One of the things that drew me first to History as a field and then fiction writing as a passion were the complex figures and characters at play in the past and pages of scholarly non-fiction and great fiction. Unlike popular history and national mythology which trades in flat representations of heroes and villains and little else in between, good scholarship and fiction explores the uncomfortable ways in which men can be both heroes and villains. Today I want to share a story from history that I think is useful for the fiction writer. It builds on the ancient concepts of heroism, villainy, and even the Pandora story.
Not long ago The Oatmeal published a popular web comic as a commentary on Columbus Day. The author/illustrator offered us another Spaniard to celebrate in place of Columbus and his tainted legacy.
The initial narrative of the comic was tidy and straight forward; Columbus was an awful human being but Las Casas was a hero that we all could celebrate in his place. But is this true? Is history so tidy and neat? Was his redemption story that straightforward and uncomplicated?
Bartolomé de las Casas arrived in Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1502. It was only a decade earlier that Christopher Columbus had first set foot on the same island and started demographic and historical processes that would rapidly depopulate the Caribbean of its native inhabitants while simultaneously exploiting the population's labor. Las Casas became a part of that exploitation soon after arrival as a slaveholder and participant in slave raids against the local Taino population of Hispaniola.
In 1510 Dominican friars arrived and began to criticize the system of native slave labor. Around the same time Las Casas became the first priest ordained in the Americas. Surely he would join with the Dominicans in criticizing an unjust system, right? No. Indeed, Las Casas argued against the Dominicans and in favor of the status quo-- Native slavery. At this point in the story we are already thirsty for redemption but there is none to be had, not yet.
In 1513 Casas took part in the conquest of Cuba. He recorded later, "I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see." The realization, the evidence before his eyes; now we have a classic redemption story, right? Not so much (on a few levels). First, this didn't stop Las Casas from enjoying the rewards of the conquest (and the related atrocities). For his part in the taking of Cuba he was awarded an encomienda rich with gold and slaves.
The following year, while reading the book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), wisdom literature written by a 2nd century BC Jewish scribe, Las Casas had an epiphany/conviction that he had to give up his encomienda, free his native slaves, and fight against Spanish enslavement of the native population.
Yet, this redemption story will (and should) discomfit us. At least, for a while longer. Las Casas, unable to persuade Spanish officials and settlers in the Americas to share his convictions about the error of Native slavery, traveled back to Spain to try and directly influence the monarch and his court. In the process of advocating for the Native population of the Americas (and receiving the official title of Protector of the Indians) Las Casas further opened a Pandora's box of human misery and suffering-- the African slave trade. Las Casas argued that instead of using Native laborers, because of the death and pain it brought on the local population, the crown should instead import African slave labor. He argued that African slaves had hardier bodies (unlike native bodies which he described as weak) and that unlike the Natives, who were new to Christianity, the Africans had been exposed to Christianity for many centuries and were captives in "just wars" which rendered their enslavement moral and ethical.
This is the complexity of real life and history. A man who was Protector of the Indians can also be responsible in part for worsening the condition of Africans and promoting African slavery. When we hear that Las Casas opposed Native enslavement we want to cheer and label him a hero. Yet, his scheme to replace them with African slaves complicates our view of Las Casas. Especially once we know that between 1510 and 1870 over 1.5 million slaves were imported into the Spanish Americas. And, once other European powers joined in the game of conquest in the Caribbean, and sugar production kicked into high gear in the 17th century, Hispaniola and the rest of the Caribbean, would consume over 4,000,000 enslaved, captive Africans. I purposefully use the word "consume" here as so many were transported into an environment where most enslaved people lived from 1-7 years before dying from overwork, exposure, or disease. Yet the sugar trade was so lucrative that this barely mattered. Even a tiny island like Barbados, 21 miles long by 14 miles wide, saw the disembarkation of more enslaved Africans than the entire British North American coast from Georgia up through Massachusetts.
The story doesn't end without some relief for the reader. In the last years of his life Las Casas found new ways to anger powerful and wealthy men in the Spanish Empire. He recanted his advocacy for African slavery and came out in opposition to both forms of slavery-- Native and African.
"I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery... and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God." Las Casas, History of the Indies (1561)
None of this is meant to suggest that we should or shouldn't celebrate Las Casas. Instead, we should develop a greater appreciation for the messiness of what it means to be human. That heroes are often burdened with failings we find it hard to appreciate once popular history has molded them into an icon of good or bad. And as writers it helps us develop characters who mirror life. A saintly Las Casas with a clear redemption story is a hagiography that lectures to us. The real Las Casas is a man we can interact with. He fails as we all do. His redemption is, at numerous points, incomplete or contradictory. His attempts to solve one problem only worsen another.
As writers we can ask
How can I complicate my character's moral story arc?
What positive traits can my villain possess that the reader can relate to?
What negative traits can my hero possess that the prick at my reader's conscience?
Can I be comfortable with complex characters who make mistakes, endanger their friends for foolish reasons, or create new problems in their attempts to make things right? And, of course, how can I make my characters do these things in ways the develop the plot?
(In the coming weeks I will post a similar story about Lincoln and slavery. Come back and check it out.)