The Pope’s visit in Mexico and his repentance discourse on past wrongs inflicted on the natives inhabiting the place centuries ago brings to mind historical episodes that are worth recalling for a better understanding of that period of world history. What exactly the Pope is expressing regrets for is not clear to us since he himself is a descendant of the Spanish Conquest of South America. Is it the Conquest itself, the political domination, the wars against and enslavement of natives or the Holy Inquisition from Europe extended to the Mexico and maintained till 1820? Or is it because the Church acted hand in hand with the monarchs of Spain in the conquest and colonization of Mexico as from the 15th century?
Motivations of Spain: economic, political and religious
A brief geopolitical survey of Spain and its neighbourhood, and the role of the Pope may help to enlighten us not only on the period of Spanish expeditions to America but also prior to that, for the same reasons, on the conquest and expansion of Arabs and Islam in other parts the world, and what is even more interesting is that you are free to draw parallels with today’s world situation.
While the rest of Europe was busy fighting among themselves internally and also went at one another’s throat occasionally, Portugal and Spain emerged as strong naval powers impatiently searching another route to the much coveted resources of the east from India to China rather than depend on the dangerous costly ancient trade routes through Middle-Eastern countries. Portugal’s advantage was its political unity.
Spanish disunity was put to an end when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castille in 1469 and the two kingdoms united to confront North African Muslims, the Moors, who had occupied the Peninsula from the 700s after the birth of Islam and the subsequent conquest of territories. After the overthrow of Muslim domination of the Peninsula following the fall of Granada in 1492, the Catholic monarchs were given special status by the Pope within the Roman Catholic realm. They set up the most dynamic monarchy in Europe. Once liberated from the division of power with the Moors, the Crown reoriented the nation’s economic ambition by first supporting Christopher Columbus in his expeditions to America. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the newly acquired lands between the two rival Catholic kingdoms, Portugal and Spain, by the Treaty of Tordesillas.
The Three Gs: Gold, Glory and Gospel
The prospect of acquiring gold in foreign lands drove the Conquistadors mad just as their other European counterparts would fling themselves headlong to faraway places in a frenzy to pocket other people’s natural resources: the English and other Europeans in the expanding United States to the west in the 1860s; the Dutch in South Africa where they named the capital Johannesburg, City of Gold. There was an urgent thrust to rapidly colonize Mexico named New Spain after the Queen expelled the Jews from Spain, which dealt a severe blow to Spain’s economy.
The new prestige showered by the Pope on the royal couple for expelling the Moors emboldened Queen Isabella the Catholic to undertake reforms in Spanish Catholicism, which reaffirmed medieval doctrines and tightened up discipline and practice. In 1480, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was set up in Spain, reinforcing royal political power by entrusting the monarchs with secular and religious authorities.
From the point of view of Pope Alexander VI, the American ‘Continent’ was bestowed by God through the Pope upon the Spaniards and the Portuguese. They were committed to the purpose of making Catholicism completely dominant wherever they could. They had the duty to spread the faith in the belief that non-Christians would benefit from the instruction of the ‘true faith’. In no time the Holy Office of the Inquisition was extended to Mexico. Those they called ‘Indians’ in Mexico had to be Christianised before they could be considered as humans.
What did the Spaniards find in the ‘New World’? They encountered three major civilizations: the Incas in Peru, the Mayas and Aztecs in Mexico. They were amazed by what they found, immense wealth, gold and silver, complex cities rivaling or surpassing those in Europe and remarkable artistic and scientific achievements.
The Spanish Conquistadors exchanged ordinary glass trinkets from Spain for gold. The tragic encounter of Cortez with local chieftains, the deceit, the display of the superior capacity of the sword to hurt and kill, the destruction of native culture, and the very mystical sound of the name Teotihuacan, City of the Gods, ancient city of pyramids in north-east of Mexico dating back to 300 BC, and the heartbreaking evocation of the prayers are poignantly described by JM Leclézio in his book entitled ‘Le Rêve Mexicain’. Indeed, the natives tragically mistook the first blue-eyed white skin European man they encountered for the long-awaited sort of messiah announced to their ancestors in a dream.
It turned out to be a nightmare when they realized the foreigners were after their lands and resources. In their drive to gather riches, Columbus and afterwards, Cortez, enslaved and decimated the local population. Their numbers plummeted rapidly during the fights against the colonizers but also because of the introduction of diseases such as malaria, smallpox and measles to which the natives had no natural immunity.
After Pope Alexander gave the Spanish Crown complete domination of religious matters in Mexico, Pope Julius granted extensive authority over the new domains with the goal of converting the ‘Indians’ to Catholicism. The different orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, did not act so much hand in hand with the political authority. Studies of local set of beliefs led to an appreciation of it as an authentic religion with common points such as the communion, the cult of the saints and the mother goddess which made Virgin Mary acceptable to the natives; the religion had some demonic influences from the Spaniards’ point of view.
The Reformation which required total assent from its believers in Spain was also applied to the natives though a certain amount of laxity was allowed in practice.
Rage against Idols
However, the primary aim was the destruction of native religions and the propagation of the Gospel throughout the world. The natives were seen as being under the influence of the devil. Temples were destroyed and replaced with cathedrals, monasteries and schools. The Conquistadors set themselves to the task of superimposing Christian faith on local religions by ‘cleansing’ temples of idols and substituting Christian icons. Idols were broken in public in an attempt to break the spirit of the Mayas and the Aztecs.
The Inquisition saw to it that unrepentant rebels were burnt alive. Among them were natives who refused repentance and the idea of going to a heaven where cruel white men resided, but also half-breeds, mestizos, and white rebels against local government. Inquisition quelled down political tension and chaos until 1820.
As Pope Francis travelled and was shown different places in the capital, the history of the place and the combination of politics and religion which helped carry out the extermination of a people and its culture with the blessing of former popes, might have flashed across his mind.
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Regrets and apologies come centuries later. Others never utter any apology. The explosive cocktail of politics and monotheist religions is something that has kept repeating itself throughout history. It is in the genetic pattern of monotheism to destroy what is different from it, in its mission of propagating its own vision of what is ‘true faith’.
More than fourteen centuries after the beginning of Christianism, radical Catholicism in Spain created widespread havoc and miseries, with the blessings of religious authorities. As if monotheism cannot be genetically modified, even today the mantra of the One is repeated with vehemence by its believers. The same assertiveness of sole correctness is possibly also being reflected in the explosive cocktail of politics and radical religion showing up in the fourteen centuries-old rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
That same element of sole righteousness might also be behind the infighting currently spreading out into and outside the Middle East. These events show that the combination of politics and religious extremism is not a thing of the past yet. The Pope is perhaps sincerely regretting all the harm done centuries ago by this kind of pursuit in Mexico; it would have been preferable not to have employed the combined forces of politics and religion to kill all those innocent Mexican natives. But greed and the quest for absolute power over others have their own motivations.
* Published in print edition on 19 February 2016