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SPAIN and Spanish America: Pagans and missionaries



Josť Manuel de Prada says: "Though surely Europeans brought good things to the New World, I don't think they made much improvement in what concerns ethics. The Spaniards themselves were bloodthirsty. The respect most of them had for the life and dignity of the Indians was zero. Many of the friars took advantage of them and exploited them. One exception is the so called Jesuitic Empire of Paraguay. The civil authorities there hated the missions, because they deprived them of the cheap slave labor they needed for their plantations and mines. They were happy when, in the 18th century, the Jesuits were expelled from Spanish possession and the Franciscans replaced them in the missions.

The religion of most of Indians is indeed a mixture of Christian and native beliefs. Among the things they have taken from Christianity is the Devil. Some years ago I published a collection of legends and folktales about the Evil One. Most of them where from Europe, but I also included a few from the America, among them two from the Quechua people of Peru and Ecuador. These tales are really fascinating. They show the mixture of native and imported elements I have already mentioned. More interesting than that, though, is how they depict the Devil. Certainly not as the creature with horns and a tail we are used to. Their Devil is much more terrible than that! Even today, the Quechua imagine the Devil as a white man, with all the attributes of powerful, ruthless landowner.

A legacy to be proud of! On the other hand, the Mochica were long gone when the Spaniards arrived in Peru. I don't think they, as a people, were really that bloodthirsty. Their rules were. I am sure they were a bunch of incompetents who had reached power by devious means and launched unnecessary wars to create misery and hatred beyond their borders with the only purpose of defending their interests above those of anybody else and keep themselves in power, always telling their subjects that they did this for their own good, so that they could be more free and prosperous and keep living in their blissful ignorance of how things really were out there. Surely, something quite unseen in the more enlightened and compassionate times in which we are so fortunate to have been born!"

My response; the above is written with the romantic idealization of Indian cultures, of which anthropologists are finally extracting themselves. There is certainly a streak of cruelty in the Spaniards, but there were Spaniards and Spaniards. The conquistadores like Pizarro were monsters of greed, and the clerics who accompanied them disgraced Christianity. This first wave was disowned by the Spanish crown, which sent a series of outstanding administrators to organize the conquered lands. The Jesuits whom Josť Manuel praises had a rigid system, but the order was abolished, and the Franciscans who took over were exemplary in their spirit of charity, and it is primarily to them that the piety of Latin American peasants is due. It is true that there was some syncretism with native beliefs, notably in the case of the Virgen de Guadalupe, but the Christianity of these peasants is almost entirely Christian. The best known case of romantic idealization of Indian cultures concerned the Mayas, the cruelty of whose society and religion was slowly revealed by specialists at Vanderbilt University. For a longtime the artistry of the Mochica led anthropologists to believe that they were a gentle folk, like the hypothetical Mayas, but the latest research shows that their culture was perhaps the bloodiest in the Americas.

Ronald Hilton - 9/21/02


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