Colonial Hispaniola Citation Primary Source Las Casas Essay

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Colonial Hispaniola

Citation (Primary source)

Las Casas, Bartolome de. "Brief account of the devastation of the Indies," 1542. From Human

Rights: An Anthology of Texts. Warsaw: The Office of the Commissioner for Civil

Rights Protection, 2008. Accessed December 21, 2011 at

This primary source account offers a highly idealized view of the colonized persons of Hispaniola. It is said that the natives are peaceful, hold no grudges, are humble, patient, and kind and willingly serve their Spanish masters. However, they are also called weak and said to easily perish of infirmities. They are said not be covetous, and are said to want no gold or wealth. They are portrayed as simple, humble, natural men and women of a primitive, giving, yet proud disposition. The Spanish are condemned for their barbaric behavior against the inhabitants who resist the Spanish only when the Spanish began to try to take over their land.


On one hand, the tenor of the document seems to praise the residents of Hispaniola. However, some of the rhetoric indicates that the European observer is still 'projecting' his or her assumptions on to the natives. The natives are viewed as naturally meek and mild, and as 'natural' men who eschew wearing clothes and live close to nature. Today, historians know that their seeming physical weakness was actually due to a lack of resistance to European diseases. Their apparent humility is also seen as making them ideal Christians in the eyes of the European observer. However, even in this rather limited contemporary view, there was clearly horror about the worst excesses of colonialism. The author notes that only after the Europeans began to plunder, the natives did resist and try to expel the Europeans from their lands. The account suggests that the Spaniards transgressed even the norms of their own era. The Christians slaughter their victims in a kind of parody of the last supper, hanging their victims in groups of thirteen.


Colonialism is sometimes excused as a product of a bygone era. This shows that the Spaniards, even during their own era, were regarded with horror because of the acts they perpetuated against natives. The natives were initially welcoming at first, and only acted violently in response to European greed, even in this contemporary view. Even from a Christian perspective, the natives were seen as blameless in the wake of Spanish aggression.

Levine, Edwin A. "The seed of slavery in the New World: An examination of the factors leading to the impressment of Indian labor in Hispaniola." Revista de Historia de America, 60 (Jul. - Dec., 1965): 1-68. Accessed December 21, 2011.


In this essay, historian Edwin Levine calls the small nation of Hispaniola a 'laboratory' for Spain's oppressive conquest and barbaric treatment of the New World. Impressed labor was used to exert dominion over the land in a system that tied native labor to the land. Early explorers came looking for gold. But even though the land had relatively few precious metals, it had many agricultural riches for the Spanish to exploit. Some early writers romanticized the natives as noble primitives but later they were mainly seen as sources of enrichment. Levine chronicles how gradually the relationship between the natives and Spain transitioned from curiosity to exploitation.


Levine's essay, authored in 1965, takes a very negative view of the colonial conquest of the native territories. He portrays the European view of the native population as one-sided and self-serving. His language is rather archaic and he does not use as much anthropological data as a modern historian might today, preferring to rely upon a literary analysis of historical accounts. He also spends a great deal of time analyzing the personality and relationship of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain as an influence in colonial development. The greatest flaw in the style of the article, however, is that after advancing a particular thesis, rather than arguing it, the article is fairly disjointed in its organization. The beginning of the article is devoted to historical exposition about the topography of the land, rather than analysis of the impressment system. Then, Levine shifts to muse about the likely psychological motives of various historical figures. Also, despite condemning Spanish racism, he is inclined to speak about 'the Spanish' as a collective unit, such as when he says 'The Spaniard carried ashore his heart, soul...the land resembled his beloved Andalucia.'


This article is mainly useful to understand how scholarship in an earlier era viewed colonialization. It was written during a time of international decolonialization in the 1960s. It also shows an older view of how historical scholarship should be conducted. Speculative psychology and broad motivational surmises were considered acceptable. This article is mainly relevant and useful for a 'back story' or historical perspective on the period.

Guitar, Lynne. "No more negotiation: Slavery and the destabilization of colonial Hispaniola's encomienda System."


This article provides a historical overview of the development of the encomienda system. The Spanish Crown retained control over native laborers tied to the land, but the landowners could not sell these workers or pass the natives on to their descendents, and the Indians could be removed if they were mistreated. They were free at least in name. Theoretically, they were controlled for their benefit as well, given that it was to bring them to Christianity. Eventually, actual enslaved laborers from Africa were imported in, to add manpower to the workforce.


The encomienda system may not have been slavery, but it was self-serving for the Crown. Various rationales were used to justify the practice, including the idea that the population could benefit from being introduced to Christianity and even that the natives were 'naturally' cannibals without being controlled. Gradually, over time, slavery from African began to replace the original system. Imported labor was necessary to make up for the decimation of the population by smallpox. New, enslaved labor further denigrated the position of native laborers in the eyes of the Spanish. Regardless, despite the idealized version of the system perpetuated by the Spanish Crown, revolts did occur. The article suggests that over time the ideological justification for the encomendia system grew thinner. The profit motive predominated and the sense of mutual obligation -- if it had ever existed to any meaningful degree -- dissipated.


This article provides a broad, sweeping history of the development of the encomendia system. It shifted from a system tying native laborers to the land to one dependent upon foreign labor. It discusses both the ideological and practical reasons for its evolution. The contradictions of the system, revolts, and class tensions of the region are explored as well as an analysis of the system itself. The system was fragile from its inception, given the transparent self-serving nature of much of the ideology used to justify it.

Yeager, Timothy J. "Encomienda or slavery? The Spanish crown's choice of labor organization in sixteenth-century Spanish America." The Journal of Economic History, 55. 4 (Dec., 1995): 842-859. Accessed December 21, 2011 at


Instead of outright slavery, to fuel its agricultural exploitation of the colonies, the Spanish crown preferred a system called encomienda. According to Timothy Yeager, there were several distinctions between encomienda vs. slavery. Indians could not be inherited from generation but rather reverted back to the Crown after the death of the land owner. Also, encomendros also owed certain protections and obligations to the Indians, in exchange for the native's labor. Encomienda was more legally cumbersome but still had a deleterious effect upon those who suffered under it because of the institutional restrictions imposed upon Indian mobility and economic power. The reason that the Crown endured the extra inconvenience of imposing encomienda was actually ideological, rather than practical (although it still served its purpose of enriching Spain's coffers).…[continue]

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