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Las Casas, Man Who Made A Difference

by Kay Stacy

Bartolomé de las Casas entered into this world in 1474 and departed on July 17, 1566. In those 92 years, he created a legacy that has been admired, analyzed, criticized, rationalized, despised, and idolized. Las Casas’ life shows us the extreme evilness and the extreme goodness of mankind. One attempts to deal with the life of Las Casas by asking the immortal question, "Was he the real thing?" From all indications, he was. However, he was not flawless. Within the space of 92 years, Las Casas became a theologian, a priest, a lawyer, a humanitarian, a philosopher, a historian, an author, and an advocate for the Indians of the New World—quite a legacy for one man.

Born in Seville, Spain in 1474, Bartolomé de Las Casas was of humble origin. His father, Pedro de Las Casas, was one of the "nouveau rich" who, as a common soldier, had sailed to the New World with Columbus on his first voyage. Here he had obtained a measure of wealth (Tuck,1). At the age of eight, Las Casas had seen his first Indians paraded up and down the streets of Seville during Holy Week. They were barely clothed and decorated with colorful bird feathers. Perhaps this scene never left his mind as he noted the sadness in their eyes (Clayton, 1-14). Helen Rand Parish, a distinguished scholar of Las Casas believes, "Las Casas did not see the Indians as a European looking down on them with contempt, but as a child looking up at them with wonder, with admiration" (Pierce, 2). Perchance this viewing sent Las Casas on a lifetime search for truth.

Las Casas’ father had obtained enough wealth to send Las Casas to the famous University of Salamanca. Here, Las Casas studied both law and divinity. He graduated with a law degree in 1498 (Tuck, 1). La Casas also studied Latin and theology and became a lay teacher of Christian doctrine. Military service for Las Casas consisted of service in the Spanish militia against Moorish rebels in Grenada (Scholtes, 1). Next, in 1502, at the age of 28, Las Casas left Spain for Hispaniola in the West Indies with the governor and conquistador Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo. Las Casas knew Columbus and was the editor of the Admiral’s Journal (Bartoleme de las Casas, 1).

While Las Casas was in Hispaniola, he helped to settle an Indian uprising. For this military action, Las Casas was given his first encomienda, a grant of Indians living and working on a specific piece of land. (Scholtes, 1). According to Tim McIntosh, "Bartolomew de Las Casas was a standard Spanish Christian imperialist" during this period in his life (McIntosh, 1). This was a very lucrative position for the young Las Casas. He was a merchant, not an uncommon trade for those who sailed to the New World. There was a difference in the way Las Casas treated his Indian slaves compared to other slave owners. Las Casas was more benevolent, respected, and a fatherly figure to his slaves (Pierce, 2).

Undoubtedly, during his late twenties or early thirties, Las Casas entered a period of soul-searching or truth seeking for his life. By 1506, Las Casas had decided to become a deacon in the church and returned to Rome for his vows. Those who have studied Las Casas record August 15, 1511, as the date of his true conversion. The event occurred on Pentecost Sunday as Las Casas was listening to a sermon by a Dominican priest, Father Antonio de Montesinos who used as his text, "I am the voice crying in the wilderness," as he denounced Spain’s treatment of the Indians (Bartoleme de las Casas, 2). Other scholars believe Las Casas had already begun preparations to become a diocesan priest with the goal of trying to convert the Indians. Regardless of the date, Las Casas’ life from that day forward became dedicated and committed to a cause. Fortunate or unfortunate, some people search a lifetime for a cause to become as committed to as Las Casas did this one. Knowing that he would be much better to his slaves than any other owner, Las Casas renounced all claim on his Indian serfs. He realized that he could not become a crusader for Indian rights and own slaves himself (Pierce, 2).

During the next seven years, Las Casas made several long voyages to Spain to gain crown support and favor for new towns that he wished to build where Spaniard and Indian would live peacefully as equals (Kiefer, 1). Las Casas went to Rome for religious vows and came back to Hispaniola to become the first ordained priest in the New World. In 1510, at the age of 36, Las Casas was ordained at Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola. (Bartoleme de las Casas, 1).

After his return to Hispaniola, he became involved as chaplain in the conquest of Cuba. For this effort, he received a second encomienda, which he also renounced and begin to boldly denounce the Spanish mistreatment and exploitation of the Indians. This event marked Las Casas' break with the Spaniards (Scholtes, 1). Directly influencing this decision was the last campaign of the Spaniards to take Cuba. Here Las Casas had pled with the Spanish governor for the life of an Indian chief named Hatuey. Governor Diego Velázquez commanded Hatuey to be burned alive. Las Casas lost the plea, but now had plenty of vivid material to use fighting against the cruelty of the Spanish (Tuck, 1). He shares this account of Hatuy’s death in his work, Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Chief Hatuey had been given a chance to accept Christianity before his death. His reply was to ask if he would find the white man in Heaven? When told that he would, he stated, "Then I will not be a Christian, for I would not again go to a place where I must find men so cruel!"(Tuck, 2).

Hence, Las Casas championed a new cause. During his battle to help the Indians, he made 14 trips across the Atlantic. His goal was to persuade the Spanish leaders to find some way to win the Indians to Christianity without torturing and murdering them by masses (Schlotes, 1). In 1516, Las Casas won an audience with King Ferdinand V. When he reached Spain, the King was dead. His successor grandson, Charles I (Vth of the Holy Roman Empire), was out of the country. However, Las Casas found an ally in Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, archbishop of Toledo. Las Casas was named "Protector of the Indies." In 1520, Las Casas was allowed by King Charles I to attempt the establishment of a model colony in Santo Domingo. The Spanish and Indians could not get along, resulting in Las Casas taking refuge in a Dominican monastery, a group he would finally join (Tuck, 2).

Following this fiasco, Las Casas served the Indians in Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Guatemala. By 1930, Las Casas was once again attempting political methods to relieve the Indians’ suffering. He obtained a royal decree in Spain prohibiting the enforcement of slavery in Peru. In 1537 Las Casas saw some hope as Pope Paul III’s bull "Sublimis Deus" declared the American Indians as rational beings with a soul. He stated that their property and lives should be protected (Bartoleme de las Casas, 2).

Again in 1542, Las Casas returned to Spain. This time, he convinced Charles I to sign the "New Laws." These laws attempted to end slavery and the encomienda system by limiting ownership of slaves to a single generation. During this appeal, Las Casas completed his most influential and most recognized work, A Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians. The court of Spain was horrified by this account of the atrocities that had been and were being committed against the Indians (Bartoleme de las Casas, 2). To make sure these laws were enforced, Las Casas was named Bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala. The Spanish immediately opposed him. As soon as Las Casas arrived, he wrote a tract, Confesionario, promising that any Spaniard who refused to release his Indians would be denied absolution of sins. Several clergy did not follow Las Casas’ orders. Then one year later, Charles I rescinded this order (Bartoleme de las Casas, 3). In 1545, Las Casas again returned to Spain to fight for the reinstatement of these laws (Scholtes, 3).

It was during 1545 in Spain that Las Casas’ famous debate with Juan Ginés de Supúlveda occurred. Charles I, at the Council of Valladolid, ordered this debate. Supúlveda was a Spaniard who felt that the Spanish were superior to the Indians and argued they should be conquered. The four points that Sepúlveda used were the (1) Indians were barbarous, (2) Indians commit crimes against natural law, (3) Indians oppress and kill innocent people, and(4) wars may be waged against the infidels in order to prepare the way for preaching the faith (Scholtes, 2). Sepúlveda had based his argument on Aristotelian doctrine. During this period of time Sepúlveda’s teachings were primarily honored in the Indies. Even though Las Casas presented valid points, Sepúlveda’s beliefs continued throughout much of the New World. Sepúlveda believed that the Spanish were as much above Indians as man was above ape. "So, despite Las Casas incredible effort, Christian imperialism continued in the New World" (Pierce, 1).

When Las Casas ended his debate with Sepúlveda at Vallodid, he retired to a Dominican monastery in Spain where he continued to write for the cause of the Indians in the New World. For the next fourteen years, he would write, appear at court, and defend at council the rights of Indians (Scholtes, 2). At the age of 92 in July of 1566, Bartolomé de Las Casas died in a Dominican monastery.

As well as a humanitarian, Las Casas made many contributions to the literary and historical efforts to save the Native peoples of the New World. He is chiefly remembered for his Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians (or Tears of the Indians). Even though the work is an exaggerated account of the atrocities of the Spanish conquerors, the book was widely read and translated. The English version was used to convince the world that Spanish colonies in the New World would be better off under English control. This work earned for Las Casas a place among the early pioneers of social justice, even though he was denounced as an irresponsible pamphleteer (Kiefer, 1). Las Casas’ Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies is not literature for the faint of heart. He begins the account in 1492 as Columbus first discovered the New World. He then proceeds to describe the humanity of the Indian inhabitants of the New World, making them saintly and guileless. He describes these people as "humble, patient, peaceable, devoid of wickedness, obedient, faithful, devoid of vengeance, rancors, or hatreds" (Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, 1). He presents a Utopian view of the Indian society before the entrance of the Spaniards. Then, in contrast, he introduces the Spaniard enemies into this world, calling them "beasts, wolves, tigers, lions, killers, and terrorizers,"(Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, 2). Vivid description of the affliction, torture, slaying, destruction, and enslavement of these people follows. The descriptions are so stunning and horrible that anyone with human emotion could not normally function after reading this work. Of course, this was exactly the purpose: to stir emotions and feelings. It is quiet stomach turning. Las Casas also wrote two chronicles, Historia General de Las Indias and Historia Apologetica de Las Indias. These were intended to compile into one single book. He requested these not to be published until forty years after his death. They were not printed until 1875-1876 at Madrid under the title of Historia de Las Yndias (Casas, Bartolomé de las, Manuscripts, 1-2). At the age of 91, Las Casas completed his last work, De thesaursis in Peru. Even in the end, he still wrote a clear concise treatise defending the rights of the Indians (Pennington, 1-7).

Even though Las Casas has been called the father of anti-imperialism and anti-racism, and though he was an early advocate for the rights of native peoples, Bob Corbett believes Las Casas was indirectly responsible for the growth of black slavery in America. Las Casas believed that the African slaves were more suitable to do hard labor than the Amerindians (Corbett, 1). Africans held no claim to the land, so it would not be wrong to make them work the land. Las Casas later regretted this statement and believed that all slavery was wrong (Pierce, 1-4).

Searching for the enigma that propelled Las Casas, philosophers generally accept one of two theories. First, he was either largely Thomistic; or second, he was just an activist without a coherent position. One common belief among these circles is that Las Casas received much inspiration from St. Thomas Aquinas and his school of philosophy (Pennington, 2). Scholars have also long debated whether medieval or Renaissance influences were the basis of Las Casas’ thoughts. Las Casas was a master of the Scholastic methods of argumentation. He was also a child of the Renaissance.

Las Casas can be credited with aiding the direction of European thought toward the concept that all men should be treated free and equal. He believed that humans should be liberated and capable of movement into cultural evolution. During the years that Las Casas championed the rights of the Indians, he gradually shifted from moral tactics like sermonizing and persuasion and threatening to endorse political measures like the New Laws of 1542 (Keen, 1-12). Perhaps, if Las Casas could tell us why he championed the Indians cause, it would be simply that he saw Jesus in these people (Pierce, 4). Possibly there was no grand philosophical structure or scheme guiding his argumentation. Maybe, he just followed his heart.

In conclusion, Bartolomé de Las Casas became a champion for the rights of the Indians by living among them and working with them in the New World. Throughout the life of Las Casas, he insisted that the Indians’ claims to the title of their lands were legal and just. He maintained that the evangelization of the Indians was based on the gospel of wealth, not salvation. He pursued the truth for his life. He broke through political and social barriers of class and reason. He traveled a road that brought him closer to the meaning of life. As one of the many, noble defenders of principle and justice, standing together with others across time and space, Bartolome de Las Casas has proven—one individual can make a difference.


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