Friday, October 22, 2010

An account of early American settlement by Bartolome de las Casas

Bartolome de las Casas was one of the early settlers of America, a religious man who transcribed much of Chritopher Columbus's journal. Through these journals and his own accounts, Casas was driven to oppose the teatment of Native Americans. His works the 'History of the Indies' is a go-to piece for anybody wishing to understand the impact of settlement in early America on the indigenous population.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Casas's works are his views on Native American society and culture as oppose to his own. There are many extracts worth quoting at length like those wich follow.

''Marriage laws are non-existent men and women alike choose their mates and leave them as they please, without offense, jealousy or anger. They multiply in great abundance; pregnant women work to the last minute and give birth almost painlessly; up the next day, they bathe in the river and are as clean and healthy as before giving birth. If they tire of their men, they give themselves abortions with herbs that force stillbirths, covering their shameful parts with leaves or cotton cloth; although on the whole, Indian men and women look upon total nakedness with as much casualness as we look upon a man's head or at his hands.''

This is useful to understand the stark differences in social standards between European civilisation and Native America, Casas expresses interest in the laid back casual nature whch is apparently alien to him.

''large communal bell-shaped buildings, housing up to 600 people at one time ... made of very strong wood and roofed with palm leaves.... They prize bird feathers of various colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying nor selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality. ...''

This is an interesting portrayel of commune which persisted in American tribes where European settlers valued materialistic posessions and social status. Casas paints a community which values each member and rejects the idea of a social hierarchy to the same extent as Europe.

''Endless testimonies . .. prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives.... But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then.... The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.

Mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside....

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides ... they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... in this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . .. and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated. ... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. ...''

Casas shows concern for Native American society and culture through European settlement. Early on in his works he portrays them as peaceful people who live off the land, an example to many. However it seems almost as if Casas displays regret of settlement, European greed and culture had turned these people in to slaves for personal gain. Commerce had robbed the indies of its srenity that drove many, like Casas, to adore.

Casas's books are useful to us in studying the settlemnt of America, not as an advancement in to a new industrial age of international commerce, but as a stark reminder of the cruelty which was displayed and which laid the foundatios of America. It could be argued that America's history has always been a violent one.

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