Bartolomé de Las Casas

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What kind of influence did Bartolomé de Las Casas have on the Spanish, on African slaves, and on Indians?

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Bartolomé de Las Casas was a Spanish priest and missionary who lived in the Caribbean, including on Cuba, and Mexico during the early sixteenth century. A member of the Dominican order, he served as Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico from 1543 to 1549. As both an active participant in and an...

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Bartolomé de Las Casas was a Spanish priest and missionary who lived in the Caribbean, including on Cuba, and Mexico during the early sixteenth century. A member of the Dominican order, he served as Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico from 1543 to 1549. As both an active participant in and an observer of several religious orders’ missionizing activities among Indigenous peoples of numerous Spanish colonies, Las Casas became very concerned about the widespread abuses. Many of the labor practices, both on farms and in the newly formed towns, constituted virtual enslavement, even when the legal system was not technically slavery.

Las Casas was influential both through his work in Catholic Church leadership, especially after returning to Spain, and through his voluminous writings. His published works include the History of the Indies, the Summary Apologetical History, and In Defense of the Indians; the last, also called the Apologia, was published in 1552. Las Casas disagreed with many prominent theologians and philosophers who believed that nonwhite people were naturally inferior; in those years, some continued to argue that New World inhabitants were not actually human beings. While he continued to advocate for conversion to Christianity, which would save their souls, he opposed the use of violent measures for achieving conversion. However, even as Las Casas advocated for Indigenous people, he supported the enslavement of Africans and sending them to the New World to provide labor, arguing that this would improve conditions for Native Americans.

Las Casas died in 1566. During his lifetime, many of his works were suppressed, and even a century later were condemned by the Inquisition. The instances of abuse that he documented were picked up by other nations that competed with Spain, and incorporated into the so-called Black Legend that portrayed Spain as the worst of the colonial powers.

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