Antonio de Montesinos — June 27

Antonio de Montesinos shouts against slavery. Sculpture by Antonio Castellanos (1982), Santo Domingo harbor, Dominican Republic

Bible connection

I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence,

And give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.

The Lord hath sworn by his right hand, and by the arm of his strength, Surely I will no more give thy corn to be meat for thine enemies; and the sons of the stranger shall not drink thy wine, for the which thou hast laboured:

But they that have gathered it shall eat it, and praise the Lord; and they that have brought it together shall drink it in the courts of my holiness. — Isaiah 62:6-9 (KJV)

All about Antonio de Montesinos (1475-1540)

The Spaniards who conquered the Caribbean and operated plantations with Native American labor were wanton in their destruction of human life, and perpetrated terrible cruelties to get gold or to revenge slight wrongs. Most priests were silent to these abuses but a few Dominicans were outraged.

Antonio de Montesinos was among the outraged. Very little is known about Montesinos’ early life. He became a Dominican friar at the convent of St. Stephen in Salamanca, Spain. While he was there, he may have received an education. He was a member of the first group of Dominican missionaries to go to Hispaniola (now divided into the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in September 1510, under the leadership of of his prior, Pedro de Córdoba.

With the backing of Córdoba and his Dominican community in Santo Domingo, Montesinos was the first European to publicly denounce the enslavement and harsh treatment of the indigenous peoples of the island. He initiated an ongoing struggle to resist and reform the colonizers’ treatment of the people in the “New World.” Montesinos’ outspoken criticism influenced Bartolomé de las Casas to head up a movement for the humane treatment of the native people.

Montesinos is famous for his sermon on December 21, 1511, in which he warned his listeners of their spiritual peril. His listeners demanded a retraction. Instead, the Prior Cordoba responded with the threat of excommunication for all plantation operators who did not free their Indians. Here is part of Montesinos’ sermon:

I have climbed to this pulpit to let you know of your sins, for I am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island, and therefore, you must not listen to me indifferently, but with all your heart and all your senses…. This voice tells you that you are in mortal sin; that you not only are in it, but live in it and die in it, and this because of the cruelty and tyranny that you bring to bear on these innocent people.
Pray tell, by what right do you wage your odious wars on people who dwelt in quiet and peace on their own lands? [By what right have you] destroyed countless numbers of them with unparalleled murders and destruction? Why do you oppress and exploit them, without even giving them enough to eat, or caring for them when they become ill as a result of your exploitation? They die, or rather, you kill them, so that you may extract and obtain more and more gold every day….
Are they not human? Have they no souls? Are you not required to love them as you love yourselves? How can you remain in such profound moral lethargy? I assure you, in your present state you can no more be saved than Moors or Turks who do not have and even reject the faith of Jesus Christ!” [Justo González, “Lights in the Darkness.”]
As a result of the friars’ protests at Santo Domingo, King Ferdinand II of Spain initially ordered that Montesinos be shipped back to the homeland along with other Dominicans who supported him. Ferdinand, at first, referred to the preaching of Montesinos as “a novel and groundless attitude” and a “dangerous opinion [that] would do much harm to all the affairs of that land.” After returning to Spain, Montesinos and his supporters were able to persuade the king of their righteous cause and principles.

As a result, the king convened a commission that promulgated the Laws of Burgos, the first code of ordinances to protect the indigenous people. The laws regulated the treatment and conversion of the indigenous people, and also limited the demands of the Spanish colonizers upon them.

Montesinos returned to the Caribbean. In July 1526, under the leadership of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, Montesinos, two other Dominicans, and 600 colonists established San Miguel de Gualdape, the first European settlement in what would later become the United States. It was founded near Sapelo Sound on the coast of Georgia, but the colony only lasted about four months before it succumbed to disease, starvation, and a hostile Indian population. After the death of Ayllón, the settlement was abandoned. Montesinos was among the 150 survivors who returned to San Domingo. It is presumed Montesinos and the other Dominicans were the first priests to celebrate Mass in the present-day United States.

When Montesinos returned to Hispaniola, he continued to play a prominent role in the region. In 1528, he accompanied Fray Tomás de Berlanga to Spain to see King Charles V on matters of “great importance.” While in Spain, he was appointed protector of the Indians in the Province of Venezuela. Charles V then granted that province to Ambrosio Alfinger and Bartolome Sayller, representatives of the Welser banking family, German creditors of the emperor. Montesinos accompanied the German expedition to Venezuela in 1529. 

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued the Papal bull Sublimus Deus which finally declared West Indians to be fully human. It forbade the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and all other indigenous people who could be discovered later or were previously known. It states the Indians are fully rational human beings who have rights to freedom and property, even if they are heathen.
On June 27, 1540 Antonio de Montesinos was murdered in Venezuela by an officer of the Welser expedition due to his strong opposition to the exploitation of the Indians.

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness. A nice bio with further details.

What do we do with this?

As much as we might despair over the impact colonizers had on the world, we have to admire the courage and ingenuity they demonstrate! Many of the missionaries were true believers hitchhiking on the ships bringing devastation to new lands. Many were tools of the system, of course, but not Montesinos. His statue in Santo Domingo is a monument to the gospel that eventually got him killed. Maybe someone will remember your faith, too.

If you hit some of the links scattered through this history, you will get a quick lesson on some history about which you might know very little. The study might give you some insight about places you’ve heard about (like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela) which have provided many new citizens of the U.S. in the last 20 years (like a million Dominicans and 500K Venezuelans). If you met some of them, they might end up thinking you cared enough to find out about them. (If I have readers from there, you can verify if that is true).

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