The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

SIX
Indians as POWs in America
From Discovery to 1914

For nearly two years we were kept at hard labor in this place, and
we did not see our families until May 1887. This treatment was in
direct violation of our treaty made at Skeleton Cañon.

—Geronimo

In 1561 a Spanish ship landed in Virginia and took one Indian captive to Spain, where he was baptized Don Luis de Velasco. During his Spanish sojourn, he was educated and granted Spanish citizenship. In 1570 Velasco returned to the New World, along with several Spanish Jesuit missionaries he knew very well. On shore, Velasco quickly returned to his native ways and led a raid that killed all. One wonders why the level of violence was so high, and why the act of getting even, if Velasco’s calculated murders are any indication, must have been so sweet. A look back to the early part of the sixteenth century in New Spain might prove useful.

The Spaniards were fascinated with the people they found in the New World. Columbus relished their beauty and simplicity, seized a few, and took them back to Spain as a spectacle for everyone to look at. Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian working for the Spanish, was fascinated too, and in a 1504 letter to Piero Soderini, gonfaloniere, he noted that the American natives were so friendly that they could not refrain from loving him and his crew. He wrote, “They showed themselves very desirous of copulating with us Christians.” He continued by noting, when “they give you their wives and daughters, they esteem themselves highly honored; and in this way they practice the full extreme of hospitality.”1 Hospitality, however, usually gave way to hostility in short order.

The discovery of a new world with unknown and unidentifiable inhabitants presented a crisis for Europeans: who were these people, and how should they be treated? The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas declared in Devastation of the Indies (1552) that “God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind.”2 In order to rule this

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