With the election of Pope Francis I, the Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, it is timely to review the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.
OLD POPES AND NEW WORLDS (Part One - The Brutes)
Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is
lord of all he wants. With gold it is even
possible to open for souls the way to paradise!
- Christopher Columbus
The words of Columbus, uttered a decade after his first sighting of the continent of America,1 reflect the confusion in the Renaissance mind between El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, and the popular vision of heaven. Through the agency of Cortes, the Pizarros and other Spanish Catholic soldier-adventurers, the two notions became interwoven so seamlessly that the slaughter of the native peoples of the Americas and the pillaging of their wealth became a “holy work” of sorts, entailing the saving of native American souls before their prompt dispatch to God in heaven and the taking of all they possessed on earth.
It would appear on the face of it that a line of credit the size of the Americas could not have come at a more opportune time for Rome. By the time of Columbus the papacy had presided over the Catholic Church for one and a half millennia, making it a most venerable human institution. But the challenges the popes faced at the time of the Conquistadors were many, varied and complex. They included the chronic intrigues of emperors and kings; the Protestant Reformation and the ongoing Inquisition; the leeching of wealth to the sovereign states and the banks; and the penumbra of the approaching Enlightenment in the writings of More, Erasmus and Montaigne and the theories of scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.
In the sixteenth century the Church and papal power were in a period of rapid evolution towards their present form. The papacy had begun to undergo a process similar to Europe’s other absolute monarchs, a gradual ebbing away of real temporal power, to a remnant largely of spectacle and symbolism. Where once popes could consign those it wished to the flames, or have their flesh seared with irons, now they were on a path downwards to wielding moral authority alone. Even by the sixteenth century, although there is evidence they might have wished to prevent it, they were powerless to stop the rape of the Americas, and during the centuries that would follow it, little more than wardrobe would be left to the papal drama.
That the century had opened promisingly. The death of the wanton Alexander VI had opened the way for the militantly assertive Julius II, who expanded the papal territories and filled the treasury, ushering in a golden era which would last for two decades. Construction of the grandest building in Christendom, Saint Peter’s basilica, was underway, and the genius of artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael celebrated Catholic belief in works of enduring beauty. And then there was the New World, the fantastic, newly-glimpsed realm which promised riches beyond imagining for Catholic Spain, and surely something too for Rome, and for all the Catholic world.
The opposite occurred. Spain kept its plunder much to itself and the Vatican went begging, near destitute. With Christendom plunged into yet another round of conflict and chaos that lasted most of the century, in a few decades much of the initial wealth of the New World would be dissipated, spent, and Spain itself broke. Native Americans had died in their multitudes, worked to death by Christians, through whose fingers their stolen gold slipped like so much sand. It was not so much the wine in the chalice that was poisoned as the gold of the chalice itself.
The problem with history, as has been observed, is that it takes so long. Occasionally though it happens almost in a moment. This was the case in 1492, when a pope stood centrestage as the curtain parted on what has been called the greatest single event in human history, the sighting by Europeans of the Americas. The pope was Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and though a Spaniard, in his position as pope it had fallen to him to divide the spoils of the New World between the two greatest maritime powers of the era, Spain and Portugal. To avoid conflict between the Iberian superpowers, it was decided in effect that Spain could exploit all that it found to the west of a line drawn north-south down the mid Atlantic, while Portugal could take all to the east of it. In brokering the agreement, the pope in effect poured oil on what might otherwise have become a very troubled Atlantic.
‘Alexander may have favoured his native Spain, but his intercession was a statesmanlike determination of a knotty problem that allowed the exploration, which no pope could have stopped in any case, to go on without warfare between two important Christian kingdoms... The pope saw exploration as a glorious means to evangelise pagans, spreading Christ’s gospel, but he intended to do this by good works and preaching... not by the sword.’2
How deeply Alexander really felt such good intentions is perhaps open to question, but any contrary views from the Vatican about the conduct of the conquest of the Americas were ignored anyway. By the time the New World was opened up, the word of any pope, devalued by years of scandal and unsavoury practices, weighed little against gold in the scales.
The Treaty of Tordesillas was duly drawn up and signed in June 1494, and the world was effectively divided in two at the stroke of the pen of a pope. A dramatic papal act had set the stage for the sixteenth century, just as another equally dramatic one - and far more terrible - would bring it to a close. In between lay ten decades of tumult, confusion and death.
When the grandparents of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, financed the 1492 expedition of the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, the objective was to find a westward route to India, and its wealth and spices. What Columbus did not know, nor anyone else knew for that matter, was that the continent of America intervened between him and his goal. Making landfall and believing they had arrived in India, the Spaniards dubbed the native Americans “Indians”.
‘...that was what Columbus believed (on his return to Spain). His gold was indeed gold, if in no great quantity, and his parrots were indeed parrots, albeit it not of any Asian variety. Likewise his Indians - the six bewildered individuals who shuffled forward to be inspected by the assembled company were not Indians but Caribs, a race soon to be exterminated by the Spanish colonisers, and, deadlier still, by the germs they carried. The misnomer Columbus conferred has long outlived the conception.’3
Although there can be no doubt about the appeal of the natural and man-made resources of the Americas, the Spanish Conquistadors4 who followed Columbus took what they wanted not for greed alone, but through a calculated blending of greed and missionary zeal. ‘The New World had been entrusted by God to the special care of the Kings of Spain, in order that its heathen inhabitants might be brought to an understanding of the Truth Faith; and, with the obligation, went also the reward, in the form of the gold and silver which these God-given lands were producing in such gratifying quantities.’5
While the rulers of Spain might have been grateful for such a bounty, and grasped it, this is not to say Rome endorsed the acts committed by the Spanish in the Americas. There is evidence the popes tried to mitigate against the cruelty of the Conquistadors and the colonists who enslaved indigenous populations to work the silver mines. ‘It is to the credit of the Popes of the Counter-Reformation that they steadily condemned the doctrine of slavery for the Indians.’6
But who was listening to popes when there was unimaginable wealth for the taking? Against the hunger for gold and silver, for untold riches in a far-off world, the views of the popes counted for little7.
The tragedy of one man was to have huge ramifications for the gold and silver the Spanish coveted. He was the Aztec king Moctezuma II, ruler of an empire of 10 million people, covering much of modern Mexico and stretching south to Guatemala. In 1519 Moctezuma met the conquistador, Hernan Cortes. Cortes had risen from humble beginnings in Medellin, in the province of Extremadura in western Spain. He embarked for the New World to a government post in Hispaniola, and a decade and a half later headed an expedition into the Yucatan Peninsula. Spurred on by tales of the gold and other treasures of the Aztecs, he marched on their capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) toting the gun and the cross, intent on claiming the kingdom for God and Spain.
‘In Mexico, Cortes, with his finely tuned irony, told the Aztecs that he and his men “suffered from a disease of the heart which is only cured by gold.” Cieza de Leon was inspired to sail to Peru after seeing the Inca gold unloaded in Seville: “As long as I live I cannot get it out of my mind.” All of which perplexed - and, in the end, disgusted - the native peoples. The half-Inca historian Waman Poma portrayed an Indian asking a Spaniard: “Do you actually eat this gold?” And the Spaniard replies, “Yes, we certainly do!” The last of the great Incas, Manco himself, bitterly remarked, “Even if the snows of the Andes turned to gold still they would not be satisfied.”’8
Cortes took up with an indigenous woman called Malintzin, known to history as Malinche. Talented with languages, she was initially his translator, and then his advisor in battles against other rival tribes and peoples, and gained repute as Cortes’s “Lover, mistress, concubine, whore.”9
Much about Malinche remains a mystery, but this is not the case with Cortes: ‘We know little of Malinche’s sexual history, but quite a lot about Cortes’s, for long before Malinche was ever heard of, he was already notorious for his promiscuity, and long after her death his notoriety would continue. In Cuba, for example, where he had lived for fifteen years before launching his expedition to the mainland, there had been persistent scandal... Bernal Diaz referred to all this in his memoirs. He admired his commander, but he was no fool and saw his faults too. He admitted that he had heard Cortes was “dissolute with women” and “addicted to women in excess, and jealous in guarding his own.”’10
This is not to say that Cortes, like many other Spanish Conquistadors, did not at least behave like a pious Catholic. ‘...(Cortes) was devoted to the Virgin Mary, and always kept a statuette of her upon his person, said his prayers and attended mass daily...’10A
The help of Malinche would be invaluable to Cortes in his campaign to conqueror of Mexico, but his final success hinged on a combination of other factors as well. These included the belief of the Aztecs in the coming of a god with a white skin which would herald the downfall of their civilisation, the bringing in of exotic diseases to which the Aztecs had no immunity, Cortes’s talent to divide and conquer, a lack of qualms about treachery and murder; and brute firepower, cannon law.
An early account of the strange and awesome weaponry of the approaching Spaniards was given to Moctezuma by a messenger, reported in the mid-sixteenth century Florentine Codex.
‘When (the cannon) is fired, a thing like a stone ball comes out of its entrails, raining fire and shooting sparks. And the smoke that comes out of it has a foul smell, like rotten mud, which assaults the brain. If it is fired... at a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters - an extraordinary sight, as if someone blew the tree apart from within. Their weapons and equipment are all made of iron. They dress in iron; they wear iron helmets on their heads; their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their “deer” carry them on their backs, and these beasts are tall as a roof. Their bodies are covered everywhere; only their faces can be seen. They are very white, as if made of lime... Their dogs are huge, with flat waving ears and long, dangling tongues. They have fiery, blazing eyes...”11
Not surprisingly, reports like this filled Moctezuma with fear, and ultimately despair. When the two met, unfortunately for Moctezuma everything about him spoke to Cortes of vast wealth, of the exotic, and of plunder ripe for a Conquistador - even his favourite drink.12
Cortes tricked and kidnapped Moctezuma, who later died in suspicious circumstances, and the template was set for a conquest through guile and brutality. ‘Cortes sent the citizens of Cholula in Mexico a demand that they should recognise his authority and accept the Christian faith... he murdered more than 3,000 of them, the killing taking more than two hours.’13
Within three years Cortes had overthrown the Aztec Empire and installed himself as ruler of the newest province of Spain. He and his men embarked on a wholesale plunder of Aztec wealth, which was shipped in gold and artefacts back across the Atlantic to Spain.
In August 1520, the artist Albrecht Durer visited the palace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and marvelled at the newly arrived booty of Cortes. ‘I saw the things which had been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold a full fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms of the armour of the people there, with all manner of wondrous weapons, harness, spears, extraordinary clothing, beds and all manner of wonderful objects of human use, much better than seeing prodigies. These things are all so precious they are valued at 100,000 florins. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that touches my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands.14
Of even greater value over time than the precious metals and artefacts, were the other items that would transform life around the world forever after, foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, avocados and chillies, exotic flowers, spices and tobacco, and the chocolate which gained rapid popularity in Europe.14A
Native peoples from the Americas were themselves freighted back to Europe, and became the subject of intense curiosity. ‘...Cortes transported Mexican ball-players and jugglers to perform before the king in Seville. Later they went to Rome and “juggled a log with their feet... before a delighted Pope” (Leo X). In Paris, Amazonian Indians acted out their forest lives in circus shows; a Brazilian chief was presented to Henry VIII, and an Eskimo man and woman, from Baffin Island, impressed Londoners with their dignified bearing and modesty.’15
It was this dignity of the native peoples of the Americas, however, as well as their wealth, which was under frantic assault, and within a decade of meeting Cortes and his band, many Aztecs were reduced to dogma-parroting mine slaves of Spain. There were voices raised from the beginning against the barbarous treatment of the native peoples, but they were few, and their ultimate effect limited.
‘...(Dominican Friar) Antonio de Montesinos... told his appalled congregation that they were living in mortal sin because of their treatment of the Indians. “Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you do yourselves? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people?”’15A
When the colonial authorities protested to Madrid about his sermons, rather than waiting to be sent home, Montesinos returned of his own volition and argued the case before the king. His efforts and others like him helped bring about the Laws of Burgos of 1512, which laid down standards for the treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They were to be made Christians, giving them protection which could not otherwise be guaranteed to people whom the Spanish regarded as savages.
‘Natives who worked for wages were not to be ill-treated. Every town was to have an inspector to ensure that the settlers conducted themselves humanely. There were some less philanthropic provisions. The naturales (natives) were forbidden to dance. Church-going was compulsory. Old houses were to be burned, to prevent sentimentality. A third of all Indians were to work in the mines.’16
Despite the cruelty which native peoples suffered, there are those too who feel the downfall of the Aztecs was inevitable, because of their own brutal practices.17 Whatever the case, within a few years of the arrival of Cortes, Mexico and its people were subject to Spain.