Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566)

A Spanish Slave Owner Turned Priest & Defender of Indigenous Rights

Bartolomé de las Casas profile

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Bartolomé de las Casas

Bartolomé de las Casas stands as a prophetic giant over the centuries since the European invasion of the Americas. He was a participant in the imperialist expressions of his time, but then had the reflective capacity and moral courage to become the greatest contemporary critic of what was happening. He saw Columbus return from his first voyage to the New World and sailed there himself in 1502. At first he was a priest within the system that enslaved the indigenous Americans. But in 1514 the genocidal cruelty of the Spanish colonization drove him to a dramatic conversion. He became a courageous defender of the Indians, traveling between Spain and the New World to denounce not just the excesses of cruelty but the whole unjust system.

Subjugation of Indigenous People

Las Casas first sailed to the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic) in 1502 with his father. He became a land-owner and participated in raids against the indigenous Taíno people to seize slaves and subjugate them. Then in 1510 he was ordained to the priesthood, the first priest to be ordained in the Americas.

Shortly thereafter a group of Dominican friars came to Hispanola and preached against the enslavement of the Indians and their terrible treatment. Las Casas himself was denied confession because he was a slave owner. He argued against the Dominicans for the justice of the Spanish encomienda system. He was a chaplain in the military campaign to conquer the island of Cuba and participated in the massacre at Hatuey. He later wrote, I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.

A Change of Heart

Then passages in the Bible began to speak to him, challenging his acceptance of slavery. He began to recognize the full humanity of the indigenous people and the gross injustice they had experienced at the hands of the Spanish, including his own hands. Las Casas came to see Christ in the suffering of the Indians, crucified not once, but thousands of times. Las Casas’ concern as a priest became not the salvation of the Indians but the salvation of the Spanish themselves.

Beginning to Speak Out Against the Injustices of the Spanish System

When Las Casas released his slaves and preached against the encomienda system the resistance was immediate and strong. So he decided to go to Spain to take the issue to King Ferdinand and church leaders. When the King died shortly after his return Las Casas turned to writing. He wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies in which he related the atrocities and abuses committed by the Spanish colonizers against the indigenous people. He failed to critique slavery as an institution, accepting the enslavement of Africans because of viewing them as captives in just wars. Instead his case was focused on the suffering of the indigenous people and their constant abuse. (Later Las Casas turned against the enslavement of Africans as well, but many critics rightly take harsh issue with his failure to connect the sufferings of both Africans and indigenous Americans until late in his life.)

Protector of the Indians

Las Casas was appointed Protector of the Indians and returned to the Spanish colonies. All his efforts at reform were stymied, so he returned again to Spain to convince the new King Carlos I about various business ideas Las Casas thought would both continue Spain’s New World expansion and treat the Indians more justly by gathering them into villages under the sovereignty of Spain. He tried to carry out his plans in coastal Venezuela and Puerto Rico, but his efforts ended in failure as violence erupted between the Spanish settlers and the Indians.

Friarhood

In frustration and despair Las Casas entered a Dominican monastery in Santo Domingo as a novice, becoming a friar in 1523. For a few years he lived quietly, writing a history of what he had witnessed. Then his preaching against the abuses of the Indians again stirred up resistance from the Spanish colonists. He traveled to the mainland and got into more conflicts as he challenged the enslavement of the indigenous people.

Challenging Mass Conversions

Painting of Bartolomé de las Casas by Felix Parra

A 1875 painting of Bartolomé de las Casas by Felix Parra, on Display at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City.
CC BY 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

He also got involved in a mission to the Maya in Mexico. That mission brought the Dominicans led by Las Casas into conflict with the Franciscans. The Franciscans sought mass conversions while Las Casas felt that people needed to understand their faith for conversion to be genuine. The controversy ended up before Pope Paul III who concurred with Las Casas and wrote a papal edict that declared that Indians were rational beings and should be brought to faith by peaceful means.

True Peace

Based on his principles of treating all people as equals and appealing to them about the Christian faith through understanding, Las Casas launched a mission into a part of Guatemala that had not been conquered by the Spanish military. When a number of Indian chiefs converted and set up churches in their communities Las Casas got the Spanish commander in the region to agree not to allow the encomienda system in that region. They called the area Verapaz, True Peace.

Provoking Riots in the Holy Roman Empire

Las Casas returned again to Spain where Carlos had become Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles V had reversed the more positive measures Las Casas had lobbied for, returning to the harsher system of earlier years. Las Casas lobbied for new laws, which though they didn’t go as far as he wanted still provoked riots back in the Spanish colonies. Any attempts at reform were consistently and violently put down.

Arguing Full Humanity for Indigenous Peoples

In 1545 he was appointed the Bishop of Chiapas in Mexico. Controversy erupted as he refused to give absolution to slave owners on their deathbeds unless they freed their slaves. He also threatened excommunication of those within his jurisdiction who mistreated Indians. Rioting and resistance drove Las Casas back to Spain where he entered into a formal debate with the theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about whether the Indians were by nature inferior and uncivilized and should therefore be in perpetual servitude. Las Casas argued for their full humanity and against war and the brutalization of slavery. This famous Valladolid Debate was formally judged and determined to be inconclusive.

An Early Voice for Univeral Human Rights

He continued until his death to be an advocate for justice for the Indians. Indian leaders who traveled to Spain turned to him as a key defender of their cause. When Las Casas died his legacy became as convoluted, conflicted, and complex as his life had been. Even into the 20th Century many in Spain defended the Spanish empire as benevolent and just, condemning Las Casas as a traitor and extremist. For others, however, even with his flaws he was one of the early voices for the unity of humankind and the universality of human rights. Las Casas seemed a lone voice in his day, but his voice still echoes hundreds of years later in lands where poor and indigenous peoples continue to suffer exploitation and the denial of basic human rights.

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