Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566)
Life as a Missionary- An historian, a theologian, Bartolome de Las Casas spent a large portion of his life fighting for the rights of native peoples of the New World. He was born into 16th century Spain. His father was a merchant who sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. Las Casas served in a Spanish militia against Moorish rebels in Grenada. He was also schooled in his Spanish birthplace and hometown. After attending the Cathedral Academy in Seville where he studied Latin and theology, he achieved the status of lay teacher of Christian doctrine. He wrote a historical study about the history of early Spanish conquests of the New World and later gained experience that enabled him to be a champion for the rights of Indians. His first-hand knowledge helped him to speak extensively and argumentatively about the conditions in which Indians lived under the encomienda system. He himself renounced possession of his own encomienda, where he had used the forced labor of Indians to prosper as a planter.
The Investment of Time- In 1502 Las Casas sailed to the New World. In Hispaniola he helped to settle an uprising of natives and was rewarded for his action with his first encomienda. He renounced this land grant, went to Rome for his religious vows and returned to Hispaniola in 1512 as the first ordained priest in the New World. He served as chaplain in the conquest of Cuba, and received a second encomienda. He kept this land and saw around him mistreatment of Indians until 1514. At this point he renounced his encomienda and denounced the Spanish exploitation of the Indians. From here he fought for the rights of the Indians and against the military conquest of the New World for the rest of his life.
The Final Outcome- He pleaded his case to the Spanish crown. He suggested African slave labor as a replacement for Indian slave labor. Africans held no claim to the land, therefore it would not be wrong to make them instead of the Indians work the land. Las Casas later regretted this statement and felt that all slavery was wrong. He was granted a parcel of Venezuelan coastline to test his “theories” of peaceful colonization. This colony lasted until the conditions of peace were violated. Oppressive treatment by the Spanish of the Indians living there moved the Indians to unrest. An uprising ensued, and the settlement disbanded in 1522.
In 1537, Las Casas organized an unarmed group of Dominican friars to pacify and convert warlike Indians living in northern Guatemala. Three years later he was at the Spanish court again and saw the birth of “New Laws” which provided for the eradication of the encomiendas. No new grants of land were to be made for the building of Indian tenant labor. When an encomienda owner died, the property was to be reverted to its natural state. These laws were not widely enforced, and Las Casas grew unpopular because of his support of native peoples’ rights. He was not welcomed when he became the bishop of Chiapas in 1545. In two more years he returned to Spain to fight for the retention of the New Laws. On this journey a debate occurred between Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda, another Spaniard, who felt that Indians were inferior to the Spanish and argued for the military conquest of them. He received notice of four points on which Sepulveda would argue, and he prepared his defense. Las Casas argued against these points of Sepulveda:
1) Indians are barbarous
2) Indians commit crimes against natural law
3) Indians oppress and kill innocent people
4) Wars may be waged against the infidels in order to prepare the way for preaching the faith.
After his debate at Vallodid, Bartolome spent his retirement in a monastery in Spain. He remained there, out of the limelight and continued to write for the cause of the Indians in the New World. One of the texts he published during this time includes Bravissima relacion de la destrucion de las Indias [Short Account of the Destruction of the Indes]. Bartolome de Las Casas died in a Dominican monastery at the age of 92, in 1566.
Collier’s Encyclopedia, Lauren Bahr (ed.). (New York; P. F. Collier, Inc., vol. 14, 1993)
Encyclopedia Americana International Edition (Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, Vol.16, 1988)
Hanke, Lewis. Bartolome de Las Casas: An Interpretation of His Life and Writings. (Netherlands; The Hague, 1951)