How the Licenciado Bartolomé de las Casas went with certain farmers to settle the Mainland on the Cumaná river, near the island of Cubagua, and what befell him and those who followed him.

Translated by Isabella Perez ’21

In the year 1519, at the time when the news of the election of his Imperial Majesty, our Lord Don Charles, semper augustus, as king of the Romans and future Emperor reached Barcelona, I found myself in his court over some business of the Mainland (of Castilla del Oro); and also there was a reverend father, an archpriest, by the name of Licenciado Bartolomé de las Casas, seeking from His Majesty and the lords of his Council of the Indies the governance of Cumaná and of part of the Mainland coast. And for this he was favored by some Flemish gentlemen who were close to His Majesty, and especially by Mosior de Laxao, who later died serving as high commander of the Order and Knighthood of Alcántara, who was one of those closest advisors to the Emperor. Due to this, and because this father promised great things and higher interest and growth in the royal income, and above all because he said that, through the instructions and advice he offered, all those lost peoples and idolatrous Indians would be converted to our holy Catholic faith; and it seemed that his goals and intent were holy; and he insisted that the bishop of Burgos and Hernando de Vega and the scholar Zapata, the secretary Lope de Conchillos, and the rest that up to then, in the life of the Catholic King, Don Fernando, of glorious memory, have become knowledgeable in matters of these Indies, had erred in many things and cheated the Catholic King in many ways, taking advantage for themselves of the Indians’ sweat, and from the offices and interests of these parts; and these lord advisors, to support what they had done and done badly, were against him, and what this father said did not seem agreeable to them; and thus, to this purpose, he spent many days there giving testimonials and submitting petitions. And not without great disagreement, because as the councilors he accused were present, they displayed the books and what had been accomplished in the time of the Catholic King, dating back some years before this priest took up his conceit, and everything provided appeared well and good and to the purpose of good conservation of the land and state in these parts, and as was convenient for the conversion of the Indians: so that the Emperor was satisfied and felt well served by those whom this priest blamed and who played a big role in keeping the cleric from receiving what he asked for, and thus, his stubbornness endured for some months. And, seeing already that those of the Council could not be harmed by him, he said that although they had provided well, everything had been misunderstood and put into practice very badly, saying that the men who were to be sent with him were not to be soldiers, nor killers, nor men bloody and greedy for war, nor boisterous, rather very peaceful and meek laborers who would be ennobled, becoming knights of golden spurs, and by facilitating passage and provisions for the crossing and awarding them licenses and helping them settle, with many other mercies that he requested for them, as seemed appropriate to him. All of which was conceded to him, notwithstanding the opposition from the lords of the Council, or at least the Bishop of Burgos, Don Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, and others who agreed with the bishop, and some Spaniards, worthy men from these parts who at the time found themselves in the court and deserved to be heard, disabused the King and his Council of this, and they said how this father, desirous of command, offered what he would not do nor could be done in the manner that he said, and spoke of land that he did not know nor had seen nor set foot on, and they condemned all that the cleric affirmed as trivial, and they said that the king would waste his money and those who went with this father would go at great risk and danger. But, as I have said, Laxao counted for more than all that was said to the contrary. In the end, the king lost what he spent by believing this father, and those who followed him lost their lives in the enterprise. So that, the King, our lord, ordered them to send him forth well provided, and by his command those of his Council and officials of Seville supplied him with everything he knew to ask, and thus he travelled to the Mainland with up to…[1] men, young and old, laborers, to whom they all gave good ships and provisions and everything necessary, as well as barter goods for the hiring of Indians. This cost His Majesty many thousands of ducats.

The case is that since this father had been raised on this island of Hispaniola he knew very well that the Indians of Cumaná and those from neighboring provinces were at peace, as I had said earlier before their rebellion; and he thought that as he fantasized to himself, that thus he would be able to do what he had invented and promised in Spain. And while he went to train in the enterprise, the Indians rebelled and killed the Franciscan and Dominican friars and other Christians I have mentioned; and there were all those rebellions of which mention has been made earlier, and when he arrived at the land with those his laborers whom he wanted to turn into new knights of golden spurs, it was his luck and that of his would-be soldiers that he found captain Gonzalo de Ocampo, who had already punished part of the evildoers and settled that place he named Toledo; and things were in a different condition than what the cleric had argued. Moreover, as he came favored and with such great powers, he and Gonzalo de Ocampo would later start to disagree and be disgruntled, as I have said. And the cleric gave orders to build a large house of wood and straw next to the site where the monastery of San Francisco had been; and there he kept some of the Spaniards he brought with him very full of hope for the new knighthoods he had promised them with red crosses which somehow seemed to imitate those of the knights of the Order of Calatrava, and he had in that house many provisions and bartering goods and arms that His Majesty ordered given to him, and many other things. All of which he left there and came to this city of Santo Domingo and island of Hispaniola to complain to this Royal Audience of Captain Gonzalo de Ocampo. And after he arrived and Gonzalo de Ocampo left the town and the land, the Indians, watching this discord between the Christian, persuaded by their own greed and malice and wanting to rob what there was in that house, attacked the Christians left there and killed as many of them as they could while others fled, taking shelter in a caravel that happened to be there at this time. And the Indians sacked and robbed the house of all there was in it: and afterwards, they set fire to that badly founded building, and from then on the coast remained outside the Christians’ power.

And since there were very few Christians on the island of Cubagua, not enough to contend with the Indians, the latter did not allow them to get fresh water from the Mainland for their subsistence, and they drank muddy water from some lagoons in the island of Margarita, and even that obtained at great cost and difficulty. Such that, as Captain Gonzalo de Ocampo had returned from Cubagua to this island of Hispaniola and came to his house in this city of Santo Domingo, and the men he had brought with him to that island had remained there, Francisco de Vallejo and Pero Ortiz from Matienzo, who were lord mayors there at that time, procured with those people to win the Cumaná river to have water they could drink; and they attempted it several times but everything was very well defended against them, and they could not succeed since the Indians were archers and shot with poisoned arrows and the Indians in that coastal region are astute and warring people. And thus, those men and Christians remained in Cubagua, as on a frontier, guarding the island.

The Licenciado Father Bartolomé de las Casas, when he learned the bad tidings about his men, and knowing the poor care that had been taken in the preservation of the lives of those simple and greedy laborers who at the whiff of promised knighthoods and of his tales had followed him, and the bad account there was of the estate he was in charge of and that he had left under such poor protection, agreed that since he did not have goods with which to pay them, he would do so in prayers and sacrifices, becoming a friar, he could satisfy in part the deaths and would abstain from contending with the living. And thus he did, taking the habit of the glorious Santo Domingo of the Observance, and he is today in the monastery that the Order has in this city Santo Domingo. And, in truth, he is held to be a good monk: and thus I believe he will be better at it than as a captain in Cumaná. They say that he writes as a pastime on these matters of the Indies and on the quality of the Indians and of the Christians that roam and live in these parts, and it would be well that his writings should be shown in our time so that those who are eyewitnesses can endorse it or answer for themselves. May God grant him grace to do it very well: I believe that in this his own history he will know how to tell more than what I have here summarized, since these events happened to him. But what I tell here is what is public and notorious in these and other parts. I mean to say that the one who will be captain should not have to guess without being trained and having experience in matters of war, and Las Casas, by not knowing anything of this, trusting in his good intention, ruined the work that he began; and, thinking to convert the Indians, he gave them arms with which to kill Christians, from which other harm ensued that, to avoid prolixity, will not be told here. And the same, or similar things, will happen and often happen to those who assume work they do not know how to do; because if he thought that by making the sign of the cross and offering a good example he would pacify the land he should not have taken up arms, but rather, he sould have kept them in abeyance in a skilled captain’s hand, as would be suitable to face whatever might occur.

[1] In neither the first edition of this first part, published in 1535, nor in the autographed codex that serves as our guide in the present edition is the number of Spaniards that Bartolomé de las Casas took with him fixed. Francisco López de Gomora, chaplain to Hernando Cortés, claims that over three hundred men were counted in this unfortunate expedition, to which the same Bartolomé de las Casas appears to assent, when in chapter 159 of his General history of the Indies he confesses that he was authorized to deputize fifty red-cross knights from among the laborers who accompanied him, and whose purpose was solely to hoe, according to the expression used by [l]as Casas.