A great speech may be one which is to be admired for its beauty or one which is simply to be noted for its impact. The one I choose to begin this series — notable for its impact, certainly not for its beauty — would be comical were it not so tragic. . . .
I do no know who first delivered this speech nor how often it was repeated.* It was apparently standard fare for Spanish explorers when arriving in the New World in the years after Columbus.
“In the stead of the King, Don Fernando, and of Dona, Juana, his daughter, Queen of Castile and Leon, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants do notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the Heaven and the Earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all the men of the world, were and are all descendants, and all those who come after us.
“Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called Saint Peter, that he should be lord and superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey, him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.
“Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require that you consider what we have said to you, and that you take the time and deliberate upon it, and that you acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world.
“But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive heir lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, nor ours, nor of these cavaliers who accompany us.”
One wonders if the Spaniards who delivered such a message had any sense of how utterly ridiculous were their words. A bagful of questions must address this odd speech. Did they even translate it into the language of those to whom they spoke? Did they think anyone would pay any attention to the claims about the Church? Did they themselves care? Did they actually believe that they had some sort of moral right to to sail to a strange land and claim lordship over the people of that land?
Whatever may have been the level of hypocrisy, there can be no doubt that such a speech was prelude to a very great deal of wanton destruction, murder, and enslavement of innocent people. Such baseless imperialism, sad to say, was the hallmark of many European entrances into various parts of the New World.
And I confess to be even more saddened that this insane sense of superiority, though perhaps somewhat diminished, still flourishes. This is as true in the United States as anywhere. Now we call it racism but whatever may be its label, it is irrational, immoral, and severely damaging to the character of a people, all in addition to the damage done to those perceived as lesser beings.
* It is to be found in Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, pp. 58f.