Historian: Church did not give ‘carte blanche’ for mistreatment of indigenous in Americas

Christopher Columbus arrival Painting by Dióscoro Puebla depicting the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America, on Oct. 12, 1492.

Unlike the “doctrine of discovery” allowing the European conquerors to mistreat indigenous people, a historian points out that “the Church didn’t give this carte blanche so that they could do what they wanted to do.”

In a interview with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language sister news agency, Íñigo Fernández, a historian and professor at the Pan-American University in Mexico City, pointed out that shortly after the discovery of America, “the Church in fact began to set limits and said that with the conquest comes the obligation to evangelize the indigenous.”

In addition, he stressed, the Church played a role in the drafting of the Laws of the Indies, “which establish a series of obligations that the Spanish have with the indigenous.”

However, the Mexican historian pointed out that there are certainly differences between what the Catholic Church enjoined and the “compliance” of the conquerors.

“While it’s true that the Church and the Spanish Crown went hand in hand, political power will always have greater weight,” he said.

For Fernández, it’s important to see historical events in their context, and understand, for example, “what arriving in the Americas represents” for the Europeans.

“The Church in Spain views that the Americas are a ‘reward’ that God gave it,” he said, “because of the whole issue of the Reconquest,” which the Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon, Ferdinand and Isabella, completed in early 1492, nine months before the arrival of Christopher Columbus to American lands.

The Reconquest was a series of military campaigns over the course of centuries waged by Spanish kings to retake the lands conquered by Muslim invaders in the eighth century.

‘One of the biggest mistakes’

For the Mexican historian, “one of the most serious errors” when looking at history today is to see the past with the eyes of the present.

“It’s like being judged for what your parents did,” he said.

Fernández stressed that “what history is about is seeking to be empathetic. And to be empathetic is to understand what happened in the context that it happened.”

The historian stressed that “history does not judge or justify. What history does is explain how things happened and why things happened, and frame them in a certain context.”

“When you don’t do that, it ends up manipulating history sometimes with good intentions and sometimes with bad,” he said.

Pro-Hispanic or pro-indigenous?

For Fernández, “a point that we have not yet resolved in Mexico” is the “very pro-Hispanic or very pro-indigenist views.”

“I think we should start from the present,” he said. “We have to understand that today’s Mexico is indigenous, and it is Spanish, and it is Mexico, too.”

More in Americas

After emphasizing that “Mexicans have a tremendous mingling of cultures,” Fernández pointed out that “the events of the past are not subject, and this is very valid, whether we like them or not.”

“The events of the past are there, and they’re a starting point or a line of continuity to understand what we are today,” he said.

“We have to understand that these two worlds that are going to give rise to Mexico had their points of collision, but that they also have their points of communication,” he said.

The Mexican historian lamented that looking for “that right balance” at this time “is very difficult,” because “today, in global terms, what is sought is to be in confrontation with the past.”

‘It’s not a matter of heroes and villains’

The professor at the Pan-American University pointed out that it’s important to see that the protagonists of the conquest of the Americas “are people: with the good, with the bad, with the imperfections, and with noble and ignoble ideas.”

“We are all human beings, and as human beings we are capable of the noblest things at some point, and also the villainous. No one is exempt from that,” he observed.

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Neither Cortés, who conquered Mexico for Spain, nor Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, “were perfect, nor were they that hero for some and this villain for others,” he stressed.

Fernandez lamented that “we are still half at odds with the past in Mexico,” discussing “about the conquest and whether it was good or bad.”

“Let’s take it all in. We can reflect on it, but it has already happened, the conquest took place, independence took place, the revolution took place,” he said.

“You can’t judge your life today or the current environment or others by things that happened in the past,” he stressed.

For the Mexican historian, “we have to point to the present and to the future, and have a healthy relationship with our past.”

“And kind of forgive ourselves a little bit and say: this is what it has been. It marks me, yes, but it doesn't condition me,” he added.

“The past is as it is, period, but it doesn’t make me better or worse,” he stated.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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