Bartolomé de Las Casas
Article abstract: Las Casas wrote a history of the early Spanish conquests in the New World and participated in the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean. Concerned with the plight of the Indians, he spent more than fifty years attempting to free the Indians from the oppression of their European conquerors, working to destroy the encomienda system and finding new ways of converting the Indians to Christianity.
Bartolomé de Las Casas was born in Seville in 1474 into the family of a not very successful merchant, Pedro de Las Casas, who sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. Las Casas had witnessed the triumph of Columbus’ return to Seville from his first voyage (March, 1493). He saw service in the militia against Moors in the Granada Rebellion (1497), studied Latin and theology at the cathedral academy in Seville, and became a lay teacher of Christian doctrine.
He accompanied Nicolás de Ovando, the designated governor, to Española (1502). There, he participated in putting down Indian uprisings, for which he was rewarded with a royal grant of lands and Indians (encomienda). He was successful as a planter, and he began to evangelize the Indians in his role as lay catechist. In 1506, he gave up his lands, going to Rome, where he took vows in the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). On his return to Española, in 1512, he was ordained a priest—probably the first in America to receive Holy Orders. He was made chaplain with the forces that were engaged in the conquest of Cuba (begun in 1511 by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, although Las Casas was there only in the last year, 1513), for which he again received a grant of Indians and lands.
Perhaps it has his experiences and observations in the Cuban conquest (including the massacre of Caonao) and other military expeditions in Española, or the harsh realities of treatment of the Indians in the mining and agricultural projects throughout the Spanish Antilles, where the number of natives was rapidly being depleted, or perhaps it was his position as priest and land grantee that led Las Casas to begin, at age forty, what would become his life’s work. He attributes change of life-style to his meditations on chapter 34 of Ecclesiastes. In any case, he gave his encomienda holdings to Diego Columbus and began to preach against the oppression of the Indians, calling for an end to the system of expropriating their land and enslaving them. He returned to Spain to lobby in behalf of the Indians in 1515. The Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, supported him in this crusade, naming him priest-procurator of the Indies and appointing him to a commission to investigate the status of the Indians (1516).
Las Casas developed a plan for peaceful colonization and returned to Spain in July, 1517, to recruit farmers and obtain land for the experiment. The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles I gave him permission to colonize an estate in Curmána, Venezuela (1510-1521). He later retracted a suggestion that slaves be imported for labor from West Africa. With an expression of shame, he regretted that he came so late to the realization that the natives from Africa had the same human rights as the Indians of the New World. The settlement was a failure, and Las Casas retired from public life to the Dominican monastery at Santo Domingo. It was during this time that he wrote the first draft of Historia de las Indias (wr. 1527-1561, pb. 1875-1876; partial translation as History of the Indies, 1971).
Las Casas was active in defense of the Indians in Mexico (1532) and in Nicaragua (1535-1536). During these years, he also visited and worked in defense of the Indians in Peru, Puerto Rico, and other settlements in the Spanish New World colonies. After Pope Paul III proclaimed the Indians’ rationality and equality with other men to receive instructions and the faith (June 2, 1537), Las Casas renewed his activity to colonize and Christianize the Indians peacefully. His most notable success was in Guatemala.
In 1539, Las Casas returned to Spain. He continued his writings in defense of the Indians. His Brevísima relación de la destruyción de las Indias occidentales (1552; partial translation as A Relation of the First Voyages and Discoveries Made by the Spaniards in America, 1699) was written during this time although not published until many years later. In this treatise, he placed the desire for gold and material wealth at the center of motivation for all the injustice toward the...
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