This month marks the 500th anniversary of the first time a church leader publicly denounced the holocaust being carried out against the Indigenous people in Santo Domingo, the island of Hispaniola, Spain’s first colony in the Americas.
By the time that leaders of the Dominican religious order in Santo Domingo chose Antón Montesino (more commonly referred to now as Antonio de Montesinos), to deliver a message to land-owners and the colonial authorities, the leaders of the Taino Indigenous nation had already been killed. Tens of thousands more died from famine and disease.
On the fourth Sunday of Advent, which in 1511 fell on Dec. 21,* Montesino spoke:
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island….
“Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations?
“Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labours, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?… Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?”
The young priest’s words created an immediate fury. In the congregation that day was Diego Colón, the island’s governor and son of Christopher Columbus. Montesino could barely complete the celebration of Mass. Later in the day, Colón led a delegation to a meeting with the Dominican superior, Pedro de Córdoba, who told him the sermon was the responsibility of the entire community.
Promises made and broken
A week later, on Dec. 28, Montesino preached again on the same themes. This time, Colón and others sent their protests to King Ferdinand V in Madrid. Over subsequent years, priests were recalled, studies were carried out, promises were made and broken—and the Taino people continued to die. Worse, the colonial enterprise, based on slavery and ruthless exploitation, expanded throughout the hemisphere. By the time Hernán Cortés headed for Mexico and new genocides in 1519, between 80 and 90 per cent of the Taino population on Hispaniola had died, and the pattern was being repeated in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Also present for Montesino’s homilies was a young priest who was also a land-owner, Bartolomé de Las Casas. As became his practice over the next 55 years, he wrote everything down.
The Montesinos sermon was a turning point for him. He came to see that Jesus Christ was being crucified again in the slaughter of the Indigenous people. He joined the Dominicans and dedicated his life to challenging the church and the Spanish empire of his day. In 1543, he was named bishop of Chiapas, but only spent about six months there before opposition from the colonial land-owners forced him to carry his struggle to defend the Indigenous people to Rome and Madrid.
Much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561.
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the first publication in Spanish of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, the book that opened the door to subsequent decades of writing theology from the context—the ways people practice their faith in their real lives.
In Bartolomé de Las Casas, Gutiérrez found a model leader and writer who bore faithful witness to the struggles of his time. Gutiérrez wrote a lively biography: Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ.
*While contemporary lectionaries present the words of St. John the Baptist on the second Sunday in Advent—Dec. 4 this year—the Dominicans used their own rite in those days. The Gospel reading that day was John 1:19b-28.
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