Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Otra Conquista, La (The Other Conquest) (1998) >> Issue Essay >>

Las Casas on Converting the “Barbarians”

By Alexandra Neumann, with comment by Kelsey Cannon

[1] What does the title of the film The Other Conquest suggest? The word "conquest" denotes that there is a yielding of some manner, and one would believe that the initial form of this would be physically. However, the film proposes that there is a significant "other" form of conquest that has taken place. It examines the social, psychological, and, most importantly, religious effects on the Spanish colonization of the Aztec people in the 1520s. The Other Conquest is a story that focuses on the cultural and religious clash of conversion. The characters of Topiltzin and Friar Diego illuminate the discordance between the two groups of people. The Friar assumes the responsibility of converting Topiltzin from a savage, a man who prayed to a mother-goddess and who was guilty of committing acts of human sacrifice, to a pious Christian. The Friar understands that this conversion will not occur by physical abuse, and he attempts to adopt Topiltzin into the light of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Is there a real-life basis for the Friar and his actions? Although Friar Diego is a fictional character, he is derived from an historical individual. For instance, the Friar's statement "Preach by example!" is reminiscent of the philosophy of Bartolomé de las Casas, the celebrated Spanish Dominican priest. As a colonizer in the New World, Las Casas observed the Spanish genocide of Native Americans epitomized in the film by the attitude of Capitán Cristóbal and eventually came to oppose these violent methods of colonization.

[2] It is crucial to understand Las Casas's background in order to fully comprehend his reasons for wanting to convert the Indians and his animosity towards violence. Las Casas was born in the year 1484 into a farming and merchant family in Seville, Spain, and was introduced to the concept of the New World at a young age. He experienced Christopher Columbus's return to Seville after his first voyage from the recently discovered Indies. His family quickly became interested in news from the new world, and within the same year Las Casas's father and several of his uncles embarked on Columbus's second journey to the New World. While his father was away, the young Las Casas possibly studied at the cathedral school in Seville. After his father returned home, he presented his son with a native Taíno boy named Juanico to act as a servant (The boy was eventually returned to his native land). Las Casas later informed his father that he wanted to become a priest, and he was sent to study at a prestigious college in Salamanca. In 1502, at the age of eighteen, Las Casas emigrated to Hispaniola. This expedition of Nicolás de Ovando was his first encounter with the abusive nature of the Spanish on the Taínos. He lived under the encomienda system, which allowed for him, as well as all other Spanish, the right to land and native slave ownership. He lived in Santo Domingo for roughly five years and worked with the natives with their land and other possessions. He also did some work as a provisioner for the Spanish military. During this traveling, Las Casas was able to witness the barbaric treatment of the Spanish on the Indians, and he writes in his History of the Indies about his disgust with the mistreatment of these people and the slaughtered families he encountered. He finally came to understand the disruption of the Spanish on these peoples' lives in their constant exploration for gold. He returned to Spain with such images burned into his memory, and it was not until December 21, 1511, that this same issue was addressed by another man of God, Friar Antón Montesino. His words recapitulated Las Casas's own contemplations:

Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.

Although it took him several more years, Las Casas eventually turned against the popular Spanish belief that the Indians were barbarians. In 1514, he denied his right of possession of Indians as well as land ownership on the island. This truly was Las Casas's initial step against the violence of the conquest and, more specifically, the encomienda system.

[3] Bartolomé de Las Casas creates numerous arguments in his book In Defense of the Indians (1552) to support his theories regarding the roles of religion and war in the natives' environment. One of these concerns the idea that religion does not provide an excuse for war. Las Casas understands that the church has the natural right to preach the gospel, and he certainly states that he desires for this to occur as well. However, he claims that the church has no right to force individuals to listen. He then continues to explicate this idea by breaking down his reasoning into four distinct parts. The first states that if one "cannot be forced to a religion, neither can [one] be forced to hear the dogmas and traditions of a religion." To force this upon an individual is only going to result in some form of destruction. The second argument is that although the Church is favorable of its believers, it does not force its beliefs upon others (and Las Casas uses the examples of the Jews and Saracens). The third argument states that Christ only commanded that the gospel be preached throughout the world. There is no further command and therefore if the gospel is preached, his demands have been met (176). Las Casas states that the final argument is quite direct from Christ to his disciples:

As you enter his house, salute it, and if the house deserves it, let your peace descend upon it; if it does not, let your peace come back to you. And if anyone does not welcome you or listen to what you have to say, as you walk out of the house or town shake the dust from your feet. I tell you solemnly, on the day of judgment, it will not go as hard with the land of Sodom and Gomorrah as with that town. (177)

Las Casas reiterates the words from the Gospel of Matthew by stating that Christ does not demand that one take up arms to defend religion. Instead, Christ will reserve punishment for those individuals on Judgment Day.

[4] The Other Conquest contains a scene of human sacrifice, though not cannibalism, and Las Casas mentions specific persons who have committed acts of sacrifice or cannibalism and how they should be dealt with. Las Casas claims that the church is not obligated to save all innocent people, especially if a substantial number of individuals will die in the process. When individuals who are not Christian are guilty of committing such acts as human sacrifice, they should not necessarily be attacked. War should be avoided to ensure that innocent people are not killed, kingdoms are not destroyed, and a newly instilled hatred for all of Christianity does not blossom. (see comment by Kelsey Cannon)

[5] Las Casas wants the Spanish leaders to choose the "lesser evil" when deciding on an option -- "For in comparison with the greater evil, the choice of the lesser evil has the quality of a good. . . . Now the death of a small number of innocent persons is a lesser evil than the eternal damnation of countless numbers of persons killed in the fury of war" (191). It is therefore unlawful and morally wrong to slaughter an entire native kingdom to rescue those innocent individuals who were sacrificed. Las Casas supports this argument by making several points, the first of which states that the direct death of an innocent is a mortal sin. God would be displeased by this act, and the gesture would be even more wicked if one claimed to be acting in accordance to God's laws when, in all reality, he never would have agreed upon it. Las Casas says, "For God does not delight in the suffering of the innocent or the harmless. To kill them is a greater sin than that which pagans commit in sacrificing innocent persons" (205).

[6] This issue of seeking vengeance through violence becomes more complicated when Las Casas makes the argument that one cannot distinguish a guilty individual from an innocent one. This is clearly inevitable because wars create chaos and problems arise within this disorder. Las Casas uses the example of the Spanish and natives to directly address this point. He creates a hypothetical (but not really because he has witnessed this first-hand) situation in which the Spanish discover the Indians committing acts of either human sacrifice or cannibalism. His tone becomes ironic when he claims that "the Spaniards are so upright and good-living that nothing motivates them except the rescue of the innocent and the correction of the guilty" (217). Clearly he is quite aware that the Spanish are manipulating the natives to quench their own greed. When the Spanish come to revenge the innocent, what language will be spoken to those who are guilty? Will there be a deadline for the guilty to understand what crimes they have committed? What will the soldiers do while they wait for the guilty to realize this?

[7] Las Casas makes his argument even more ironically glorious by asking, "What if they say that they do not kill the innocent for sacrifice or cannibalism but only those condemned to death for their crimes, or those captured in a just war, or those who have died a natural death?" (219) If they knew how to answer the Spanish, then there is nothing that the Christians can reproach them for. Las Casas makes the argument that if a person is eaten out of necessity for others to survive, is it still morally wrong as well? To push the matter even further, he mentions a direct story of several Spaniards who once ate their companion's liver to avoid starvation and also comments on a different story in which the entire Spanish city of Numancia was forced to eat human corpses to survive a siege from Scipio.

[8] Las Casas closes this argument by questioning if this reason alone is enough to wage war. Those that have committed acts of human sacrifice or cannibalism do not believe it to be intrinsically evil. He cites arguments on human sacrifice from the ancient historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, the early Christian author, Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius, Plutarch, and Herodotus to reinforce his argument. They all mention several types of human sacrifice that were common in ancient times. Therefore, if human sacrifice was once permitted, why punish the natives? Las Casas sarcastically adds, "Human sacrifice to the gods has been customary among so many different peoples, surely the Indians, in sacrificing men for centuries, are in probable error" (224). However, if one were to convert the Indians, Las Casas claims that it would be possible to punish them for practicing human sacrifice. His final justification for his book is that there is still hope to convert the natives without using violence. He believes that the words of God are enough to ensure a proper conversion: "God's word uproots idolatry and every other vice and softens the hearts of any nation, no matter how wild it may be, by its admirable power" (254). (1)

[9] Bartolomé de Las Casas was a man who believed in the power of God's word and that the natives were not inherently evil despite their customs of human sacrifice or cannibalism. It is important to note the significant difference between Las Casas and the character of Friar Diego in The Other Conquest. Las Casas was a man who saw the natives as good-natured people despite their religion but who needed conversion, while Friar Diego, though concerned initially with their conversion to Catholicism, later came to question the validity of his own faith. Las Casas had more faith in the power of God and was therefore able to take a stand in his beliefs on behalf of a destroyed kingdom.


Kelsey Cannon 2/15/12

The idea that followers of the Church aren't responsible for the righting of others' wrongs is a theme that, clearly stated in the Gospel of Matthew, doesn't seem to be closely followed in the representations of the relationships between Europeans and the Natives that we've observed through The Other Conquest. Portraying the Spanish with religious fervor that rivals that of legendary crusaders, the director sets the viewer up to easily and empathetically observe the injustices towards the natives. So while Friar Diego does not represent Las Casas as much as the viewer expects, the message of Las Casas -- supported by the Gospel of Matthew -- comes through to the reader independently. The director chose to show that message rather than stating it explicitly through a character, to make the viewer feel the injustices, perhaps to come to the conclusion on his/her own, making the movie more powerful.

Works Consulted

Las Casas, Bartolomé de. In defense of the Indians; the defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, late Bishop of Chiapa, against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World discovered across the Seas. Translated, edited, and annotated by Stafford Poole. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1974.

Orique, David. "Bartolomé de las Casas: A Brief Outline of His Life and Labor"