It is impossible to miss the statue. Almost brutalist in its stone starkness standing atop a square building, it was lit up at night as my Uber from Santo Domingo’s airport took me into the city, skirting the Colonial Zone on my way to my hotel. I dismissed it. A few days later, passing by on foot during daytime hours, I saw a sign: Fray (Friar) Antonio de Montesinos. Again, I dismissed it. Just another Spanish priest who converted and killed the natives, I thought.
Being from California, I’m used to stories like this, tales of Spanish missionaries who – in the guise of “saving” or “civilizing” native populations – forcibly converted those who called the New World home, spreading disease that culled their populations, killing any who resisted. So, I figured to myself, Friar Antonio de Montesinos must have been one of those. I am delighted to say: I could not have been more wrong.
Antonio de Montesinos was born in Spain, though it is unknown exactly when. His story really begins in 1510, when he was part of a group of Dominican friars who came to Santo Domingo to convert the native Taino population of the island of Hispaniola (what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). At the time of first contact with Europeans in 1492, the native population of the island is estimated to have been somewhere just under a million. (Some estimates are as low as 100,000, but all agree it was a significant population.)
By the time Montesinos arrived in 1510, the Taino population was already decimated. Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas wrote in his memoir that when he arrived in Santo Domingo in 1506, the total population of the island, including Europeans, was under 60,000. Between disease and a forced labor regimen imposed on the Taino begun by Juan Ponce de Leon, between 80 and 90 percent of the native population was wiped out in the thirty years following first contact. The practice of forced labor was known as encomienda, a system that allowed Spanish conquerors to enslave any non-Christian natives they desired. (It was established following victories over the Moors, but used mainly in the New World.)
On December 21, 1511, Friar Antonio de Montesinos gave a sermon criticizing the encomienda system and the treatment of the native Taino as a whole. According to Casas’ memoir, he said:
Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.Friar Antonio de Montesinos
In addition, he threatened to withhold confession to all slaveholders on behalf of himself and the rest of the missionaries on the island. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with the colonial powers, and governor Diego Columbus (Christopher’s son) had Montesinos shipped back to Spain.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Back in Spain, Antonio de Montesinos petitioned King Ferdinand II, and so impressed the monarch that the Laws of Burgos were established. While it certainly didn’t do enough, it was the first European legal standard for protecting indigenous people, demanding payment for labor (although it was just in food and clothing) and capping the number of laborers allowed under encomienda. It also outlawed killing of indigenous laborers, as they were all deemed future Christians. (Killing certainly continued, however, given the downward population trend of the Taino and other native populations encountered by the Spanish.)
Despite Montesinos’ efforts, today the Taino are – for all intents and purposes – extinct. Though a portion of the Caribbean population carries some percentage of Taino DNA, as a culture, the Taino only exist in museums. One such institution is the Museum of the Dominican Man, in Santo Domingo’s Plaza de la Cultura, which contains a lovely display (all in Spanish, unfortunately) of Taino exhibits and artifacts.
In 1528, Spanish King Charles V bestowed Montesinos with the title “Protector of the Indians” in the province of Venezuela, and the friar set out for that land the following year. In 1540, an officer of the expedition killed him for his pro-native views.
I knew nothing of this until I passed the statue for a third time, and decided to enter the building. Besides the statue and a great view of the coast and Ozama River from the top, the building also has the above quotation on a monument (in Spanish, obviously). The statue itself, just under fifty feet in height and made of stone and bronze, was a gift from Mexico in 1982, with funding from many Latin American states, to commemorate the first notable Spaniard in the New World to seem to care for the natives.
It is nice when a negative assumption of mine turns out to not only be wrong, but to be so wrong as to be laughable. Such is the case with Friar Antonio de Montesinos, a man worthy of such a monument, and of a place in history.
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