On this date, the native American Taíno chief Hatuey (or Hathney) from the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic) was burned alive by the Spanish on the island of Caobana (now Cuba) — arguably the first martyr of heroic resistance against the centuries of colonial onslaught to come. Ironically, the Taínos were the people who had offered a peaceful welcome to Columbus in 1493. Although Cuba was not his birthplace, Hatuey is today remembered and exalted there as a national hero.
The Taíno leader’s death was instrumental in shaping the seminal beliefs of one man: Bartolomé de las Casas. He was a slave owner-turned-Bishop-turned-chronicler who raged a life-long battle against the murderous injustices meted out to South American indigenous peoples by the European colonists. As “protector of Indians”, de las Casas was one of the first missionaries to uphold the rights of the oppressed and protect the lives of indigenous peoples.
In 1511, Diego Velázquez had set out from Hispaniola to conquer the island of Caobana. He had been preceded, however, by Hatuey, who fled Hispaniola with a party of four hundred in canoes and warned the inhabitants of Caobana about what to expect from the Spaniards.
De las Casas later recounted a speech Hatuey had made after showing the Taíno of Caobana a basket of gold and jewels:
Here is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea… They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break…
The Taíno people of Caobana could not believe Hatuey’s horrendous message, and few joined him to fight. Hatuey resorted to guerrilla tactics against the Spaniards, and was able to confine them to their fort at Baracoa. Eventually the Spaniards succeeded in capturing and executing him.
Before his execution, a Roman Catholic monk asked Hatuey if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven. De las Casas reported the incident:
[A] Franciscan monk, a holy man, who was there, spoke as much as he could to [Hatuey], in the little time that the executioner granted them, about God and some of the teachings of our faith, of which he had never before heard; he told him that if he would believe what was told him, he would go to heaven where there was glory and eternal rest; and if not, that he would go to hell, to suffer perpetual torments and punishment. After thinking a little, Hatuey asked the monk whether the Christians went to heaven; the monk answered that those who were good went there. The prince at once said, without any more thought, that he did not wish to go there, but rather to hell so as not to be where Spaniards were, nor to see such cruel people. This is the renown and honour, that God and our faith have acquired by means of the Christians who have gone to the Indies.
De las Casas saw, with rare insight, the ulterior motive of many conquistadors. Though the Spanish carried the Requerimiento – a royal document that outlined Spain’s divinely ordained right to sovereignty – into every battle, de las Casas believed that spreading the word of God was largely a ruse: an expedient mask. Ambition, not altruism, was the driving force; gold, not God, was their goal.
He believed that the conquistadors slashed and slaughtered their way like “ravening wild beasts” across the so-called New World not solely in homage to Christ, but to “swell themselves with riches”. He suspected they had crossed the Atlantic not only to spread the word of the Lord, but to find the gold that washed through the rivers of Amazonia and the minerals that lay beneath their rampaging feet. “Our work,” de las Casas said, “was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy.” The conquistadors destroyed lives and lands, and they told the Indians that to save their souls, they would need to become Christians.
If the greed of the conquistadors knew no bounds, neither did the integrity and outraged courage of de las Casas. Revolted by the hypocrisy of men who proclaimed pious inspiration while distributing the horrors of hell, he was also influenced by a group of Dominican preachers who asked the conquistadors, “Tell me, by what right do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? Are they not men?”
“So as not to keep criminal silence concerning the ruin of numberless souls and bodies that these persons cause,” de las Casas wrote, “I have decided to print some of the innumerable instances I have collected in the past and can relate with truth.” These truths, which became extensive writings about the mistreatment of the Indians – one of the most famous being A Short Account of The Destruction of the Indies he wrote in 1542 (published in 1552) – were instrumental in prompting King Charles V to issue his “New Laws” in 1542, which abolished slavery and the encomienda system, and resulted in the liberation of thousands of slaves.
Arguably the first white human rights’ activist in the Americas, de las Casas was driven not by a self-regarding agenda but by a deeply-rooted sense of justice. He knew the Indians were not inferior to their oppressors. He knew that “all the peoples of the world are men” – rational human beings, part of a single common humanity. “For all people of these our Indies are human… and to none are they inferior,” he said. However, the plight of the Indians did not lead even de las Casas to question the right to the land or the mission to Christianize.