Was the Spanish Empire all bad? I’m not so sure

'Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops' by Emanuel Leutze

The phrase “The Golden Age of Spain” is one that is deeply familiar to me from my childhood. My mother was born in Antofagasta, in Chile, and as a boy I was brought up on books that told of the wonderful deeds of the explorers such as Christopher Columbus, and the conquistadors, men who, with a few companions, overthrew vast empires and claimed them for Spain, and, of course, for the Catholic faith. How thrilled I was that Columbus’s flagship was called the Santa Maria and that his first act on landing in the New World was to plant the Cross! How correspondingly disappointed I was to read about the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, an event that used to be seen as the end of the Golden Age, just as the reconquest of Granada in 1492 (the same year as Columbus’s first voyage) marked its opening.

I will be forever grateful to my mother for bringing me up so politically incorrectly. The great excitement of history is with me still, and thus it is with intense interest I have just read about the most recent archaeological discoveries in Peru, as reported by the Daily Telegraph. Archaeologists have recently uncovered evidence of the mass sacrifice of children at a site called Las Llamas. We read:

“…[B]esides the bones [of 140 children], researchers also found footprints that have survived rain and erosion. The small footprints indicate the children were marched to their deaths from Chan Chan, an ancient city a mile away from Las Llamas… [T]he children’s skeletons contained lesions on their breastbones, which were probably made by a ceremonial knife. Dislocated ribcages suggest that whoever was performing the sacrifices may have been trying to extract the children’s hearts.”

All this represents an inconvenient truth for those who would like to have us believe that the Spanish conquest of the New World was not a good thing. Pre-Colombian civilizations, which achieved a great deal, as any visit to a museum in Mexico will show, nevertheless had great drawbacks, as any honest observer must admit. The same is true, of course, of the Spanish Empire in the New World, but, and it remains a huge but, the Spanish abolished human sacrifice and banished the sort of errors that made people think that human sacrifice was either good or necessary.

The discovery of this site of mass child sacrifice in Peru could provide ammunition for those who want to see European values as innately superior to those of pre-Colombian America. Conversely, it could be used by moral relativists to claim that child sacrifice is not per se an innately evil thing, and that we must not judge other societies which are very different from our own by the standards we would judge ourselves. However, my own view of things is clear, though some might find it simplistic: no intrinsic evil – and child murder is a clear example of such – is ever to be tolerated, for whatever reason, and the fact that the society that once practiced child sacrifice at Las Llamas no longer exists is a cause for satisfaction. Thank God for the conquistadors.

According to the Telegraph, the experts think that this orgy of child (and animal) sacrifice may have been an attempt to assuage the anger of the gods manifested in bad weather conditions. That makes a sort of sense, but it is useful to see just how greatly the mindset that has recourse to human sacrifice differs from the Christian vision of life. The universe is not ruled by cruel and impersonal deities; we are not insignificant creatures at the mercy of malign cosmic forces; each one of us is loved by God, a God, moreover, who sent His Son to die for us. If we believe this, the idea of sending our children to die for the gods becomes anathema. As for societies that sacrifice children, for whatever reason, let the dead civilizations of pre-Colombian America be a warning from history.