Genocide and Slavery: Pitstops on the Road to El Dorado

[To reach El Dorado] they crossed swamps and lands that steamed in the sun. When they reached the banks of the river, not one of the thousands of naked Indians who were brought along to carry the guns and bread and salt remained alive. As there were no longer any slaves to hunt down and catch, they threw the dogs into vats of boiling water… (Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, p. 99)

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Of the multitude that followed him, one hundred and sixty exhausted Europeans and not one Indian remain. Leveler of cities, founder of cities, Benalcázar has left behind him a trail of ashes and blood and new worlds born from the point of his sword (100).

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They left Peru months ago in search of the lake where according to legend there are solid gold idols as big as boys, and now they want to return to Peru on a war footing. They won’t spend another day in pursuit of the promised land, because they realize that they already found it and are sick of cursing their bad luck. They will sail the Amazon, emerge into the ocean, occupy Margarita Island, invade Venezuela and Panama… (133-4)

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…the Taironas, bled white by so many years of tribute and slavery, scatter in defeat. Extermination by fire….– everything burns. How many worlds do these fires illuminate? The one that was and was seen, the one that was and was not seen…. the Taironas flee into the mountains…. Far up there the invaders have expelled them, seizing their lands and uprooting their memory, so that in their remote isolation oblivion may descend upon the songs they sang when they lived together, a federation of free peoples… so that they should never again remember that their grandparents were jaguars. Behind them they leave ruins and graves (170-71).

DSC_0133Gold escudos in hard cash, doubloons, double doubloons, big-shot gold and little-shot gold, gold jewelry and dishes, gold from chalices and crowns of virgins and saints: Filled with gold are the arriving galleons of Jean-Baptiste Ducasse, governor of Haiti and chief of the French freebooters in the Antilles…. To France goes the gold of the sacked Spanish colony. From Versailles, Ducasse receives the title of admiral and a bushy wig of snow-white rolls worthy of the king. 

Before becoming governor of Haiti and admiral of the royal fleet, Ducasse operated on his own, stealing blacks from Dutch slave ships and treasure from galleons of the Spanish fleet. Since 1691, he has been working for Louis XIV (277-8).DSC_0138[Fray Bartolomé de las Casas] addresses himself directly to the Holy See. He asks Pius V to order the wars against the Indians stopped and to halt the plunder that uses the cross as an excuse (143).

DSC_0139Antonio de Montesinos, Dominican friar… denounces the extermination:

“By what rights and by what justice do you hold the Indians in such cruel and horrible bondage? Aren’t they dying, or better said, aren’t you killing them, to get gold every day? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves? Don’t you understand this, don’t you feel it?”

…. A murmur of fury swells up. They didn’t bargain for this, these peasants from Estremadura and shepherds from Andalusia who have repudiated their names and histories and, with rusty arquebuses slung over their shoulders, left at random in search of mountains of gold and the nude princesses on this side of the ocean. A Mass of pardon and consolation was what was needed by these adventurers bought with promises…. (57-8).
DSC_0145St. Augustine authorizes war against those who abuse their liberty, because their liberty would make them dangerous if they were not tamed….

Before they start the rush for the gold, for nuggets possibly as big as eggs, [the Spanish lawyer Martín Fernández de Enciso] slowly and meticulously summons the Indians to leave these lands since they don’t belong to them, and if they want to stay to pay their highnesses tribute in gold in token of obedience.

The two chiefs listen… to the odd character who announces to them that in case of refusal or delay he will make war on them, turn them into slaves along with their women and children, and sell and dispose of them as such and that the deaths and damages of that just war will not be the Spaniards’ responsibility.

The chiefs reply… that the holy father has indeed been generous with others’ property but must have been drunk to dispose of what was not his and that the king of Castile is impertinent to come threatening folks he does not know.

Then the blood flows (59-60).

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The lake at the heart of the El Dorado legend, outside of Guatavitá, Colombia.

The Museo de Oro (Museum of Gold) in Bogotá is one of the main tourist attractions, even meriting its own metro stop. The gold was beautiful. The jewelry and figurines and ceremonial objects were created with a level of workmanship and attention to detail that was breathtaking. And yet, if the horrors caused by the Europeans’ covetousness of this gold was mentioned once, it was only in passing and never the focus. But that was all I could think about: the immeasurable amount of blood that was spilt, lives taken or enslaved, worlds annihilated… because this gold was so precious to this continent’s conquerors, more precious than the lives of children and women and men. Gold to which they felt entitled because of the color of their skin and the power of their God.

It makes me think about the kinds of things today’s conquerors covet, the kinds of resources that make death and exploitation into “necessary evils”.  I’m sitting here, in Medellín, Colombia, thinking to myself: Has anything changed at all?

2 thoughts on “Genocide and Slavery: Pitstops on the Road to El Dorado

  1. Galeano should be required reading for anyone visiting Central and South America. Visiting that museum had to be surreal after reading him…

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