Five hundred years ago this Advent, a Dominican friar named Antonio de Montesino delivered a sermon haranguing an assembly of Spaniards in Santo Domingo—a tiny, ragged, and lonely outpost on a sylvan Caribbean isle. “I am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island,” he preached. “All of you are in mortal sin and in it you are living and are dying. . . . With what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude?”
If anyone ever deserved to be harangued, it was those Spaniards, far from home and drunk on tropical air and apocalyptic dreams. Christopher Columbus’ half-crazed prophecies—visions of the earth’s peoples streaming toward Jerusalem for one final crusade, funded by the soon-to-be discovered El Dorado—never amounted to much more than raw gold fever. Nothing, especially not their dormant Christian consciences, could stand between the settlers and their desire for riches.
The crimes wrought by Damascus steel on Stone Age natives stagger the imagination: pregnant women flayed open, their fetuses skewered; fighting dogs ripping children to pieces. It was the original heart of darkness. And all under the delusion of “Christian” expansion. The chronicler of the horror, Montesino’s later Dominican brother Bartolomé de Las Casas, tells a story of the Taíno chief Hatuey, who was caught and convicted for armed resistance. When asked on his funeral pyre if he wished baptism so that he could live forever in heaven, he asked for clarification:
“Do Christians go to heaven?”
“Yes,” replied the priest.
“Then I’d rather go to hell.”
The reasonableness of Hatuey’s response exposes just how gross the perversion had become. He was captured rowing to Cuba, intent on warning his neighbors not to welcome the soon-to-arrive landing parties. Spanish settlers had been recruited to the New World by the promise of indigenous labor, a system called encomienda, loosely based on feudalism. When the natives, weakened by sickness, overwork, and trauma, died en masse, the illusion of reciprocity devolved into out-and-out slavery. Desperate to exploit their little fiefs, the colonists ranged further and further in search of replacements. A European peasant could expect a reasonable amount of protection from his lord, for both body and soul, in exchange for his labor. The lords of Santo Domingo, however, had taken and taken and taken, unto death itself, but given back nothing, not even the slightest safety or even the beginnings of spiritual care.
It’s difficult to glean much detail about Montesino’s sermon from its train of interpreters, who have distilled the entire chain of events into a single, revolutionary cusp of history. In one instant, the corrupt shortcomings of medieval Christendom are both exposed and reversed by a revelation of the essential unity of mankind. This heady stuff turns on Montesino’s charged rhetorical question: “[These Indians], are they not men?” If the postmodern theory mills of the last few decades find in the conquista and later colonialism the quintessential process of “othering” that defines the pre-critical West, it was an “othering” that Montesino, momentarily, overcame.
But the event is far from academic, especially in Ibero-America, where it continues to exercise a mythological force. The most recent in a long series of popular glosses comes from Icíar Bollaín, whose celebrated film También la Lluvia swept this year’s prestigious Círculo de Escritores Cinematográficos awards. The movie within a movie tells the story of idealistic film director Sebastian, who has finally managed to fund his dramatization of the conquista by shooting in cheap and politically corrupt Bolivia. The dream falls apart when his film’s Hatuey, played by locally cast Daniel, becomes the fugitive ringleader of protests against the privatization of Bolivia’s water. The film cuts back and forth between the smoky footage of the chief’s execution and the explosions of riot-engulfed Cochabamba.
Beneath the otherwise hackneyed moral parallels of También la Lluvia, the courageous words of Montesino uneasily occupy the dramatic summit: that moment when the Spanish colonists (and their foils, the Spanish film cast) have to choose whether they will feel, or numb themselves to, the plight of the indigenous. A final cut from the preaching friar zooms in on the obviously moved director mouthing the words “Are they not men? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves?”
Actor Juan, who plays Montesino, is all too conscious of the Dominican preacher’s meager line count and so plays up his character’s unmitigated valor. “I am the voice of Christ proclaiming in the desert of this island!” Off set, Juan bellows his lines so often they become comic relief. But he and everybody else get squeamish at their hero’s blatant religiosity. At one point the cast is gathered around a sumptuous table, lamenting the otherwise heroic Las Casas’s unrepentant colonialism. The nagging ethical ambiguities of the past are only relieved when Juan leads a giggling chorus in rehearsing Montesino’s words, only to trail off in nervous laughter at the declaration, “All of you are in mortal sin!”
Their discomfort comes from the encroaching truth. For the full story of Antonio Montesino reads more like a medieval morality play than the dawn of pan-human solidarity. To those familiar with the story’s sole source—the semihero Bartolomé de Las Casas, who wrote in the early sixteenth century—this should come as no surprise. The graphic exposés of European savagery found in his Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies have all the subtlety of Bosch’s hallucinations of hell. (No wonder this short account of colonial crimes made lucrative rounds throughout slander-happy, Spanish-occupied, Protestant Europe.)
But Las Casas’ Historia de las Indias, a three-volume chronicle of the whole encounter—including the sole telling of Montesino’s tale—did not as a whole work see the light of day for over three centuries. Cosmic in scope, and unsparing in its judgments, it lay collecting dust, willfully forgotten by the embarrassed Spanish. Even today, English readers can find Las Casas’ masterwork only in a cripplingly abridged edition that is tone-deaf to his Thomist vocabulary. (Hence, all translations here are my own.)
It was the philosophes of the Enlightenment who rediscovered Montesino and his sermon. Children of their era, they remade him in their own image: a revolutionary against the tyranny of the crown. They and their successors balk, though, when they get too close to the sermon’s true but tacit power: the Church and her comprehensive system of penitential discipline. Even Lewis Hanke, twentieth-century doyen of Latin American studies, made the sermon into a Bolivarian grito de libertad, “the first cry on behalf of human liberty in the New World.”
In the revolutionary narrative, some irresistible spirit of progress “speaks,” while a courageous group of social rebels—not theologically trained ascetics—shows us how it’s done, medieval style. The interpreters dismantle both the God whose words and the discipline whose habits trained and sustained a handful of friars to tell off an entire and dangerous elite. Yet the story of Montesino’s Advent oration doesn’t begin with the spirit of progress but with a confession of sin. The “first cry on behalf of human liberty” was first of all an ultimatum—issued to Spanish Christians—to repent.
According to the Historia, one Juan Garcés, Spanish colonist and Indian beater par excellence, fled justice after killing his Indian wife. For three years he hid out in Hispañola’s thick wilderness, before word drifted up that some Dominicans had arrived. Sensing an opportunity to be heard by unprejudiced ears, and, writes Las Casas, “knowing the odor of holiness that they produced, he let himself into the straw hut which had been given to the religious for their quarters and made an account of his life.” Since the fugitive showed “signs of conversion and detestation of his past life, and desired to do penance (of which he later did a great deal),” they accepted him as a postulant.
In his newly penitent state, Garcés “gave the brethren detailed information of the cruelties committed against the innocent natives in peace and in war.” We may, perhaps, find it hard to believe that the Dominicans knew nothing of such behavior before welcoming him into their midst—they weren’t known for being easily misled. But caught up in the social chaos of their otherworldly new home, and perhaps animated—as later was Las Casas—by dreams of a second and even greater apostolic age, their first concern was the spiritual instruction toward baptism of Indian souls rather than monitoring the morality of Spaniards.
Still, the Dominicans were understandably shocked by his reports, “inflamed with enthusiasm and pride for the honor of God, and . . . pained by the injury that had been committed against his law and commandments, and of the infamy of their faith among such peoples because of said acts.” They immediately approached the local leaders, demanding an explanation for such rampant and unrepentant sin. Meeting predictable hemming and hawing, they resolved to do what they did best: “to preach their feelings publicly in the pulpits, to declare the state in which our [Spanish] sinners, who owned and oppressed these peoples, were, and, after dying in it, where they would finally go as a reward for their inhumanity and greed.”
As luck (or Providence) would have it, the season was Advent. The text assigned for the fourth Sunday was John the Baptist’s quintessential call to repentance: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” To “make straight the pathway of our Lord,” the Dominicans chose Antonio Montesino, not for his authority—he was not their leader—but because he was “an eloquent preacher, harsh in the reproaching of vice.” Further, lest the public presume that his message represented a minority opinion, the whole fellowship signed their spokesman’s text ahead of time.
They even advertised, calling on the island’s governor Diego Columbus (Christopher’s son), as well as all royal officials and certified jurists, informing them that Sunday’s message included a “certain thing” that they would want to hear. “The citizens conceded willingly: one for the great reverence and esteem that he had [for the friars] because of their virtue and the strictness in which they lived and the rigor of their religion; the other because each one really wanted to hear what it was that . . . would pertain to them.”
When the fateful Sunday arrived, the sermon began in no unusual fashion. In front, a well-trained mendicant preacher employed his highest rhetorical abilities to paint the frank severity of God’s judgment. Opposite, an expectant crowd of hardened sinners sat ready to be shaken from their laxity. It was classic hellfire and brimstone, and they gladly joined the ride to the emotional brink, enduring “stinging and terrifying words that made their flesh crawl.” Then, at last, Montesino revealed the mysterious “certain thing.” “All of you are in mortal sin and in it you are living and are dying because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you treat these innocent people,” he declared, and then said:
Tell me: With what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? With what authority have you waged such detestable wars against a people who were so gentle and peaceful in your lands, where you have consumed uncountable numbers of them with death and unheard-of tortures? How do you possess them so oppressed and fatigued, without giving them anything to eat, nor curing them of their illnesses, which, due to the excessive work that you give them, they incur and then die—or to put it better, you kill them by taking and acquiring gold every day?
It’s all too tempting to fixate on the gross evil here outlined: invasion, war, theft, slavery, torture, death, genocide—an inventory of the West’s rise to global dominance on the backs of the world’s poorer, browner peoples. The revolutionary interpretation finds in all this injustice an indictment of the entire colonial structure, and the first sound in a long and mounting call for liberty. “It was the Dominicans . . . on the island of Hispañola in 1511,” concludes historian Enrique Dussel, “who began the struggle for justice and liberation in Latin America.” Around the world, and throughout the literature, Montesino is known as “the pioneer defender of human rights in Hispanic America.” It is for his apparently prescient critique that Montesino is remembered at all.
But such lionization mutes the fullness of Montesino’s message. For he, like his chronicler Las Casas, like John the Baptist, like the Hebrew prophets of old, sees nothing new in the depredations of his flock. Their transgressions may be broader, their consciences more numbed, their sickness more entrenched. But these are grades of the same stupor that has blinded human sight since Adam. Intoxicated by their lust for gold, they ceased to see the people standing in their way; lulled by an overpowering sense of their own Christianity, they drew no boundary between their economic and spiritual exploits; infected with their own technological and military prowess, they couldn’t even imagine that they needed a cure.
Montesino’s answer to such somnolence was less grito and more credo. For he was a Dominican, schooled at Salamanca, then epicenter of a still-fresh rediscovery of his order’s greatest light, Thomas Aquinas. His jeremiad is no mere denunciation of a corrupt political class but of the Spaniards’ failure to live up to even the basic dictates of human reason. Ignorance of even their most glaring errors confirmed just how close the settlers had come to spiritual death. He continues:
And what care do you take over who teaches them the faith, that they know their God and creator? Are baptized? Hear mass? Keep festival days and Sundays? These [Indians], are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? How is it that you are in such a deep, lethargic sleep? You can be sure that in your state you are no more able to be saved than the Moors or Turks, who lack and don’t even want the faith of Jesus Christ.
It’s here, in the sermon’s second half, that we find what Dominican chronicler Miguel Ángel Medina called Montesino’s “arch-iconic” declaration of universal human equality, those rhetorical questions heaped upon the colonists (and all future oppressors): “Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls?” But these charged phrases are best understood without the constitutional and legal glosses they later accumulate. The sermon is less a wholesale rejection of the colonial enterprise than an exacting judgment of lordship divorced from comprehensive responsibility.
More generally, Montesino refers here to the universal humanity espoused by the Christian doctrine of monogenesis: that all people have Adam as an ancestor and therefore belong to the same race. But in this missionary setting, his words specifically highlight the natives’ capacity to receive Christian teaching. A “rational soul,” in Thomistic thought, is the summit of human faculties, which by exercising judgment is able to recognize the existence of God and, ultimately, to receive divine revelation. Montesino would agree with generations of his interpreters that the Spanish dehumanized the indigenous but would disagree about what constituted the ultimate expression of it. For the friar, to have no concern for another’s salvation was the gravest breach of charity imaginable, the negligence from which other evils flowed unimpeded. How could the Spanish settlers even pretend to have Christian faith—let alone the light of reason—without evangelical concern?
Indeed, the punch line of Montesino’s oration claims precisely this: “You can be sure that in your state you are no more able to be saved than the Moors or Turks, who lack and don’t even want the faith of Jesus Christ.” The casual reference to Moors and Turks may sound like the usual bigotry to our own ears. But for Spaniards trained for centuries on crusading rhetoric and proud of their leading role in protecting Christian Europe from warmongering Muslims, to be compared with their bitterest ideological, religious, and real enemies was the most shocking statement in the whole address. Something had to be done before the blasphemy spread and Most Catholic Spain lost her laurels. Thus insulted, an agitated crowd soon passed its grievances on to governor Columbus, who in as oblique a manner possible instructed the Dominicans to retract what all had concluded was a “new teaching.”
The Dominicans had no need to go knocking on doors before the next sermon. According to Las Casas, “There was not one person in the whole city who could not be found in the church, each inviting the other to go and hear the friar who had to recant everything he said the past Sunday.” Montesino chose to begin the “retraction” with a sentence from Job 36, paraphrasing: “I will return to report the knowledge and truth that I preached to you last Sunday from its beginning, and those words of mine that embittered you so, I will show to be true.” Thus warned, “the most informed among his listeners saw where he was going to go, and it was considerable suffering for them to permit him to continue.”
But continue he did, in good scholastic fashion. Montesino “began to back up his sermon and to recite all he preached in the past sermon, and to support with more reasons and authorities what he had affirmed: that possessing those oppressed and weary peoples tyrannically was unjust.” For the less perceptive, he then put it into a language of practical piety they could understand: “So that [the Spanish] would be saved from their sickness, he made it known to them that [the friars] would not confess one man from among them unless he stop.”
And so the first cry for justice, the grito de libertad that stands at the beginning of the colonial critique, was first of all a decree of excommunication. The problem wasn’t merely the grossly imbalanced social arrangement of Spanish lord and Indian slave. The settlers of Santo Domingo had become insensate sinners not at all ready to welcome their soon-coming king. They had forgotten, even, that Christ was coming at all.
Above today’s port of Santo Domingo, not far from where Montesino preached, stands a massive memorial to the iconic event. A fifty-foot-tall statue of stone and bronze shows the cleric draped in the unmistakable white cassock and scapular of the Dominican order. The fingers of his right hand tensely grip a modest podium. His short hair is swept back in turbulent bundles. Beneath the statue lies an open chamber, one end engraved with the familiar questions taken from the heart of Montesino’s Advent address: “Tell me: With what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves?”
It is a striking monument, a talisman against yet more oppression. Here lies the answer to the successive depredations of the past five hundred years, it insists: the essential unity of mankind. One up-to-date revelation replaces an Old World order. When José López Portillo, then president of Mexico, dedicated the monument in 1983, he highlighted the look in the friar’s eyes, “facing the haughtiness of the violent, staring down their enraged eyes and fists tense around the pommels of their swords.” It was there in Santo Domingo, López Portillo claims, that through the mouth of the Dominican, “for our people, for the first time, the Spirit spoke.” It’s the spirit of history, we are to suppose, speaking powerful, courageous words, giving birth to a new human consciousness.
But for Montesino, there was no “new doctrine” in his teaching, either for or against the Spanish. He was repeating the old story: the first birth of all peoples in God’s image, stamped with reason and able to see each other as a neighbor, to be awakened in the second birth—in water and fire—of Christian charity that brooks no injustice.
We can only hope that the progressive secularization of moral reasoning will not work to the detriment of the world’s underclasses. Certainly many of today’s atheists still repeat the tired Enlightenment myth that religion causes all war and so delight in the dechristianization of the West as the dawn of a new era of human rights. But if the twentieth century’s experiments in a brave new world have taught us anything, it is that attempts to institutionalize a revolution in global human solidarity have a way of repeating and amplifying the permanent problems of humanity. Cultural entitlements, social hierarchies, greed: Revolutions bring no relief from such assaults on the common good.
The fall of the Berlin Wall sidelined neo-Marxist “science” that located the progress of universal equality in history, but myriad alternatives have filled that void. Now we have vague claims from prehistory about the evolutionary development of social sympathy, or perhaps some chimerical implications derived from the most recent neuroscience. These myths can certainly inspire and explain. But what can they do in the face of human intransigence? Little more than shame and lament and stoke earnest longing for a yet to be realized revolution.
Montesino and his brothers, on the other hand, were trained to see evil, identify its banal origins, and act both quickly and fearlessly. To preach justice, to call down judgment: For the Christian, this universal vocation does not have its origins in history but in the one who broke into history. Extracted from the revolutionary narrative, Montesino shows us what it is that this voice, and our voices as witnesses to it, are doing through all our righteous outrage. Montesino, five hundred years on, ought not be honored as the prophet of a new era of panhuman solidarity. He is the voice compelling us to confess our sins, make right, and prepare the way of the Lord.
Andrew Wilson is an independent scholar and pastor of the International Church of Strasbourg, France.