Las Casas, Bartolomé de
Bartolomé de Las Casas 1474–1566
Spanish historian and polemicist.
Often characterized by modern historians as the "Defender and Apostle to the Indians," Bartolomé de Las Casas is known for exposing and condemning the violent practices of Spanish colonizers of the New World against native Americans. Marked by emotionally charged language and often exaggerated statistics, Las Casas's works caused him to be harshly criticized in his own lifetime as a threat to Spanish rule in America. Though more than four hundred years have passed since his death, the works of this controversial Dominican friar continue to elicit strong reactions from both detractors and defenders.
Bartolomé de Las Casas was born to an aristocratic family in Seville in 1474. He studied theology and law at the University of Salamanca before accompanying Columbus on his third voyage to America in 1498. In 1511 Las Casas went to Santo Domingo to join the priesthood; a year later, he participated in the colonization of Cuba. The torture, enslavement, and generally inhumane treatment of the Indians that he witnessed during Cuba's colonization compelled him to defend them against further mistreatment, and in 1521, by the decree of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (who was also king Charles I of Spain), Las Casas was granted an opportunity to plan and implement a system of non-violent colonization and Christian indoctrination in the district of Cumaná in Venezuela, but the experiment failed. Disheartened, he joined the Dominicans in 1523 and for several years refrained from any direct involvement in Spain's colonial policies. During this period of profound introspection, he began to write his first extensive works, the Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies; 1875) and the Apologética historia sumaria (Summary Apologetical History; 1951). In the 1530s Las Casas began once again to take an active role with regard to Spanish policies, travelling to Venezuela, Perú, New Granada, Darién and Guatemala to observe colonial practices. Assuming that the royal family and governing councils in Spain were unaware of the violent acts that conquistadors committed in their names, Las Casas drafted and circulated among them many treatises, proclamations, and petitions calling for the reform of Spain's colonization
practices. Named Bishop of Chiapas in Mexico in 1543, Las Casas remained in this position until he returned to Spain in 1549. In Spain, he began writing his Apología (In Defense of the Indians; 1552). This became the basis of his argument against Juan Gines de Sepúlveda, an Aristotelian scholar who argued at the council of Valladolid in 1550–51 for the continued violent means of New World conquest on the grounds that there is a natural inequality among human beings. Las Casas actively campaigned for more humane treatment of Native Americans until his death in Madrid in 1566.
Las Casas began writing his first comprehensive work, Historia de las Indias, around 1527. This polemical work outlines Europe's New World conquests from 1492 to 1520 and attempts to portray Native Americans as culturally different from, but equal to Europeans. At the same time, Las Casas started his Apologética historia sumaria, which recognized the legitimacy of Native American societies and argued that they would best respond to non-violent means of Christian indoctrination. Many of Las Casas's subsequent works consist largely of excerpts from these two histories. His most famous, the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, 1552), was his only work published before his death. Written in 1542 and published ten years later in Seville without the consent of the Royal Council, the Brief Account was Las Casas's most acrimonious assault on Spanish colonial policies. It was officially banned in Spain by the Holy Tribunal of Zaragoza in 1660, but new editions appeared periodically throughout Europe.
During his lifetime, many Spanish nationalists and governmental officials characterized Las Casas as a traitor and a fanatic who should be publically reprimanded and whose writings should be banned. Despite the negative reception in his homeland, Las Casas's influence had enduring political repercussions. His defense at Valladolid influenced Philip II's 1573 ordinance regulating the use of armed force during new conquests. His Brief Account was used as a source of anti-Spanish propaganda by the English at the end of the sixteenth century, and later by other countries including the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France, and the United States. In 1898, prior to the Spanish-American War, a translation of the Brief Account (entitled An Historical and True Account of the Cruel Massacre and Slaughter of 20,000,000 People in the West Indies by the Spaniards) was published in New York in an effort to arouse negative sentiments against Spaniards in Cuba. Some modern Spanish historians still characterize Las Casas as delusional and dangerous, but many others contend that his often exaggerated testimony and somewhat dubious statistics do not significantly lessen the value of either his analyses or his humanitarian principles.
Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias [The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account] (polemical history) 1552
Apología [In Defense of the Indians] (speech) c.1552
*Historia de las Indias [History of the Indies] (history) c.1527
**Apologética historia sumaria cuanto a las cualidades, dispución, descripción, cielo y suelo destas tierras, y condiciones naturales, policías, repúblicas, manera de vivir e costumbres de las gentes destas Indias occidentales y meridionales cuyo imperio soberano pertence a los Reyes de Castilla [Summary Apologetical History of the Qualities, Disposition, Description, Sky, and Soil of These Lands, And, Natural Conditions, Politics, Republics, Way of Living and Customs of These Western and Southern Indies Whose Sovereign Empire Belongs to the Kings of Castile] (history) c.1527–1551
*Las Casas began writing this work circa 1527. The manuscript was published in 1875.
**Las Casas began writing this work circa 1527 and completed it circa 1551. A version was published in 1951.
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SOURCE: A preface to The Life of Las Casas: "The Apostle of the Indies," George Bell and Sons, 1890, pp. v-xv.
[In the following excerpt, from a biography originally published in 1867, Helps presents a laudatory characterization of Las Casas as a historian, philanthropist, and a highly original thinker.]
The life of Las Casas appears to me one of the most interesting, indeed I may say the most interesting, of all those that I have ever studied; and I think it is more than the natural prejudice of a writer for his hero, that inclines me to look upon him as one of the most remarkable personages that has ever appeared in history. It is well known that he has ever been put in the foremost rank of philanthropists; but he had other qualifications which were also extraordinary. He was not a mere philanthropist, possessed only with one idea. He had one of those large minds which take an interest in everything. As an historian, a man of letters, a colonist, a missionary, a theologian, an active ruler in the Church, a man of business, and an observer of natural history and science, he holds a very high position amongst the notable men of his own age. The ways, the customs, the religion, the policy, the laws, of the new people whom he saw, the new animals, the new trees, the new herbs, were all observed and chronicled by him.
In an age eminently superstitious, he was entirely devoid of...
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SOURCE: "Bartolomé de Las Casas and the Spanish Empire in America: Four Centuries of Misunderstanding," in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 97, No. 1, February, 1953, pp. 26–30.
[In the following excerpt, Hanke, an American professor of Latin American history, briefly reviews the ongoing controversies surrounding the reputation of Las Casas.]
When Ferdinand Cortez and his little band of Spaniards fought their way in 1519 from the tropical shores of the coast of Mexico up to the high plateau and first saw stretched below them the great Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, gleaming on its lake under the morning sun, they experienced one of the truly dramatic moments in the history of America. Fortunately we have the words of a reporter worthy of the scene, the foot soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo, whose True History of the Conquest of New Spain is one of the classics of the western world. He wrote:
Gazing on such wonderful sights we did not know what to say or whether what appeared before us was real; for on the one hand there were great cities and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we … we did not even number four hundred soldiers.
Today, studying the copious...
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SOURCE: "Las Casas, or a Look Back into the Future," translated by Michael Roloff, in The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account by Bartolomé de Las Casas, edited by Michael Roloff, translated by Herma Briffault, The Seabury Press, 1974, pp. 3–34.
[In the excerpt below, originally published in 1966, Enzensberger describes Spanish attempts to discredit Las Casas and praises his analysis of the workings of colonialism.]
"The Indies [that is: the West Indian Islands and the coasts of Central and South America] were discovered in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. In the following year a great many Spaniards went there with the intention of settling the land. Thus, forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first soclaimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola, which is six hundred leagues in circumference. Around it in all directions are many other islands, some very big, others very small, and all of them were, as we saw with our own eyes, densely populated with native peoples called Indians. This large island was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world … And all the land so far discovered is a beehive of people; it is as though God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind.
"And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless,...
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SOURCE: "Analysis of Las Casas's Treatise," in All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation Between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians, Northern Illinois University Press, 1974, pp. 73–112.
[In the excerpt below, Hanke details Las Casas 's refutation of Sepúlveda's arguments at the council of Valladolid in 1550–51.]
The main lines of the argument Las Casas developed at Valladolid in his presentation to the Council of the Fourteen in August 1550 have been known ever since 1552, when he published a résumé by Domingo de Soto of both his own views and those of Sepúlveda. Soto, the Dominican theologian who was a member of the Council appointed to hear the controversy, and who had been commissioned by his colleagues to prepare a summary of both arguments, never mentioned the second part, the Spanish apología. He remarked, however, that Las Casas had once said more than was necessary on a certain point and, at another time, had been "as copious and diffuse as the years of this business," especially in his response to Sepúlveda's charge that the Indians were barbarians and therefore slaves by nature, "to which he did not respond in any one place, but in all his writings may be found his arguments on this topic which may be reduced to two or three main points" (an accurate and perceptive description of...
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SOURCE: "Aboriginal Cultures and the Christ," in Theological Studies, Vol. 53, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 288–312.
[In the following excerpt, Starkloff presents Las Casas as a model for a "culturally sensitive " approach to promoting Christian faith.]
Our model for a cultural Christology for mission among aboriginal peoples originates historically in the campaign of the great apologist for the Amerindians, Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566). There has been so much discussion of him, especially during the recent controversies over the Columbus quincentennial, that there would hardly seem to be anything more to say. But his political and theological writings do indeed help open the way to a Christology for aboriginal cultures.
Las Casas's life is becoming better known with contemporary historical writing, but it may be helpful here to mention the high points of that long and dramatic life. Las Casas came to "the new world" about one decade after Columbus's first voyage; he came in the role of a cleric not yet ordained to the priesthood, and as a recipient of a grant of land known as encomienda, which was a kind of fiefdom taken from aboriginal ownership and awarded to colonists, leaving the resident Indians bound to that land. After his ordination (probably the first in the "new world"), he continued his land ownership and served as chaplain to the encomenderos....
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SOURCE: "The Discursive Encounter of Spain and America: The Authority of Eyewitness Testimony in the Writing of History," in The William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 210–28.
[Adorno is a Professor of Romance Languages at Princeton University. In the following excerpt, she describes Las Casas's use of Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca's account of the 1527 Spanish expedition to Florida as a source of information for his own Apologética historia sumaria.]
The eyewitness account, Cabeza de Vaca's relación of the 1527 expedition to Florida, was published twice during the reign of Charles V. It appeared before royal attempts to control publications on the Indies and again during the time when the rights to the rewards of the conquests became a topic of heated controversy. The success of Cabeza de Vaca's writing can be explained by the fact that it took a counter-conquest position. That is, Cabeza de Vaca advocated peaceful conversion of the natives and demonstrated that good treatment of the Indians produced results that served both the well-being of native populations and the economic interests of Spaniards.
Las Casas was one of Cabeza de Vaca's most remarkable readers, and an exceedingly careful one. In his Apologética historia sumaria, he cited extensively Cabeza de Vaca's account of the peoples and customs of Florida. Cabeza de Vaca...
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SOURCE: A foreword, translated by Robert R. Barr, to Witness: Writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas, edited and translated by George Sanderlin, Orbis Books, 1992, pp. xi-xxii.
[Gutiérrez is a Peruvian priest who works with the poor in Lima and who is considered one of Latin America's foremost liberation theologians. In this excerpt, he describes the theological grounds for Las Casas's argument opposing the use of armed force against the indigenous peoples of the New World.]
For a full nineteen years, the inhabitants of the so-called West Indies had suffered occupation, mistreatment, exploitation, and death at the hands of those who, from their European viewpoint, considered themselves the discoverers of these lands. The newcomers dealt with the Indians, says Las Casas, "as if they had been good-for-nothing animals," since they only sought to "grow rich on the blood of those poor wretches." This induced the Dominican religious of Hispaniola to combine "rights with facts" ("el derecho con el hecho")—to combine their reflection with a knowledge of the situation, and to confront the oppression they saw there with the "law of Christ."
The Dominican friars delegated to one of their number, Antón Montesino, the task of making this denunciation, which he performed in his sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1511. Let us reproduce here the passage that Fray Bartolomé cites verbatim...
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SOURCE: An introduction to A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas, edited and translated by Nigel Griffin, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. xiii-xli.
[In the following excerpt, Pagden details the historical importance of Las Casas 's life and works.]
The Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies was the first and the most bitter protest against the excesses of European colonization in the Americas, and its author, Bartolomé de Las Casas, 'Defender and Apostle to the Indians', the most controversial figure in the long and troubled history of Spain's American empire. In the four hundred years since his death he has been given many roles to play: the voice of a European Christian conscience raised against the casual slaughter of thousands of 'barbarians' in a remote, barely imaginable quarter of the globe; the creator of the 'Black Legend', a distorted Protestant-inspired record of Spanish atrocities and cruelties which was to darken every attempt to exonerate Spanish imperial ventures from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries; the distant, unwitting father of Spanish-American independence, 'that friend of humanity', in the words of 'The Liberator' Simón Bolivar, 'who with such fervour and determination denounced to his government and his contemporaries the most horrific acts of that sanguineous frenzy'; and the equally unwitting progenitor of today's...
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SOURCE: A foreword to In Defense of the Indians, edited and translated by Stafford Poole, Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. xiii-xvii.
[In the excerpt below, Marty discusses the experience of the modern reader encountering Las Casas 's writings.]
Half a millennium after the event, historians and the general public have learned to say not that Columbus discovered America but that with his voyages he encountered a world that was new to Europeans. It also should long ago have been noticed that Columbus never really did "discover" the Native Americans whom he called Indians. The adventurer brought stereotypes into which these people had to fit: we Europeans, he deduced, might both "save" them and "enslave" them.
Bartolome de Las Casas, a Dominican priest, might more properly have been described all along as the one who discovered these Americans. Now we might also change that to say he encountered them. Las Casas smashed his own stereotypes and came to know these as the "others" who were not simply objects for salvation, certainly not subjects for slavery, nor mere pagans or heathen, enemies or permanent strangers. They were full fellow human beings, possessing valid traditions, dignity, and rights.
Not every one in his day thought so. For decades Las Casas, officially named to be the protector of the Indians, pleaded their case in...
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SOURCE: "Bartolomé de Las Casas and the Issues of the Great Debate of 1550–1551," in Columbus and Las Casas: The Conquest and Christianization of America, 1492–1566, University Press of America, Inc., 1994, pp. 167–89.
[In the following excerpt, Traboulay examines Las Casas's arguments in favor of the rights of native Americans and the reception of his ideas in Europe and the colonies.]
In late 1550, an assembly of jurists and four theologians met with the council of the Indies in Valladolid at the request of the king to hear the opposing views of Bartolome de Las Casas and the noted Spanish Aristotelian scholar, Gines de Sepulveda, on the conquest of America. This debate encapsulated the often conflicting Spanish responses to the conquest. Sepulveda himself never came to America, but relied for his information on historians like Oviedo who had taken a dim view of Indian rights. In light of the tense political situation in Peru and Mexico following the New Laws of 1542, Sepulveda became the darling of the colonists for his support of a militant imperialism in America. For the advocates of the rights of native Americans, Las Casas's defense was one of the splendid moments of their struggle. For Las Casas himself, it represented the maturation of his reflections on the consequences of the clash between European and American civilizations. He was seventy-six years old. Although he remained in contact...
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MacNutt, Francis Augustus. Preface to Bartholomew De Las Casas: His Life, His Apostolate, and His Writings, pp. v-xxiii. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1909.
A biographical account of Las Casas and his candid criticisms of Spanish maltreatment of American natives.
Magner, James A. "Bartolomé De Las Casas: Protector of the Indians, Bishop of Chiapas." In his Men of Mexico, pp. 62–90. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1942.
A comprehensive biography which details Las Casas's role as historian and philanthropist.
Baptiste, Victor N. Bartolomé de Las Casas and Thomas More's Utopia. Culver City: Labyrinthos, 1990, 76 p.
A comparative study of the connections and similarities between Las Casas's Memorial de Remediospara las Indias and Thomas More's Utopia.
Comas, Juan. "Historical Reality and the Detractors of Father Las Casas." In Bartolomé de Las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and His Work, edited by Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen, pp. 487–537. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.
A comprehensive defense designed to "provide documentary proof against...
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