By Mark R. Day
Special to La Prensa San Diego
When Pope Benedict XV recently told Brazilians that early missionaries in Latin America neither forced the Gospel on native cultures nor “imposed a foreign culture on them,” his remarks provoked a storm of criticism from indigenous leaders and the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela. Three weeks later the pope backtracked and admitted that indigenous human rights were violated. But the damage was done.
The historical record is clear. From the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean to the founding of the California missions, the missionaries were proverbially joined at the hip to sword-wielding, greedy conquistadores. With few exceptions, the natives never really had a choice to accept or reject the Christian message.
The most notable testimony about the shattering of native cultures is found in the writings of the saintly Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566), a strident advocate of indigenous rights. In his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, he vividly described the atrocities of the conquistadores and denounced the enslavement of Indians throughout Latin America.
And this month, Simon and Schuster is launching The Last Days of the Incas, a fascinating new book by Kim Macquarrie on the brutal conquest of Peru led by Francisco and Hernando Pizarro. Macquarrie, a native of Southern California, describes in detail the savagery and plunder employed by the Spaniards to subdue the Incas, all in the name of God and the King of Spain.
In this well researched and readable work, MacQuarrie explains how the Spaniards’ primary contact with the bewildered natives began with a reading of the requerimiento in Spanish, a language they did not understand. This document was a kind of ultimatum that God had created the world and had granted the pope and the Spanish monarchs jurisdiction over all lands in western South America. If the natives refused Spanish rule they were defying God’s will, and all necessary violence could be used against them.
A dramatic example of this occurred in 1532 at the village of Cajamarca, high in the Peruvian Andes. The occasion was the encounter between the Dominican friar Vicente Valverde and the 32-year-old Inca emperor Atahualpa.
When Valverde read the requerimiento and handed Atahualpa his prayer book, the Inca leader, who had never previously seen a book, threw it aside and denounced the brutality and plunder of the Spanish conquerors.
At this point, Fray Valverde urged Francisco Pizarro to attack Atahualpa and his followers. A fierce battle ensued, and the Spaniards, though vastly outnumbered, used cannon, steel swords and muskets to defeat the Inca warriors.
Pizarro later reneged on his promise to release the imprisoned emperor, though he literally filled a room with gold brought from Cuzco at the request of the Spaniards. When the decision was made to execute Atahualpa, Fray Valverde offered to baptize him. Shortly afterwards, a rope was placed around the emperor’s neck and he was strangled to death.
MacQuarrie goes on to trace the footsteps of the Pizarro brothers and their allies as they pursued the Incas to their last defenses in the Peruvian jungle. Later he picks up the trails of modern explorers such as Hiram Bingham, who discovered the ruins of Machu Pichu, and the eccentric Gene Savoy who found the lost Incan city of Vilcabamba.
Several scholarly works have previously dealt with the conquest of Peru. But MacQuarrie pulls together the material into a smooth narrative and brings us up to date with recent more archeological discoveries. Anyone planning a trip to Peru should read this compelling and readable book.
In Peru, and elsewhere, the indigenous death toll by genocidal massacres was later augmented by deadly diseases introduced by Spanish colonists. Much closer to home in California, it is estimated that nearly 100,000 Indians, or one third of the indigenous population, died as a result of the mission system between 1769 and 1836. The worst outbreak was a measles epidemic in 1806 that killed thousands of Indians from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
Today’s school children learn about California’s 21 missions as a proud part of the state’s heritage, but in f act these enclaves were slave plantations where forced Indian labor benefited the colonizers. True, European forms agriculture and cattle raising were introduced, but at the expense of native plants and hunting grounds.
In the face of this misery and suffering, several Indian revolts took place. Angered by sexual assaults from Spanish soldiers, the Kumeyaay launched two military assaults at Mission San Diego. Later, Indians burned and sacked three missions in the Santa Barbara area.
Given these occurrences, perhaps only Latin Americans can fully understand the long and sad history of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule in the Americas. This is why many hope that the next pope will be a Latin American.
One possible candidate, Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Maradiaga of Honduras, spoke philosophically when a Time magazine reporter recently asked him about a future papacy. “I know the Spirit will shift in the direction of other countries and other continents in the future,” he said.
If this happens, perhaps the next pope won’t wave a scolding finger at the people and cultures of Latin America, nor give them stern theological lectures. Maybe he will walk among them as a simple pastor, sharing their joie de vivre and upbeat music. And maybe he will learn something from these proud people about hope and suffering.
Mark R. Day is a former staff writer for the National Catholic Reporter.