Some Examples of Christian Genocide

This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.

(Image: Catedrales e Iglesias / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

…it is putting a very high value on one’s conjectures to roast a man alive on the strength of them.
Montaigne (1533-1592), Essay “Of Cripples”

Once Europe was won, European Christians began to spread the word more widely. Europeans had rediscovered the Canary Isles, known to the ancients, in 1336. The native people, called Guanches, become subject to a Christian monarch. They originally numbered between 80,000 and 100,000, but within 200 years they had been wiped out. This style of cultural interaction between Christian Europe and lands to the west and south was to become a regular pattern.

Christopher Columbus was a devout Christian. In his Book of Prophecies he made it clear that he felt himself to have been chosen by God. In later life he sometimes wore the habit of a Franciscan. His vocation was partly to find gold to finance a new crusade against the Muslims and partly to bring Christianity to the benighted heathen. The winning of new souls for God was a principal objective of his westward voyages. Wherever he went he made a point of leaving a cross standing as a mark of Christian domination. The pattern in the Canaries was soon being imitated on other islands. On Hispaniola, Columbus’s men were instructed to reduce the country to the service of the Roman Catholic Sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella. The native Tainos soon discovered the ramifications of this. Christians kidnapped Taino boys for slaves and Taino women for concubines. They hunted Taino men with dogs, for sport, then killed them. Public burnings at the stake were introduced. So were clippings of noses and ears, and the lopping off of limbs. A form of slavery was introduced under the euphemistic name of encomienda. If a recalcitrant Taino killed a Christian, 100 Tainos would be killed in retribution. Sometimes the Tainos would be hanged from gallows then fires lit underneath them. They were roasted alive in groups of thirteen “in honour and reverence for our Redeemer and the 12 apostles”. The new Christian masters picked up infants, held them by their feet, and smashed their brains out against rocks.

By the time Columbus returned to Spain in 1496 he had not managed to convert a single Taino. Partly through wanton murder and partly through infectious diseases brought from Europe, the population of Hispaniola fell rapidly. In 1492, when Columbus planted his first cross, the Taino population of Hispaniola had probably been somewhere between 3 and 8 million. By the mid-sixteenth century the Tainos were extinct. Disease could have decimated the population but could not have extirpated it. Genocide such as this was the work of man and his Christian God, not of nature. Christians developed fictions to justify their behaviour. A popular one was that their victims were so bestial that it was doubtful whether they were human at all. Sub-humans did not have souls, so it could not matter what was done to them. Such sub-humans might look fully human, but their true natures were given away by activities such as cannibalism and sodomy. Almost every society that Christians encountered was sooner or later accused of these practices and thus dehumanised (as were heretical sects within Christendom). There is no real evidence — linguistic, historical, archaeological or anthropological — that cannibalism was any more widespread in the Caribbean or the Americas, or among heretics, than it was among orthodox Christians.

Cortés, the leader of the Conquistadores was another keen Christian. He carried around with him an image of the Virgin Mary. The primary aim of his expedition to the Americas was “to serve God and spread the Christian faith”. His record was even worse than that of Columbus. Here is an extract from a proclamation read out by the Conquistadores to their new subjects:

The Lord God has delegated to Peter and his successors all power over all people of the earth, so that all people must obey the successors of Peter (i.e. the Pope). Now one of these popes has made a gift of the newly discovered islands and countries and everything that they contain to the kings of Spain, so that, by virtue of this gift, their Majesties are now kings and lords of these islands and of the continent. You are therefore required to recognise Holy Church as mistress and ruler of the whole world and to pay homage to the King of Spain as your new lord. Otherwise, we shall, with God’s help, proceed against you with violence and force you under the yoke of the Church and the king, treating you as rebellious vassals deserve to be treated. We shall take your property away from you and make slaves of your women and children. At the same time, we solemnly declare that only you will be to blame for the bloodshed and the disaster that will overtake you.

They apparently genuinely believed that they were colonising on behalf of God. The country now known as El Salvador was originally baptized by Spanish conquistadors as “Provincia De Nuestro Señor Jesucristo El Salvador Del Mundo” (“ Province Of Our Lord Jesus Christ, The Savior Of The World”).

When Christian Europeans first arrived in the Americas they had been greatly impressed by the indigenous peoples simplicity and friendliness, as well as their way of life. They thought they had literally found Paradise — the Garden of Eden described in the book of Genesis. The Spanish were so impressed by Aztec medicine that the King’s physician was sent to study it, and he spent seven years doing so. We do not know how much he learned because only a part of his record has survived. Some idea of the sophistication of the Aztec’s medical knowledge may be adduced from the fact that they knew of some 1,200 medicinal plants. Much of their knowledge was lost or destroyed. Their treasures were stolen, buildings razed, and historical evidence burned. Valuable information about Mayan and Aztec culture was lost forever. Religious, legal and cultural records were sought out, seized and burned by men like Archbishop Zumárraga in Mexico and Bishop Landa in the Yucatan. Zumárraga, the first Bishop of Mexico, did his best to obliterate all trace of pre-Christian religions — including countless manuscripts. In 1531 he claimed personally to have destroyed over 500 temples and 20,000 icons. If people hid their icons they were tortured in order to force them to divulge where they were hidden. Conversions were effected by beating and imprisonment, or by kidnapping children to be indoctrinated into the faith.

The established pattern was repeated in one location after another. Accusations of cannibalism and sodomy arose to excuse Christian atrocities. Inquisitor-Governors like Don Nuño Guzmán taught that the indigenous population did not have human souls, and so were subhuman, and incapable of understanding Christian doctrine. This meant that it was not wrong to rape, torture, enslave or kill them. Living men could be dismembered for fun, and their limbs fed to dogs. Babies could be seized and have their heads dashed against rocks. This was no more a sin than killing an animal — ie not sinful at all. Not all authorities agreed with this view. One Dominican in particular, Bartolomé de Las Casas, championed the rights of the native peoples, but he was almost a lone voice. In any case his objections to killing babies could be easily accommodated. Priests baptised native infants before their brains were dashed out. Now, if the babies did have souls they were assured of immediate admission into Heaven. If they didn”t have souls, then it didn”t matter anyway. You can read an English translation of the full text of De Las Casas’s exposé here.

As in Europe the holy sites of the locals were destroyed, or in some cases taken over as Christian holy sites. The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Church of Our Lady of Remedies) is a 16th century Mexican Catholic parish church built on top of the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl in Cholula in the central Mexican state of Puebla, the largest pyramid of the ancient world. A pyramid shrine to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was destroyed by Franciscan monks under Pedro del Monte. They used the stones and the foundation of the shrine to build a Christian house for themselves, later a Franciscan monastery, now the Mexican Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones.

The Conquistadores killed millions of the indigenous inhabitants of what are now Mexico and the Yucatan. Before the conquest the population is believed to have numbered some 25 million; immediately after it fewer than seven million. By 1650 only about one and a half million pure-blooded natives remained. The pattern in Peru was much the same: Christianity almost destroyed the Inca civilisation. Knowledge of their written language, like that of the Mayans and the Aztecs, was somehow “lost”, although it had been well enough known when the Spanish arrived. Our knowledge of their culture is fragmentary. Following traditional Christian techniques, temples were pulled down to be replaced by cathedrals. Whole cities were destroyed, and new Christian ones constructed. For example modern Mexico City stands on the site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán and its cathedral on the site of one of the greatest Aztec temples. Some remote cities that survived for a time were concealed under encroaching jungle and have only recently been rediscovered. We know the Incas were great artists because some of their art has survived. As luck would have it they depicted medical topics on their pottery. This is how we know of their spectacular accomplishments in surgery. We know of their interest in public health through the ruins of their bathing establishments and drainage systems.

When Roman Catholics from Portugal arrived in the Americas, their record was much the same as that of the Spanish Catholics, except that they did not trouble to find a euphemism for slavery. Since the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century, the native population of what is now called Brazil has fallen by over 95 per cent from an estimated 5,000,000 to around 220,000 by the late twentieth century. The indigenous peoples of South American probably owe their survival to the size of their continent. If it had been smaller, with no remote areas to flee to, their fate might have been the same as their extinct island cousins.

In North America the picture was similar. The Native American population was reduced from 14,000,000 to around 4,000,000 between 1492 and 1600. In God’s own country the only good Indian was a dead one, and the only good Indian nation was one that had been exterminated. Nations and tribes were systematically erased. As churchmen noted, the dramatic reduction in one population after another must have been arranged by God to make way for Christian colonisation. God was killing, or helping kill, millions of Native Americans in order to help the Christian colonisers. The modern explanation is that European diseases were to blame. But this is difficult to square with the facts. No doubt European diseases to which the Native Americans had no natural immunity played a part but, as in Hispaniola, disease can account for only part of the death toll. Another curiosity is that non-Christian Europeans, notably Scandinavians, had been visiting North America for centuries without their gods perceiving the need to exterminate native populations — indeed apparently without causing any harm at all. The genocide brought by the new arrivals was, as they said themselves, related to Christianity. Perhaps the Churches were right. Perhaps God really did help in the genocide.

In North America, hunting Indians with dogs was known as the Spaniard’s method. It was advocated by Cotton Mather and other clergymen. Reverend Solomon Stoddard, one of New England’s most esteemed religious leaders, formally proposed in 1703 to the Massachusetts Governor that the colonists be given the financial wherewithal to purchase and train large packs of dogs ‘to hunt Indians as they do bears’, the reasoning being that dogs would catch many an Indian who would be too light of foot for the townsmen. This was not considered inhuman, for the Indians, in Stoddard’s view, “act like wolves and are to be dealt with as wolves.” Three years later Massachusetts passed an act for the raising of dogs to better secure the frontier borders20.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James McDonald is Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in Britain, and holds a number of professional qualifications. He also holds an MA in mathematics from Oxford University, and an MSc in Operational Research from Sussex University. He lives in the South of France. His newest book is Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church (Garnet Publishing, 2009). His website is

Aztecs: Arrival of Cortes and the Conquistadors

Ten Minute History – The Early Spanish and Portuguese Empires (Short Documentary)

Christopher Columbus – The Discovery Of America And What Happened After

European conquest of America

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