Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne on the Conquista. Considerations of an Early Anti-Imperialist

The humanist Michel de Montaigne must have closely studied the conquest of America and turned to many contemporary sources in order to arrive at his decidedly anti-imperialist judgment, excerpts of which you will read here. Given his profound and radical criticism of the conquistadores, I suppose he was rather isolated with his views in the political landscape of his time. Even some one hundred years after publication, the Vatican found good reason to put his writings on the index at the end of the 17th century. At any rate, the lucidness of Montaigne’s analysis is amazing.

«Our world has recently discovered another world that is no smaller, no less populated, no less diverse than ours is. However, it is so new and pristine that the natives even have to be taught the alphabet. Not fifty years ago, they knew neither letters nor weights, neither grain nor wine. Utterly naked, they drank from the bosom of Mother Nature only.

I am definitely afraid that we have already infected the new world with our poison and thus initiated its rapid downfall and decline. The views and arts we forced upon the people there will certainly cost them dearly. Granted, it may have been a childish world. But we did not conquer it by way of any superior courage or natural strength, nor was it our sense of justice, integrity, or generosity that won them over. Most of the natives’ responses in the negotiations with them plainly show that they were by no means inferior to us in original clearness of mind and consequential thinking.

The overwhelming splendor of their cities Cuzco and Mexico, the artificial garden of their king, where all trees, fruits, and herbs have the same size and arrangement as in a natural garden, but are made of beautifully wrought gold, the beauty of their works of precious stones, feathers, and cotton, and of their painting, clearly demonstrate that they were our equals in terms of arts and skills, too.

The old world: winner in deceitfulness and baseness

But as far as godliness and abiding by the law are concerned, as well as integrity and loyalty, generosity and frankness, it was to our benefit that we possessed less of these than they did. Precisely these virtues led them to their ruin, betrayal, and buyout. When it comes to valor and courage, determination and perseverance, steadfastness in the face of pain, hunger and death, they are undoubtedly on a par with the most famous representatives of antiquity in the history records of our world.

Endowed with a dauntless fighting spirit, many thousands of men, women, and children were ready to defend their gods and their freedom. Unfalteringly brave, they defied and even rushed straight into inescapable dangers. They would rather suffer the utmost, the worst, even death, than submit to the rule of those who had so outrageously deceived them. There were prisoners who preferred to starve to death rather than take food from the sullied hands of their disgraceful conquerors. All this considered, it is immediately clear: had they been attacked on equal terms with regard to arms, numbers, and experience, this would have been an exceedingly high-risk war to enter into, indeed a greater risk than any we have known so far.

Lost lives, lost opportunities

Imagine the progress and the improvement of world affairs if we had from the beginning met the peoples of the new world with exemplary conduct! We might have inspired them to admire and adopt the virtues of the Greeks and Romans. We could have established a relationship of understanding, a brotherly community between them and us.

Instead, we abused their ignorance and inexperience to accustom them to our way of life, to greed and debauchery, to breach of word, and to every kind of brutality and inhumanity. Has anyone ever been as intent on business and profiteering as we are? So many cities razed to the ground, so many millions murdered, so many peoples exterminated, the richest and most beautiful region of the world devastated—and all this in the name of trade with pearls and pepper! Victories out of cool calculation! Neither personal thirst for glory nor political animosities have ever driven people to such atrocious acts of violence against one another and hurled them into such misery.»

Michel de Montaigne

  1. One can simply never stop marvelling at so much lucidity. A pity we still see the same greed and breach of word in our world today, specially from those who should represent the people. Wars done in the name of “democracy” and “inclusion” which became just trademarks void of any real sense but mercantile ones.

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