Desmond Curran ’19: Book III, Chapter VI (On the Arrival of Commissioner Bobadilla and the Reasons So Many Indians Died)

On the arrival of Royal Commissioner Francisco de Bobadilla to govern this island of Hispaniola and how he sent Admiral Christopher Columbus and his brothers, don Bartholomew and don Diego, back to Spain in chains; and on the many Indians that lived on this island and the reasons why they died, or will soon die out.

Translated by Desmond Curran ‘19

Translating for the Oviedo Project was probably one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at Vassar. I got to work in-depth and up-close with a primary resource in a way that I had rarely had before. It was fun to find the particularities of Oviedo’s writing style across different chapters, despite his (confusing) aversion to the use of periods. Nevertheless, the content of his writing is dense and astounding. I learned so much about Columbus and the island of Hispaniola from only ten pages! It was a fantastic opportunity for me to participate as an undergrad, and I cannot wait to see the project finished.

Desmond Curran

The admiral led this government until the year 1499, when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, angry after learning what had happened on this island and of the way that Admiral Christopher Columbus and his brother adelantado Bartholomew had governed, agreed to send a knight from the Order of Calatrava named Francisco de Bobadilla, a former servant of the royal house and a very honest and religious man, as governor of the island. He arrived at this city, seized the admiral and his brothers, adelantado Bartholomew and don Diego Columbus, and sent them each by caravel back to Spain in chains to be delivered to the mayor of the city of Cadiz until the king and queen expressed their will about what they merited as a punishment worthy of their crimes. It is said that Commissioner Bobadilla had not been ordered to arrest the admiral, that he had only come to act as residence judge and to learn about the uprising of Roldán and his consorts. In the end, however, whether he was ordered to or not, he still arrested the admiral and his brothers and sent them to Spain. And this gentleman remained in the position and governorship of this island and kept it in peace and justice until the year 1502, when he was removed and given permission to return to Spain, although it was not his fortune to return to Castile.

And so, as this knight came to this island, Roldán, who had separated from the admiral, wrote to the commissioner and he and the other Christians who were with him in the province of Xaragua came to serve him and pledged to him the obedience that they owed the Catholic Monarchs, of whom they were vassals. Bobadilla submitted many charges against the admiral and his brothers, identifying the causes that moved him to arrest them, but the truest charges remained hidden because the king and queen wanted to see the admiral reformed rather than mistreated. But I will tell what some then charged him with in order to accuse him. It was said that he wanted to keep the discovery of pearls a secret, that he never wrote about it until he felt that news about them  had reached Spain, and that some sailors named los Niños went to the island of Cubagua and that he did so in order to negotiate again. They also said that he was very haughty and contemptuous, that he treated the servants of the royal house poorly, showed himself to be an absolute ruler, and that he ignored the letters and commands of his monarchs, obeying only those he wished to and doing as was his will.

Others tell a different story. They say that the first sample of pearls were sent by the admiral to the Catholic Monarchs after he discovered them with a noble named Arroyal (the truest thing of all is that there has never been a lack of gossip and jealousy in the world). This land is far from its king, and those who come here are from different provinces and of contrary desires and opinions, and so they feel things differently. Some with good zeal for the service of God and the monarchs, thinking that the admiral used absolute justice in everything (even if it was in the name of the Catholic Monarchs), did not want such rigor. Others, for various reasons or passions, painted him in such a way in their letters that, by God’s will, the imprisonment of the admiral and his brothers took place, and they brought them to Spain, as I have said. The admiral’s short patience gave him a lot of room to be unpopular.

As soon as the king and queen got word of his arrival in Spain, they sent for him and his brothers to be released and brought to the court. When the admiral was released, he went to kiss the hands of the king and queen, and with tears in his eyes he gave his apologies as best he could. After they heard him, they consoled him with much mercy and said such words that he was left somewhat satisfied. And since his services had been of such importance, even if he had erred in something, the royal majesty of such grateful monarchs could not condone the admiral’s mistreatment. Therefore, they returned to him all the rents and rights that had been seized from him when he was imprisoned, but they never gave him back the office of the governor.

As he was a prudent man, after he returned to Spain with the news of the first discovery, he begged the Catholic Monarchs to see it as good that their child Prince John receive his children as pages. They were Diego Columbus, the legitimate and eldest son of the admiral, and Ferdinand Columbus, who still lives today. He is a virtuous gentleman of great nobility, affability, and sweet conversation, and he is endowed in various sciences, especially in cosmography. And his Catholic Majesty has given meritorious accounts of him as a good servant and subject because the services of the admiral, his father, so deserve it. Prince John treated these children well, and they were well favored, and they lived in his house until God took him to his glory in the city of Salamanca, in the year 1497.

Returning to my history, after the admiral was pardoned, the king and the queen did not treat him less well than they had before. And as he was wise, he sought by all means to return to the grace of those good monarchs so they would give him leave to return to these Indies. There had been so many complaints against him that he could not achieve it so quickly. So Commissioner Bobadilla ruled the island until the year 1502, as I have said. In the meantime, a lot of gold was extracted from the mines of this island because there were many Indians who worked in them, taking it out for the Christians and for the Catholic Monarchs (who also had haciendas and cattle farms to their royal name).

All the Indians of this island were divided and entrusted by the admiral to the settlers who came to live in these parts. And it is the opinion of many who saw it and speak of it as eyewitnesses that when these islands were discovered the admiral found a million or more Indian men and women of all ages (from children to the elderly). Together with those born later, it is believed that there are now, in the year 1548, only five hundred of them left between boys and men who are natural-born and of the progeny or lineage of those first; most of those left have been brought by the Christians from other islands or the Mainland to serve them. Since the mines were very rich and man’s greed is insatiable where burdened, some made the Indians work excessively. Others did not give them as much food to eat as was convenient. Along with this, these people are idle, vicious in nature, do little work, and are melancholy, cowardly, vile and inclined to evil, and they are liars, of little memory and of no perseverance. Many of them killed themselves with poison  to avoid work while others hanged themselves by their own hands. Others suffered different maladies, especially from a pestilential pox that spread throughout the island, so that in a short time the Indians were finished.

The traffic of Indians from master to master by the governors and traders was also a great cause of death for these people. Going from master to master and from lord to lord and passing those from one greedy master to another even greedier, all these were the means and evident instruments for the total destruction of these people. And so, for all the causes I have mentioned or for any one of them, the Indians died. The business was so profitable that not only were the Indians distributed to the settlers, they were also given to knights and private citizens, among other acceptable people who were close to the Catholic King, such as those who belonged to the Royal Council of Castile and the Indies and others. Truly something not to be borne, because although they were noble people and of good conscience, their stewards and servers who worked here with their Indians made them work too much for the profit of those here and there. And since they were representatives and ministers of such favored men, even if they did badly, no one dared confront them. Certainly, no Christian here will envy an estate thus settled. And this was not the final perdition of the Indians, for God allowed the sins of the deplorable Christians in benefitting from the sweat of these Indians when they did not help them with their doctrine, so that they would know God. To add to these sins, given the divine neglect that eluded them on this earth, were the great, ugly and huge sins and abominations of these savage and beastly people to which that frightful and just sentence of the sovereign and eternal God applies: Videns autem Deus quod fine malitia hominum esset in terra, et cuncta cogitatio cordis tries esset ad malum omni tempore, pnnituit eum quod hominem fecisset in terra.[1] And so with just cause he said: Pænitet enim me fecisse eos: “I am sorry for having made the man on earth.” From this I infer that it was not without great mystery that God had forgotten these Indians for so long, and when he finally remembered, seeing how much malice was on this earth, how the cogitations of hearts on these lands were bent on wrongdoing, he consented to end their lives, allowing some innocents and especially baptized children to be saved and others to pay. Because in truth, according to all those who know these Indies (or part of them), there have been no lack of sodomites in any province of the islands or the Mainland that Christians have seen until now. Indeed, one could not hear of these idolaters, with so many other ugly vices, awkwardness and ugliness, without much disgust and shame, nor could I write about them because of their great number and filth. And so, in addition to being ungrateful and of little memory and less ability, they practice so many abominations and are guilty of such heinous crimes and various kinds of guilt. If there is any good in them, it is gone when they reach the beginning of the adolescent age. When they enter adolescence, they develop so many guilts and vices that many of them are abominable. And so, as the Gospel says: in the fruits of them you will know these men.[2]

All this has been discussed and disputed by many clergy members and people of proven wisdom and great conscience, as well as at the monasteries here of Santo Domingo, San Francisco, la Merced, and of the rule of the Apostle Saint Peter. Many lauded and great men in Spain have thought about this matter thoroughly to assure the royal consciences regarding the treatment of the Indians, to remedy their souls to be saved so that their people and lives would be sustained. Many special royal orders and provisions have been given to the governors and ministers of his justice and his officers, but I see that nothing has been enough for these unhappy people to not have been consumed on these islands, as I said. And this fault I do not want to impute on any of those who have been here, but I know that what the Dominican friars said was contradicted by the Franciscans, thinking that what they argued was better. And what the Franciscans admonished, the Dominicans refuted so as to assert their opinion. With the passing of time the Franciscans defended what the Dominicans had held, and what the Franciscans had first praised they then rejected, and then the Dominicans approved of it. So, each of them held the same opinions at different times, but in the continuum, they managed to defend very different ideas. What I mean is that in what opinions there were, the Franciscans and Dominicans never shared them at same time. You all must see how it would be understood by those who listened to it, how the layman who chose what was best for his conscience by taking a passive stance, seeing what was “bad” of yesteryear becoming praised the next year. And these things are dangerous, not only to those newcomers to the faith, but to even those who are true Christians but couldn’t exercise many scruples. For both those groups could see that the friars did not want them to hear of penance if they did not leave the Indians, while the other religious fathers of the contrary opinion could then hear them and give them the sacraments.

I say what I saw, and I do not want so much to blame the many good religious folk who have been on this island or throughout the Indies, since the unhappiness and misfortune of the Indians themselves is a secret for God himself, who does not do what is not just nor allows things of so much weight without great mystery. Nor is it to be thought that the clergy, any of them, would say anything that they did not think to be good or which suited the reformation and security of the Christian conscience, or would prevent the perdition of the Indians. I do not want to dwell on this matter further because I have already found myself twice in Spain to swear by command of the lords of the Royal Council of the Indies what I think of the essence and capacity of these Indians and those of the Mainland (as to those parts where I have been). One was in Toledo in the year 1525 and the other in Medina del Campo in the year 1532; it was sworn by other persons, each one I think looking to his conscience in what he said, attentive to what was asked and what declarations those gentlemen requested. And in truth, if that same day or days when I swore even if I had been under the penalty of death I would have said the same thing. So, I refer to these learned clerics after they are agreed: that those who own Indians be forewarned to treat them as their fellow men, and each should watch their conscience. Although in this case there is little to do on this island and those of San Juan, Cuba, and Jamaica, as the same thing has happened in them as with the death and disappearance of the Indians on this island. And now that they are gone, may these religious clergymen, heeding the warning of what has passed here, better decide and determine what should be done with the other Indians who are about to be subjugated in those many kingdoms and provinces of the mainland. As far as I’m concerned, I do not absolve the Christians who have been enriched or have profited from the work of the Indians if they mistreated them or did not do their diligence to save them. Nor do I want to think that, without blaming the Indians, God should have punished and brought such devastation upon them, seeing that they were vicious and offering sacrifices to the devil and doing the rites and ceremonies that will be told later. And because to tell it all would be impossible, I will write about that which I am familiar with and others have told me, which will help us understand the rest when we return to this matter.”

[1] Génesis, cap. VI, vers. V y VI.

[2] Mathew, VII.