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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Summary

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Spanish Conquest of the Caribbean

In 1492 Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean, which he believed to be Asia. He called the region the Indies and claimed the island of Hispaniola (which later became the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) for Spain. Spanish soldiers, priests, and bureaucrats began to flood into the islands of the Caribbean. These conquistadors, or conquerors, saw this region as a new opportunity for wealth and expansion. Soon, they spread throughout the Caribbean and into Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Florida peninsula of North America. Their primary goals were to seize land and find gold. The main task of the priests who participated in this conquest was to convert the indigenous population to Christianity (specifically, Catholicism) and make them loyal to Spain.

Spain's encomienda system, first developed to control non-Catholics in Spain, was brought to its colonies. In the Americas, an encomienda was a grant giving the grant holder rights to a specific number of indigenous people, whom the colonizers called "Indians." The encomienda gave the holder the legal power to demand that the indigenous people provide either tribute (gold, or other wealth) or labor. No land was given to the encomendero, the person who held the encomienda. However, having legal control over the people designated by the encomienda paved the way for colonizers to seize the land those people inhabited. It also essentially authorized enslavement of the indigenous people. In exchange for the powers given by these grants, the encomenderos pledged to Christianize the native people under their control and make them loyal to Spain. Some took this charge seriously; many did not. Most of the colonizers saw the indigenous people of the region only as a resource and sought to extract maximum wealth from their labor.

In 1502 Bartolomé de Las Casas arrived in the Caribbean as an encomendero. Though he initially participated in the colonial system, Las Casas was increasingly horrified by the brutality of the colonizers. He entered the priesthood and in 1514 he renounced his encomienda, returning the indigenous people who were under his control to the authority of the Spanish government. He became a vocal defender of the region's indigenous people, chronicling the abuses they suffered at the hands of the colonizers. He wrote several texts based on his experience in what the Spanish called the New World, the Americas, or the Indies. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies catalogs the horrors the Spanish colonizers perpetrated on the indigenous peoples they conquered, including attacks, murders, rapes, torture, and massacres. Las Casas's goals were to inform Spain's ruler—the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–58), also known as King Charles I—about the abuses and to call for reform. The title of Las Casas's text has been given various translations in English. Another common translation is A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. One 16th-century English translation was published as The Tears of the Indians, a title which still occasionally appears.

Prologue: The Responsibility of the King

The text begins with a prologue, or a brief preliminary section. In the prologue Las Casas dedicates his text to Prince Philip (1556–98), the crown prince of Spain. He explains how the indigenous people are suffering under Spanish hands and asks Philip to plead their case to King Charles I.

Las Casas makes two main arguments in this section. He first establishes the role of kings, as established by Divine Providence, or God's plan for the world. Las Casas says that for the good of humanity the world is divided into kingdoms, with kings who rule over them. The role of kings is to act as "fathers and shepherds to their people." This sets up the inherent responsibility of kings, as dictated by God, to take care of the people under their rule. Las Casas writes that when kings learn that their people are suffering from a problem or evil, they work to change the situation. This serves to remind or suggest to the king the responsibility he has, while also showing Las Casas's deference and loyalty to the king. Las Casas does not accuse the king of any wrongdoing. Rather, he wants the king to be informed, believing that the king will wish to put an end to the brutal acts of the Spanish colonizers.

The second argument Las Casas presents is that the treatment of the indigenous peoples by the Spanish is shockingly outrageous, cruel, and unjust. He writes of the excesses of the colonizers "who count it as nothing to drench the Americas in human blood." He stresses that the native peoples are innocent and peace-loving and that the violence of the Spanish is due only to the colonizers' greed and ambition.

These arguments are major themes throughout the whole text. Las Casas goes on to provide detailed stories of the violence and cruelty of the Spanish colonizers in each region of the New World they have conquered.

Portrait of Indigenous People

Las Casas begins his account with a preface, or introductory section, in which he briefly reviews the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas. He explains that Spanish settlement began in 1493, on an island they called Hispaniola. (This island later became the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He describes the island as densely populated by indigenous people when the Spanish first arrived.

Though not named by Las Casas, the people who inhabited many of the Caribbean islands (including Hispaniola, but also Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico) are known as the Taino. They were successful farmers and therefore were viewed by the Spanish as useful for agricultural pursuits. Later the Spanish pushed the conquered Taino to the harder work of gold mining. This was a pattern they repeated throughout the Americas.

Las Casas describes the indigenous people as innocent, simple, good, and without guile, or craftiness. He presents a fairly idealized portrait of the native people, one that helped to create the later idea of the "noble savage" imagined by European philosophers in the 18th century. Like these later philosophers, Las Casas often describes the indigenous people as childlike. This view points to the underlying sense that the colonizers, including Las Casas, had that they were essentially superior to the native people. However, Las Casas also challenges this view by his repeated emphasis of "the natural goodness that shines through these people." He also points out that the Spanish have conquered a diverse group of many different peoples, not a monolithic group. In describing "all the peoples of this area, many and varied as they are," Las Casas rejects the colonizers' more simplistic view of the people they have conquered.

Las Casas also stresses the idea that the native peoples were created by God, a position that some of his peers rejected. European colonizers often rationalized their policies of enslavement and cruelty with the argument that the native people were not truly human and did not have souls. However, Las Casas argues that their innocence and eagerness to learn from him show that the indigenous people do have souls and are capable of rational thought and learning, and they therefore could be Christianized. Indeed, he compares them to the Desert Fathers, early Christian monks who lived simply and were considered models of true Christians. He later refers to the Spanish colonizers as people who call themselves Christians. The implication is that the Spanish Catholics are false Christians, while the indigenous people are closer to being true Christians. In this way, Las Casas pushes back against some of the assumptions that supported the broader Spanish project of conquest.

Spanish Conquest and Torment of Indigenous Peoples

In the preface, Las Casas's description of the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas sets the tone for the rest of his account. Las Casas compares the Spanish assault on the indigenous people to starving wild animals tearing into prey. The colonizers' strategy is to terrorize native populations through murder, torture, and other cruelties. Las Casas characterizes the Spanish as merciless in their campaign to subjugate the native people, first by slaying the men and then by enslaving the surviving women and children. He emphasizes how the native populations of the region have been decimated. He contrasts the large populations that existed in the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central America, South America, and Florida at the time of the Spanish conquest with the tiny numbers of indigenous people that survive 50 years later. In some areas, no people remain at all. Las Casas lashes out at the Spanish for the devastation of the region, stressing the vast amount of territory the colonizers have impacted. He cites population figures for several areas. Some historians dispute the numbers that Las Casas gives, but it is widely recognized that the region was heavily populated until the arrival of the Spanish. Colonization completed wiped out some groups such as the Taino. By some estimates, up to 90 percent of the indigenous people in the Americas died from the disease, war, and brutality the Spanish brought to the region.

Las Casas ascribes the colonizers' cruelty to their greed, specifically their insatiable desire to acquire gold. This, he declares, is the root of their brutality. He is appalled by the way the Spanish treat the indigenous people worse than animals—he says they are treated more like excrement on the street. This image serves to drive home the point Las Casas makes repeatedly that the Spanish attitude toward the native people is shocking and extreme.

Las Casas also castigates the Spanish for wantonly killing the native people before they have received sacraments and been converted to the Catholic faith. As a priest and missionary, he is concerned not only about the mistreatment of the living, but also about the welfare of millions of lost souls. This point might also help his argument resonate with the Spanish king and Church authorities, who, theoretically, are concerned with spreading Catholicism and saving the souls of the native people. Las Casas makes the point that the colonizers "have had as little concern for their souls as for their bodies," even though officially the encomenderos were charged with converting the indigenous people they were given authority over.

He ends the preface with another strong message: the indigenous people had never wronged or harmed the colonizers in any way, at least not until they had been forced to fight back against brutality. Las Casas writes that the indigenous people first believed the Europeans to be figures descended from heaven. Essentially, he says that the indigenous people believed the colonizers to be gods or godlike. Only after "a diet of robbery, murder, violence, and all other manner of trials and tribulations" did the indigenous people even try to resist the colonizers, as acts of self-defense.

Pattern of Violence and Destruction Across the Region

The rest of Las Casas's text is dedicated to documenting the behavior of the Spanish in the various regions they had landed in—the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, South America, and Florida—and the related suffering of the indigenous peoples in each region. The stories, information, and analysis Las Casas relates in each of these sections are quite similar. Over and over again, he recounts episodes of murder, torture, rape, beatings, massacres, and enslavement. In some cases, individuals or groups try to resist the Spanish. They are harshly punished and executed. Las Casas also continues to describe the various indigenous peoples of the region as innocent, kind, simple, and blameless. He frequently notes how the people and their leaders welcome and honor the Spanish when they first arrive. He paints two overarching portraits: one of the cruel Spanish tyrants; one of the people they harm, who deserve help and protection.

Indigenous Resistance and Spanish Vengeance

In each of the sections on specific regions of the Americas, Las Casas drives home the point that the Spanish colonizers perpetrate widespread slaughter and abuse against the native people of the area. The first two sections concentrate on Hispaniola and the five kingdoms of the island. Here Las Casas introduces the issue of indigenous resistance to the colonizers. He describes how the Spanish enslaved and raped women and children, took all the available food, and attacked and harassed the native people. In response, he says, some of the native people began to take defensive measures. Specifically, they tried to hide their food supply and to send women and children into hiding. The reaction from the enraged Spanish was to beat and whip the native people and to rape the wife of the most powerful chief of the island. It is at this point, Las Casas writes, that the natives began to actually fight back against the colonizers.

Easily overpowered by the well-armed Spanish on horseback, the indigenous people suffer horrific punishments for their attempted resistance, including being hacked to pieces and burned alive. As he does throughout his account, Las Casas details the cruel and gruesome ways the Spanish conquer and crush the indigenous people. He stresses how the colonizers "devised novel ways of torturing them to death." He notes one ghastly way the Spanish try to proclaim their Christian identity: by stringing up and burning alive thirteen victims at a time, a number meant to symbolize Jesus and the twelve apostles. Las Casas frequently refers to the colonizers as "the Christians." This is a term the Spanish used to identify themselves. However, Las Casas stresses throughout his account the discrepancy between what he understands Christian values to be and the brutality he catalogs. In the Spanish colonies "the Christians," he shows, are the ones who constantly betray the beliefs their religion teaches.

Hatuey and Indigenous Rejection of Christianity

Las Casas tells essentially the same story about each of the regions the Spanish conquer. The indigenous people are attacked, tortured, and enslaved. The death and destruction wrought by the colonizers lead to a massive drop in the indigenous population. Las Casas's account mentions several indigenous leaders who remain important in the histories and cultural identities of these regions. For example, he tells the story of Hatuey, a Taino leader who fled from Hispaniola to Cuba. When the Spanish arrived in Cuba, Hatuey organized the indigenous people to resist the colonizers. Las Casas recounts how Hatuey told the people that the Spanish worship gold. Hatuey warned the indigenous people about Spanish violence and led a defensive effort. He used a guerrilla strategy: leading small groups to attack the Spanish and then quickly retreat to hide in the hills. This approach was successful for a few months, until the Spanish were able to capture and execute Hatuey.

Las Casas then recounts how Hatuey was burned at the stake. Prior to his execution, with Hatuey bound to the stake, a monk is permitted to talk to him. Las Casas describes the monk as saintly and presumably not supportive of the Spanish violence. The monk's only power, however, is to have a chance to evangelize Hatuey. He explains basic Christian beliefs and encourages Hatuey to accept them. The monk tells Hatuey that if he does accept and believe these Christian ideas, he will go to Heaven and have eternal glory and peace; if not he will go to Hell and suffer eternal torment. Hatuey's response is categorical: if Christians go to Heaven, he chooses to go to Hell instead to ensure he will never again have to endure their brutality. The story of Hatuey remains well-known in Cuba and throughout Latin America. He is remembered for his resistance and his passionate condemnation of the colonizers.

In telling the story of Hatuey, Las Casas again shows that the colonizers are not only failing to spread the Christian religion but are in fact spreading hatred of Christianity. This was an argument that Las Casas knew might help to garner support from the Spanish king and the Catholic Church. In later sections, Las Casas recounts some incidents where monks manage to forge positive connections with indigenous peoples. He stresses that these monks are separate from "the Spanish," the conquerors who brutalize the native people, although the monks were generally Spanish themselves. For example, in the section on the Yucatán (a peninsula that is today part of eastern Mexico), Las Casas tells the story of monks who went into the area after the Spanish left. The indigenous people eventually agree to let the monks stay and preach if they do not let any "Spanish" accompany them. Las Casas celebrates the progress the monks make, building churches and spreading Christianity. He claims that the people in the area eventually chose to submit themselves to the Spanish Crown. This incident illustrates his view that the goals of converting the indigenous people and making them loyal to Spain are worthy. He shows, again and again throughout his account, how the cruelty and violence of the Spanish conquerors are having the opposite effect.

Writing Indigenous Leaders into History

It is interesting to note that Las Casas names many indigenous leaders throughout his account. In addition to naming Hatuey as key figure in Cuba, he names the leaders of the five kingdoms of Hispaniola: Guarionex, king of Cibao; Guacanagarí, king of Marién; Caonabó, king of Maguana; Behechio and his sister Anacaona, leaders of Xaraguá; and the queen Higuanama, leader of Higuey. In the section on New Spain, Las Casas discusses the Mexican king Montezuma (c. 1466–c.1520), ruler of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. In discussing Peru, Las Casas writes about the Incan ruler Atahualpa (c.1502–1533) and names other high-ranking Incan individuals as well.

Las Casas occasionally gives the names of monks who act in what he considers appropriate and humane ways. However, he almost never names the leaders of the Spanish conquerors. He recounts some episodes spearheaded by well-known leaders, but he generally refers to them with choice nouns–"a tyrant," "yet another butcher," "scoundrel." He starts his account of Peru with the arrival of "another great villain," a reference to the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro (c. 1475–1541). He recounts the conquest of the mighty Aztec Empire in Mexico by Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) but does not identify the Spanish conquistador, instead simply lumping him in with the other "cruel tyrants" who terrorize the New World.

Las Casas's choice to leave the Spanish leaders anonymous may have been motivated by a desire to avoid conflict with powerful figures. It might also reflect a desire to not further contribute to the fame and glory these men had accumulated with their exploits. In any case, the effect in Las Casas's text is to inscribe the indigenous leaders into written history, focusing on their heroism and bravery and leaving the Spanish conquerors as anonymous figures.

Impact of Las Casas's Account

Las Casas remained in the New World for decades, bearing witness to and chronicling the Spanish colonizers' atrocities. However, his protests had little effect. In 1540 he returned to Spain to plead his case directly to the Spanish king. He wrote his account in 1542 and presented it to the king. Las Casas managed to persuade the king to approve the New Laws (1542), which revoked the hereditary nature of encomienda. This meant that encomenderos were required to free all enslaved indigenous people after one generation of service. Once released from enslavement, the native people would become subjects of the Spanish crown and would be entitled to the same rights as any Spanish subject. Las Casas was sent back to the Americas to enforce the new laws. However, these laws outraged the Spanish colonizers, and many throughout the Americas threatened to revolt. As a result, the laws were partially repealed only three years later. Las Casas' account was not actually published until 1552.

At the end of his life, Las Casas returned to Spain. He continued to advise the Spanish king and to advocate for the abolition of slavery and of the encomienda system. His reputation as a humanitarian began to spread with the translation of his works in Europe after his death in 1566. Las Casas had hoped that his work would be read in Spain and change attitudes there. Despite his success persuading the king, ultimately Las Casas was not able to change Spanish attitudes and practices in general. However, his account was read by Spain's enemies, including in Protestant nations such as Britain. Translations of his work were published widely, mostly to publicize the notion of Spanish cruelty, but not as protests against colonialism itself. Las Casas's text thus became part of the Black Legend, a portrayal of the Spanish as a cruel and intolerant nationality, which helped to spur an anti-Hispanic bias in Europe and later in the United States. The Black Legend was also created as an argument for why the English, the Dutch, and other nationalities should colonize the Americas too, rather than leaving the whole lucrative region to the Spanish. In 1898 the Black Legend was used as part of the rationale for U.S. interventions in Cuba and the Philippines. Thus, Las Casas's condemnation of the Spanish colonizers reached a broad audience, but not exactly for the purposes he had envisioned.

While his work was appropriated for various reasons, Las Casas's essential message was heard by many. In the 19th century, he became an inspiration to revolutionaries such as Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) who sought Latin America's independence from Spanish rule. In the 20th century, indigenous rights movements in Peru and Mexico also drew inspiration from Las Casas's work. The Account, along with other texts that he wrote, remain important documents of the Spanish colonial period and present a voice of dissent raised against the abuses of colonization and conquest.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 The Little family's house is burned down.

Rising Action

2 Malcolm's father dies under mysterious circumstances.

3 Malcolm moves to Boston.

4 Malcolm gets a job as a shoeshine at the Roseland Ballroom.

5 Malcolm moves to Harlem and continues hustling.

6 Malcolm runs afoul of West Indian Archie.

7 Malcolm is sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.

8 Violently anti-Christian, Malcolm is given the name Satan.


9 In prison Malcolm converts to the Nation of Islam.

Falling Action

10 Malcolm is expelled from the Nation of Islam.

11 Malcolm makes a pilgrimage to Mecca.


12 Malcolm is assassinated while giving a speech in Harlem.

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