8 Bartolome De Las Casas (1484 – 1566)

Angela Weiler

Introduction

Bartolome de las Casas

Bartolome de las Casas was born in Seville, Spain in 1484. In his lifetime, he became one of the most well-known advocates on the behalf of the native peoples of Mesoamerica. His father, Pedro de Las Casas, traveled to the Americas shortly after Columbus’ return from his initial voyage. He returned five years later, bringing with him a boy, Juanico, of the indigenous Taino tribe. For a young Bartolome, this was not only the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Juanico, but was also the origin of his lifelong affection and concern for the Caribbean people.

As a young man, Las Casas studied to be in the priesthood, and first journeyed to America in 1502, landing in Hispaniola (now Haiti). The widespread practice of enslaving the indigenous population left a lasting mark on him, and he began learning several native languages as to converse regularly with these ‘workers’. It is during this period that he began to sympathize with their plight and to deplore the the Spanish treatment of them.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain decreed  the encomienda — a system that delineated the treatment of indigenous peoples in Spanish colonies. It stated that colonists would receive land, and that the indigenous peoples of the Americas would be compelled to work for them. In exchange, the workers were supposed to receive the protection of the monarchy, instruction in the Catholic faith, and a small wage. However, in practice their labor was forced, and they received nothing for their labor, making them, for all intents and purpose, slaves of the colonists. Las Casas himself had such workers, given to him by the king in exchange for his services in converting the tribes to Catholicism.

By 1510, Las Casas had been ordained a priest. On the Sunday before Christmas in 1511, a fellow Dominican clergyman delivered a sermon in the church of Santo Domingo, Haiti. This marked the beginning of a movement among a number of Dominicans to help alleviate the subjugation of the Indians. The priest asked his congregation “With what right … do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? … Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves?” These comments, considered extremely radical at the time, aroused great anger among the colonists, but guided Las Casas’s work for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Las Casas realized that challenging other encomenderos’ treatment of the indigenous people was not going to be enough to effect real change. In 1514 he freed his own slaves and began to meet with local officials to advocate on behalf of the workers. Being unable to convince either encomenderos or the authorities to change their practices, he went to Europe in 1515 to make a personal plea to King Charles I of Spain. By this time, he was not alone in his feelings; others in the Americas, mostly influential members of the clergy, had begun to speak out about the treatment of  indigenous populations. After a heated debate lasting four years, Charles I finally ruled that the Indies could be governed without armed forces. However, in the West Indies under Spanish rule, things remained the same.

Over the next approximately twenty-five years, Las Casas continued to advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights. His works include In Defense of the Indians and the multi-volume History of the Indies (Historia de las Indias), among others. His work The Only Way (Del Único Modo), was published in 1537, the same year in which Pope Paul III issued his papal bull Sublimis Deus. Here, the pope stated that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational beings and had souls, and declared that their lives and property were worthy of protection. In that same year, Charles V of Spain supported the establishment of missions in Guatemala that were guided by the principles laid out by Las Casas in The Only Way.

The king eventually decreed the “New Laws” in 1542, which prohibited slavery of native peoples in Spanish-held lands of the Americas, and also ended transference of slaves by family inheritance. These “New Laws” were heavily influenced by Las Casas, who had read his “Short Account” to the royal court. They were shocked by his firsthand accounts of the atrocities the Spanish had committed against the indigenous people.

Accepting the position of Bishop of Chiapas (in what is now Mexico) in 1544, Las Casas attempted to implement the New Laws, which caused anger and revolt among the Spanish colonists. Even those in power in Spanish settlements refused to enforce the New Laws. After actively trying to effect change for six years, Las Casas resigned his bishopric in 1550 and moved to a monastery where he wrote A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies, recognized as his most important work.

Published in 1552, Las Casas “Short Account” is an eye-witness report of events, described exactly as they occurred “wherever Christians have set foot”, and written simply and directly. He also stated in his Account that “the massacres of innocent people” were so widespread that they threatened to destroy the very fabric of civilized society, “to bring a collapse of civilization and to presage the end of the world”, a new concept which certainly garnered the attention of his audiences. His “Short Account”, as well as his other works, are exceptional for the time in that they were experiential, whereas the writings of many other historians, although well-researched, were of events that they had not actually witnessed firsthand.

With the publication of A Short Account, Las Casas was hopeful that the destruction of the Indies and its people would halt, that the damage would be reversed, and that Europeans and native people would live and farm together peacefully. Unfortunately, with entire tribes wiped out and Spanish merchants systematically shipping the wealth of the New World back to Spain, it was too late. Hispanic countries in the Americas were doomed to colonialism for over two hundred more years, until the time of the ‘Great Liberator’, Simon Bolivar. However, Las Casas has never been forgotten in central and South America. Bolivar called him ‘‘that friend of humanity, who with such fervor and determination denounced to his government and his contemporaries the most horrific acts of that sanguineous frenzy … ” Dozens of statues of Las Casas exist throughout the Americas, each with the inscription, “In a century of ferocity, Las Casas, whom you see before you, was a benevolent man.”

casasmap.gif (800×584)
Map of America (1540) showing the standards of Spain and Portugal

A Short Account Of The Destruction of the Indies

Prologue

of Bishop Brother Bartolomé de Las Casas, or Casaus,
to the most high and most mighty Prince of Spain,
our Lord the Prince Philip

 

Most high and most mighty Lord:

As Divine Providence has ordained that the world shall, for the benefit and proper government of the human race, be divided into kingdoms and peoples and that these shall be ruled by kings, who are (as Homer has it) fathers and shepherds to their people and are, accordingly, the noblest and most virtuous of beings, there is no doubt, nor could there in all reason be any such doubt, but that these kings entertain nothing save that which is morally unimpeachable. It follows that if the commonwealth suffers from some defect, or shortcoming, or evil, the reason can only be that the ruler is unaware of it; once the matter is brought to his notice, he will work with the utmost diligence to set matters right and will not rest content until the evil has been eradicated. This would appear to be the sense of the words of Solomon in the Bible: ‘A king that sitteth in the throne of judgement scattereth away all evil with his eyes’. For, granted the innate and natural virtue of the ruler, it follows that the simple knowledge that something is wrong in his kingdom is quite sufficient to ensure that he will see that it is corrected, for he will not tolerate any such evil for a moment longer than it takes him to right it.

Contemplating, therefore (most mighty Lord), as a man with more than fifty years’ experience of seeing at first hand the evil and the harm, the losses and diminutions suffered by those great kingdoms, each so vast and so wonderful that it would be more appropriate to refer to them as the New World of the Americas – kingdoms granted and entrusted by God and His Church to the Spanish Crown so that they might be properly ruled and governed, converted to the Faith, and tenderly nurtured to full material and spiritual prosperity –5 I am persuaded that, if Your Highness had been informed of even a few of the excesses which this New World has witnessed, all of them surpassing anything that men hitherto have imagined even in their wildest dreams, Your Highness would not have delayed for even one moment before entreating His Majesty to prevent any repetition of the atrocities which go under the name of ‘conquests’: excesses which, if no move is made to stop them, will be committed time and again, and which (given that the indigenous peoples of the region are naturally so gentle, so peace-loving, so humble and so docile) are of themselves iniquitous, tyrannical, contrary to natural, canon, and civil law, and are deemed wicked and are condemned and proscribed by all such legal codes. I therefore concluded that it would constitute a criminal neglect of my duty to remain silent about the enormous loss of life as well as the infinite number of human souls despatched to Hell in the course of such ‘conquests’, and so resolved to publish an account of a few such outrages (and they can be only a few out of the countless number of such incidents that I could relate) in order to make that account the more accessible to Your Highness.

Thus it was that, when the then bishop of Cartagena and tutor to your Highness, the archbishop of Toledo, asked me for a copy of my Account, I duly gave him one and this he presented to Your Highness. But Your Highness has been fully occupied with journeys, by land and sea, as well as other pressing royal business, and it may well be that Your Highness has never found the time to read the Account, or has perhaps allowed it to slip to the back of your mind. Meanwhile, the boldness and the unreason of those who count it as nothing to drench the Americas in human blood and to dispossess the people who are the natural masters and dwellers in those vast and marvellous kingdoms, killing a thousand million of them, and stealing treasures beyond compare, grow by the day, and, masquerading under false colours, they do everything within their power to obtain further licence to continue their conquests (licence that cannot be granted without infringing natural and divine law and thereby conniving at the gravest of mortal sins, worthy of the most terrible and everlasting punishment). I therefore determined to present Your Highness with this Short Account, which is but a brief digest of the many and various outrages and depredations which could and should be recorded. I implore Your Highness to accept it and to read it in that spirit of clemency and royal benevolence with which Your Highness traditionally approaches the works of those of Your Highness’s subjects and servants whose only desire is to serve the public good and the interests of the Crown. It is my fervent hope that, once Your Highness perceives the extent of the injustices suffered by these innocent peoples and the way in which they are being destroyed and crushed underfoot, unjustly and for no other reason than to satisfy the greed and ambition of those whose purpose it is to commit such wicked atrocities, Your Highness will see fit to beg and entreat His Majesty to refuse all those who seek royal licence for such evil and detestable ventures, and to put a stop once and for all to their infernal clamour in such a way that nobody will henceforth dare to make such a request nor even to mention ventures of this kind.

This, Your Royal Highness, is a matter on which action is both urgent and necessary if God is to continue to watch over the Crown of Castile and ensure its future well-being and prosperity, both spiritual and temporal. Amen.

 

Read more at “A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies” (also known as “A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies”)

References:

Donovan, William. “Las Casas, Bartolomé de (1474–1566).” Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, edited by Jay Kinsbruner and Erick D. Langer, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008, pp. 139-143. Gale Virtual Reference Library, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=onondaga&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3078903128&it=r&asid=e2f90e0cd2b2fc4bcf7b8b220d10d0d9

The Core Curriculum, Columbia College  https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/bartolom%C3%A9-de-las-casas

Bolivar: http://cas.loyno.edu/sites/chn.loyno.edu/files/Bartoleme%20de%20Las%20Casas_The%20Eternal%20Gaurdian%20of%20the%20Indians.pdf

Suggested reading:

Historia de las Indias (vol 1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/49298/49298-h/49298-h.htm

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Angela Weiler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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