Use this excerpt from Bartoleme de Las Casas Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies and your knowledge of history to analyse the following image and answer the associated questions.
Bartoleme de Las Casas, a Spanish Priest, participated in slave raids on the island of Hispaniola (the 15th century Spanish title for the island that is now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and the conquest of Cuba. Following the conquest of Cuba and the admonishment of a group of Dominican missionaries, de Las Casas experienced a change of heart while studying a Biblical passage and came to the conclusion that the Spanish exploitation and oppression of the Native Caribbean peoples constituted a great injustice. De Las Casas was subsequently inspired to pen his Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, decrying the Encomienda system and barbaric practices of the Spanish conquistadores. In this passage, he describes the customs and physical characteristics of Native peoples.
“This is a most tender and effeminate people, and so imbecile and unequal-balanced temper, that they are altogether incapable of hard labour, and in few years, by one Distemper or other soon expire, so that the very issue of Lords and Princes, who among us live with great affluence, and fard deliciously, are not more effminate and tender than the Children of their Husbandmen or Labourers: This Nation is very Necessitous and Indigent, Masters of very slender Possessions, and consequently, neither Haughty, nor Ambitious.
They are parsimonious in their Diet, as the Holy Fathers were in their frugal life in the Desert, known by the name of Eremites. They go naked, having no other Covering but what conceals their Pudends from publick sight. An hairy Plad, or loose Coat, about an Ell, or a coarse woven Cloth at most Two Ells long serves them for the warmest Winter Garment. They lye on a coarse Rug or Matt, and those that have the most plentiful Estate or Fortunes, the better sort, use Net-work, knotted at the four corners in lieu of Beds, which the Inhabitants of the Island of Hispaniola, in their own proper Idiom, term Hammacks. The Men are pregnant and docible. The natives tractable, and capable of Morality or Goodness, very apt to receive the instill’d principles of Catholick Religion; nor are they averse to Civility and good Manners, being not so much discompos’d by variety of Obstructions, as the rest of Mankind; insomuch, that having suckt in (if I may so express my self) the the very first Rudiments of the Christian Faith, they are so transported with Zeal and Furvor in the exercise of Ecclesiastical Sacraments, and Divine Service, that the very Religioso’s themselves, stand in need of the greatest and most signal patience to undergo such extream Transports. And to conclude, I my self have heard the Spaniards themselves (who dare not assume the Confidence to deny the good Nature praedominant in them) declare, that there was nothing wanting in them for the acquisition of Eternal Beatitude, but the sole Knowledge and Understanding of the Deity”
Question 1: Biased Sources: Analyze the passage and image in conjunction with one another. Does de Las Casa’s written account corroborate what is pictured in the imagery? Why might a historian approach de Las Casa’s account as untrustworthy or questionable? Can this source still be used, in spite of possible flaws?
Question 2: Selective Use of Evidence: This passage is a short selection of de Las Casa’s larger work. What might one assume de Las Casa’s is arguing reading only this passage? Explain your answer.
Question 3: Selective Use of Evidence: After answering, read the following excerpt. Does the additional context change what you think Casa’s was arguing? Explain your answer, then reflect and write on how you think a historian might use evidence to selectively. How could an incomplete reading of a source effect one’s perception of that source’s argument?
“The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty, as is premention’d, like most cruel Tygers, Wolves and Lions hunger-starv’d, studying nothing, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the Massacre of these Wretches, whom they have so inhumanely and barbarously butcher’d and harass’d with several kinds of Torments, never before known, or heard (of which you shall have some account in the following Discourse) that of Three Millions of Persons, which lived in Hispaniola itself, there is at present but the inconsiderable remnant of scarce Three Hundred.”
Instructional Goal: This questions asks a student to approach a primary source document and associated historical imagery and analyze the ways they can be used and the limitations imposed by their inherent biases. In this assessment, students examine Bartoleme de Las Casas’ account of the practices of Native peoples in conjunction with a painting picturing de Las Casas’ amongst Caribbean Native peoples.
Question 1 asks student to analyze De Las Casas account for similarities, or ways in which it could support, the image. Students are then tasked with discerning whether or not it can be used to corroborate it, or if the bias of the source makes it poor evidence. To answer the question, students must examine the limitations de Las Casas had writing, what his own agenda might have been, and then determine whether to support the use of the source or not. A proficient student will be able to evaluate the limitations of using De Las Casas account and recommend that it might be possible to corroborate the image using the picture, but that the source must be viewed with a great deal of skepticism given de Las Casas’ infantilizing view of native Caribbean peoples and his missionary intent.
Question 2 and 3 introduces students to the idea that evidence can be used selectively to push a specific, but questionably accurate, argument. Students first must determine what they believe de Las Casas was arguing, and explain the reasons for the answer. Subsequently, students read a second excerpt from the same document, and reflect on how it changes their perception of what de Las Casas was arguing. Students will hopefully reach an understanding of how a source must be examined when someone is using it as evidence, because of the way an argument can use only the pieces of that source that support it to push an inaccurate conclusion. Students will finally speculate how other sources might be used selectively. Proficient students will also be able to determine that de Las Casas was arguing not just that Native inhabitants of Hispaniola would make good Christians, but also that the Spaniards were abhorrent in their treatment of these people. Students will determine that de Las Casas condescendingly believed he was protecting the Native inhabitants from Spanish excesses.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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