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.