Apologies for yesterday’s crimes: Spain and its Conquistadors

Mexico recently asked Spain to apologise for Hernan Cortes’ Conquista. Are apologies to the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere overdue?

By Jorge Baracutei Estevez
Published: Tuesday 09 April 2019
The Cholula Massacre during the Conquest of Mexico. Photo: Wikipedia

It has been 527 years since Spain first sent ships into the vast unknown waters of the world, in search of “trading partners”.  With the fall of Constantinople, trade in the east became perilous for all, and henceforth, cut short. Much needed spices and other commodities were in high demand in Europe at the time. What was a nation to do?

One sailor suggested and was able to convince the Spanish monarchy, that by sailing west, they could get to the riches and spices of the east. This man, of course, was Christopher Columbus. And so it was that on October 12, 1492, the doors to an entire New World were opened. A world that Spain, and the Europeans that followed, would exploit to the fullest.

Trade by definition is the transfer of goods or services, from one person or entity to another.  But trade was the last thing on the Spaniards’ minds. Upon landing on the islands of the Caribbean, the Spanish claimed the land, its peoples and its resources as the property of Spain. In fact, King Ferdinand wrote a letter to the inhabitants of this new world, letting them know (as if they could read or even understand this strange European language).

Here is a brief summary of the King’s letter: Should you fail to comply, or delay maliciously in so doing, we assure you that with the help of God we shall use force against you, declaring war upon you from all sides and with all possible means, and we shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and of Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals. And we declare you guilty of resulting deaths and injuries, exempting Their Highnesses of such guilt as well as ourselves and the gentlemen who accompany us. We hereby request that legal signatures be affixed to this text and pray those present to bear witness for us.

Were these the common “trading” practices of the Spaniards? Not really. But in these lands they deemed ‘godless’, they gave themselves holy permission to pillage and plunder — rape and rob, murder, torture and destroy anything and anyone that got in the way of their golden dreams. Spices they said? Trade they wanted? Those were the last things on their minds.

Today, we can look at the Spaniards and other Europeans of that era, and judge them accordingly. Anyone who reads uncondensed and uncensored versions of this history, goes away shocked and appalled at the inhumane treatment bestowed upon the native peoples of the Americas.  

What’s done is done some might say, and perhaps it is so. History cannot be changed; it can only be revisited and learned from. 

On June 11, 2008, the Honourable Stephen Harper of Canada offered a public statement of apology to former students of Indian residential schools, on behalf of the Canadian Government. That has been probably the only apology ever given to native nations. In some cases, Spain and other western nations have supported native endeavours, as they should.  But other than Canada, none have even hinted at an apology. Some right-leaning people in the United States rationalise that Indians were involved in wars between each other and that Europeans were just the last on a long list of peoples who invaded and fought these lands.

What these groups fail to understand is that the level of atrocities and the types of crimes committed against the American Indian people were among the darkest in recorded history.  Verifiable acts such as small pox-infected blankets given to destitute women, children and the elderly is overlooked in favor of Eurocentric glorification.  The so-called Conquistadors of Spain were no more noble or honourable than the common thug is today and yet, they are treated as heroes, explorers, and great warriors.

Indians, who were the victims of attempted genocide, are either canonised or demonised. Caricatures of native people are used as logos from sports teams to commercial apple boxes. The Indian, it seems, was nothing more than a savage, unworthy of empathy, and certainly not worthy of an apology.

What should the Spanish apologise for? They should apologise for their acts of attempted genocide, of the rape of women and children, of cutting off the arms, hands, legs and feet of the Indians who could not meet their quarterly gold quotas. They should apologise for all the people they displaced, disposed and enslaved, often working them to the death. For all the riches they stole, for the lands they ravished and for the attack on the very identities of these noble red nations. 

Most importantly and highest on this apology list is for trying to destroy our spirituality, which, by the grace of all our ancient ancestors, they were unable to do so. They should apologise in the name of their own ancestors. Natives today do not blindly blame contemporary Spanish or European peoples for the horrors of the past, but we do hold their ancestors accountable. Spain should apologise for ushering in the destruction of all American Indians from Alaska to the tip of South America. I wonder, what would their Jesus Christ have thought of all the wonton acts of murder and violence committed for… gold?

Cacique Jorge Baracutei Estevez is a Taino Indian from Haiti/Kiskeya. Estevez has worked for the National Museum of the American Indian for 25 years and is also the Head Chief of the Higuayagua Taino people of the Caribbean

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