The story of the explorer, the missionary and the conquistador

I’m starting a series on white men in history who stood up to racism. I’ve explained why I think this is important at the end. The message I want to spread with these stories is we have options. Sometimes we trap ourselves in this false dichotomy where we acknowledge there were some pretty bad white guys in history (that are too often valorized as perfect heros) and if we can’t have them for heros, we might as well just go jump off a cliff and kill ourselves because all white people are evil. So we stick with the rotten heroes we know and try to justify them. “They weren’t so bad in their own day”, we say.Those are not our only options.Here are some guys who lived their lives fighting against injustice and oppression.

This is the story of three men. An explorer, a humble missionary, and a young conquistador whose life was turned upside-down by a sermon.

Good ole' Chris
Good ole’ Chris

First, the explorer. We’ve probably learned about him in history class. We have a day celebrating his “discovery” of America. What we don’t often acknowledge is that Christopher Columbus wasn’t just innocently discovering a new country and making friends. He was discovering in order to take. In fact, on his initial trip, he took some “Indians” back with him to the royal court in order to convince the Spanish to conquer this new land (the majority of them died along the way). Armed with guns, cannons and attack dogs (Guns, Germs and Steel, anyone?) the Spanish conquer first Haiti, then Cuba, Puerto Reico, and Mexico. And as they conquer these lands, they give whole villages to one Spanish conquistador for his private use (called encomiendas). In other words, these conquistadors could have an entire village work the land, then take all the profits of this unpaid labor for themselves. Chris’s son, Admiral Diego Columbus, did pretty well under this set up. He went on to take his father’s governmental position, and set up his home in Santo Domingo (ironically the site of the first major slave revolt in the Americas).


Sculpture of Antonio de Montesinos
Sculpture of Antonio de Montesinos

Second, the humble missionary. Antonio de Montesinos was a Dominican friar who lived in Haiti. In the Dominican order mystical union with God is not some ecstatic experience, but is found through charity. The Dominican order was living in this area primarily to gain representation for the indigenous people in this area to the Portuguese and Spanish. On Christmas day, 19 years after Columbus had began his colonizing adventure, Antonio delivered a rousing sermon in which he blasted the system of encomiendas, saying,

“Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.”

Chris’s son, Admiral Diego, was unimpressed. As was the king of Spain, who said this sort of preaching would cause trouble in the colony, and ordered that Antonio and those who agreed with him be shipped back to Spain. However, sitting in the crowd that day was also Bartolome de las Casas.

Bartolome de las Casas
Bartolome de las Casas

The conquistador: Bartolome de las Casas was a young, rich conquistador, but was so convicted after the Christmas sermon, he renounced “his” village, refusing to make money off of the unrequited labor of others. He went on to eventually be appointed “defender of the Indians” by the King of Spain. Bartolome wrote one of the first histories of the Americas, and attacked the slave trade started by Columbus, saying “What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God an dmankide, and this trade as one of the most unjust, evil, and cruel among them”. The ecomiendas practice he says was one of “the greatest outrages and slaughterings of people were perpetrated, whoel villages being depopulated…” (Sure, he wasn’t perfect—for a while he argued that it would be better to enslave Africans rather than the American Indians, however, he later retracted this, saying, “they have the same right to freedom as the Indians”—and even praying God would forgive this error but he “does not know if God will do so”).

Bartolome took place in one of the most important trials of history in 1542, where he travelled to Spain. The debate: are Indians human beings, or are they subordinate species, appropriate for slavery? It was Bartolome against a panel of several prominent bishops and historians. Las Casas countered arguments that the Indians were vile, lazy and cowardly by pointing out their obvious culture (dances, songs, games, art), on their bravery, and their rationality. Bartolome won.

I was first introduced to las Casas here, through a colorful cartoon on why we should get rid of Columbus Day.


 Why this series? Social Identity Theorists have argued that for people to develop healthy identities, they need to see those identities modeled. It’s not enough to tell women they don’t have to be fainting pansies—they have to see real examples of strong women. It’s not enough to tell black kids they can grow up to be president—they need to see a black president for themselves. Especially for people trying to break out of destructive identities: abusive males, co-dependent females, racist people, homophobic people… we can all be told we should be living life differently, we can have in inkling that we should, but the fact is until we meet someone just like us who is living different–a lot of times we just don’t know how. That’s why I was so excited to check out this book White Men Challenging Racism: 35 Personal stories by Thompson, Schafer and Brod. These are real-life current men sharing the stories of their lives. You don’t have to follow the racist white-male script. Here’s what it looks like to do life different. The foreward by James. W. Lowen tells stories of white men against racism all through history, and these stories are so amazing, I want to share them (and others). I hope you can be inspired by the fact that as long as there has been racism, there has also been a fight against it.



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