Today we remember the message and witness of the first Dominicans of Española who spoke out against the abuses of the Taíno Indians. After arriving to the island in 1510, Antón Montesinos, Pedro de Córdoba, and Bernardo de Santo Domingo spent the better part of the next year discerning what action to take in the face of gross violations of human dignity perpetrated by the “Christian” Spaniards. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent in 1511, Montesinos, with his intimidating stature and skill in preaching, stood before the church community and proclaimed:
I am the voice of Christ in the desert of this island. It would be wise of you to pay attention and to listen with your whole heart and with every fabric of your being… You are all in mortal sin. You live in it, you die in it. All because of the cruel tyranny you exercise against these innocent peoples. Tell me, by what right and with what justice do you so violently enslave these Indians? By what authority do you wage such hideous wars against these people who peacefully inhabit their lands, killing them by unspeakable means? How can you oppress them giving neither food nor medicine and by working them to death all for your insatiable thirst for gold? And what care are you providing them spiritually in teaching them about their God and creator, so they are baptized, hear mass, and keep holy days? Are they not human beings? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand or feel this?
Needless to say, their message was not well received. Diego Columbus, the son of the Admiral and governor of the island, joined a mob of angry Spaniards as they banged on the door of the Dominican house. They wanted to see Montesinos. Fray Córdoba opened the door and informed the crowd that the message was unanimous yet he managed to calm them down for the moment. The Dominicans came back the next week and preached a message even more uncompromising: whoever did not free their Indian slaves would be denied absolution in confession.
This radical discplinary measure of excommunication as a spiritual strategy for reforming souls and rectifying injustice was precisely what changed the direction of Bartolomé de las Casas’ life. Las Casas had been a slave-owner himself. It began when his father brought back a Taíno from one of the early voyages with Christopher Columbus. Las Casas likely brought the slave with him to Salamanca as a teenager when he studied canon law.
As an adult, Las Casas continued this practice until his conscience was awakened by the preaching of the Dominicans. While he prepared to offer Mass for the feast of Pentecost in 1514, he read the divinely-inspired words of Sirach 34 with an open heart:
Ill-gotten goods offered in sacrifice are blemished. Gifts from the lawless do not win God’s favor. The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless, nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sins. Like the man who slays a son in his father’s presence is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor. The bread of charity is life itself for the needy; he who withholds it is a man of blood. To take away another’s living is to commit murder; to deny a laborer wages is to shed blood.
Las Casas eventually freed his slaves thereafter and devoted his entire life singularly to the cause of the Indians. On the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption that same year, he preached a similar message as the one proclaimed by the first Dominicans in 1511. No one believed. When he wrote volume three of his history of the early Spanish conquests, he echoed the first Dominicans: “By what right and justice” do the Spaniards declare against and threaten the natives? (c. 58) Las Casas concluded that all the wars waged by the Indians against the Spaniards and Christians were just.
The legacy of the first Dominicans returned back to Spain to inspire the university where they received much of their theological training. At the University of Salamanca in the 1530s, Francisco de Vitoria reports in a letter to Miguel de Arcos that he does not understand the justice of the war waged by Pizarro against the Incas. According to the testimony of Dominican eyewitnesses like Vicente de Valverde and Bernardino de Minaya, the Inca Atahualpa and his people never committed the slightest injury against the Spaniards.
While Vitoria never fundamentally questioned a possible claim for Spanish conquest, Domingo de Soto did in his Relectio de Dominio given in 1535. Soto, in the words of David Lupher, offered “a bold challenge to the legitimacy of Spanish dominion in the Indies.” And it was boldly asserted in his question, “By what right do we maintain rule in the lands being discovered across the Atlantic?” Then, his answer: “In truth, I do not know (ego nescio).”
The courage to question Crown policy regarding war and to fundamentally reject the institution of forced Indian labor was a direct legacy of the first Dominicans in the New World. They inaugurated what we might call a discourse on rights rooted in a committment to love of God and neighbor. The Indians, in their eyes, were persecuted neighbors made in the image of God. Let us remember and honor their unprecedented contribution to the Church and to humanity exactly five hundred years ago.