Bartolomé de Las Casas Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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.


Sir Arthur Helps (essay date 1867)

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 superstition. At a period when the most extravagant ideas as to the divine rights of kings prevailed, he took occasion to remind kings themselves to their faces, that they are only permitted to govern for the good of the people; and dared to upbraid Philip the Second for his neglect of Spanish and Indian affairs, through busying himself with Flemish, English, and French policy.

At a period when brute force was universally appealed to in all matters, but more especially in those that pertained to religion, he contended before Juntas and Royal Councils that missionary enterprise is a thing that should stand independent of all military support; that a missionary should go forth with his life in his hand, relying only on the protection that God will vouchsafe him, and depending neither upon civil nor military assistance. In fact his works would, even in the present day, form the best manual extant for missionaries.

He had certainly great advantages: he lived in most stirring times; he was associated with the greatest personages of his day; and he had the privilege of taking part in the discovery and colonization of a new world.

Eloquent, devoted, charitable, fervent, sometimes too fervent, yet very skilful in managing men, he will doubtless remind the reader of his prototype, Saint Paul; and it was very fitting that he should have been called, as he was, the "Apostle of the Indies."

Nothwithstanding our experience, largely confirmed by history, of the ingenuity often manifested in neglecting to confer honour upon those who most deserve it, one cannot help wondering that the Romish Church never thought of enrolling Las Casas as a saint, amongst such fellow-labourers as Saint Charles of Borromeo, or Saint Francis of Assisi.

His life is very interesting, if only from this circumstance, that, perhaps more than any man of his time, he rose to great heights of power and influence, and then, to use a phrase of his own, fell sheer down "into terrible abysses." His spirit, however, almost always rose indomitable; and the "abysses" did not long retain him as their captive.

Among his singular advantages must be mentioned his great physical powers, and tenacity of life. I do not remember that he ever mentions being ill. He exceeded in his journeyings his renowned master and friend, Charles the Fifth, and he lived fully as laborious a life as did that monarch.

When Charles, a youth of sixteen, came to the throne, Las Casas was a man of about forty, of great power and influence. He soon won the young king's attachment; during the whole of whose active life he worked vigorously with him at Indian affairs; and when, broken in health and in spirit, Charles retired to San Yuste, Las Casas was in full vigour, and had his way with Philip the...

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Lewis Hanke (essay date 1953)

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...

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Hans Magnus Enzensberger (essay date 1966)

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...

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Lewis Hanke (essay date 1974)

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....

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Carl F. Starkloff, S. J. (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 2598 words.)

Rolena Adorno (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 3215 words.)

Gustavo Gutiérrez (essay date 1992)

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,...

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Anthony Pagden (essay date 1992)

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...

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Martin E. Marty (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 1735 words.)

David M. Traboulay (essay date 1994)

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....

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Further Reading


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.


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