Letter from Fr. Margat, Missionary of the Society of Jesus, to Fr. de la Neuville, of the same Society, Procurator of the Missions in America (2 February 1729)

Letter

from Fr. Margat, Missionary of the Society of Jesus,

to Fr. de la Neuville, of the same Society,

Procurator of the Missions in America

 

Notre Dame de la Petite Anse,

on the coast of Saint Domingue,

2 February 1729

 

 

Reverend Father,

 

The Peace of Our Lord be with you.

 

Before I answer the questions you have asked me about the Indians who used to inhabit the island of Saint Domingue, allow me to rejoice with you for a moment about the fine cleric of whom you spoke in your letter to me. He was touched, you say, by what he had heard about the abandoned state of the maroon Negroes in our French colonies, he pleaded with the Crown to be sent to work as a missionary among them, and to give them the spiritual succor they lacked.[1]

 

It is true that, as fervent as our zeal may have been, it has not, to date, extended that far.  If this virtuous cleric, whose charity is so laudable, had had an accurate idea of the maroon Negroes, he would no doubt have sought other objects for his zeal, and would have rendered a fairer judgment with respect to our conduct.

 

The term “maroon,” the etymology of which is not well known, even in the islands, comes from the Spanish word simarron, which means “monkey.”[2] We know that those animals hide themselves in the woods, and come out only to throw themselves furtively on the fruit in the areas near their hiding places; in the process, they do great damage.  This is the name that the Spanish, who were the first to inhabit these islands, gave to the fugitive slaves, and it has since made its way into the French colonies.

 

Indeed, when the Negroes are unhappy with their masters, or have committed some misdeed and fear being punished, they flee into the woods and the mountains. They hide there during the day, and at night spread out into the neighboring plantations, to gather provisions and snatch up everything within their grasp. Sometimes, when they have managed to procure arms for themselves, they even form a troop during the day, and lie in wait to ambush passersby.  In those cases, it is often necessary to send considerable detachments of soldiers to put a stop to their thievery and to return them to their duties.  You can imagine, given all of this, what kind of a figure a missionary would cut among such people.  In France, would anyone ever think of sending out vicars to highway bandits? And yet this would be the job of a missionary devoted to the service of maroon Negroes.  We limit ourselves to exhorting the Negroes not to exercise this detestable profession.  When one of them has had the misfortune of engaging in it, if he seeks us out, we try to obtain forgiveness for him, and to put him back on good terms with his master.

 

But let us turn to the other question you have asked, which is more serious.  You would like to know if any Indians remain of the great number that used to populate Saint Domingue; you are resolved, you add, not to spare any effort in support of the work necessary to convert them.  This is the question I will answer for you.

 

It is certain that when Admiral Christopher Columbus first set on Haïti (that is the Indian name for Saint Domingue), he was as surprised by the prodigious multitude of its inhabitants as he was by its physical size.  This land, two hundred leagues long by sixty–at certain points eighty-wide, appeared to be inhabited all over, not only on the plains, which extend from the seashore to the mountains that occupy the center of the entire island, from east to west, but also up into the mountains themselves, which, despite being quite steep, were nonetheless the site of considerable settlements.

 

According to the Spanish historians, there were no fewer than a million Indians here when Columbus discovered the island.  Describing the wars endured by these conquerors of the New World, they tell us that the Spanish fought armies of one hundred thousand men, marching under the banner of a single cacique.  They say that there were five or six caciques, equally powerful, and who could only be brought down one by one.  One might  suspect these historians of having exaggerated these numbers a bit, in order to burnish the image of their heroes. But Bartolomé de las Casas, who was by no means a eulogist nor an admirer of his own nation, estimates the same number. In fact, it was on that number that he based, in part, his bitter reproach of his compatriots.[3]

 

In any case, and to answer your question, I will tell you, Reverend Father, that of the multitude of Indians, not a single one remains, at least in the French part of the island, where no vestige whatsoever of the island’s former inhabitants is to be found.  There are none in the Spanish part of the island either, except for one little canton, whose existence was unknown for a long time, and where some of them have managed, as if by miracle, to maintain themselves in the midst of their enemies. (I will explain this to you later.)  You will no doubt ask me what happened to the astonishing multitude of these people. I admit to you that in this case, religion cannot restrain itself from rising up against politics, and that humanity finds it very difficult not to cry out at the general destruction of a nation whose only crime was not being able to endure the injustice and violence of its conquerors.

 

Justice must nonetheless be done to the zeal and piety of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.  Motivated more deeply by the desire to extend the kingdom of Jesus Christ than by a quest to exercise their own domination, they adopted the wisest polices to establish the faith among their new subjects and to assure their tranquility.  Nothing could be more Christian than the instructions that were given to the leaders of this noble enterprise.  They were ordered, above all else, to see to it that religion was the motive and the guide of all their actions.  They were ordered to go out of their way to spare those peoples; to employ for their conversion only the means ordinarily used by the Church; and to attract them through gentleness, through reason, and by way of good examples, rather than by violence or force. Queen Isabella, especially, who considered the discovery of the Indies to be her own personal work, did not neglect a single one of the duties of a sovereign possessing not only the rare qualities of a heroine but also the most passionate and respectful sentiments inspired by religion.  Thus, when Columbus gave his masters an account of the success of the various voyages he had undertaken, the queen, who granted him frequent audiences, never inquired about anything with as much insistence as the progress of the faith.  And she demanded nothing more forcefully than the considerate treatment of subjects who had already no doubt been far too upset by their recent domination.

 

Nonetheless, the monarchs often found that their ministers were not faithfully executing their wishes.  This was especially true of those who, entrusted with the authority of the sovereign, exercised it in places where it would be very difficult to investigate their conduct, and who thus, all too often, grew accustomed to abusing it.  This observation in no way concerns Admiral Columbus, who was, in every sense of the term, one of the great men of his century.  The success of his enterprise, which was an exceedingly noble effort of talent, courage and resolve, has made him immortal, and rightly so.  His singular piety and his tender and solid devotion to all the practices of religion no doubt contributed in no small measure to such a dazzling success.  But even such a great man was not seconded as he deserved. The troop of Argonauts led by this modern-day Jason was not comprised entirely of heroes.  Some of them had bravery, but very few of them had wisdom or moderation.  For the most part, they were men who had chosen to exile themselves from their own country, in the hope of clemency for the crimes they had committed.  At the risk of an honorable death, they aspired to the immense riches of the conquest.  The disreputable character of those new conquerors caused the loss of so many souls who, with time, might have founded a large community of Christians.

 

At this point, Reverend Father, in order to obey your request, I need to provide you with a precise historical account of the first of the revolts, which produced, in just a few short years, and on the most flourishing of the islands in the Indies, the total loss of such a great nation.

 

[…]

 

 

These disputes, which divided the Court, piqued the King’s interest.  He decided to convoke an assembly in which the interested parties would present their arguments.  The Bishop of Darien and Fr. de las Casas were thus ordered to appear before the council on a day that was specified.  The same order was given to Diego Columbus, the son of the great Christopher, who, having succeeded his father in the post of Admiral of the Indies, had not inherited his power nor his prestige.  He had been back in Spain for several years, unhappy with the constant attacks on his authority by the officers of the Court.

 

The assembled crowd was large, the case was interesting, and the presence of the prince made for an august affair.  The prince had just received the decree announcing his election to the Empire, and it was at this event that he was addressed for the first time as “Your Holy Majesty.” A throne had been installed in the middle of the assembly and the prince approached it, accompanied by his ministers and a glittering entourage.  Lord Chièvres and the High Chancellor were seated at the foot of the throne.  In the name of the monarch, the Chancellor ordered the Bishop of Darien to present his position on the matter of the partition.

 

The bishop presented his excuses, saying that the matter was too important to be reported on in public. But having received a second order to speak, he said the following:

 

“It is truly extraordinary that we are still deliberating on a point that has already been decided so many times in the councils of your august ancestors, the Catholic Monarchs.  There is no doubt that only a considered reflection on the natural character and the customs of the Indians determined our severe treatment of them.  Is it necessary to retrace here the revolts and the deceptions of this unworthy nation? Have we ever managed to subdue them by means of violence? Haven’t they attempted through every possible means to exterminate their masters and obliterate their recent domination?  Let us not flatter ourselves; we will have to renounce, definitively, the conquest of the Indies if we allow these barbarians to have a freedom that would prove fatal to us.

 

“How can you criticize the slavery to which we have reduced them? Isn’t it the privilege of a victorious nation and the destiny of vanquished barbarians?  Did the Greeks and the Romans treat any differently the indocile nations they had subjugated by the force of their weapons? If ever a people deserved to be treated with severity, it is our Indians, who are more like ferocious beasts than reasonable creatures.  What can I say about their crimes and their debauchery, which make nature itself blush?  Can even a tinge of reason be perceived in them?  Do they follow any laws other than those of their most brutal passions? But our severity, it is argued, prevents them from embracing religion. Well then! What does religion lose by not gaining such subjects?  Some want to make Christians of them, but they are barely even human.  Let our missionaries recount exactly what fruit their labors have produced and how many sincere converts they have made.

 

“But these are souls for which Jesus Christ died, it is said. I agree.  God forbid that I should propose to abandon them. May the zeal of our pious monarchs for the conversion of these infidels to Jesus Christ be forever praised!  I maintain, however, that subjugation is the most effective means to achieve that goal, and I would add that it is, in fact, the only one at our disposal.  As ignorant, stupid, and vicious as they are, will we ever manage to impress upon them the knowledge necessary for conversion, unless we keep them in a useless state of constraint?  As frivolous as they are, and as likely to renounce Christianity as they are to embrace it, we often see them revert to their former superstitions immediately following their baptism.”

 

The prelate’s speech was listened to attentively and received by each listener according to his own disposition. When he had finished, the chancellor addressed Fr. de las Casas and ordered him, on behalf of the King, to respond.  This he did, in approximately the following words:

 

“I was among the first to go to the Indies, when they were discovered during the reign of the invincible monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Your Majesty’s predecessors.  It was neither curiosity nor desire for personal gain that led me to undertake such a long and dangerous journey.  The salvation of the infidels was my only objective.  If only I had been able to apply myself with the kind of success that such an abundant harvest demanded!  If only I had been able to redeem, even at the cost of all my blood, the loss of thousands of souls who were, sadly, sacrificed to greed or immodesty!

 

“Some would have us believe that those barbaric executions were necessary in order to punish or prevent revolt on the part of the Indians. But they do not tell us what the origins of that revolt were.  Didn’t the Indians receive our first Castilians with humanity and with gentleness?  Didn’t they experience more joy in offering the Spanish their treasure than the Spanish, in all their greed, experienced in receiving it?  But our avarice was not to be satisfied: they handed over their land, their plantations, and their riches to us; we sought to snatch away their children, their wives, and their freedom as well.  Did we really think that they would let themselves be insulted in so blatant a manner, that they would let themselves be stabbed, hanged, and burned without expressing the slightest objection?

 

“By constantly vilifying these wretches, some want to insinuate that they are barely human.  Let us rather blush at having been less human and more barbaric than they.  What did they do, other than defend themselves when they were attacked, other than push back against insults and violence with weapons?  Desperation always furnishes weapons to those who have been pushed to their limits.

 

“Nonetheless, some cite the example of the Romans to justify our efforts to reduce these people to servitude.  It is a Christian, in fact a bishop, who says such things. Is that his Gospel?  What right, indeed, do we have to transform people born free into slaves, people whose lives we disrupted without their having ever offended us?  I offer no objection to the notion that they should serve as our subjects; the law of might  perhaps justifies that.  But according to what law do they deserve to be slaves?  ‘They are brutes,’ the bishop adds, ’idiots, a nation given to all the vices.’  But does that come as any surprise? Can one expect other mores from a nation deprived of the light of the Gospel?  Let us pity them, but let us not crush them. Let us try to instruct them, to enlighten them, to educate them. Let us subject them to the rule of law, but let us not throw them into despair.

 

“What can I say about the use of religion as a pretext, in an attempt to cover up such blatant injustice?  What? Will chains and leg irons be the first fruits that these people will obtain from the Gospel?  How will we possibly impart a taste for the holiness of our law to hearts that have been poisoned by hate and antagonized by the ravishing of what is most dear to them, their freedom?  Are those the means the apostles used to convert the nations? They themselves suffered the experience of being in chains, but they didn’t impose them on anyone else: Jesus Christ came to free us from servitude, not to subject us to slavery.  Obedience to the faith must be an act undertaken freely. It is by persuasion, kindness, and reason that one must make it known.  Violence can only turn people into hypocrites; it will never turn them into true worshippers.

 

“Allow me to ask in turn the Lord Bishop if, since the enslavement of the Indians, more eagerness on their part to embrace religion has been observed and if the masters into whose hands they have fallen have worked diligently to remedy their ignorance.  What a great service the partition has rendered to the state and to religion!

 

“When I first set foot on the island, it was inhabited by a million men. Today, scarcely one percent of them remain.  Poverty, labor, merciless punishment, cruelty and barbarism have made thousands of them perish.  The death of men has been turned into a game.  They are buried alive, underground, where they receive neither the light of day nor the light of the Gospel.  If the blood of a man, unjustly shed, cries out for vengeance, what a clamor must be raised by the blood of so many wretches, shed so inhumanely every day!”

 

Las Casas concluded by imploring the clemency of the Emperor for such unfairly oppressed subjects, implying that it was of His Majesty that God would one day demand an accounting of so many injustices, which he could have prevented from happening.

 

The matter was too important to be judged on the spot.  The Emperor gave high praise to the zeal of Las Casas and exhorted him to return to his mission, promising that he would promptly and effectively put a stop to the disorders of which he had painted such a vivid picture.  It wasn’t until much later that Charles, having returned to one of his estates, had the time to ponder the question. But it was too late, at least for Saint Domingue: all the Indians had perished, except a small number of them who had escaped the attention of their enemies.

 

A mountain range divides Saint Domingue in two, length-wise.  In those mountains, there are here and there some small, habitable cantons.  The precipices that surround them make access very difficult.  They can serve as rather secure retreats, and entire families of maroon Negroes have in some cases survived there for several years, sheltered from the pursuit of their masters.  That is where a troop of Indians went to seek asylum.  They found it in the double range of the Pifal mountains, sixteen or seventeen leagues from Vega Real.  They survived there for several years, undetected in the midst of their conquerors, who thought that their race was entirely extinct.  They were discovered by a band of hunters.  Their small number and their pitiful condition meant that they no longer posed any threat.  Their conquerors may even have bewailed the cruelty of their ancestors.  They were treated with much kindness, and were perfectly receptive to all the friendly advances made to them.  Obedient to the instruction they received, they embraced the Christian religion. Having grown accustomed, little by little, to the mores and ways of their masters, they began to intermarry with them.  They were, furthermore, allowed to live according to their own customs, which they still maintain, in part, living only on what they hunt or fish.

 

Such was, Reverend Father, the fate of the Indian nation on the island of Saint Domingue.  Let us worship the designs of Providence, which seems to have borne down on this people, only to substitute another in its place. I am referring to the Negroes, who, as wicked as they are, are nonetheless more favorably disposed toward Christianity than the Indians, judging by the savages of the continent, who are probably of the same race as those who inhabited this island.[4]  I believe, Reverend Father, that I have fully answered both of your questions.  All that is left for me to do is to assure you of the respect with which I remain, etc.

[Translated by C. Rivers, November 2018; published 14 January 2019]

[1] Translator’s note: A “maroon Negro” is a runaway slave.

[2] Translator’s note: this putative etymology is erroneous.

[3] Translator’s note: Bartolomé de la Casas (1484-1566) was Spanish colonist, historian and reformer, who later became a Dominican monk.  His writings chronicled the early days of the Spanish settlements in the Americas and are remarkable for their forceful critique of the abuses performed by the Spanish on the indigenous peoples.  He is perhaps best known for A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísime relación de la destrucción de las Indias, written in 1542 and published in 1552).

[4] Translator’s note: In French, les Sauvages du continent. This refers to the Indians still living on the nearby American continent.