Bartolomé de Las Casas

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What motivated Bartolome de Las Casas to speak out in the book Voices of Freedom?

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Bartolome de Las Casas wrote Voices of Freedom, along with a number of other critical treatises such as A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Apologetic History of the Indies , in response to the brutality of Spanish colonization of the New World. Las Casas was...

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Bartolome de Las Casas wrote Voices of Freedom, along with a number of other critical treatises such as A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Apologetic History of the Indies, in response to the brutality of Spanish colonization of the New World. Las Casas was a champion of Indigenous rights; he was a part of a larger assemblage of Catholic missionaries who ventured out into remote areas to spread word of the gospel. He was especially outspoken against the violence the Spanish conquistadors inflicted against the defenseless Indigenous population. Sickened by the unmitigated exploitation and physical degradation of Indigenous people, Las Casas gave up his extensive land holdings and slaves to travel back to Spain to petition the Spanish crown to cease colonial abuses.

One of the critical ideas that encouraged Las Casas to speak out was the Spanish legal doctrine of the sixteenth century that non-Catholic peoples should be given the option to convert to Catholicism in return for their freedom. Las Casas argued that because every Indigenous person possessed their own soul, and were all therefore capable of attaining salvation, it was irreligious of the Spanish to deny the Natives the opportunity to submit themselves before God.

Las Casas also advocated that Indigenous groups be granted the right of self-government under the Spanish crown. The Spanish monarchy, the legal and cultural thinking of which had been heavily influenced by the Moorish Muslims, understood this under the rubric of Muslim law, which allowed non-Muslims the use of their own legal courts and justice system. This was the rationale that Las Casas based his arguments on, and the philosophy that motivated his outspokenness.

It should be commented here that, despite his pleas, Spain did not much alter its actions in the New World. Slavery and the exploitation of Indigenous labor was too profitable to be completely overturned by the scribblings of some distant theologian. It was a result of this intransigence, coupled with the unimaginably difficult circumstances that conquistadors subjected the local population to, that motivated Las Casas’ writings.

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