Cover image for Defending the Conquest: Bernardo de Vargas Machuca's Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests Edited by Kris Lane and translated by d F. Johnson

Defending the Conquest

Bernardo de Vargas Machuca's Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests

Edited by Kris Lane, and translated by d F. Johnson


$32.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02937-5

176 pages
5.5" × 8.5"
2 maps

Latin American Originals

Defending the Conquest

Bernardo de Vargas Machuca's Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests

Edited by Kris Lane, and translated by d F. Johnson

“While all the world has heard of Bartolomé de las Casas, the ‘Apostle of the Indians,’ few have heard of the crusty and garrulous Spanish captain Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, who, in a state of high indignation, set out to refute the Dominican’s depiction of the Spanish conquest of America as an unremitting chronicle of atrocities. But if we are to get a fair picture of the extraordinary events surrounding the conquest, it is important that the voices of those who took issue with Las Casas be heard. The editor and translator of Defending the Conquest have therefore performed a great service in making available to a modern readership this most politically incorrect of conquest histories. Like the gripping stories of Las Casas, those of Vargas Machuca may also have something of value to tell us.”


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Of great benefit for scholars and teachers, this is the first English translation and critical edition of a rare refutation of Bartolomé de las Casas’s famous 1552 Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, one of the most influential texts of the sixteenth century. The Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests, written by the Spanish soldier Bernardo de Vargas Machuca about 1603, provides valuable insights into the other side of the debate over the morality of the Spanish conquest.
“While all the world has heard of Bartolomé de las Casas, the ‘Apostle of the Indians,’ few have heard of the crusty and garrulous Spanish captain Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, who, in a state of high indignation, set out to refute the Dominican’s depiction of the Spanish conquest of America as an unremitting chronicle of atrocities. But if we are to get a fair picture of the extraordinary events surrounding the conquest, it is important that the voices of those who took issue with Las Casas be heard. The editor and translator of Defending the Conquest have therefore performed a great service in making available to a modern readership this most politically incorrect of conquest histories. Like the gripping stories of Las Casas, those of Vargas Machuca may also have something of value to tell us.”

Kris Lane is Professor of History at the College of William and Mary.

Timothy F. Johnson is a graduate student and teaching assistant in the Department of Spanish at the University of California, Davis.




Introduction to Bernardo de Vargas Machuca’s Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests

Kris Lane

Note on the Translation

Timothy F. Johnson

Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests

Bernardo de Vargas Machuca

Translated by Timothy F. Johnson



Introduction to Bernardo de Vargas Machuca’s Defense of the Western Conquests, or Apologetic Discourses

Kris Lane

To pick a fight with a dead man may not be the height of valor, but as any scholar knows, one can still lose. The Spanish-born soldier and writer of military manuals Bernardo de Vargas Machuca (ca. 1555–1622) was nothing if not bold to grapple with Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), even if his opponent had been dead for nearly half a century. Las Casas was a famously fierce critic of the conquistadors for much of his long life, and his voluminous writings and personal legacy of pro-indigenous activism remained formidable in the Spanish world and beyond long after his death. Las Casas was never sainted, but intellectually and morally he remained a hard target even in 1613, when Vargas Machuca first submitted his manuscript to Spanish censors.

Others had tried to counter Las Casas in his lifetime, among them top theologians and conquest-hardened soldiers, but at Spain’s Habsburg court Las Casas always won hearts, if not minds. For conquistadors, this was where it mattered; kings such as Charles V (r. 1516–56) and his son, Philip II (r. 1556–98), issued the relevant decrees and doled out or withheld rewards. The kings’ wives, daughters, and mothers were similarly moved by priestly appeals to royal piety and were influential in shaping colonial policy. Even Hernán Cortés struggled for recognition despite having brought down the Aztec state, and his followers found that rewards came much harder. After 1542, the king stripped customary titles and sinecures from the conquerors throughout the colonies as a result of laws pushed through by Las Casas. The so-called New Laws provoked such violent reactions, especially in Peru, that they diminished the friar’s power at court.

Were America’s native peoples well served by Las Casas’s tireless reformism? Only partially: serious abuses were more often reported and sometimes prosecuted as a result of the friar’s efforts, but royal concessions, including new and extended encomiendas in frontier areas, continued despite the New Laws. Enormous distances, coupled with a hardy Castilian tradition of frontier paramilitary raiding (codified by Vargas Machuca in his 1599 manual, The Indian Militia), proved powerful enemies of early Habsburg attempts at benevolent absolutism. The crown’s ballooning budgetary demands were even more corrosive of pro-indigenous policies. As a result of these factors, conditions on the ground in the colonies remained but a dim reflection of royal mandates throughout the sixteenth century, a situation exacerbated by the 1598 death of Philip II. The Prudent King’s increasingly weak successors expressed sympathy for indigenous subjects abroad, but did little of substance to help them.

How did native Americans fare in places where the friars had outmaneuvered the conquistadors? Spanish America’s many frontier missions offered some physical security (despite an elevated risk of death by disease), but Spain’s inquisitorial Church Militant, as Vargas Machuca bitingly observes in his Defense below, was not known for its light touch. Ample evidence suggests that many native Americans happily embraced Christianity as presented by early Catholic missionaries, yet there is also much evidence confirming that more than a few willful congregants suffered severe beatings, exile, and in some cases execution for alleged acts of apostasy or heresy. Although an outspoken opponent of such harsh measures, Las Casas was more a lobbyist than a missionary. It was in 1516, well before the mainland American conquests, that Spain’s Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros named Las Casas “Protector of the Indians.” Las Casas attempted to live up to the challenge of this title by playing the role of public advocate rather than mission director (or even bishop, his next title), but in the end he was forced to admit that his work had been insufficient to stave off disaster.

If he had largely failed, then, in his efforts to “protect” the Indians, Las Casas had certainly not failed to harm the indianos, or “India men,” like the conquistadors and their descendants and imitators. Indeed, what motivated Vargas Machuca to take on Las Casas in the first decades of the seventeenth century was the gut-level outrage of an aging Indies hand who had arrived too late to conquer his own Mexico or Peru—and whose minor but near-fatal exploits in the jungles of Colombia went unrewarded thanks to (he felt) Las Casas’s false testimony before past kings. Vargas Machuca believed that he had no choice but to defend the conquistadors’ honor against rank defamation.

Distant monarchs had been misled, Vargas Machuca claimed, and Las Casas’s Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies (best known in Spanish as the Brevísima relación, circulated in manuscript after 1542 and published in 1552), more than any other piece of writing, had turned Spain’s monarchs against the conquistadors.2 Now that a new king, Philip III (1598–1621), was on the throne, Vargas Machuca sought to offer his corrections. Somewhat like Cortés’s unacknowledged companion Bernal Díaz del Castillo, author of the True History of the Conquest of New Spain (composed after 1568), Vargas Machuca cast himself as a seasoned and dispassionate yet deeply pious participant-observer, a practical military man.3 Years of experience and a dispassionate reappraisal of “the facts,” he believed, were enough to demolish Las Casas’s exaggerated claims of abuse. He would do so not simply for the sake of righting the historical record, however; like Bernal Díaz, he expected to be personally rewarded. Such was the culture of mercedes.

As in so many other things in his life, Vargas Machuca’s timing was off. Young Philip III may have been less interested in the welfare of indigenous Americans than his father and grandfather had been, but the tide had still not turned in favor of their conquerors.4 Las Casas’s influence was still so strong in Spain that when Vargas Machuca submitted his point-by-point Defense in 1613, it was not allowed to be published despite the support of notable Dominicans. With still more reason to hate Las Casas, Vargas Machuca died in Madrid seeking the ear of yet another young king, Philip IV, in 1622. By Philip IV’s time there was a move afoot to ban publication of the long-dead Dominican preacher’s works, but the pendulum soon swung back. The king’s second wife, Mariana of Austria, partly rekindled the spirit of Las Casas during her regency (1665–75) and the rule of her feeble son, Charles II (1675–1700), last of the Spanish Habsburgs. After the Bourbon succession in 1700, the unbridled cruelty of the “ancient conquistadors” went virtually undisputed. At independence, Simón Bolívar reaffirmed the “truth” of Las Casas’s accusations in his Jamaica Letter of 1815, as they proved useful to the cause of freedom from “tyrant Spain.”5

The Opponent

The Seville-born Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the most influential writers of the sixteenth century. His famous 1552 denunciation of the conquistadors, the Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, reset the course of colonial policy for centuries afterward and greatly influenced the acts and attitudes of the rest of Europe toward Spain. Within a few decades the book was translated into English, French, Flemish, Dutch, Italian, German, and Latin and was frequently held up as confessional evidence of Spanish tyranny and hypocrisy.

With vivid imagery and an activist’s outrage, Las Casas exposed an otherwise hidden world of atrocities on the far side of the Ocean Sea. These were not the cannibal outrages perpetrated by the misnamed “Indians” described by Columbus and Vespucci, but rather the atrocities of fellow Europeans, baptized Catholics run amok in an Edenic New World. Las Casas was a highly learned man, but what gave him the greatest clout among his wide readership was the fact that he had “been there.” He was not only an eyewitness but also an encomendero’s son who had rubbed elbows with the Columbuses.6

Arriving on Hispaniola in 1502, Las Casas witnessed firsthand the mass theft, rape, enslavement, and murder perpetrated by his countrymen. Indigenous women were driven to kill their infant children and commit mass suicide. Chastened, Las Casas went to Spain in 1506 to join the priesthood, was apparently ordained in Rome in 1507, and returned to the Caribbean to serve as chaplain in the bloody 1514 conquest of Cuba. More terrorized than ever by what he saw, Las Casas returned to Spain to become a lifelong promoter of indigenous rights (within his paternalistic missionary sense of them) and a serial denouncer of conquistadors. Not all of his ideas were humane. As early as 1516 he proposed to King Ferdinand relieving indigenous workers by importing more enslaved Africans, a position he later regretted and rejected.7

Las Casas did not witness the dramatic conquests of Mexico (1519–21) and Peru (1532–36), but he avidly devoured all available information about them, from written accounts to oral testimonies, and with this evidence he began to compose his own multivolume History of the Indies. It was a far less polemical work than his famous Brevísima relación but one that still emphasized Spanish cruelty and innate indigenous generosity and goodness. Las Casas went much further in this direction by writing a parallel Apologetic History, in which he claimed that some Amerindian civilizations were superior to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans—a hard pill to swallow in Renaissance Spain.8 In this regard, the friar was consistent: indigenous “barbarism,” even when violent, was innocent. Spanish barbarity was not.

After joining the Dominican Order in 1522, Las Casas regarded the “excesses” of the conquistadors as more than individual acts of lust or cruelty; they extended to the whole Spanish colonial project. The conquistadors’ core aims, he asserted, were the unjust usurpation and plunder of the native lords’s households, lands, and subjects—all under the guise of extending the Spanish and Catholic realms for king and pope. Mass enslavement, though already outlawed in 1512, was the de facto result of conquest. Las Casas argued successfully in the early 1540s that the quasi-feudal encomienda, or trusteeship, established under Queen Isabella was really just slavery by another name.

What did Las Casas really want, or expect, to achieve? As a priest working for one of Spain’s most powerful mendicant orders, Las Casas was only tangentially interested in charging fellow Spaniards with crimes so that they might be tried and punished. He was not the equivalent of a modern human rights lawyer or activist judge despite his tremendous legal knowledge and special title. Although his views and expectations changed over time, Las Casas’s initial goal was to secure exclusive missionary access to the native peoples of the Americas. Lay Spaniards ought to be kept out, he warned Charles V and later Philip II—banned entirely from the hemisphere. Even among priests, none but the most devoted and upright ought to live among what he repeatedly described as innocent and easily misled children of nature.

According to Las Casas, God had led the Spaniards to the native peoples of the Americas for one reason: to introduce them to the Catholic Faith. In abusing, exploiting, and killing them under cover of a papal charter, the newcomers had all but sold their souls to the devil. Aside from his constant calls to suspend “discovery” licenses, or capitulaciones, such as the one that allowed Francisco Pizarro and his brothers to unjustly topple the Inca Empire, Las Casas proposed several utopian schemes. A very early try at mixing Spanish peasants with former indigenous slaves on the Venezuelan coast failed just as the conquest of Mexico was taking place (1519–21). Thanks to reluctant settlers, unstoppable Spanish slavers, and indigenous resistance and flight, the colony never even got started. Although Vargas Machuca claims below that this project was doomed to fail because it was planted in the heart of cannibal country, surviving letters and other evidence suggest that it was simply a stillborn enterprise, with perhaps Las Casas’s divided energies, as much as anything else, to blame.9

A genuine experimental colony called La Vera Paz, or “True Peace,” founded in Guatemala just north of Santiago in 1537, also struggled and was finally abandoned following indigenous uprisings in 1556. Again, the extent of Las Casas’s responsibility for the failure is uncertain, but he claimed its early years of joyous baptisms and indigenous-language Christian song as a resounding success.10 It was here in Guatemala that he received the title of Bishop of Chiapa (today Chiapas, Mexico), but rather than stay and tend to his flock, Las Casas kept traveling back to Spain to press the king for an end to the encomienda. He does not appear to have learned Nahuatl, the Mexican lingua franca, nor any of the Maya dialects spoken in his jurisdiction. A recent critic, Daniel Castro, has suggested that Las Casas never really had the welfare of Amerindians in mind—at least not in any modern sense of the term. He hardly knew them, after all, and his failed paternalist utopias only show that he was an imperialist of another sort, “another face of empire.”11

Few empires or emperors, however, have suffered such an outspoken critic as Las Casas. After securing the anti-encomienda New Laws of 1542–43, Las Casas turned his attention to a highly publicized debate in Valladolid (near Vargas Machuca’s birthplace of Simancas) that lasted from 1550–51. Although the debate was a serial hearing before a body of judges rather than a one-on-one showdown, the friar’s main opponent was the humanist scholar and chronicler Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490–1573), whose somewhat turgid, twelve-point response to Las Casas at Valladolid was “recycled” by Vargas Machuca as a preface (see below). Sepúlveda’s 1545 dialogue, Demócrates segundo (composed in Latin under the title Democrates alter), was a widely read and much-discussed defense of the Spanish conquest wars.12 Sepúlveda had argued that native Americans could be warred upon for violations of natural law, including human sacrifice, and that in a sense their “natural barbarity,” a result of their long isolation, warranted enslavement as a means to achieve acculturation and conversion.

Sepúlveda’s argument fell short of embracing Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery (roughly, “some humans have strong bodies but weak minds and must therefore be enslaved for the utility of those born to be masters and for their own protection”), but it came close.13 The point of Valladolid, as Rolena Adorno has argued, was defining “just war,” Aristotle’s other pretext for enslavement, not debating indigenous humanity. The debate was inconclusive in that no formal winner was declared, but Charles V was persuaded to suspend new conquest petitions briefly. Conquistador rebellions had, however, begun to erode Las Casas’s influence at court by 1551, and perhaps it was for this reason that he addressed the 1552 Brevísima relación to the future Philip II while he was still a young prince, with the request that he plead the Amerindians’ case before his father, Charles V.

As Rolena Adorno has demonstrated, not long before his death in 1566 Las Casas grew even more radical in his critique of the Spanish enterprise in the Indies. By 1562 he was openly arguing that the whole colonial project was unjustifiable and a grave mistake. The Spanish crown, he said, ought to return governance of the Indies to their native lords, the “Indians.” After years of failed compromises and experimental colonies, Las Casas had come to believe that both God and Mammon could not be served in the Americas, and that by natural right the land and its products belonged to the native inhabitants regardless of their “infidelity.” No wars against them had been just. As Adorno argues, Las Casas’s final position was shared by indigenous critics of colonialism writing about the same time as Vargas Machuca, most notably the Peruvian polemicist Guaman Poma de Ayala.14

Las Casas’s Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies

The book that drove Vargas Machuca to take up the language of the duel and challenge a dead priest was essentially a pamphlet, a propaganda piece. Published in Seville just after the Valladolid debate, the Very Brief Account or Brevísima relación was—and remains—an oddity of Spanish literature. In its day, some took it as a heartfelt and honest report, while others saw only a cheap shot at Sepúlveda that simultaneously clobbered Spain, the king, and the conquistadors (it had in fact been composed in the early 1540s, well before the dispute with Sepúlveda began). Whether they loved it or loathed it, highly educated Spanish readers understood that Las Casas’s Very Brief Account was intended as a polemic, a persuasive epistle.

But there was also subtle cleverness in the Brevísima relación. By calling it an abridgment, Las Casas threw a jab at long-winded Indies chroniclers and historians—those like his enemies Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and Francisco López de Gómara, who would elevate Spanish conquests and conquerors as Livy and others had celebrated Rome’s—yet he himself was one of them.16 Las Casas demonstrated elsewhere that he knew the “true” history of the Spanish Empire in America was hardly so simple as his Very Brief Account implied, but here the argument, in order to get results from powerful people with short attention spans, demanded the genre. In the long version, the Apologetic History, which he read verbatim before the judges at Valladolid, his already mind-numbing list of atrocities went on ad nauseam.

Like a twist on the venerable travel itinerary, too, the Brevísima relación followed the conquistadors around the Americas, from the Caribbean islands Las Casas knew so well to his beloved Mexico and Central America, and then to the more distant lands of New Granada and Peru, which he never visited (he had been headed to Peru just after the conquest of the Incas in the 1530s, but ended up in Guatemala via Nicaragua). Despite his brevity, Las Casas even managed to squeeze in the River Plate District, Venezuela’s Pearl Coast, and Greater Florida. He seemed to want to leave no instance of conquistador shame unexposed in what he called that “hell that is the Indies.” The abortive conquest of Chile was left out only because it was still under way as he wrote.

For each of these places, the friar launches immediately into a jaw-dropping sequence of Spanish atrocities (including cannibalism) perpetrated against native inhabitants, his nameless conquistadors “sorry tyrants” who practiced “cruelty without precedent.” It is an exposé, but why the repetition and the graphically violent imagery? As a member of the Order of Preachers, Las Casas in his Very Brief Account is in full, reiterative preacher mode. Though presented as an epistolary plea to Prince Philip, the tract is a thundering sermon. Like most conquistadors and other nontheologians, Bernardo de Vargas Machuca did not read the Brevísima relación as a sermon or propagandistic tract, but rather as a series of barefaced lies masquerading as truth. He took it literally.

Bernardo de Vargas Machuca in the Americas

Bernardo de Vargas Machuca was not a conquistador in the usual sense of the term. Born in the Old Castilian village of Simancas outside Valladolid about 1555, he was more than a generation behind Cortés (d. 1547) and Pizarro (d. 1541).17 By the time Vargas Machuca reached the West Indies in 1578, the English corsair Francis Drake was already a well-known menace to Spanish shipping, and it was the defense of Catholic America against Elizabethan “heretics,” not native rebels or idolaters, that justified his first trip across the Atlantic. Prior to his anti-pirate service, which yielded no results, Vargas Machuca had served as a page for his father in the Alpujarras Morisco uprising of 1568–71 and afterwards as a low-ranking soldier in the militias of Spanish Italy.

Records for the years 1579–83 are equivocal, but from various service reports it appears that Vargas Machuca participated in campaigns to suppress runaway slaves in Panama and rebel Amerindians in northwest Argentina. Although some scholars have suggested that he fought the famously rebellious Mapuche in Chile during this time, there is no evidence of it in any of his various service reports. In the section on Chile near the end of the Defense of the Western Conquests, and in a 1599 plan he submitted to Spain’s Indies Council on how to conquer the Mapuche with crack teams of militiamen, he does not claim to have ever been there.

By 1584 Vargas Machuca’s path is clearer. He moved to the highlands of New Granada, just north of Bogotá, married a descendant of a local conquistador, and began to take part in an almost constant stream of pacification campaigns that lasted a decade. He was recruited by Governor Antonio de Berrío to search for El Dorado in the neighboring Venezuelan Llanos and Guyana Highlands in 1585 and 1587, but thanks to delays in those expeditions, he ended up fighting elsewhere in what is today Colombia. (Berrío famously met up with Walter Raleigh, who captured him on Trinidad in 1595.)

Most of Vargas Machuca’s battles and skirmishes took place among the Muzos and Carares, small Carib-speaking ethnic groups—now extinct—that inhabited the rugged and hot Minero-Carare River basin, which empties into the “Río Grande,” or Magdalena, a few hundred miles northwest of Bogotá. Ad hoc paramilitary expeditions from 1584 to 1587 were of special importance for Vargas Machuca, judging from the frequency of his use of examples and his own service reports and merit petitions. Vargas Machuca claimed mines near the town of La Trinidad de los Muzos (today Muzo), home of the world’s finest emeralds, but he appears never to have had the capital to work them. He was, it seems, uninterested in settling down to this or any other moneymaking pursuit. Later “punishments” and “pacifications” took Vargas Machuca to the southern highlands not far from Quito, where he attempted to found a town named for his birthplace, and far northwest into Antioquia, near modern Medellín.

After his first wife’s death, Vargas Machuca went to Philip II’s crowded court in Madrid to seek reward for his services in 1595. It was a tiresome and humiliating errand, and in the long and costly interim the veteran indiano wrote his manual of counterinsurgency warfare, The Indian Militia and Description of the Indies, published in 1599. He also wrote a brief manual of horsemanship, Exercicios de la gineta (roughly, Exercises in Light Cavalry), published by the same house in 1600. With Philip II dead, Philip III’s court at last granted Vargas Machuca a post: castellan of Portobelo, on the north coast of Panama. This was not the plum governorship he had expected, and Vargas Machuca’s next half-dozen years in Panama left him bankrupt, bitter, and in broken health. It was here that he first drafted his Defense of the Western Conquests.

After another expensive stay in Madrid following his Panama term, Vargas Machuca won a better job as governor of the sun-baked pearling island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela. It was no Potosí, but Vargas Machuca made the most of another half-dozen years (1609–16) in the business of maintaining Caribbean defenses. Margarita was by this time mostly inhabited by enslaved Africans and their descendants, but a small number of Spanish and creole householders, plus a few hundred native Americans, mostly of Guayquerí ancestry, also remained. As the pearl beds gave out, locals traded contraband tobacco to foreigners, most of them Dutch and English. This activity had been violently suppressed by Spanish naval forces just prior to Vargas Machuca’s arrival.

Letters in Seville’s Archive of the Indies suggest that Margarita islanders of all sorts were wary of their new governor, a martinet devoted to pleasing the king of Spain for his own benefit. Vargas Machuca’s saving grace was that he was not lazy, and his efforts to improve Margarita’s fortunes eventually won allies. As governor, he failed to have his jurisdiction expanded to include the nearby coast and several “Carib-infested” islands, but he did manage to outfit and dispatch a new series of “punishments” of neighboring Caribs. Dutch pirates were less of a menace, as his tenure overlapped with the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–21) between Spain and the Netherlands, but this allowed Vargas Machuca to devote considerable attention—and royal funds—to expanding Margarita’s forts and urban infrastructure. He also rewrote his Defense of the Western Conquests (a.k.a. Apologetic Discourses) in 1612, adding a chapter on Margarita. He apparently sent it off for consideration in 1613, possibly to Lima, since it was dedicated to the viceroy of Peru.

After sailing to Spain in 1617 to seek yet another promotion, Vargas Machuca found himself deeper in debt than before, old and encumbered with dependents, and no luckier at court. While in Madrid in 1618 he appears to have edited two manuscript versions of the Defense and sought new permissions to publish. Final approval for publication never came. Vargas Machuca expanded and republished his manual of horsemanship twice and then died of an unknown illness in 1622, just after receiving his last promotion. In late 1621 he had been named governor of Antioquia, a gold-mining district in northwest New Granada that, like Margarita, had fallen on hard times.

Had Vargas Machuca survived to take this last hot-country post, it is likely that he would have set about organizing paramilitary raids against the fierce Chocó peoples of the nearby Pacific lowlands. An almost seamless continuation of the process of pillage and enslavement begun on Hispaniola in 1492, war in the Colombian Chocó raged on into the early eighteenth century. As Las Casas might have predicted, the captives who survived, held in encomienda, were made to mine gold.18 Those who died were replaced with enslaved Africans. The failure to publish his Defense aside, it was Vargas Machuca’s model of imperial expansion, not Las Casas’s, that won the day in the Spanish American backcountry.

Vargas Machuca’s Text and This Translation

In his equally “brevísima” Defense of the Western Conquests, Bernardo de Vargas Machuca attacks each of Las Casas’s regional conquest examples, offering his own, frequently off-point counternarratives from Hispaniola to Peru. He adds the Caribbean island of Margarita, since he knew it so well, and also Chile, about which he held strong opinions. The structure seems sound enough, but Vargas Machuca gets off to a rough start, admitting in his first chapter that he “tires himself” in trying to counter the many exaggerations of the venerable “bishop of Chiapa.” The luckless conquistador’s first counterexamples to Las Casas’s denunciations of atrocities on Hispaniola do not even come from the Caribbean. Yet he is still worth a listen.

Despite some self-deprecating words about his lack of style and erudition, Vargas Machuca says that he is a worthy opponent of Las Casas for two reasons: (1) his “correct” understanding of just war and (2) his wealth of face-to-face experiences with Amerindians, especially in combat. Vargas Machuca’s views on just war were fairly simple. Like Sepúlveda, whose writings he uses as a preface, he believed that America’s many native peoples were naturally ferocious and/or inclined to commit crimes against nature (and, less surprisingly, Spanish colonists), and as such deserved subjection, if not outright enslavement. It was right to wage war against them owing to their naturally fierce and rebellious nature. Spanish dominion over the Indies was not debatable, thanks to a papal decree based in part on alleged indigenous violations of natural law.

Indeed, by Vargas Machuca’s time, a considerable corpus of grants, decrees, and bulls justified “punishment” for a wide range of indigenous infractions, from sodomy to highway robbery. “Conquest” was not even the proper name for what he and others had been doing, Vargas Machuca defiantly states in his Defense: it was “pacification.” Yet in using these terms (castigo and pacificación) to defend himself and his conquistador predecessors against the blasts of Las Casas, Vargas Machuca appears unaware that these very words had been officially adopted by the Spanish crown in response to the friar’s efforts in 1573. By the time he got to the Indies in 1578, Vargas Machuca was engaged in a different kind of war than those that had occupied Cortés or Pizarro. This was not “virgin soil” conquest but counterinsurgency.

Battlefield experience was less likely to get lost amid the finer points of history and theory, although it, too, was prone to exaggeration and other distortions. Vargas Machuca was proud to point out that he had fought on many fronts by 1612. He had been all over the Caribbean, Mexico, and Peru by the time he composed his Defense, and he had certainly traveled to more places and perhaps also interacted with more varieties of “Indians” than his dead opponent, Las Casas.

One of Vargas Machuca’s first lines of attack, one taken by many predecessors, was to challenge the friar’s understanding of American geography—and with it, demography. Although he does not cite it, Vargas Machuca had published, as a kind of appendix to his 1599 manual for conquistadors, a fairly detailed description of Western Hemisphere lands, seas, rivers, and ports.19 Where the friar claimed there were thousands of leagues of coast, Vargas Machuca cut them down to hundreds. Where for Las Casas there had been “beehives” of Indians, Vargas Machuca had seen only trackless mangroves.

When it came to illustrating what he believed was wrong with native Americans themselves, Vargas Machuca drew mostly on personal experience in the New Kingdom of Granada, roughly today’s Colombia. He mentions Aztec human sacrifice as one of several abominable practices explained away by Las Casas, but since he had never witnessed it, he instead refers to examples of what he considers extreme and unnatural cruelty among the forest-dwelling peoples of Colombia’s Magdalena Valley. Here is where Vargas Machuca offers something radically different from Las Casas’s scholarly detractors (such as Sepúlveda), and his often bizarre and decontextualized examples, as much as anything else, justify this annotated translation. They contain nuggets of what might be called “perpetrator ethnography.” He is an Indian hunter who unwittingly collects gems of indigenous action and custom.

Violent encounters with bellicose lowland indigenous groups, especially the Carib-speaking Muzos and Carares of the middle Magdalena, plus years of mundane interaction with the more pacific highland Muisca of the Savanna of Bogotá, led Vargas Machuca to the conclusion that “Indians” in general were naturally cruel, sexually depraved, cowardly, and avaricious—all the traits Las Casas had ascribed to the conquistadors in the Brevísima relación. The Hispaniola historian and fellow castle keeper Fernández de Oviedo (who had also briefly fought Carib-speakers in what is today Colombia) had come to the same conclusion well before Vargas Machuca was born. Both shared the same loathing of Las Casas, and both had the same trouble getting published that seemed to plague all the friar’s enemies.

Getting published from the imperial fringes, and as a soldier in the Indian wars, was only part of the problem, according to Vargas Machuca. As if a victim of the “Las Casas curse,” the author says he wrote the Defense of the Western Conquests not once, but twice. At the urging of fellow soldiers stationed in the Panamanian fortress town of Portobelo, he drafted a manuscript around 1603 and sent it to Lima to be printed. It was stolen (or lost) en route, setting up the possibility that someone else might publish it under another name and take credit. If this happened, no such book has come to light.

The second writing, done on the Caribbean island of Margarita in 1612 (corrected in 1618 in Spain), is what has survived. Despite support from prominent Dominicans and other influential patrons—see the laudatory sonnets and other introductory material below—the Defense of the Western Conquests was never published in Vargas Machuca’s lifetime, or indeed in the whole colonial period. A less generous Dominican, the chronicler Antonio de Remesal, claimed in 1620 that the Defense, a quixotic exercise in “fighting the Cid after his death,” was rightly denied publication license by the Council of the Indies.

Only in 1879, amid a wave of nostalgia for Spain’s Golden Age, was Vargas Machuca’s manuscript recovered and set to print—first by Antonio María Fabié, as an appendix to his Vida y escritos de fray Bartolomé de las Casas, and then (in the same year) as part of the massive Colección de documentos inéditos para la historia de España.21 There are two known copies of the 1612 manuscript, one (which lacks the sixth defense) in Madrid’s Palacio Real and the other in the library of the University of Salamanca. Aside from a few brief references by Las Casas specialists, the Defense of the Western Conquests has been all but ignored by scholars.

A rare exception to this rule is Aoki Yasuyuki’s 1994 Japanese translation of five of the six defenses, appended to Vargas Machuca’s much-better-known Indian Militia (minus the “Description of the Indies”).23 Aoki presents Vargas Machuca’s work as a useful “soldier’s” counterpoint to Las Casas, whose Very Brief Account is another translated work in the same series. As for mid-twentieth-century scholars interested in the so-called Spanish struggle for justice, Vargas Machuca was mostly brushed off as one of several “lightweight” Las Casas detractors. Even Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who made the audacious claim in 1963 that Las Casas was mentally unstable, gives short shrift to the indiano soldier.24 The great Las Casas specialist Lewis Hanke’s response to Menéndez Pidal is almost as dismissive with regard to Vargas Machuca’s work and alleged Dominican support.

The Spanish historian María Luisa Martínez de Salinas, whose doctoral dissertation was a thorough biography of Vargas Machuca, published her own transcription of the Salamanca manuscript in 1993.26 As noted below, it differs in some respects from the 1879 transcription, and most of her minimal annotations refer to these differences. In her introduction, Martínez de Salinas admits that her subject is “less than rigorous” in his attack on Las Casas, but her preliminary study is composed almost entirely of biographical details and discussion of Vargas Machuca’s earlier writings. Martínez de Salinas’s main contribution may be her insistence that Vargas Machuca intentionally left the legal defense of Spanish American conquest to Sepúlveda, whose response to Las Casas he placed at the start of both of his Defense of the Western Conquests manuscripts.27 Trying to publish even this fragment of Sepúlveda’s writings could have gotten his own work censored.

The Mexican historian Benjamín Flores Hernández has also treated the Defense of the Western Conquests in some detail, although he expends almost as much energy defending Vargas Machuca’s reputation as he does critically assessing his work. He seems at pains to defend the Defense. In a more recent essay, Flores Hernández suggests that Vargas Machuca’s description of Margarita in his last Defense is at least useful for Caribbean history.28 No one else seems to have cared much for what Hanke called “that doughty fighter.”


As for Captain Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, it would seem that his testimony against Las Casas would have very little importance. The fact that he was a soldier with twenty years’ experience in the Indies did not necessarily endow him with the ideas, knowledge, and experience of a colonist, or even a conquistador. He may have been a good officer of modest rank, and nothing more.

—Juan Comas, “Historical Reality and the Detractors of Father Las Casas”

As the Spanish-born anthropologist and historian Juan Comas pointed out so witheringly in 1950,29 as an intellectual exercise Vargas Machuca’s attempt to refute Las Casas is a failure. This is not to deny the author’s authority as an experienced fighter, much less to judge his qualities as a person, but rather to assess his work as a polemicist in his own time and social context. Spain’s claim to the Americas and to the persons and belongings of its native inhabitants was not easily justified by anyone, least of all a late-arriving militiaman who applied a posteriori reasoning to vague and tenuous lines of argument, had trouble staying on point, and blithely offered contradictory examples. It would take Lima-born jurist Juan de Solórzano Pereira decades to compose a convincing legal defense of Spanish colonialism, the monumental 1629 De Indianum jure, and even it proved a hard sell among Las Casas sympathizers.

Vargas Machuca’s Defense of the Western Conquests is perhaps best treated as a crude and misguided—yet heartfelt and “experientially” informed—counterpoint from the margins. Unlike the set of arguments put forth by Sepúlveda, it is not at root a legalistic exercise. This fact, rather than alleged censorship by “Lascasian” partisans, is arguably why it has been ignored. Las Casas’s Brevísima relación was a polemical tract meant to convince a complacent monarch and his gold-starved subjects to halt their slaughter, however unwitting, of millions of innocent people on the other side of the ocean. As an emotional homily, or sermon, it was not meant to be “objectively” factual, just morally persuasive.

The fact that Spain’s enemies seized on Las Casas’s exaggerated depictions of conquistador violence and indigenous passivity was not relevant to the Brevísima relación’s purpose, and these depictions hardly reflect Las Casas as a thinker. As his extensive historical writings indicate, Las Casas knew very well how to handle contradictory evidence and proved more than capable of narrating a host of colonial ambiguities without resorting to histrionics and snap judgments. To Columbus, nowadays routinely demonized, Las Casas was surprisingly sympathetic in his History of the Indies; in the Brevísima relación, aimed at a different audience, he was all passion. In this “pulpit” version of the story, Cortés, even if he could not be named, was a heartless killer.

Vargas Machuca was at least as passionate, energetic, and driven to be heard as Las Casas when he wrote his Defense of the Western Conquests. Seething with anger and feeling abandoned at the colonial fringe, he saw the friar’s still-circulating tract as an affront to his honor, his faith, and his patriotism. As the failed conquistador saw it, he and many others of his paramilitary class had served well and valiantly in the name of God and king, only to find a preacher’s printed (and illustrated!) insults held up as reward. A rebuttal, even if late, was worth the effort. In this regard Vargas Machuca resembles the “forgotten” conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, but instead of a “True History” of a particular conquest campaign, Vargas Machuca opts for a point-by-point defense of conquest in general.

Vargas Machuca had a lot to say here and in other writings, which were always peppered with incidental ethnographic testimony regarding virtually unknown indigenous cultures. Even historians of colonial Colombia have largely failed to mine his work in this regard, although at least one attempted to defend him in the more conquistador-friendly 1950s. Yet in setting out to defend the conquistadors, among whom he rather lamely counted himself, Vargas Machuca resorted to a rhetorically unconvincing grab bag of geographical corrections and wild generalizations about a single, core Amerindian character even as he offered examples of considerable diversity. “Indians” were universally bad, he ends up having to say, only because Las Casas had said they were universally good.

What Vargas Machuca failed to realize, among other things, was that readers in Europe were more likely to favor Las Casas’s generalizations over his own, precisely because they fit with persistent medieval notions of “sinless” antipodal freaks and limitless, verdant, milk-and-honey landscapes across the sea. By taking the negative approach to the “truth” about Indians, and then failing to reconcile contradictory examples he himself offers—such as the “noble” Tlaxcalans of Mexico and “gentle” Guayquerí of Margarita—Vargas Machuca’s claim that conquistadors fought just wars and administered just punishments because they were dealing with an inherently evil people falls apart. He had picked a fight with a dead man, and lost.