David Graeber on Usury and the Psychology of the Conquistadors

The ostensible reason for the Spanish conquests in the New World was the bringing of Christ to the natives. But the extraordinary rapacity and cruelty shown by many of the Spanish soldiers often made a mockery of this purpose. Bartolomé de las Casas describes in gruesome and almost incredible detail how countless Indians, including women and children, were murdered. There was something diabolic about the measureless frenzy of their cruelty as de las Casas says, they behaved, “more inhumanely then rapacious Tygres Wolves and Lyons.”

Such cruelty naturally caused a hatred of the Christian faith in the peoples who were supposed to be evangelized, as a letter from a bishop quoted by de las Casas puts it:

[There] can be nothing in the World so odious and detestable among [the Indians], as the Name of a Christian: for they term the Christians in their Language Yares, that is, Devils; and in truth are not without reason; for the Actions of those that reside in these Regions, are not such as speak them to be Christians or Men, gifted with Reason, but absolute Devils; hence it is, that the Indians, perceiving these Actions committed by the Heads as well as Members, who are void of all Compassion and Humanity, do judge the Christian Laws to be of the same strain and temper, and that their God and King are the Authors of such Enormities.

How could these conquistadors be so inhuman? Many of them had been recruited from prisons, but even for habitual criminals their cruelty was astonishing. In his fascinating economic history, Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDavid Graeber gives an illuminating account. He begins by noting that just as irrational as their cruelty was their greed. After they conquered Tenochtitlan, gaining unheard of plunder, instead of retiring to enjoy their wealth they soon started new expeditions to find yet more treasure.

Graeber explains that all these men were caught in debt traps; however much treasure they got, they never seemed able to extricate themselves. The leaders were in debt to money lenders at home, and they in turn caught the men in usurious traps. All the men’s supplies were sold to them by the officers, at inflated price, on credit (probably at a high rate of interest), so that after the fabulous treasure of the Aztecs were divided, many of the soldiers found that they still did not have enough to pay of their creditors. Their violence against the Indians thus came from the peculiar rage of the victims of usury:

We are not deal­ing with a psychology of cold, calculating greed, but of a much more complicated mix of shame and righteous indignation, and of the frantic urgency of debts that would only compound and accumulate (these were, almost certainly, interest-bearing loans), and outrage at the idea that, after all they had gone through, they should be held to owe any­ thing to begin with. (Graeber, p. 318)

This does not of course excuse their actions, but it does help to explain them. It also helps, as Graeber goes on to point out, to explain why the Church was so emphatic in her condemnation of usury:

All of this helps explain why the Church had been so uncompromising in its attitude toward usury. It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry. Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation. Clearly this is the way the conquistadors viewed the worlds that they set out to conquer. (p. 319)

Sadly, the Church basically lost the struggle against usury. This failure helped make the terrible cruelties of the conquistadors possible. And it also helped make possible the capitalist economic system which we have today, financed largely by interest bearing loans. Capitalism’s ability to make Christian religion “seem frivolous in comparison” to the imperative of economic growth is one of the main sources of the secularization of the world.


9 thoughts on “David Graeber on Usury and the Psychology of the Conquistadors

  1. I can’t wait to dig into my copy of Debt! But wasn’t Casas notorious for extraordinary exaggeration and embellishment when it came to describing the Spanish death toll on the natives? As an ideologue (albeit and entertaining one) Graeber doesn’t strike me as a man who’d lose sleep over citing him if it served his purpose.
    This qualification is not to deny the horrors of the early days of colonialism, but to clarify a source used to set up a picture in the good reader’s mind.

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