This paper concerns the primary source entitled ‘Apologetic History of the Indies’ by Barlome De Las Casas and the film ‘The Mission,’ starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. Both of these objects deal with the consequences of Europrean ideology with regard South American indigenous populations and the ways in which this was mediated by and occasionally came into conflict with, various anthropological debates regarding the nature of indigenous peoples in South America.
Barlome De Las Casas seeks to make a clear vindication of the peoples with whom he is concerned; those with whom he has been living on Jesuit settlement in South America. His piece is considered to be true history and set of observations which he has made regarding the social practices and way of life of indigenous peoples. He goes to great lengths in order to establish that they meet all standards of humanity which could be expected of them. In order to do this, De Las Casas draws a frame of reference from European contemporary standards. He insists that the people about whom he writes must be considered as decent human beings and that this is the case for several reasons. The first of these is that they are capable of acting out of reason, the second that they are show a simplicity of heart and are honest in their dealings with each other and with the outside world, the third that they are capable of being convinced of the truth of events and finally that many of them have already been converted to Christianity. In short, the piece attempts to dissuade the reader from a dehumanising discourse which would seek to promote the slave trade and early capitalist interests in the area. These points are demonstrated with first hand stories of De Las Casas’ own dealings with the indigenous population and throughout his history he makes a constant reference of other non-Christian societies such as the Ancient Greeks or Romans, which, although they were not seen Christian, were nonetheless seen as being highly civilised. This comparison serves to vindicate the local populations in the eyes of the Spanish who would seek to pursue a policy of direct slavery and rule by force.
‘The Mission’ presents its main characters as pursuing a similar of reasoning. At one point in the film, the central character, as Jesuit missionary, insists that the local population with whom he has been living is capable of all rational behaviours. He also insists, in front of a court of emissaries who represent both the Spanish State and early capitalist interests in South America, that before everything else, the indigenous peoples should be treated as human beings and not subjected to slavery. The film makes a direct point of appealing to the witnesses’ sense of civilisation and to their ideals of humanity and then contrasts this to those who would seek to pursue a policy of slavery and justify it according to anthropology.
It is clear from both sources that Spanish attitudes towards slavery would negatively affect Jesuit settlements in Brazil. The ideology of slavery required a dehumanising discourse that would necessarily fail to allow full recognition for indigenous citizens. This ideology also sought to tie such a dehumanising discourse into the duty of Christian conversion. Both De Le Casa and ‘The Mission’ demonstrate that the link between these two discourses is entirely inadequate and should not be made. By doing this, they both manifest the Christian concerns of Jesuit settlements in South America and show that European attitudes towards slavery were likely to have a highly destructive effect on them.