Biography of Antonio de Montesinos, Defender of Indigenous Rights

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Statue Antonio de Montesinos in Dominican Republic
Christian Ender / Getty Images

Antonio de Montesinos (?–1545) was a Dominican friar, attached to the Spanish conquest of the Americas and one of the earliest of the Dominican arrivals in the New World. He is best remembered for a sermon delivered on December 4, 1511, in which he delivered a blistering attack on the colonists who had enslaved the people of the Caribbean. For his efforts, he was run out of Hispaniola, but he and his fellow Dominicans were eventually able to convince the King of the moral correctness of their point of view, thus paving the way for later laws which protected native rights in Spanish lands.

Fast Facts:

  • Known For: Inciting the Spanish in Haiti to give up enslaving the native people
  • Born: unknown
  • Parents: unknown
  • Died: ca 1545, West Indies
  • Education: University of Salamanca
  • Published Works: "Informatio juridica in Indorum defensionem"
  • Notable Quote: "Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourself?"

Early Life

Very little is known about Antonio de Montesinos before his famous sermon. He likely studied at the University of Salamanca before electing to join the Dominican order. In August 1510, he was one of the first six Dominican friars to arrive in the New World, landing on the island of Hispaniola, today politically divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. More clergy would follow the following year, and by 1511, there were about 20 Dominican friars in Santo Domingo. These particular Dominicans were from a reformist sect, and they were appalled at what they saw.

By the time the Dominicans arrived on the Island of Hispaniola, the native population had been decimated and was in serious decline. All of the native leaders had been killed, and the remaining indigenous people were given away as slaves to colonists. A nobleman arriving with his wife could expect to be given 80 native slaves: a soldier could expect 60. Governor Diego Columbus (son of Christopher) authorized slaving raids on neighboring islands, and African slaves had been brought in to work the mines. The slaves, living in misery and struggling with new diseases, languages, and culture, died by the score. The colonists, oddly, seemed almost oblivious to this ghastly scene.

The Sermon

On December 4, 1511, Montesinos announced that the topic of his sermon would be based on Matthew 3,3: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.” To a packed house, Montesinos ranted about the horrors he had seen. “Tell me, by what right or by what interpretation of justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you waged such detestable wars against people who were once living so quietly and peacefully in their own land?” Montesinos continued, implying that the souls of any and all who owned slaves on Hispaniola were damned.

The colonists were stunned and outraged. Governor Columbus, responding to the petitions of the colonists, asked the Dominicans to punish Montesinos and retract all that he had said. The Dominicans refused and took things even further, informing Columbus that Montesinos spoke for all of them. The next week, Montesinos spoke again, and many settlers turned out, expecting him to apologize. Instead, he re-stated what he had before, and further informed the colonists that he and his fellow Dominicans would no longer hear confessions of slave-holding colonists, any more than they would those of highway robbers.

The Hispaniola Dominicans were (gently) rebuked by the head of their order in Spain, but continued to hold fast to their principles. Finally, King Fernando had to settle the matter. Montesinos traveled to Spain with Franciscan friar Alonso de Espinal, who represented the pro-slavery point of view. Fernando allowed Montesinos to speak freely and was aghast at what he heard. He summoned a group of theologians and legal experts to consider the matter, and they met several times in 1512. The end results of these meetings were the 1512 Laws of Burgos, which guaranteed certain basic rights to New World natives living in Spanish lands.

Montesinos' defense of the Caribbean people was published in 1516 as "Informatio juridica in Indorum defensionem."

The Chiribichi Incident

In 1513, the Dominicans persuaded King Fernando to allow them to go to the mainland to peacefully convert the natives there. Montesinos was supposed to lead the mission, but he became ill and the task fell to Francisco de Córdoba and a lay brother, Juan Garcés. The Dominicans set up in the Chiribichi Valley in present-day Venezuela where they were well-received by local chieftain “Alonso” who had been baptized years before. According to the royal grant, slavers and settlers were to give the Dominicans a wide berth.

A few months later, however, Gómez de Ribera, a mid-level but well-connected colonial bureaucrat, went looking for slaves and plunder. He visited the settlement and invited “Alonso,” his wife and several more members of the tribe on board his ship. When the natives were on board, Ribera’s men raised anchor and set sail for Hispaniola, leaving the two bewildered missionaries behind with the enraged natives. Alonso and the others were split up and enslaved once Ribera returned to Santo Domingo.

The two missionaries sent word that they were now hostages and would be killed if Alonso and the others were not returned. Montesinos led a frantic effort to track down and return Alonso and the others, but failed: after four months, the two missionaries were killed. Ribera, meanwhile, was protected by a relative, who happened to be an important judge.

There was an inquest in regard to the incident and colonial officials reached the extremely bizarre conclusion that since the missionaries had been executed, the leaders of the tribe—i.e. Alonso and the others—were obviously hostiles and could therefore continue to be enslaved. In addition, it was said that the Dominicans were themselves at fault for being in such unsavory company in the first place.

Exploits on the Mainland

There is evidence to suggest that Montesinos accompanied the expedition of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, which set out with some 600 colonists from Santo Domingo in 1526. They founded a settlement in present-day South Carolina named San Miguel de Guadalupe. The settlement lasted only three months, as many became ill and died and local natives repeatedly attacked them. When Vázquez died, the remaining colonists returned to Santo Domingo.

In 1528, Montesinos went to Venezuela with a mission along with other Dominicans, and little more is known of the rest of his life except that, according to a note in the record of St. Stephen at Salamanca, he died in the West Indies as a martyr sometime around 1545.

Legacy

Although Montesinos led a long life in which he continually struggled for better conditions for New World natives, he will forever be known mostly for that one blistering sermon delivered in 1511. It was his courage in speaking out what many had been silently thinking that changed the course of indigenous rights in the Spanish territories. While he did not question the right of the Spanish government to expand their empire into the New World, or their means of doing so, he did accuse the colonists of abuse of power. In the short term, it failed to alleviate anything and won him fierce enemies. Ultimately, however, his sermon ignited a fierce debate over native rights, identity, and nature that was still raging one hundred years later.

In the audience that day in 1511 was Bartolomé de Las Casas, himself a slaveholder at the time. The words of Montesinos were a revelation to him, and by 1514 he had divested himself of all of his slaves, believing that he would not go to heaven if he kept them. Las Casas eventually went on to become the great Defender of the Indians and did more than any man to ensure their fair treatment.

Sources

  • Brading, D. A. "The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots and the Liberal State, 1492–1867." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Castro, Daniel. "Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Eccleisastical Imperialism." Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Hanke, Lewis. "The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America." Franklin Classics, 2018 [1949]
  • Thomas, Hugh. "Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan." New York: Random House, 2003.
  • Schroeder, Henry Joseph. "Antonio Montesino." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.