Friday, October 10, 2014

Bartolomé de las Casas Is Nobody's Hero

An excerpt from The Oatmeal's "Bartolomé Day" comic. Click here for the full comic.

Internet cartoonist Matthew Inman published a strip entitled “Christopher Columbus Was Awful (But This Other Guy Was Not)” in the weeks before Columbus Day 2013, urging Americans to reject the “Columbus Day” title and instead celebrate “Bartolomé Day,” honoring Bartolomé de las Casas. Inman calls Bartolomé “one of the first advocates for universal human rights.” Take a moment to read Inman’s encomium to Bartolomé. Considering what we know now, he certainly seems worthy of celebration.

However, think carefully. Inman admits he gets his information, on both Bartolomé and Columbus, from Howard Zinn and James Loewen. He hasn’t read the primary sources, as indeed most non-historians haven’t. Columbus and Bartolomé wrote in an outmoded Castilian dialect more distant from contemporary Spanish than Shakespearean English is from hip-hop lingo. Though translations exist, the wide remove between contemporary linguistic standards and early Renaissance Spanish reflects massive shifts in worldview as much as language.

Bartolomé de las Casas
Bartolomé did, as Inman writes, inveigh against injustices wrought upon Indians. Born rich and titled, an encounter with Christ encouraged Bartolomé to reject his inheritance and dedicate his life to “the least of these.” He displayed a commitment modern American fundamentalists could profitably emulate: rather than resting comfortably upon the knowledge of his salvation, he considered that saving the beginning of his new life. From that point, Bartolomé endeavored constantly to live by Christ’s teachings.

But like all Christians, from Paul to Augustine, from St. Francis to Bonhoeffer, Bartolomé also remained human. This means he sometimes suffered the blinders of his times, missed the bigger picture, and spoke without full possession of the facts. In his writings, Bartolomé deplored the consequences plantation slavery inflicted upon Indians, in lands once their own. But he didn’t question plantations themselves. Thus, he advocated replacing Indian slaves with more numerous, hardier, readily available Africans.

That’s right—Bartolomé de las Casas, extolled advocate for Native American rights, wrote possibly the first surviving moral justification for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. American Indians, having never encountered either European warfare or Eastern Hemisphere tropical diseases, were dying like flies. However, the introduction of maize and potatoes into Africa had produced a population boom exceeding available land or work. Thus, Columbus created a nexus of dislocation that hurt everybody, except perhaps the wealthiest Europeans.

Harvard-educated historian James Loewen, one of Inman’s two sources, writes about something he calls “heroification,” which “turn[s] flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest.” Loewen specifically wrote this to censure how American public schools teach history. My fellow public school graduates probably recall the confusion suffered when we discovered the difference between fixed, immobile schoolbook history, and the sweaty turmoil we witness nightly while watching the unfolding news.

We saw this last month with the highly publicized Colorado school walkout, when students abandoned five suburban Denver high schools to protest curriculum changes. Community groups wanted history classes to inculcate patriotism, minimize doubts about America’s greatness, and discourage “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” America’s struggles, often mined profitably by book publishers and Hollywood producers, because they’re important and frankly interesting, are getting squelched by semi-elected leaders in America’s public schools.

No artists captured Christoper Columbus
during his life. We don't know what he
really looked like—not that anyone has
stopped trying to create portraits
My problem with Inman’s comic isn’t that he includes only information that supports his thesis. It’s that he reduces the struggles Bartolomé and Columbus faced, which are largely the struggles still playing out today, to single fixed points. Bartolomé’s and Columbus’s views evolved unhurriedly, and though they traveled in opposite directions, they did so under mainly identical circumstances. Voter ID laws, gerrymandered congressional districts, and other lopsided, race-based legislation indicates Bartolomé’s struggles aren’t yet resolved.

Below his comic, in plain type, Inman acknowledges Bartolomé’s role in constructing the Transatlantic Slave Trade. He also quotes Bartolomé in his old age, rejecting his own former opinions. Since Bartolomé’s views arose from Christian values, we might perhaps recall Christ’s quote about one sinner who repents versus ninety-nine virtuous persons who never stray. This certainly describes Bartolomé, and it could potentially describe America, if we learn to stop celebrating the worst in our history.

Nevertheless, that disclaimer doesn’t negate the massive infographic, so huge it requires eleven .png files to display, which presents Bartolomé and Columbus as fixed, immobile creatures. This is a shame. Because Inman’s right, children should learn about Bartolomé in school. But they should learn the whole man: the challenges he faced, the internal struggle he never completely resolved, and his whole legacy, good and bad. Bartolomé deserves better than getting reduced to a mere hero.

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