The Spanish Conquest in America, and Its Relation to the History of Slavery and to the Government of Colonies

By ARTHUR HELPS, Vols. I. and II. London, 1855. Vol. III. London, 1857.

THIS work has a double claim to attention in America;—first, on account of its great intrinsic merit as a narrative of the beginnings of the European settlement of this continent; secondly, as containing a thorough and exceedingly able account of the planting of Slavery in America, and the origin of that system which has been and is the great blight of the civilization of the New World.
"Mr. Helps is endowed in largo measure with the qualities of an historian of the highest order. A clear and comprehensive vision, a wide knowledge and careful study of human nature, free and generous sympathies are united in him with a penetrative imagination which vivifies the life of past times, with a reverence for truth which excludes prejudice and prepossession, and with a profoundly religious spirit. The tone of his thought is manly and vigorous, and his style, with the beauty of which the readers of his essays have long been familiar, is marked by quiet grace and unpretending strength. There are many passages in these volumes of wise reflection and of pleasant humor. In the drawing of character and in the narration of events Mr. Helps is equally happy. The pages of his book are full of lifelike portraits of the great soldiers and great priests of the time, and of animated pictures of the scenes in which they were engaged.
Mr. Helps has investigated his subject with zeal, industry, and patience. He has sought out the original authorities, has brought to light many important facts, has redeemed some great memories from unjust oblivion, and has presented a new view of several of the chief features of the history. In a graceful advertisement to the third volume he says, “The reader will observe that there is scarcely any allusion in this work to the kindred works of modern writers on the same subject. This is not from any want of respect for the able historians who have written upon the discovery or the conquest of America. I felt, however, from the first, that my object in investigating tins portion of history was different from theirs; and I wished to keep my mind clear from the influence which these eminent persons might have exercised upon it.”
A considerable space in these volumes is devoted to an investigation of the character and condition of the native races of the continent at the period of the Spanish Conquest. This subject is treated with peculiar skill and learning, and with unusual power of sympathetic analysis and appreciation of remote and obscure developments of society. Another portion of the history, which his plan has led Mr. Helps to treat at length and with exhaustive thoroughness, is the early relations between the conquerors and the conquered, embracing the method of settlement of the different countries, the whole disastrous system of ripartimientos and encomiendas, which, in its full development, led to the destruction of the native population of Hispaniola, and to the introduction of negroes into this and the other West India islands to supply the demand for laborers.
Another most interesting portion of his subject, and one which has never till now been fairly exhibited, relates to the labors of the Dominican and Franciscan monks, and their admirable and unwearied efforts to counteract and to remedy some of the bitterest evils of the conquest. Theirs were the first protests that were raised against slavery in America, and their ranks afforded the first martyrs in the cause of the Indian and the Negro. Las Casas has found an eloquent and just biographer, and Mr. Helps has the satisfaction of having securely placed his name among the few that deserve the lasting honor and remembrance of the world. The narrative of Las Casas’s life is one of strong dramatic interest. His life was a varied and remarkable one, even for those times of striking contrasts and varieties in the fortunes of men; and in Mr. Helps’s pages one sees the man himself, with his simplicity and elevation of purpose, his honesty of motive, his energy, his impetuosity, his courage, and his faith.
The three volumes already published embrace the progress of Spanish conquest from the first discoveries of Columbus to Pizarro’s incursion into Peru. It is sincerely to be hoped that Mr. Helps may continue his work, at least to the period when the Spanish conquest and colonization were met and limited by the conquest and the colonization of the other European nations. Its importance, as a wise, thoughtful, unpolemic investigation of the origin and the results of Slavery, is hardly to be overestimated. The space allowed to a critical notice does not permit us to render it full justice. We can do little more than recommend it warmly to the readers of history and to the students of the most difficult and the darkest social problem of the age.