How does Bartolomé de Las Casas depict Amerindian civilization, and what attributes does he highlight and why?

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Las Casas depicts Amerindian civilization as innocent and pure. Indeed, he was one of the originators of a fairly common trope in European writings about Native peoples—the portrayal of Indians as so-called "noble savages." For example, consider the following quote from A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies: 

These people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world.

Las Casas portrays Indian people in this way for three reasons. First, he and many other Europeans sincerely saw the natives as more pure and decent than many Europeans, who had been corrupted by greed for the wealth the Americas had to offer. Second, he wished to emphasize the "peaceable" nature of native peoples in order to contrast them with the Spaniards, who he characterized as almost unfathomably brutal:

Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like...wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before...

The purpose of A Brief Account was to win support for a more humane policy toward Indian peoples. Also, Las Casas was interested in converting the natives to Christianity. By portraying them in this way, he made the argument that they were not only humans with souls, but that they were also especially amenable to conversion. Las Casas successfully argued at a series of debates in Valladolid that the peoples encountered in the Americas were humans with rational minds and free will. His portrayal of them in the terms described above was central to his overall project of establishing a more humane colonial regime in the Spanish Empire.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish historian, priest, bishop and missionary to the West Indies. His observation of Spanish colonization of the West Indies exposed him to the atrocities committed by the colonists against the natives. The Spanish colonists believed it was necessary to use violence and subjugate the natives in order to usher them into civilization. On the other hand, Bartolome fought against this mentality both at home and locally within the West Indies. He at one point requested the Spanish royal leadership to allow him to institute peaceful colonialism within the Amerindian populations. His request was granted but his project failed, forcing him to take temporary leave from active influence on policies. He maintained that the Amerindian population was equally human and demanded to be treated with dignity. Las Casas preferred the use of Christianity to introduce western civilization to the Amerindian communities and held that the people were rational beings who should be exposed to knowledge in order to make voluntary decisions. He asserted that it was through peaceful means that sustainable colonization and civilization of the West Indies would be achieved. This was supported by Pope Paul III who promulgated Sublimus Dei, which outlined peaceful introduction of the faith to Amerindian communities.

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