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Sainted Obsession : When Helen Rand Parish Discovered A Priestly Hero Amid The Conquistadores, She Found The Cause Of A Lifetime

October 11, 1992|TOM BATES | Tom Bates is the author of "Rads: A True Story of the '60s," to be published in November by HarperCollins. He is also a former senior editor of this magazine.

IT WAS THE LAST DAY OF A WEEKEND CONFERENCE ON THE INCAS AND THE HEAVIES were on their way down from New York. As Columbus scholars and social justice advocates streamed into Princeton's Betts Auditorium, the soft, spring air held an edge of anticipation. After the folderol marking the beginning of the quincentennial year, with its parade floats, sailboat races, caravel replicas and the symbolic marriage of the Statue of Liberty to the Cristopher Columbus statue in Barcelona, here was a chance to confront the moral dilemma of history's greatest land grab. Better yet, it was an opportunity to recognize, from the bloodiest days of the conquistadors, a man who might be a true hero.

Advancing his cause that night was historian Helen Rand Parish. Tiny, dressed but for a silver pendant, entirely in black. Obliged to speak sitting down because of her advanced age, she kept the audience rapt with her descriptions of Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th-Century Dominican bishop and social reformer. Las Casas had used his influence as a clergyman and his connections--he was a friend of the Columbus family--to lobby against the enslavement and extermination of Indians in the Americas. His "Brevisima relacion de la destruccion de las Indias" shocked Spanish society in 1552 with revelations of Spanish misdeeds in the colonies ("The children they would take by the feet and dash their innocent heads against the rocks"), brutality that, along with European disease, killed 12 million during the conquest, Parish estimates.

"The men perished in the gold mines with hunger and labor," wrote Las Casas, "the women perished in the fields, being tired out with the same calamities, and thus was a vast number of the inhabitants of this island (Hispaniola) wholly extirpated."

Recounting her tale like a detective story, Parish described the Spanish viceroy's attempts to suppress Las Casas' writings on Peru, especially his treasonous assertion that "Indians must voluntarily accept Spanish rule before it is legitimate." The audience, embracing the figure of Las Casas as his church and popular culture have not, was electrified. Here, she seemed to be saying, was a European who challenged smug Eurocentric assumptions about the Discovery.

For many Americans, it was white America's original sin. Few of us would be here without Columbus' great achievement, but because of it, millions died and slavery flourished in the New World. "Don't Celebrate 1492, Mourn It," the novelist Hans Koning wrote in a New York Times opinion piece, citing Las Casas as support for his opinion. The National Council of Churches condemned the ecclesiastical role in the conquest and declared 1992 to be a year of "reflection and repentance," not celebration. As for the mostly honorific events on the anniversary calendar, a group claiming to represent American Indians even threatened to sabotage them.

But, says Parish, Las Casas offers a way out of this ethical impasse, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. "Las Casas is the answer to the quincentennial debate," she says. "This one missionary who stood up for the rights of man is the glory of the church!"

The grandeur of her tone befits her mission. For Parish, a self-described "Catholic radical" ("radical in the sense of going to root causes"), believes that Las Casas was not simply a great man but a saint--in the literal sense.

WE ARE IN PARISH'S BERKELEY APARTMENT A FEW BLOCKS FROM SPROUL Plaza. It is a medieval-looking place with the second verse of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat " carved into the heavy wooden door: "You know how little/ while we have to stay/ And, once departed/ may return no more." The rooms are stuffed with books, rugs and dark furnishings, a scholar's lair. Toasted crumpets and strong Indian tea await the visitor. "Pick up the chair, pick up the chair and draw closer," she commands. Her vivacity makes her seem larger and younger than she is. She doesn't talk so much as declare, rapping the table with her little fists, her eyes misting when the topic is human suffering. "How can you speak about the love of God to the poor? Only one thing you can say: God does not mean for this to be!"

That passion for social justice is what drew her to Las Casas back in 1948, when she came across his story in historian Louis Henke's masterpiece, "The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the New World." The character that so engaged her was born in 1484 in Seville, the Spanish port from which Columbus would sail eight years later. He grew up with an Indian slave to wait on him, a gift from his father, who had gone off to seek his fortune in the New World. In 1502, the young Bartolome de las Casas sailed to Hispaniola to help manage his father's holdings, which included land, slaves and an inter-island provisioning business.

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