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Antonio de Montesinos

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

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Antonio de Montesinos

The conquest of America, as painted by Diego Rivera in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca.

Diego Rivera

Antonio de Montesinos (? - 1545) was a Spanish Dominican Friar, one of the first in the New World. He is best remembered for a scathing sermon delivered on December 4, 1511, in which he delivered a blistering attack on the colonists, who had enslaved the people of the Caribbean. For his efforts, he was run out of Hispaniola, but he and his fellow Dominicans were eventually able to convince the King of the moral correctness of their point of view, thus paving the way for later laws which protected native rights in Spanish lands.

Background

Very little is known about Antonio de Montesinos before his famous sermon. He likely studied at the University of Salamanca before electing to join the Dominican order. In August, 1510, he was one of the first six Dominican friars to arrive in the New World. More would follow the following year, and there were about 20 Dominican Friars in Santo Domingo by 1511. These particular Dominicans were from a reformist sect, and they were appalled at what they saw.

By the time the Dominicans arrived on the Island of Hispaniola, the native population had been decimated and was in serious decline. All of the native leaders had been killed, and the remaining indigenous people were given away as slaves to colonists. A nobleman arriving with his wife could expect to be given 80 native slaves: a soldier could expect 60. Governor Diego Columbus (son of Christopher) authorized slaving raids on neighboring islands, and African slaves had been brought in to work the mines. The slaves, living in misery and struggling with new diseases, languages and culture, died by the score. The colonists, oddly, seemed almost oblivious to this ghastly scene.

The Sermon

On December 4, 1511, Montesinos announced that the topic of his sermon would be based on Matthew 3,3: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.” To a packed house, Montesinos ranted about the horrors he had seen. “Tell me, by what right or by what 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 land?” Montesinos continued, implying that the souls of any and all who owned slaves on Hispaniola were damned.

The colonists were stunned and outraged. Governor Columbus, responding to the petitions of the colonists, asked the Dominicans to punish Montesinos and retract all that he had said. The Dominicans refused and took things even further, informing Columbus that Montesinos spoke for all of them. The next week, Montesinos spoke again, and many settlers turned out, expecting him to apologize. Instead, he re-stated what he had before, and further informed the colonists that he and his fellow Dominicans would no longer hear confessions of slave-holding colonists, any more than they would those of highway robbers.

The Hispaniola Dominicans were (gently) rebuked by the head of their order in Spain, but continued to hold fast to their principles. Finally, King Fernando had to settle the matter. Montesinos traveled to Spain with Franciscan friar Alonso de Espinal, who represented the pro-slavery point of view. Fernando allowed Montesinos to speak freely, and was aghast at what he heard. He summoned a group of theologians and legal experts to consider the matter, and they met several times in 1512. The end results of these meetings were the 1512 Laws of Burgos, which guaranteed certain basic rights to New World natives living in Spanish lands.

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