The Online Journal of Contour biennale

August 5 2016

America, de Bry 1590-1634

By Louis Henderson


1492–The indigenous of Haiti discover Colombus.


Whilst sitting in the rare book division of the New York Public Library in Manhattan, awaiting the arrival of an original 1724 edition of Le Code Noir, I picked up another book: America, de Bry 1590-1634. As I moved through the pages, looking at Theodor de Bry’s coloured engravings, I was witnessing documents from history that reported apparent truths about the colonisation of the Americas: the discovery of Columbus by the Indigenous people of Haiti in 1492, the subsequent exploitation of the land through forced labour, and the search for gold and wealth falsely justified as a Catholic mission. Yet there is one particular event of great importance that is narrated through the succession of de Bry’s images, and it reminded me of the first page of the prologue from C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins. James describes the development of slavery in the colony of Hispaniola and the resistance to it from a certain Spanish priest: “Las Casas, a Dominican priest with a conscience, travelled to Spain to plead for the abolition of native slavery. But without coercion of the natives how could the colony exist? All the natives received as wages was Christianity and they could be good Christians without working in the mines.”11C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, London: Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 3.

How the Indians dig for gold in the mountains

How the Indians dig for gold in the mountains.


Diego Colon punishes the rebellious Indians.


Las Casas wrote the famous Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias [A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies]—in which he chronicled the horrors of the violence of Spanish colonialism in the Americas. From this and many other texts he was long considered, by some, as an important defender of indigenous rights. This book provided important source material for de Bry’s engravings, especially so given that de Bry had never actually visited the Americas, and was therefore dealing with a very specific imaginary—both in terms of how he constructed his images and how his images constructed, in turn, the cultural imaginary that they engaged within. Therefore the writings of Las Casas and the engravings of de Bry were, and have long been, understood (by Spanish Nationalists, for example) to be conducive to the Leyenda Negra, or Black Legend—a form of anti-Spanish propaganda that flourished in Northern Europe after the Eighty Years War: in which the city of Mechelen was raided and sacked by Spanish troops in 1572.

As I turned the pages of the book, De Bry’s images started to offer the answer to James’ question above: “without the coercion of the natives how could colony exist?” and they clearly indicated how this politics of indigenous protectionism on the part of Las Casas led to an extended horror:“Las Casas, haunted at the prospect of seeing before his eyes the total destruction of a population within one generation, hit on the expedient of importing the more robust Negroes from a populous Africa; in 1517, Charles V. authorised the export of 15,000 slaves to San Domingo, and thus priest and King launched on the world the American slave-trade and slavery.”22Ibid.


When the harvest is done, the slaves are used for sugar production.

The black slaves were sent out of Africa to the new island into the mines.


Could we argue then that Las Casas and King Charles V. were responsible for the creation of almost 400 years of slave trading from Africa across the Atlantic to the Americas, quite simply because Las Casas feared the destruction of one race by another? Then on what grounds could he have believed in the enslaving and destruction of other races from Africa? According to Silvia Wynter, in her text Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument, Las Casas was acting upon a theological argument that the Africans had been enslaved in their own lands under a ‘just title’. The notion of ‘just title’ dates back to the thirteenth century incorporation of slavery into Canon Law (law of the Church) and designates four possible criminal categories for a justifiable enslavement of one human being by another. Las Casas was wrong about the ‘just title’ of the African slaves, as they were just as brutally enslaved by the Portuguese as the Indians by the Spaniards, and thus I believe his moral positioning must be placed under close scrutiny and we should consider that perhaps he was acting under economic and not ethical principles.

Christmas night 1522, the first slave revolt in the history of the Americas, Diego Colon's sugar mill, Hispaniola.

Christmas night 1522, the first slave revolt in the history of the Americas, Diego Colon’s sugar mill, Hispaniola.


Further in her text, Wynter describes the hybrid theological-judicial document that the Spaniards used in the sixteenth century to justify the seizing of territory and the enslavement of the indigenous population of the Americas: El Requerimento, [The Requisition]. This document would be read out to assembled indigenous peoples upon the arrival of the Spaniards in a certain territory, claiming that God had given the pope sovereignty over their land, and that the pope had passed this right onto the King of Spain. If they refused they were refusing the Word of God and thus must be enslaved by the Spaniards and have their lands seized.


The Indians pour the melted gold in the mouth of the Spanish to saturate their greed.


Eventually the Spaniards understood the unviable nature of the Requerimento document, and moved from this system of classification to an even more powerfully legitimating one: ‘It was here that the modern phenomenon of race, as a new, extrahumanly determined classificatory principle and mechanism of domination was first invented, if still in its first religio-secular form.’33S. Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument’, The New Centennial Review, vol. 3(3), 2013, pp. 294. Available HTTP: <https//:www.brown.edu/academics/south-asia/sites/brown.edu.academics.south-asia/files/uploads/Sylvia%20Winter.pdf> (accessed 3 August 2016). Race became the new grounds of a politico-theological legitimation for the violence of the European project of death in the Americas. This was strengthened at the time through interpretations of John Mair’s neo-Aristotelian arguments about ‘laws of nature’ that would categorise people, according to certain specific socio-cultural constructs, as either being ‘people of reason’ or ‘brute peoples without reason’. Mair’s distinctions thus predisposed some people to being naturally enslaved and others to be their enslavers, and therefore easily answered questions concerning the Indian’s political and legal status and the Spaniards right to oppress them.


When the women make the drinks, they take the cassava and boil big pots of it.


What I would like to finally think about in relation to the images of de Bry, is precisely how his fictionalised depictions of non-European, colonised people—taken in some instances as defenders of indigenous rights, along with the work of Las Casas—were actually intimately enmeshed within the very material of this projected space of Otherness. De Bry’s grotesque and fantastical images of cannibalism and indigenous religious practices engaged within the cultural production, on the European continent, of a way of thinking and receiving the difference of the people in the colonies. De Bry’s images were in fact the cogs within a huge ideological machine that was set in place to create horror and astonishment at the behaviour of these ‘brutes without reason’. Yet, as Silvia Federici argues in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, what is in fact more surprising is the European surprise at these acts of human sacrifice and anthropophagy. The judiciary practices of torture and the medicinal consumption of human flesh and blood, in Europe at that time, were no less violent or ‘inhumane’ than the religious rites of the Amerindians. And so it must be understood that in reality: “The new horror that the Spaniards felt for the aboriginal populations, after the 1550s, cannot be easily attributed to a cultural shock, but must be seen as a response inherent to the logic of colonisation that inevitably must dehumanize and fear those it wants to enslave.”44S. Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, New York: Autonomedia, 2004, pp. 222.

Immediately the women take him, drag him to the fire, scratching of his skin.

They share this among them, but the women keep the intestines.


Text by Louis Henderson. Images sourced from: Sievernich, Gereon and Theodor de Bry. America De Bry, 1590-1634: America or the New World. The Discovery of a Continent in 346 Engravings. Berlin: Casablanca, 1990. Image captions are translations of the original German captions by Contour Biennale 8.

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America, de Bry 1590-1634

By Louis Henderson