Published On: Fri, Jun 23rd, 2017

Bartolomé de Las Casas, Champion of Caribbean indigenous populations

Jacob Gelt DekkerBack on board our boat and heading for the island of Mona, I continued my monologs with Anansi and Hendrik van der Decken.

“Anansi, are you upset?  You seem so very nervous and busy today.  What is wrong?”

“White man, what do you think?” Anansi exploded in anger. “I am outraged and shocked by your stories. Hear, hear, you are telling us that European colonialists came for salt to the Caribbean, and not to exploit slaves. How can that be true? I never even heard of a story like your salt story and gibbing by Buckles. You probably sucked it out of your thumb, just to whitewash all the slavery sins, he?”

“Anansi, I said that many non-Spanish adventurers, merchants, and traders came for salt, initially. Later, they engaged in everything else that was available in commerce. The salt trade is not an alternative fact, but an openly known and registered event in history, and for the entire world to check. So, please go and check it out.

I know it could be grossly inconvenient for all those who use selected, historical facts to push their agenda of the slave trade and reparations. They may be just after the money and not after the facts.  Publicly available are many sources. Libraries are full with thousands and thousands of shipping documents, tax assessments, loading records, diplomatic correspondence about armed conflicts, insurance policies, and claims, financing liens, lawsuits, death certificates, crew lists, etc., etc.

Our friend VOC-captain Hendrik van der Decken can confirm the interest of his bosses in the VOC, in cinnamon, caneel or canel, canella and other spices.

Note. Cinnamomum Verum is "real cinnamon, " and worth its weight in gold. Most cinnamons come from knock-offs made out of related species, called, cassia.

Slave trade out of Africa to the Middle East and South East Asia had been happening since pharaoh Hatshepsut (ca. 1500 BC), who imported slaves from Punt,(Somalia).

Some authors report that, most reluctantly, the VOC got involved in the delivery of an annual contingency of slaves from the King of Ashanti (Ghana) to Surabaya in the Demak Sultanate.

Big money was not in slave trade and slavery; it took too long, and installations were too costly.  Slave-shipping operations mostly had to file for bankruptcy, after a while. The Dutch West Indies, (WIC) company, the leading trans-Atlantic shipper for a while (1660-1713), filed for bankruptcy four times. Also, the British and Danish West Indies Companies filed for bankruptcies or reorganization to protect from creditors.

But, let me tell you another story, about Bartolemé de Las Casas, who became the main driving force behind the import of African slaves rather than Carib Indians for laboring the sugar plantations, in the 17-19th centuries.

Bartolomé was the son of Pedro de las Casas, a merchant–migrant on board the Governor Nicolás de Ovando-crossing. He and his family immigrated to the island of Hispaniola, in 1502. The Las Casas became a 'hacendado' and slave owner.

The Spanish Crown sent Royal Governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, to establish the formal 'encomienda' system. The 'encomienda' was a labor system, rewarding conquerors, the Spanish and Portuguese, with the work benefits of particular groups of people.

Settlers, like Pedro de Las Casas, got a land-lease, no ownership, and usufruct of native workers and paid a percentage of the returns to the Governor and the Crown.

Las Casas junior, who witnessed unspeakable atrocities and the inhumane treatment of the locals, became one of the world’s first Human Rights observer. He revolted his entire life against this onslaught and debauchery.

The treatment of the indigenous populations was horrendous by all accounts. The mistreatment of the Indians resulted in the annihilation of millions.  Some historians estimated that 20- 22 million people got killed by settlers and soldiers, between 1500-1600.

We will never know the exact numbers, but the unspeakable Spanish bestiality can be studied today, from the minutely depicted scenes, made by Joos van Winghe (1544–1603), a Flemish painter, and Theodorus de Bry  (1528 – 1598), an engraver. Their series of etched plates show what Bartelomé, as an eyewitness, described in his "Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias."

After a lifelong protest, Las Casas succeeded on November 20, 1542, when the Emperor signed the New Laws abolishing the 'encomiendas' and removing certain officials from the Council of the Indies. The New Laws made it illegal to use Indians as carriers, except where no other transport was available, it prohibited all taking of Indians, as slaves.  Instead of indigenous Caribe Indians, Africans became the newly imported labor to the New World.

By Jacob Gelt Dekker
Columnist for Curaçao Chronicle

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