500th Anniversary “I am a voice crying in the wilderness. By what right do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?” Grito de Montesinos

Posted: December 21st, 2011

Fray Antonio de Montesinos landed with the first band of Dominican friars from Spain in Hispaniola. He was the first, in 1511, to denounce publicly in America the enslavement and oppression of the Indians as sinful and disgraceful, and to call for reform. That sermon launched a Spanish debate about protecting the indigenous people, contributed to the international movement toward human rights, and provided an inspiration for liberation theology. December, 4, 1511, is the conventionally identified date when Fray de Montesinos delivered his sermon.  Others identify the date as the fourth Sunday of Advent, which in 1511 fell on December 21, 1511.

Fray de Montesinos announced that the theme of his sermon would be the passage “I am a voice crying in the wilderness” (Ego vox clamantis in deserto) from St. Matthew, chapter 3, verse 3.  Fray Montesinos said in his sermon or “grito” to the Spaniards:

“In order to make you aware of your sins against the Indians, I have come up to this pulpit, I . . . am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island . . . and, therefore, it behooves you to listen, not with careless neglect but with all your heart and senses; for this is going to be the most lively voice that ever you heard, the sharpest and hardest and most awful and dangerous you ever expected to hear. . . .  This voice declares that you are in mortal sin, that you are living and may die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny which you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or interpretation of justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you waged such detestable wars against people who were once living so quietly and peacefully in their own lands [where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and devastation]? Why do you keep those who survive so oppressed and weary, not giving them enough to eat, not caring for them in their illnesses?  For, with the excessive work you demand of them, they fall ill and die or, rather, you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire more gold every day. And what care do you take that they be instructed in religion, that they know God, the creator, and that they are baptized and hear Mass, keeping Holy days and Sundays? . . . Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? Why are you sleeping in such a lethargic dream? Be certain that in a state such as yours, you can be no more saved . . . .”

Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan 294-95, quoting Bartolomé de las Casas, Historia de las Indias, ed. M. Aguilar, 3 vols., Madrid 1927, [2:50] 2, 441.

El último domingo antes de la Navidad de 1511, fray Antón de Montecinos se subió al púlpito de la iglesia y se dirigió a los españoles presentes:

“Para os los dar a cognoscer me he sobido aquí, yo que soy voz de Cristo en el desierto desta isla, y por tanto, conviene que con atención, no cualquiera, sino con todo vuestro corazón y con todos vuestros sentidos, la oigáis; la cual voz os será la más nueva que nunca oísteis, la más áspera y dura y más espantable y peligrosa que jamás no pensasteis oír. . . . Esta voz que todos estáis en pecado mortal y en él vivís y morís, por la crueldad y tiranía que usáis con estas inocentes gentes. Decid, ¿con qué derecho y con qué justicia tenéis en tan cruel y horrible servidumbre aquestos indios? ¿Con qué autoridad habéis hecho tan detestables guerras a estas gentes que estaban en sus tierras mansas y pacíficas, donde tan infinitas dellas, con muertes y estragos nunca oídos, habéis consumido? ¿Cómo los tenéis tan opresos y fatigados, sin darles de comer ni curallos en sus enfermedades, que de los excesivos trabajos que les dais incurren y se os mueren, y por mejor decir, los matáis por sacar y adquirir oro cada día? ¿Y qué cuidado tenéis de quien los doctrine y conozcan a su Dios y criador, sean baptizados, oigan misa, guarden las fiestas y domingos? ¿Estos, no son hombres? ¿No tienen ánimas racionales? ¿No sois obligados a amarlos como a vosotros mismos? ¿Esto no entendéis? ¿Esto no sentís? ¿Cómo estáis en tanta profundidad de sueño tan letárgico dormidos? Tened por cierto, que en el estado que estáis no os podéis más salvar . . . .”

Fuente: Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Historia de las Indias, Libro III, Capítulo IV, Ed.F.C.E., México, 1951, págs. 441-442.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas reported Fray Montesino’s sermon in his epic Historia de las Indias, or History of the Indies.  Fray de las Casas went on to write Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias, or A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, which documented the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.  His work led to Spanish colonial laws protecting indigenous people,  and to the rise of international human rights and liberation theology.

The struggle never ends.  Read about ongoing efforts to save the Ancestors including Native Americans and Pobladores at www.saveancestors.org.

America Tropical Mural in El Pueblo de Los Angeles by David Alfaro Siqueiros.  The mural depicts a native crucified on a double cross.