Not greed?


Have you heard of the Dominican prelate Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566)? Almost any book about Latin American history will respectfully mention him, usually, however, without quoting him – more’s the pity.

He was an eyewitness in Latin America during the early decades of the colonisation, and he addressed an account of his observations to King Filip II. It was subsequently published in 1552 as Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies) and subsequently banned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1659. (However it had been translated by Spain’s enemies, and appeared in Dutch, English, French and even German. It is on the public Domain. I would NOT recommend the 1689 English translation found on Gutenberg.org: apart from being practically incomprehensible, it is full of ghastly errors.

So allow me to provide my own translation of some titbits nipped from three paragraphs of the introduction:

From 2nd paragraph:

God made all the peoples of this part of the world, many and varied as they are, open and innocent, without malice or guile. …They are the most modest, patient, peaceful and calm people imaginable, engaging in no feuds, making no trouble, picking no fights; they know no rancour, hate or vindictiveness. … They are, moreover, extremely poor, with but few possessions – nor do they desire worldly possessions – hence unpretentious, without ambition or greed. Their meals are such that even the Holy fathers in the desert could surely not have been more frugal.

From 3rd:

Upon these gentle lambs of said God-given qualities, the Spanish fell like ravenous wolves, tigers and lions of extreme cruelty, as though they had not eaten for days. And all they have done in these parts since, for forty years – and they are still at it – is to tear them to pieces, killing them, terrorising, torturing and destroying them in all manner of strange and varied and unheard of ways that have never before been even read about.

From 7th and last:

The reason why the Christians have killed or destroyed innumerable souls, is that they wished to satisfy their lust for gold, to inflate themselves with wealth in the course of just a few days, and to attain lofty positions regardless of their person. Let it be known that the insatiable greed and ambition that has driven them has been as great as could possibly be imagined in this world, since these lands are so lovely and so rich, and these peoples so modest and patient, so easily subjugated; yet have been shown no more respect, no more due (and I speak truthfully, because I know all that I have seen for all this time) than – not animals, for by God, had they been animals they would not have been so treated – but as dung on the ground.

Hot stuff, right?

So what is my point here?

  1. That Spaniards are the Devil incarnate?
  2. That Dominican prelates are “good”?
  3. That indigenous people from Latin America are genetically better than Europeans?

1) My aim here is certainly not to crucify Spain. On the contrary: I have been given to understand that British, French, Dutch and German colonial powers have left a trail of stories as horrifying as those hinted at above, and very much more recently!

2) As for the Dominican order, I believe it has almost as many sins on its collective conscience as do the colonial powers.

3) The book Potosí that I commented on a few posts back, describes among other things how Quechua and Aymara miners, who have been abused and brutalised for centuries, men who rarely survive to the age of 45, beat and rape their own womenfolk etc. These miners are the offspring of the beautiful mild-mannered people so deeply admired by Bartolomé de las Casas.

As for brutalisation, allow me a few words about the identity of the actual men whose actions the prelate condemns: They were not people like you and me. Many of them were prisoners whose sentences had been commuted to that of “galeotes” (galley slaves). From 1530 on, criminals could be, and were more often than not, directly sentenced to the galleys rather than to prisons, as the traffic on distant Latin America required many hands, and as so many of the crew died on the way. The first ships that set out for Latin America were at any rate manned by the most desperate, brutalised men in the land. Contrary to what some people still appear to believe, life as a galley slave will not make a decent man of you.

Bartolomé de las Casas also wrote a no less remarkable book: The Apologetic Summary History of the People of These Indies, (partially included in vol.V (1876) of his Historia de las Indias on Gutenbeerg.org). It is “apologetic” in the sense that it is a defence of the peoples and cultures that the author visited on his travels. It serves, moreover, as a very early example of what we, today, would call ethnographic studies.

I have declared and demonstrated openly and concluded, … that all people of these our Indies are human, so far as is possible by the natural and human way – and without the light of faith – had their republics, places, towns, and cities most abundant and well provided for, and did not lack anything to live politically and socially, and attain and enjoy civil happiness…. And they equalled many nations of this world that are renowned and considered civilized, and they surpassed many others, and to none were they inferior. Among those they equalled were the Greeks and the Romans, and they surpassed them by many good and better customs. They surpassed also the English and the French and some of the people of our own Spain; and they were incomparably superior to countless others, in having good customs and lacking many evil ones. (Source).

A remarkable man, that. One who despite being a Catholic priest could admire people “without the light of faith”, could study their customs for decades, and have the courage to defend them in writing – five hundred years ago. Yet, what fascinates me more, even, than the man who dared admire “heathens” (who were, moreover, mostly naked, although they covered their “private parts”) is something else:

Those heathens were not greedy.
I repeat: They were NOT greedy.

My question to myself, to you, is therefore:

Are humans inherently greedy or is greed a social construct? As Ghandi allegedly said: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

So, if greed is a social construct, what are the implications for us, today and for the future?


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