…The sailor relates that in Utopia neither money nor private property exists. There, scorn for gold and superfluous consumption is encouraged, and no one dresses ostentatiously. Everybody gives the fruits of his works to the public stores and freely collects what he needs. The economy is planned. There is no hoarding, which is the son of fear, nor is hunger known. The people choose their prince and the people can dispose of him; they also elect the priests. The inhabitants of Utopia loathe war and its honors, although they fiercely defend their frontiers. They have religion that does not offend reason and rejects useless mortifications and forcible conversions. The laws permit divorce but severely punish conjugal betrayals and oblige everyone to work six hours a day. Work and rest are shared; the table is shared. The community takes charge of children while their parents are busy. Sick people get privileged treatment; euthanasia avoids long painful agonies. Gardens and orchards occupy most of the space and music is heard wherever one goes.
Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, 61
How has the European worldview which Columbus brought to his encounter with the natives of the Americas shaped five hundred years of history? According to Columbus’s log, the Taino Indians were so generous that “if it be asked of them they never say no; on the contrary they invite you to share it and show you as much love as if their hearts went with it.” How then explain the fact that all Taino men, women, and children were ordered to mine a gold tribute of three-quarters of an ounce every three months? Indians who refused had their hands cut off. How can one account for the brutality of a slave system causing such despair that, as Pedro Hernandez Cobas relates, whole families of Tainos flung themselves off cliffs to end their misery? How so from a navigator on a mission of God?
The European race to acquire gold locates a fundamental clash of values—for the European, accumulation (of treasure, currency, land) wins cultural and individual honor. The practice of accumulation, historically the basis of a capitalist economy, was as foreign to the Indian and African world as were the tall bearded strangers bearing long knives and muskets. Accumulating abundance for purposes other than to distribute it to the community found no favor with the tribe. The Indian practices of collectivity, sharing, and sexual freedom so captivated the Europeans that they wrote back to the “old world” of encounters with “paradise” and utopia.
While these freedoms attracted the imagination of some Europeans, most found them threatening. The powerful of Europe (Church and State) were undivided in their desire to control the newly “found” lands and peoples. The European worldview is best revealed in the Papal Bull of Alexander VI, which granted by right the lands of the “new world” to Spain and Portugal for the “spread of the Catholic faith.” This document reveals both Church and State’s belief in the legal and ecclesial right of the powerful to take the lands of the less powerful. The one transgression that was punishable by excommunication was not ownership of people and not, obviously, the ownership of land, or for that matter the appropriation of others’ land, because the Papal Bull legitimated the European state’s right to the lands of the Americas. The great sin that merited virtual damnation was for either nation to cross the Pope’s demarcation line and attempt to take the land or inhabitants of the other. The key here is the right (moral and legal) to property (human and nature).
Taino being punished by Conquistador
The native worldview had no such concept as private property. Although there were over two thousand indigenous languages and thousands of diverse cultures amongst the Indians, few, if any, of the indigenous language forms had a word to express possession. The Indians of “paradise” could not comprehend what was in store for them when they brought offerings of corn, berries, wild turkey, and beads as tribute to the strangers. In a few years their sharing would be seen as childlike naiveté. When they resisted the enforced tribute of gold, their leaders would be hanged or burned; the less radical punishment would order the resister’s hand or foot to be severed.
The story of Guaironex, a leader of Indians from the La Vega Valley of Santo Domingo, epitomizes the divergent views of relationship (to land, people and things, i.e., treasure) held by Indians and Europeans:
In 1494-95, after Columbus imposed a tribute of gold to be paid by every Taino man, woman, and child, Guaironex went to the first colonizer with a counter offer. Guaironex’s main chiefs gathered over one thousand men with coas [planting sticks] in hand. They offered, if Columbus would drop the gold tribute, to plant all the food the Spanish would ever want to eat. They said to Columbus, “We will feed you here on the island and also all of your people back in Castille. You don’t even need to work.” But of course, the colonizers wanted gold or, in lieu of it, slaves and precious woods.
Lynn Tyler, Two Worlds, quoted in Jose Barreiro, “A Note on Tainos: Whither Progress?” View from the Shore, 7:3, 69
Western moral code demanded an upholding of law which mandated the rights of the emerging nation-states of Europe to acquire property. Accumulation of treasure was the Crown’s objective, and church codes gave the enterprise moral justification. Pillage, execution, destruction of entire communities of native peoples, and enslavement were seen as necessary tactics to civilize and “save the souls” of heathens. European society recognized the rights of the powerful (the aristocracy who owned lands) but gave little or no protection to landless serfs and peasants. Nevertheless, poor Europeans were considered Christians and civilized. Indians and Africans were neither. They were “savages” whose refusal to convert to Christianity (and to give up their land and culture) brought upon them whatever “force” was necessary to change their minds. The requerimiento is and example.
The requerimiento was legally required to be read aloud to the Indians notifying them that God, through his Vicar on earth who was the Pope, had given the Spanish King the power to grant them salvation. This document, read to the Indians in Latin, was legally required before all invasions.