REVIEWS: The Spanish in Chile

Eugene H. Korth, S.J ., Spanish Policy  in Colonial Chile, The Struggle for Social Justice, 1535-1700, (Standford, U.P. December. l 968).

One of the most interesting aspects of Spanish colonialism was the manner in which it was scrutinized and challenged. Some questioned the moral and legal aspects of Spanish colonialism, while others firmly defended the right of the Spanish Crown to conquer and to hold its American possessions and to exploit Indian labour. Whereas in North America there appears to have been little doubt in the minds of settlers and Government that the indigenous population should either be eliminated or forced into Indian reservations, in Spanish America, humanists questioned the nature of the Spanish Conquest, and condemned acts of brutality toward the Indian population. For half a century, the fiery Dominican Friar, Bartolome de las Casas paternalistically demanded that the Indians should be peacefully conquered, protected and converted to Christianity, and taught to live like Spaniards. His Brevisima Historia de la Destruccion de las Indias became a manual for the perpetrators of the Black Legend of Spanish imperialism, a manual used by the enemies of Spain the Dutch and English in particular – to smear Spain’s international. On the other hand’, there were men such as Gines de Sepulveda who firmly defended the view that the Indians were inferior in virtue to the Spaniards (since the Indians were idolaters, cannibals, and polygamists) and in consequence “Just war” could and should be waged against them as a means of Christianising and “civilising” them.

Although Father Korth does not take up a position of attack or defence as far as the Black Legend is concerned, his work brings forward a considerable amount of data to support that Legend. Indeed, the thesis’ of his work “that the principal cause of that (Araucanian) resistance was the harsh treatment that the Indians experienced at the hands of the whites, many of whom looked upon as a convenient way of solving the labour problem and of acquiring the slaves for their farms and haciendas”, falls into the category of works denouncing Spanish imperialism as brutal, bloody and exploitative. The author takes care to point out, however, that not all encomenderos were blood-thirsty and savage in their treatment of the Indians. “Not all encorneuderos viewed heir Indians simply as slaves or labourers. Men like Bartolome Flores, Francisco Hernandez Gallego, and the elder Alonso de Cordoba treated them as human beings”. But “men with unselfish motives were few during the early decades of the conquest” (P.31 ). Father Korth himself makes no specific condemnation of conquest, but generally adopts the sixteenth century Spanish humanitarian view that conquest could be peaceful and even mutually beneficial.

Korth regards his work as having a significance for historical study. But in addition, he assigns to it a timeless dimension. In his words, the book “is appropriate at the present time, when questions of inter-racial amity and human rights are in the forefront of men’s consciences” (p.vii). His book therefore designed to serve both a historical and moral purpose. The author does not attempt to draw any conclusions which could serve to solve contemporary “racial” problems. He only hints that it is the oppression or one race by another race that leads to inter-racial disharmony. This is no earth-shaking discovery.

The work has some merit as a study in Spanish colonialism. It brings forward few, if any new ideas, it is true; but has some interesting detail. It examines not only the several items of ameliorative issued-Tasa de Esqurluchc, Tasu de Santillan, etc.- but examines the attempts to apply them, and their usual failure. We are therefore constantly presented with the interaction of legislation and the application of it; with the confrontation between cynical colonial bureaucrats and encomenderos on the one hand, and between idealistic Roman Catholic priests and ‘humanitarian’ crown officials on the other. Nor does Korth fail to take into consideration the fact that the struggle for justice in Chile did not consist only of the humanitarian efforts of European idealists to bring about ameliorative reform, but also of the violent determination of the Araucanians to resist the abuses of the Spaniards.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Korth did not examine in more detail the Araucanian background. The fact that the Araucanians had “opposed every invasion of the Incas (probably 1448-82)”* would indicate that the Araucanians had had a history of defence of their way of life from external forces. The Araucanians though a sedentary, agricultural people were not bound together by a stable political centre in tunes of peace, but fought together loyally in times of war. A brief comparison of the Araucanian way of life and the Aztec way of life prior to the coming of the Spaniards would have brought out some other points or interest. That is, the Aztecs accustomed to a fairly centralised regime under an emperor could more easily be controlled by the Spainards, and in particular by Heman Cortes who substituted himself for Montezuma at the top or the political pyramid. He was thereby able to take advantage of the Aztec submission to labour discipline and tribute. Even though in Mexico treatment of the Indian by the encomendero was equally harsh, there was no long, drawn-out military conflict between Spaniards and Indians, except in the north, where there was a prolonged war bet ween Spaniards and Chichimecs, a semi-nomadic group of Indians. In effect, it is unfortunate that Father Korth docs not, where appropriate, make cross-references to other areas of the Spanish American Empire. Such a course on his part might have served to make his work far more interesting reading.

It would appear also that the harsh treatment meted out to the Indians must be taken together with, and not separate from, the determination of the Indians to protect and preserve their way of life to explain adequately the long drawn-out conflict between the Spainards and the Araucanian Indians. There is some hint, from data within the text that Indian resistance could be provoked. not only by harsh treatment, but by resentment at “efforts of the padres (Catholic missionaries) to wean them away from their tribal customs, especially their adherence to polygamy misunderstandings occurred, tensions developed, and talk of war began again. A crisis might have been averted … had not the governor made a colossal blunder … This the Indian resolutely refused to do, saying that they were ‘happy in their mountain habitations and wanted no other; and just as the Spaniards had doctors of their own to cure them so they had their medicine men to take care of them and to guard their tribal secrets. For these reasons they were determined to defend their liberty and their national customs’” (italics added) p 205

Father Korth shows up the differences in clerical opinion vis-a-vis the Araucanian Indians. There is a sharp contrast between Father Gil Gonzalez, a supporter of peaceful penetration, and justice for the Indians, and Juan Gallegos who argued: “there are times when the Gospel must be preached with tongues of fire, that is to say, with naming guns.” (p.143) Korth does not deny the need for Indian labour, that is to say, Indian exploitation. But he does think that Indian labour could and should have been more humanitananly exploited. He gives as an example of humanitarian use of labour the Jesuit plantations (p I 07). He discusses the employment of ‘defensive’ warfare and its final rejection as a means of pacifying the Araucanians. He argues fairly convincingly that the massacre at Elicura (1614) during which three Jesuits were slain, did not reflect any weakness in the system of defensive warfare.

Generally, Korth ‘s work must be regarded as an important addition to studies on the Spanish colonial period. His is certainly the fullest work, in English, on Spanish Indian relationships in Chile, and no doubt add considerably to the growing body of detailed studies on the Spanish colonial regime.

  • Inez Hilger, Huemun Namku 1966, P x11