Bartolome De Las Casas wrote this short, savage book in 1542. The urgency of the writing makes it feel as though it might have been written last week. With a disgusted brevity he moves around the continent of the Americas, from Florida to the River Plate, outlining the horrors that have followed in the wake of the white man’s wake relentless search for gold, the substance which, writes the author, is their true god.
Without going into the history, his account has retrospectively been questioned. He writes of the death of millions, the destruction of vast cities, whole regions being depopulated. This is the post-apocalypse made real, without the help of global warming, nuclear bombs or meteorites. No doubt there is some dramatic license in his depiction of events. Although he had extensive knowledge of the New World, much of what he writes about is second-hand, or hearsay. Yet his own experiences clearly established a benchmark, where the use of torture to extract information was normative, where subjugation was considered to be a violent imperative.
All of which makes one wonder what it must have been like, to have landed on these shores, as a man of god, sent from the civilised world to witness the savages, only to find the true savages are your own ‘civilised’ countrymen. De Las Casas talks of fifty cities in Mexico alone “more ample and more spacious than Seville”. Perhaps in his vituperative denunciation there is a hint of his own amazement, echoed in Garcilaso’s words, that these wonders could be so wantonly destroyed. It must have been impossible not to feel as though your system of values was inside out, when confronted by the brute realities of history.
This bewilderment is captured in De La Casas’ outraged prose. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies is as powerful a text as the Communist Manifesto. One of the first trumpets at the walls of Jericho, decrying the terrible truths that underpin the European invasion and its barbaric paradoxes. The book is still shocking and vital today, half a millennium later.