By Andy Porras
Save the date, January 28, 2015, at 9:30 AM, on the west steps of our state capitol, journalist turned author, Elias Castillo will shatter the image of California’s Missions as idyllic places where ‘Franciscan friars and Indians lived in an environment of mutual respect.’
“In reality, the Missions were death camps where more than 60,000 Indian workers died, many as a result of whippings, disease, and malnutrition,” said Castillo recently while at the California State Indian Museum in Sacramento. “My book, A Cross of Thorns is the result of more than six years of research and study of original documents including eyewitness accounts by early travelers, records kept by the friars, and historic letters by church and government authorities in Alta California and Mexico.”
Many in the Museum’s audience were able to let out a not too subdued “Oh,” as Castillo spoke from his notes and his book’s first drafts.
“The Spanish missions of California have long been misrepresented as places of benign and peaceful coexistence between Franciscan friars and California Indians,” said the former Associated Press correspondent. “In fact, the mission friars enslaved the California Indians and treated them with deliberate cruelty, in my book I describe the dark and violent reality of Mission life, beginning in 1769, when most of the California Indians were enticed into the missions, where they and their descendents were imprisoned for 60 years of forced labor and daily beatings.”
Almost immediately, hands shot up as audience members sought more information from Castillo.
“In one of the most serious charges against the friars, I quote an eyewitness Account by Captain Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, upon his visit to Mission Carmel in 1786,” said Castillo.
The French captain would later describe how similar the Missions were to slave plantations he had visited earlier in the Caribbean.”
The Captain came close to calling California’s missions West Coast Plantations where “happy Indians” thrived while performing everyday tasks for both the friars and themselves.
“Far from it,” said Castillo. “His report indicates that the color of the Indians, was more like the Black slaves’ skin and that the housing for the missionaries and their storehouses seemed alike having been built of brick and plaster by the slaves and Indians. They also noted the the appearance of the ground on which the grain was trodden out while the cattle, the horses— everything in short—brought to their recollection a plantation at Santo Domingo and other West Indian islands.”
If that wasn’t incriminating evidence, the French statements also told of how both men and women were collected by the sound of a bell as a missionary lead them to work, to the church, and to all their exercises.
The French visitors observed with concern that the resemblance to plantation life was so reminiscent of the Black men and women the had seen in irons, while others lingered in stockades.
Such are the chilling depictions of colonial cruelty in “A Cross of Thorns” as based on little known church and Spanish government archives and letters written by the founder of California’s mission, Friar Juniperro Serra (who advocated the whipping of Mission Indians as a standard policy), and published first-hand accounts of 18th and 19th century travelers.
“If there was one great quality of Serra’s staff,” said Castillo.”It was that they were meticoulous fact keepers, noting almost every beating, including date and how many lashes, they administered to a particular Native.”
Before concluding his lecture, Castillo noted that the history of Spanish colonization in California, from its origins in Spain’s 18th century economic crisis, to the legacy of racism and brutality, continues today.
Too bad Castillo can’t release his book on October 12.