spanish colonists installed haciendas, which were ranches and plantations that were used for forced labor. The Spanish also built missions that were utilized to protect Indians from colonists and learn Christianity in a spiritual place.
Missions expanded the Spanish frontier and penetrated into Indian Territory. These establishments were the heart of the benevolent paternalism, which taught Indians to throw their culture away and be more like the colonists. From the Spanish perspective, society began to run more efficiently. There was no established system like this for the African slaves to assimilate, who instead were transported across the ocean and taken to places like the sugar plantations. There were different cultural perceptions of Africans compared to the Native Americans in the now Catholic Spanish territory.
Christian priests had contradicting views about African slaves. De Las Casas and other priests saw the Native Americans as “so gentle, so peace-loving, so humble, so docile” (De Las Casas 6). On the other hand, priests described the African slaves in the same way they would describe livestock. In “Practical Advice on the Management of Plantation Slaves,” a priest suggests slaves should be fed three times a day so “the digestive functions will be regularly established, and the slave will become more apable, more satisfied, and healthier, rather than weaker because of the lack of necessary food” (Conrad 79).
The Europeans viewed the African slaves as under or undeveloped humans and property. Colonists coined the term “mulattoes” for mixed race slaves. The Spanish established a hierarchy and had different names for various skin shades. Race and class seemed to be a lot more complex than the conquered Indians. While Natives also were brutally mistreated, African slaves had explicit guides for corporal punishment, including lashes for misbehavior.
Regular punishment was brutal although owners claimed they could not be too lenient or too harsh in order to control their slaves (Conrad 79). The colonists simply saw African slaves as property and did not see the need to assimilate them into their culture. The Spanish and the Portuguese also used different methods to maintain slavery. The Mita System and the Triangular Trade implemented slavery for the Native Americans and African slaves respectively.
A form of required or forced labor was part of the indigenous cultures far before the Spanish arrived. The Incas originally had a certain number of days one had to work for the empire. The Spaniards took it over and exploited it making the Natives work overtime and eventually all the time. This concept led to the Encomienda System. This establishment was part of the Spaniard dual mission to take control of Indians by force and instruct harsh labor and Christian teachings. Catholicism would justify any mistreatment the colonists would inflict.
On the other hand, African slaves were brought over to the Americas by force to work the sugar plantations during the Triangular Trade. African slaves were ripped from their cultures and homes, without the use of existing culture to enslave them. While the two systems had many similarities, another difference between the Native and African slaves was that African slaves were owned fully by their owners, while Natives were partially owned. There was a division with the church about what to do with slavery with two very different trains of thought.
There were priests like De Las Casas who were concerned with justice, humanity and brutality, and were in the New World to convert and save. While another part of the church focused strictly only money, business, and social order. This conflict among the opposing sides of the church ultimately set the stage for the Protestant Reformation and led to the split of the Catholic Empire. This conflict and split, however, did little comfort to the Native slaves and African slaves who both were exploited and destroyed by ruthless Christian conquest in the New World.