South America: Chapter VI

(by William Henry Koebel)

Spaniard and Native


The collisions with the various peoples of the Continent had now afforded the conquistadores an opportunity of testing the power of each.

The force of the impact had, it is true, swept into the background the first peoples with whom they had come into contact; but, as the scanty numbers of the pioneers filtered across the new territories, they found that the task of annexation was by no means so easy in every case.

So far as a warlike spirit was concerned, the difference between the aboriginal tribes of the tropics and those of the southern regions was most marked.
The Incas were, in many respects, a warlike race - that is to say, they had possessed themselves by force of arms of the country in the neighbourhood of Lake Titicaca, wresting this from whatever tribe of the Aymaras it was which, highly civilized, had held the land before them.

This nucleus of empire, once obtained, they had spread to the south and to the north, and to a certain extent to the east, conquering all with whom they had come into contact, with the notable exception of the Araucanians in Southern Chile.

The Chibchas, too, in the far north, whose civilization in some respects equalled that of the Incas, might be termed a conquering race.
They dominated the north of the Continent, and upheld their empire securely by force of arms.


Yet it is curious that both these nations, representing the chief civilizing and inventive powers of the Continent, presented nothing beyond the most futile resistance to the invaders.

Their gods desecrated, their faith outraged, stung to utter fury and hate, even these passions failed to lead them to a single victory of consequence, notwithstanding the fact that their tens of thousands of warriors were faced by no more than a few dozen Spaniards. Disheartened by the terrifying onslaught of the men in mail mounted on gigantic horses, they appear to have reconciled themselves with melancholy submission to a fate which only on two or three occasions during the following centuries they endeavoured with any earnestness at all to disturb.


How different were the battles of the south!
The Spaniards who found themselves face to face with the Araucanian Indians, and with those of the Pampa on the other side of the Andes, had a far more strenuous tale to tell.

The armour which had resisted with such contempt the more delicate weapons of the Peruvians and of the northern warriors in general was crushed in and dented beneath the tremendous blows dealt by the clubs of the muscular and warlike Araucanians, who charged into the battle with a wild joy that left them as drunk with triumph at the end of the combat as they had been with their native spirit at the beginning.

These Araucanians were, indeed, born fighters.
In common with the general run of mankind, it was their lot to be defeated from time to time.
Nevertheless, they repaid the defeats frequently with very tragic interest; in any case, subdued by force of arms they certainly never were.


Much the same may be said of the Indians of the Argentine and Uruguayan plains.
The aggressive tactics here were by no means confined to the Spaniards.

On the first landing of the conquistadores, these found themselves, after having given provocation in the first instance, cooped up within the flimsy walls of their new settlements, surrounded by fierce and vindictive enemies, who charged on them from time to time with bewildering fury, choosing as often as not for the purpose the hour just before dawn, which they would make horrid with their warlike cries and shrill yells.

These, too, remained entirely unsubdued to the last.
They had the ill-fortune to be favoured with fewer natural advantages than the Araucanians.
They had neither woodland valleys nor mountains in which to take shelter in the time of need.


They fought on a plain which was as open as day, and as flat as a table from horizon to horizon.
No crude strategy was possible - at all events, in the daytime - and the attack of the charging Indians was necessarily visible from a distance of leagues.

From time to time a certain number of these fierce tribesmen were captured, but their fiery spirits could brook no domestic tasks, and when, at a very much later date, some of them were shipped upon a Spanish man-of-war with the purpose of testing their value as sailors, they rose in mutiny and slew many officers and men, and, indeed, obtained temporary control of the ship, until, seeing the uselessness of further efforts, they flung themselves overboard in a body.


It was the ancestors of such men as these who had in the first instance disputed the soil with the Spaniards.
There is no doubt that, while the metal-bearing lands fell into the opened mouths of the Spaniards as easily as over-ripe plums, the maintaining of a foothold in the southern plains was a precarious and desperate matter.

As has been said, the natural topographical advantages of Southern Chile made the wars here the grimmest and fiercest of all those waged throughout the Continent.
The mere names of Caupolicán and Lautaro suffice to recall a galaxy of Homeric feats. The deeds of the two deserve a passing word of explanation.


It was the Chief Caupolicán who organized the first resistance to the invaders on a large scale, and who led his armies with a marvellous intrepidity against the Spaniards.
He initiated a new species of attack, which proved very trying to the white troops.

He would divide his men into a number of companies, and send one after another to engage the Spanish forces.
Thus the first company would charge, and would engage for awhile, fighting desperately. Then they would retire at their leisure, to be succeeded without pause by the second, and so on.

According to some of the older historians, it was by this method that Valdivia's forces were overcome on the occasion when the entire Spanish army, including its brave leader, was massacred.


The other famous chief, Lautaro, received his baptism of spears and of fire under the leadership of Caupolicán.
Lautaro was probably the greatest scourge from which the Spaniards in Chile ever suffered.

Twice he demolished the town of Concepcion, and once he pursued their retreating forces as far as Santiago itself.
In an engagement on the outskirts of this city the victorious chief was killed, and after his death a certain amount of the triumphant spirit of the Indians deserted them.

The indomitable spirit of the race awoke afresh, and asserted itself with renewed ardour in the course of the next series of the interminable struggles.

Compared with all this, the sun-bathed peaks of the centre and of the north breathed dreams and soft romance.

Naturally the temperament of the inhabitants had tuned themselves to fit in with this.
The few savage customs which had intruded themselves among the quaint rites and mysticism of these peoples had failed to inculcate a genuine warlike ardour or lust for blood.

Their dreamily brooding natures revolted against the strain of prolonged strife.
What measure of violent resistance was to be expected from the dwellers on the shores of Lake Guatavita?


The Lake of Guatavita had been a sacred water of the Indians of Colombia before the advent of the Spaniards.
It was on this peaceful sheet that the cacique and his chiefs were rowed out in canoes while the people clustered in their thousands about the mountainous sides of the lake.

When the canoes had arrived at the centre of the lake the chiefs were accustomed to anoint the cacique, and to powder him with a great profusion of gold-dust.
Then came the moment for the supreme ceremony.

The multitude turned their backs on the lake, and the cacique dived from the canoe and plunged into its waters; at the same time the people threw over their shoulders their offerings of gold and precious stones, which fell with a splash into the waters.


The lake was further enriched after the arrival of the conquistadores, when the natives, tortured and ill-treated in order that gold should be wrung from them, conceived such a hatred of the metal that they threw all they had wholesale into the sacred waters.

It is said that some Indians, goaded beyond endurance, taunted their conquerors and told them to search at the bottom of the lake, where they would find gold.

They had no idea that the Spaniards would actually attempt this, but this the conquistadores did, and were digging in order, apparently, to drain the water off when the sides fell in and put an end to the attempt.


It is said that even then they procured a large amount of gold and some magnificent emeralds.


Death of Atahualpa
Death of Atahualpa. The final tragedy as shown in a seventeenth-century engraving.

As may well be imagined, it was people such as these who suffered most of all from the violence of the strange, pale beings who had descended into their midst to subdue them, first of all by means of the sword, and then by the ceaseless wielding of the more intimate and degrading thong.

Since, notwithstanding all that has been urged to the contrary, the average Spaniard of those days - even those of his number who had to do with the Americas - was provided with the ordinary sentiments and passions of humanity, it was inevitable that in the course of the oppression and warfare waged against the natives some devoted being should sooner or later rise up to espouse the cause of the Indians.


This intermediary, of course, was Bartolomé de las Casas, so widely known as the Apostle of the Indies.
There are many who fling themselves heart and soul into a cause of which they know nothing, and who, from the sheer impetus of good-hearted ignorance, cause infinite mischief.

The case of Las Casas was different.
Before he took up his spiritual labours he had lived for years at the theatre of his future work, and understood the conditions of the colonial and native life.

As a matter of fact, Las Casas' mission did not dawn upon him until he had enjoyed a very considerable practical experience in the industrial affairs of the New World.
His connection with this latter did not begin with his own generation.

He was the son of a shipmate of Columbus, who had sailed with the great explorer in his first voyage, and who had accompanied Ovando when that knight sailed out from Spain to take up his Governorship of the Indies.


It was in Hispaniola, it appears, that Las Casas was ordained priest.

In the first place he lived the ordinary life of the Spanish settler in the island. In common with everyone else, he accepted a repartimiento - that is to say, a supply of Indian labourers - and was undoubtedly on the road to riches when, little by little, the inhumanity of slave-owning became clear to him.

To one of his enthusiastic temperament no half measures were possible.
He gave up his Indians forthwith, allowed his estate to revert to Nature, and began his strenuous campaign, that had as its object the freedom of the native races.


By 1517 he had succeeded in attracting a wide attention to his efforts.
Journeying to Spain, he persisted in his cause, and gave the high authorities of that country little peace until they lent an ear to the grievances of his dusky protégés.

Las Casas was endowed to an unusual extent with both eloquence and fervour, and both these attributes he employed to the utmost of his powers in the service of the American aborigines.

Thus he painted the sufferings and the terrible mortality of these unfortunate people with a fire and a force that left very few unmoved.
Nevertheless, as was only to be expected, he met with considerable opposition from various quarters where the financial interests dependent on the New World outweighed all other considerations.

In the end, rendered desperate by this opposition and by the active hostility which he encountered in these quarters, he determined to lead the way by the foundation of a model colony of his own in South America.


He obtained the cordial sanction of the Spanish King to this end.
Nevertheless, when put into practice, the scheme failed utterly.
The reasons for this were to be sought for in the poorness of the soil chosen and in the intrigues of the white settlers rather than in any fundamental fault of the plan itself. For all that, its failure came as a severe blow to Las Casas.
After experiences such as these, the majority of men would probably have given up the attempt in despair.
Las Casas, it is true, sought the refuge of a monastery for a while in order to recover his health and spirits, which had suffered from the shock.
Once again in possession of these, he returned to the field, and, undaunted, continued to carry on his work.


This campaign of Las Casas is famous for a curious anomaly.
That his work of mercy should have resulted in the introduction into the Continent of a greater number of dusky labourers than before appears on the face of it paradoxical.

Yet so it was. For Las Casas, determined that the mortality among the Indians should cease, advocated the importation of African slaves into Central and South America.
His idea was that the labours spread over so many more thousands of human bodies would prove by comparison bearable, and would thus end in fewer fatalities. It is certain enough that this introduction of the sturdy negro tended considerably to this end, and that many thousands of lives were prolonged, if nothing more, by this plan.
For all that, it must be admitted that the venture was a daring one to emanate from the mind of a preacher who was fighting against the slave trade.

But Las Casas, urged by his own experience, took a broad view, and none even of his contemporaries were able for one moment to impugn his motives.


Las Casas was as much a product of the period and place as were the wild and daring conquistadores themselves.
The new Continent undoubtedly exerted a curious influence over its visitors from the Old World.

It seemed to possess the knack of bringing out the virtues as well as the defects with an amazing and frequently disconcerting prodigality.

Several of Las Casas' biographers have wondered at the reason why the Apostle of the Indies was never made a saint.
Certainly hundreds of lesser heads have been kept warm by a halo which has never graced that of Las Casas.



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