A Critique of Iris Engstrand’s Article, ‘How Cruel Were the Spaniards?’

A Critique of Iris Engstrand’s Article, ‘How Cruel Were the Spaniards?’

On February 19, 2010, The Greanville Post republished “How Cruel Were the Spaniards?” by Iris Engstrand, an emeritus history professor at the University of San Diego. The title suggests a particular way of thinking about the subject matter: On a scale of 1 to 10—with 1 being angelic and 10 being horrific—how cruel were the Spaniards? Identifying the Spaniards’ cruelest deeds, such as the horrors and tortures of The Spanish Inquisition, would certainly enable us to evaluate how cruel they were.

To be cruel is to be “disposed to give pain to others,” and to engage in “merciless acts.” Instead of providing readers with a detailed picture of such acts by the Spaniards, the article skillfully avoids the worst examples of cruelty. It seems likely that Engstrand never intended to answer the question posed by her article’s title. Although she states at one point, “The cruelest deeds of individual Spaniards have become emblematic of a people and have been described in detail in various monographs,” she leaves those deeds out of her article.

The Spanish Conquest in America: And Its Relation to the History of Slavery and the Government of the Colonies (AMS Press, 1966), by Sir Arthur Helps, first published in the 1850s, uses original source materials with concrete examples which illustrate Spanish cruelty. Take, for example, Helps’ account of how, in 1516, “Certain Spaniards saw an Indian woman holding a crying baby in her arms; because the dog they had with them was hungry, they took the living child from the mother’s arms and threw it to the dog” (p. 180).

This story could be recounted in response to the question “How Cruel Were the Spaniards?” and the story could be ended by saying that the Spaniards were so cruel that the incident resulted in the dog tearing the baby “to pieces in the presence of the mother” (p. 180). Yet, rather than provide readers with an account of such acts, the article seems to imply that the Spaniards were not all that bad when compared with other groups of humans.

Demonstrating the art of deflection Engstrand downplays negative Spanish behavior and lists negative behaviors that Spaniards attributed to Indians. This seems intended to give readers the impression that the Indiand were cruel too, and Spanish behavior was ordinary for that time. With regard to the Spaniards flogging Indians, for example, Engstrand writes, “Sailors, petty criminals, and even schoolboys were routinely flogged or subjected to treatment considered cruel by today’s standards.” This suggests that flogging Indians was simply routine behavior.

Let’s take a look at three examples of Spanish cruelty provided by Engstrand: 1) The Spaniards uprooted natives from their homelands 2) Spaniards forced the Indians to give up their treasures. 3) Spaniards placed the Indians in captivity (rather than enslaved them). She follows with an expression of sympathy for the Spaniards based on the theory that they “were victims of conquest by Muslims over much of their history.”

The article also characterizes some of the Spaniards as “common [Spanish] sailors” who were “struggling to find some kind of wealth after weeks of deprivation on board ship.” The article does not say that those Spaniards were cruel. Engstrand says they were “not disposed to act kindly.” They had pent up emotions from weeks of deprivation on a ship. Engstrand does not say that Spaniards raped the Indian women; she says the Spaniards “committed adultery” with them.

After expressing sympathy for Spanish victims of “conquest by Muslims,” the article then states: “Countless Indians died during the first years of contact, although mainly from disease.” This implies that no one killed the countless Indians. Engstrand also suggests that cruelty by some Spaniards is offset by the fact that other “Spaniards in the Caribbean, like the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos, spoke about mistreatment of the Indians as early as 1511.”

Sir Arthur Helps explain what Montesinos and the other Dominican priests communicated to the Spanish colonizers on the island of Hispanola: During his sermon, Montesinos declared the colonizers

were living in ‘mortal sin’ by reason of their tyranny to these innocent people, the Indians. What authority was there for the imposition of this servitude : what just ground for these wars? How could the colonists rightly insist upon such cruel labours as they did from the Indians…(p. 180).

Other acts of enslavement and other forms of cruelty led to Montesinos’ sermon. The Helps book explains that “When some of our men carried off captive some recently delivered women, only because the infants cried they took them by the legs and beat them against rocks or threw them from hills, so that they were killed” (Ibid). Regarding the rapid depopulation of Hispanola, we find:

After explaining that only very young children and very old people were left in the villages, the Dominican Friars explained: “thus it always happened that when the Indians returned to their villages to rest, they found all the children dead; and if any mother, out of love for her infant, carried it with her to her work to tend it, the miner made her life so hard, because she would not be able to do as much as he required, that the mother was compelled to leave the child to die of hunger, not being able to bear the bitter cruelties exercised on her because she gave care and affection to her child.” (Helps, p. 180)

It would seem that Engstrand’s article was intended to help give Spain a historical make-over. Perhaps this accounts for the article asking, “Were the Indians of the 16th century cruel?” Engstrand answers: “Of course,” “Some engaged in human sacrifice, slavery, infanticide, and other forms of human behavior that we regard today as cruel.” When Engstrand listed “infanticide” as evidence of Indian cruelty, she provided no historical context that would explain why something so out of the Indian character had happened.

In her article Engstrand quotes two Spaniards who studied the Indians’ lifestyle and saw how loving and devoted they were to their children: “[The Indians] show signs of tenderness toward their children, and like sensitive people, they never leave them, not even in their most tiring occupations, but rather they are frequently seen loaded down with their little ones. They are loving mothers, and they are not indifferent nor unfaithful wives.”

Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagan, in A Violent Evangelism (John Knox Press, 1992), quotes the Domincan Pedro de Córdova “in a letter to the king, probably in 1517”:

Due to the illnesses and hard work, the Indians chose and are choosing to kill themselves, preferring death rather than such strange work, and in some cases hundreds have killed themselves together so as not to subject themselves to such hard servitude. . . .the women, exhausted from work, avoid conceiving and giving birth; so that they would not have work upon work with pregnancy and delivery, and many becoming pregnant have ingested things to abort and have aborted the creatures, and others, after delivery, have killed their own children with their own hands, so as not to place them under such hard servitude (p. 178).

How strange for a well-established historian such as Enstrand to say that infanticide committed by Indian parents is evidence of Indian cruelty while omitting the merciless and hellish Spanish behavior that drove loving Indian mothers to such acts. How cruel were the Spaniards? Cruel enough to result in ordinarily loving Indian mothers to end the lives of their own babies. Engstrand’s failure to mention the specifics of this kind of history in her work may be one reason why Juan Carlos, King of Spain, gave Engstrand an Order of Isabel la Católic (Isabel the Catholic) award for “exceptional services” to Spain’s history.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author ofPagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie,“The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.