Human Dignity before Hobbes and Locke: A Condemnation of Abuses Against Natural Law

Editor’s note: Bartolomé de las Casas (1474 a Spanish missionary-priest and historian, died 22 years before the birth of Thomas Hobbes; he argued vigorously for humane treatment of non-Europeans.

I want to cite here one stark story from among the many offenses, grave evils, gruesome injustices, the shocking damages done by the Portuguese in their discoveries during that period of time, done against the natives of those lands— Moor or Indian or black or Arab—innocent of anything against the Portuguese. The year was 1444. The story is from Juan de Barros, lib. I, cap. 8, 1st decade, and from Gómez Eanes de Zurara, lib. I, caps. 18-24. Gomez gives the fuller version.

Some rich and important people of the city of Lagos in Portugal pressed the Infante to give them a license to go to the discovered territory, and they would give him in return a certain share of the profits they made. The Infante complied. So they armed six caravels. The Infante appointed as captain of the fleet a man named Lanzarote who had been in his service. They left Portugal, they reached an island we now call Las Garzas, on the eve of Corpus Christi, where they killed many natives who were at their evening rest. From Las Garzas they went on to attack an island called Nar; it was nearby and well populated. On Corpus Christi Day (good day, good deeds!), at sunup, they attacked the natives who were still in bed and off guard. The war cry was, “Santiago, Saint George, Portugal, Portugal!” The natives were terror stricken by the attack, so large, so sudden, so wicked. Parents abandoned children, husbands abandoned wives; some mothers hid their offspring out in the grasses, the thickets. Everyone ran aghast, out of their heads.

A Portuguese chronicler says this: “Finally, Our Lord God, who rewards every good deed, saw to it that those who took this risk for his service should win the victory over their enemies and receive profit and praise for their labors and costs. They captured and held 155 natives. They killed many another who put up a fight. Many another drowned escaping.” Can there be a more senseless description than this one? To serve God, the chronicler says, they killed, they sent to hell so many infidels, they left that whole island in shock and hatred of the name Christian and filled with grief and bitterness.

There were only 30 Portuguese, and not enough shackles to hold all those peaceful people. So the Portuguese left some men with part of the captives, took another part back to the ships. They were jubilant on arrival, then returned in their boats to pick up those left. You see how peaceful, how unwarlike the natives were, if thirty Portuguese from far away can capture 150 of them abed and asleep in their huts.

The ships went to another nearby island, called Tider, to make another haul, but they were spotted first; the Portuguese found it empty, the natives had fled to the mainland, a matter of eight leagues’ distance. The Portuguese tortured a Moor, or whatever they were, so as to find out where more people could be located. They kept on from island to island for two days, then in raids they made on the mainland they took into captivity a further 45 natives. On their return trip to Portugal, they took en route 15 fishermen and one woman. In all they captured on their slave raids 216 human beings, people who had never harmed them, who owed them nothing, people who were weaponless, who lived at peace in their own places. When the ships returned to Portugal, Lanzarote was received by the Infante with great ceremony. He personally named Lanzarote a knight and heaped honors on him.

The next day, Captain Lanzarote spoke to the Infante:

Lord, Your Highness well knows you are due a fifth of these captives we brought back, a fifth of all else we got from our foray in that land where you sent us in the service of God and in your own. Due to the length of the voyage and the time it took to sail it, the men are exhausted, and more so due to the fret and fear they themselves had to live with, so far from home, making captives, not knowing how things would come out. And many are sick and quite worn down. Given all this, I suggest it would be a good idea for you to order that the ships be unloaded tomorrow and the haul be brought to a field outside of town where a five-way split can be made of the slaves. And Your Highness can come and choose what will please and satisfy you most.

The Infante answered that it was a good idea.

The next day morning, Captain Lanzarote ordered the masters of the caravels to empty them and bring the captives to the field. But before they divided them, they chose out a Moor, the best of the lot, as an offering to the Church of the place, the city of Lagos, where the raiders all lived, and where they made port. The Infante was in residence there at the time. They chose out another Moor to send to San Vicente del Cabo where, the story goes, the slave lived later very religiously. The raiders wanted to give God His share after the bloodshed, the unjust and wicked enslavement of those innocent people, as if God were some wicked, malevolent tyrant they could please and He would approve the viciousness of those who made the offering. Those awful men did not know the scriptural passage: “God does not approve those who harm their neighbors sinfully, then offer God a sacrifice from their ill-gotten goods. Such sacrifice is instead like honoring and serving a father by hacking his son to pieces as he looks on” (Ecclesiasticus 34). The fact that the Moor they gave to San Vicente del Cabo, or that many others, or all, grew holy later does not excuse those who seized them, nor do they gain remission of their sins by such a gift as they made. The holiness was not their doing, it was due entirely to the infinite generosity of God Who chose to draw such a priceless good out of such damnable evils. It is a gospel truth and

Catholic law that one cannot commit even the smallest venial sin in order to draw the greatest good one can imagine from it. How much less commit the greatest of mortal sins.

Back to the theme. I want to include here, and word for word, no addition, no subtraction, what Gómez Eanes writes in his account—I mentioned him earlier—about the pack of people Lanarote took captive. I think Gómez was there, an eyewitness. He says in exclamation,

Oh, heavenly Father, You rule the infinite host of Your holy city without effort, Your divine excellence is so, and You keep in order the orbits of the higher globes in their nine circles, and You make the aeons short or long according as You please. I beg You that my tears should not count against me. Their being human has a hold on me, not their beliefs. So I weep from sorrow over their suffering. If brute beasts with their brute feelings can recognize the suffering of their own kind by the instinct of nature, what can you expect my human nature to do seeing before me that stricken group, as I remind myself they are all by generation children of Adam?

Next day, it was 8 August, early because it was hot, the crews began to work their boats, unload their captives and take them ashore as ordered. The captives, when gathered in the field, were a strange sight to see. Some among them were nearly white, handsome, slim; others were darker, seemed like mulattos; others black, like Ethiopians, gross in face and body—it appeared to people that they saw a reverse image of the world. What heart, hard as it might be, would not feel pity stir at the sight of such a group. Some had their faces down, wet with tears; some looked at the others and were groaning with grief; some looked to high heaven, fixing their look on it, shouting aloud up to it, as if asking the Father of Nature for help; others beat their cheeks with their palms, or threw themselves flat on the ground; others made lamentation in a song-like manner after the custom of their homeland. And though the words of their language could not be understood by us, their sorrow was understood indeed. A sorrow that increased when those in charge of dividing them came and started to split them one from another to make even groups. To do this it became necessary to take children from parents, wives from husbands, brothers from sisters. For kin and kindred no rule was kept, each captive landed where luck would have it. Oh mighty Fortune, you wheel back and forth over the things of this world as you please! Would that someone could place before the eyes of those pitiful people some knowledge of the good to come in future centuries so they could have some consolation in the midst of their great suffering! And you, who work this partition, respect and pity such misery, see how they cling together, you can scarcely pry them apart. Who could make the separation without violence? Things were such that those who were put in one partition—children who saw their parents in another—got up and ran over to them; mothers gripped their other children in their arms and huddled with them on the ground, heedless of the lashes on their own flesh, so the children would not be torn from them. So the partition took a lot of trouble.

It was difficult enough with just the captives, but the field was also full of people, from the city itself and from the surrounding areas. People had quit work that day, work they had to do for a living, just to see something new; and what with some deploring what they saw going on, and some approving, they made such a hubbub that they rattled the ones in charge of the partition. The Infante was there, mounted on a powerful horse, accompanied by his people, giving away his goods like a man who does not want to be rich himself. He gave away in a short time the 46 souls that fell to his fifth. His principal wealth was in good conscience, and the salvation of those souls pleased him mightily, they would otherwise be lost.

His judgment was not an empty one, for, as we said already, soon as the slaves learned the language, they readily became Christian. And I who write the history in this volume saw, in the city of Lagos, lads and lasses, the children, the grandchildren of those slaves, born here—and they such good and true Christians, it’s as if they were Christians forever back, the offspring of those who were the first baptized. And though the grief of those being split up was indeed great at the moment—especially after the split had been made, and each owner had carried off his share, and some sold theirs, who were then taken to other parts of the country, so the story goes that a father remained in Lagos, a mother was taken to Lisbon, children elsewhere—though the grief was acute at the start, the damage was at the beginning. Later, after it all, everything would change to joy and happiness, for they received the Christian faith, they gave birth to Christian children, and many later got back their freedom.

This is the way, to the letter, the incident was put by the Portuguese historian Gómez Eanes. He seems little less foolish than the Infante, unable to see that neither the Infante’s good intention, nor the good results that later followed, excused the sins of violence, the deaths, the damnation of those who perished without faith or sacrament, the enslavement of the survivors. Nor did intention or results make up for the monumental injustice. What love, affection, esteem, reverence, would they have, could they have for the faith, for Christian religion, so as to convert to it, those who wept as they did, who grieved, who raised their eyes, their hands to heaven, who saw themselves, against the law of nature, against all human reason, stripped of their liberty, of their wives and children, of their homeland, of their peace? Even the historian himself, and the people who stood around, wept with compassion over the sorry affair, especially when they saw the separation of children from parents, of mothers and fathers from children. It is obvious, the error, the self-deception of those people back then. Please God it did not last, it does not still last. It is from his exclamation, so I think that the historian shows the event to be the horror that it is, though later he seems to soft-soap it, to blur it with the mercy and goodness of God. If anything good did come of it later, it all came from God. What came from the Infante and the raiders he sent out was brutality, theft, tyranny—nothing more.

Reprinted with permission from Bartolomé de las Casas: The Only Way, ed. Helen Rand Parish, trans. Francis Patrick Sullivan, S.J., a volume in Paulist Press’s Sources of American Spirituality Series.

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Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566) was a Spanish missionary-priest and historian.

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