As bishop of Chiapa, Las Casas returned to America in to take part in the struggle himself. He did not even succeed in enforcing the New Laws in his own diocese, but received a slightly warmer reception from the natives of the "Land of War," where he and his fellow dominicans founded a mission called Vera Paz.
His final return to Spain in did not mean retirement for the tireless old man. About he engaged in. Some years later he was actively opposing the continuation of the encomienda system, and up until his death he was the zealous advocate of the native peoples, seeking redress of their grievances. During these last years, as well as earlier in his career, his chief weapon was his pen.
His extensive writings were all connected with his reform projects. Because of its sensationalism it was immediately translated into other languages and widely circulated. It was in large part responsible for the development of the "Black Legend," the consequences of which still exist and have fallen back in part upon Las Casas himself. Despite this, history must note the human compassion in Las Casas's ideals. Bibliography: Obras escogidas, ed. Madrid — Seville — His book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies , is an eyewitness account of life in the early Spanish settlements of the West Indies.
Las Casas's father was a merchant who sailed on Christopher Columbus 's second voyage to the New World in He acquired property in Hispaniola an island in the Caribbean Sea.
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The younger Las Casas was born in While his father traveled, he remained in Spain, studying theology and law in Madrid. Around , Las Casas traveled to Hispaniola to live. Fascinated by the native people of the island, the young man studied their cultures and languages. Despite his understanding of the natives, Las Casas used the native Hispaniolans as slave workers to farm the land his father had given him. He saw nothing wrong with this practice.
The Spanish believed that because Columbus had conquered Hispaniola, the land and its people belonged to Spain. Queen Isabella — of Spain agreed that the native people should be put to work, but she also ordered the Spanish settlers to convert the natives to the Catholic faith and to teach them to read and write.
The explorers and settlers, however, were more interested in gold and treasures than in converting the native people to the Catholic religion. In their greed, the explorers enslaved the natives to work in mines and on their farms. Las Casas shared their desire for riches.
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They also brought to the New World diseases against which the native people had no natural defenses. Thousands died of smallpox, measles, and influenza. The natives tried to fight against the Spanish invasion of their lands, but their primitive bows and arrows were no match for the swords of the Spaniards mounted on horseback.
Hundreds of thousands of natives died each year. Those who remained were quickly enslaved. Most Spaniards gave no thought to the world they were destroying. Gradually, however, some recognized the suffering of the natives and began to speak out against the injustice. In , while reading a passage in the Bible, Las Casas suddenly realized the horror of the Spanish brutality toward the native people.
Las Casas gave up his land, freed his slaves, and began delivering sermons to the Spanish settlers to try to stop the injustice. He traveled back and forth to Spain to report to its rulers the suffering of the native peoples. In , King Charles I — of Spain granted Las Casas, who had become a bishop, some land to set up peaceful, free villages where native Hispaniolans could live and work with Spanish peasants.
Under Las Casas's plan, the peasant families were to instruct the native people in European systems of farming and wage earning, as well as in Catholicism. The experiment quickly failed when the native Hispaniolans rebelled and the peasants deserted to join the other colonists. Las Casas, discouraged, returned to Spain and isolated himself in a monastery for nearly ten years. During his stay at the monastery, Las Casas began working on his book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies , which was not published until The book described the cruelties the native peoples had suffered after the Spanish had arrived in the New World.
While in Spain in , Las Casas read some of the passages of his as yet unfinished book to King Charles. The ruler was shocked by the terrible stories of native women raped in front of their husbands, of native children thrown into rushing rivers, and of young men slowly burned alive—all inflicted by the Spanish.
At least partly because of the book's affect on him, in King Charles established the New Laws, which prohibited the future enslavement of native Hispaniolans and gave guidelines for the proper treatment of those already working for Spanish landowners. See Encomienda System.
But under pressure from outraged settlers, the New Laws were repealed in Las Casas continued to fight on behalf of native Hispaniolans for the rest of his life. August ; d. Las Casas's vast output of political, historical, and theological writing forms one of the basic sources for contemporary understanding of the conquest period and of some of the most important individuals involved in the initial colonization of the Spanish Indies.
The early years of Las Casas's life seemed destined to propel him toward the newly discovered Indies and its inhabitants. He was the son of a Seville merchant, Pedro de Las Casas. Las Casas remained at home in school while his father and other members of his family accompanied Columbus as colonists on the second voyage to the Indies. Five years later Pedro? He also began to learn about the Indies from Juanico, with whom Las Casas struck up a lifelong friendship. In Las Casas quit school and sailed to the West Indies.
His first years in Hispaniola were spent helping his father and aiding in the provisioning of Spanish military expeditions. At the same time, young Las Casas began learning several native languages and befriending local Indians; he had already begun deploring the violence he witnessed. He returned to Europe, first to Spain and then to Rome where, in , he was ordained a priest. In Las Casas returned to Hispaniola. These years were to be crucial both for Las Casas and for the nature of Spanish-Indian relations. His return coincided with the arrival of the Dominicans.
In the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesino represented his order in a highly public condemnation of the encomienda system that outraged the island's entire Spanish community. The message was not lost on Las Casas, who then held Indians as an encomendero land grantee. Las Casas preached to and converted the natives in preparation for the Spanish conquistadores, and those efforts largely succeeded. In reward for his services, Las Casas received land together with a grant of Indians and by all appearances had established himself as a typical encomendero.
The decimation of Cuba's native population by Spanish encomenderos through overwork, starvation, and murder made Las Casas realize that the real solution for Indian mistreatment lay not with challenging the conduct of individual encomenderos but by calling into question the entire system and its relationship to Christian mortality. In he astonished his parishioners by condemning the encomienda in its entirety, freeing his Indians, and then vigorously interceding with local authorities on the natives' behalf. Failing to convert even a single encomendero to his position, he went to Europe in to plead his case with the king of Spain.
Las Casas spent the next six years arguing that the period for military conquest of the Indians had passed. The time had arrived, he claimed, for peaceful conversion of natives and the promotion of agricultural colonization. He did not stand alone in condemning Spanish cruelties against Indians.
Other voices had begun to sound in the Americas, and a small but influential group of royal ministers and Spanish churchmen supported the goal of protecting Indians. The ruling, however, had little practical effect in the distant Western Hemisphere. During the next quarter century, Las Casas repeatedly suffered defeats in his efforts to defend the Americas' native populations.
In he left Spain to establish a settlement in Venezuela, hoping to peacefully convert local Indians and create an economically self-sufficient community. But opposition from encomenderos and colonial officials helped to incite an Indian rebellion that wrecked the project.
Despondent over its failure, he entered the Dominican order as a monk in The years that followed were ones of intellectual growth and personal frustration for Las Casas. One of Las Casas's critics charged that he once arrived in Tlaxcala, Mexico, "with twenty-seven or thirty-seven [Indian] carriers—and the greatest part of what they were carrying was accusations against the Spaniards, and other rubbish.
Although colonial Spaniards scorned any attempt to ameliorate the Indians' plight, moral encouragement arrived from Europe in the form of Pope Paul III 's bull Sublimis Deus , which proclaimed that American Indians were rational beings with souls, whose lives and property should be protected. The high point of the crown's efforts came in with the so-called New Laws, which forbade Indian slavery and sought to end the encomienda system within a generation by outlawing their transference through family inheritance.
Las Casas, who was in Spain at the time, directly influenced the direction of the New Laws in part by reading the first version of The Devastation of the Indies a much longer text than the one he published in to a horrified royal court. In he sailed to the Indies for a brief and tempestuous tenure as the bishop of Chiapas. Although he had been offered the Cuzco bishopric, the richest in the Americas, Las Casas instead accepted one of the poorest.
When he tried to implement the New Laws in his see, local clergy who had ties to encomenderos defied him. After Las Casas denied final absolution to any Spaniard who refused to free his Indians or pay restitution, he received threats against his life.
Proclamation of the New Laws brought outright revolt in parts of Spanish America and fierce antagonism everywhere. Even the Viceroyalty of New Spain and its high court openly refused to enforce them.
In colonial opposition persuaded Charles V to revoke key inheritance statutes in the New Laws. Las Casas went to an ecclesiastical assembly in Mexico City and persuaded his fellow bishops to support a strongly worded resolution defending Indian rights. At the same time he publicly humiliated the viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza , for attempting to silence him. But he left his most defiant act for last. Just after arriving, Las Casas issued a confessor manual for the priests in his diocese that essentially reinstituted the inheritance statutes of the New Laws.
His Confesionario produced public outrage by reiterating that all Spaniards seeking last rites must free their Indians and make restitution, even if the Indians were part of a deeded estate. Las Casas justified his decision by arguing that all wealth acquired through encomiendas was ill-gotten, declaring, "There is no Spaniard in the Indies who has shown good faith in connection with the wars of Conquest. Las Casas contended that the Spanish had acquired all their wealth by unjustly exploiting Indians; if all of their activities since Columbus's landing were unjust, so too, logically, was the crown's American presence.
Not surprisingly, the Council of the Indies recalled Las Casas to Spain in and ordered all copies of Confesionario confiscated. The vigor of Las Casas's counterattack led the Council of the Indies to call for a court of jurists and theologians to ascertain "how conquests may be conducted justly and with security of conscience. The two men never debated face to face but stated their cases individually before the court. First, the Indians had committed grave sins by their idolatry and sins against nature. Second, their "natural rudeness and inferiority" corresponded with Aristotle's view that some men were born natural slaves.
Third, military conquest was the most efficacious method of converting Indians to Christianity. Finally, conquering Indians made it possible to protect the weak amongst them. Las Casas became a hacendado and slave owner, receiving a piece of land in the province of Cibao. Las Casas was among those denied confession for this reason. He is said to have preached, "Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?
On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.
The colonists, led by Diego Columbus , dispatched a complaint against the Dominicans to the King, and the Dominicans were recalled from Hispaniola. He later wrote: "I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see. During the next years, he divided his time between being a colonist and his duties as an ordained priest. In , Las Casas was studying a passage in the book Ecclesiasticus Sirach  —22 [a] for a Pentecost sermon and pondering its meaning. Las Casas was finally convinced that all the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and that they constituted a great injustice.
He made up his mind to give up his slaves and encomienda, and started to preach that other colonists should do the same. When his preaching met with resistance, he realized that he would have to go to Spain to fight there against the enslavement and abuse of the native people. Las Casas arrived in Spain with the plan of convincing the King to end the encomienda system. This was easier thought than done, as most of the people who were in positions of power were themselves either encomenderos or otherwise profiting from the influx of wealth from the Indies.
On Christmas Eve of , Las Casas met the monarch and discussed the situation in the Indies with him; the king agreed to hear him out in more detail at a later date. They were not impressed by his account, and Las Casas had to find a different avenue of change. He put his faith in his coming audience with the king, but it never came, for King Ferdinand died on January 25, Las Casas was resolved to see Prince Charles who resided in Flanders , but on his way there he passed Madrid and delivered to the regents a written account of the situation in the Indies and his proposed remedies.
This was his " Memorial de Remedios para Las Indias " of Three Hieronymite monks, Luis de Figueroa , Bernardino de Manzanedo and Alonso de Santo Domingo, were selected as commissioners to take over the authority of the Indies. Las Casas had a considerable part in selecting them and writing the instructions under which their new government would be instated, largely based on Las Casas's memorial. Las Casas himself was granted the official title of Protector of the Indians , and given a yearly salary of one hundred pesos.
In this new office Las Casas was expected to serve as an advisor to the new governors with regard to Indian issues, to speak the case of the Indians in court and send reports back to Spain.
Las Casas and the commissioners traveled to Santo Domingo on separate ships, and Las Casas arrived two weeks later than the Hieronimytes. During this time the Hieronimytes had time to form a more pragmatic view of the situation than the one advocated by Las Casas; their position was precarious as every encomendero on the Islands was fiercely against any attempts to curtail their use of native labour. Consequently, the commissioners were unable to take any radical steps towards improving the situation of the natives.
They did revoke some encomiendas from Spaniards, especially those who were living in Spain and not on the islands themselves; they even repossessed the encomienda of Fonseca, the Bishop of Burgos. They also carried out an inquiry into the Indian question at which all the encomenderos asserted that the Indians were quite incapable of living freely without their supervision. Las Casas was disappointed and infuriated.
When he accused the Hieronymites of being complicit in kidnapping Indians, the relationship between Las Casas and the commissioners broke down. Las Casas had become a hated figure by Spaniards all over the islands, and he had to seek refuge in the Dominican monastery. The Dominicans had been the first to indict the encomenderos, and they continued to chastise them and refuse the absolution of confession to slave owners, and even stated that priests who took their confession were committing a mortal sin.
In May , Las Casas was forced to travel back to Spain to denounce to the regent the failure of the Hieronymite reforms. When he arrived in Spain, his former protector, regent and Cardinal Ximenez Cisneros , was ill and had become tired of Las Casas's tenacity. Las Casas resolved to meet instead with the young king Charles I.
Ximenez died on November 8, and the young King arrived in Valladolid on November 25, Las Casas managed to secure the support of the king's Flemish courtiers, including the powerful Chancellor Jean de la Sauvage. Sauvage spoke highly of Las Casas to the king, who appointed Las Casas and Sauvage to write a new plan for reforming the governmental system of the Indies.
Las Casas suggested a plan where the encomienda would be abolished and Indians would be congregated into self-governing townships to become tribute-paying vassals of the king. He still suggested that the loss of Indian labor for the colonists could be replaced by allowing importation of African slaves.
Another important part of the plan was to introduce a new kind of sustainable colonization, and Las Casas advocated supporting the migration of Spanish peasants to the Indies where they would introduce small-scale farming and agriculture, a kind of colonization that didn't rely on resource depletion and Indian labor. Las Casas worked to recruit a large number of peasants who would want to travel to the islands, where they would be given lands to farm, cash advances, and the tools and resources they needed to establish themselves there.
The recruitment drive was difficult, and during the process the power relation shifted at court when Chancellor Sauvage, Las Casas's main supporter, unexpectedly died. In the end a much smaller number of peasant families were sent than originally planned, and they were supplied with insufficient provisions and no support secured for their arrival. Those who survived the journey were ill-received, and had to work hard even to survive in the hostile colonies. Las Casas was devastated by the tragic result of his peasant migration scheme, which he felt had been thwarted by his enemies.
He decided instead to undertake a personal venture which would not rely on the support of others, and fought to win a land grant on the American mainland which was in its earliest stage of colonization. Founded in , there was already a small Franciscan monastery in Cumana, and a Dominican one at Chiribichi, but the monks there were being harassed by Spaniards operating slave raids from the nearby Island of Cubagua. In order to make the proposal palatable to the king, Las Casas had to incorporate the prospect of profits for the royal treasury.
All the Indian slaves of the New World should be brought to live in these towns and become tribute paying subjects to the king. Las Casas's supporters were Diego Columbus and the new chancellor Gattinara. Las Casas's enemies slandered him to the king, accusing him of planning to escape with the money to Genoa or Rome. In Las Casas's concession was finally granted, but it was a much smaller grant than he had initially proposed; he was also denied the possibilities of extracting gold and pearls, which made it difficult for him to find investors for the venture.
Las Casas committed himself to producing 15, ducats of annual revenue, increasing to 60, after ten years, and to erecting three Christian towns of at least 40 settlers each. Some privileges were also granted to the initial 50 shareholders in Las Casas's scheme. The king also promised not to give any encomienda grants in Las Casas's area. That said, finding fifty men willing to invest ducats each and three years of unpaid work proved impossible for Las Casas. He ended up leaving in November with just a small group of peasants, paying for the venture with money borrowed from his brother in-law.
Arriving in Puerto Rico , in January , he received the terrible news that the Dominican convent at Chiribichi had been sacked by Indians, and that the Spaniards of the islands had launched a punitive expedition, led by Gonzalo de Ocampo , into the very heart of the territory that Las Casas wanted to colonize peacefully.
The Indians had been provoked to attack the settlement of the monks because of the repeated slave raids by Spaniards operating from Cubagua. As Ocampo's ships began returning with slaves from the land Las Casas had been granted, he went to Hispaniola to complain to the Audiencia. After several months of negotiations Las Casas set sail alone; the peasants he had brought had deserted, and he arrived in his colony already ravaged by Spaniards. Las Casas worked there in adverse conditions for the following months, being constantly harassed by the Spanish pearl fishers of Cubagua island who traded slaves for alcohol with the natives.
Early in Las Casas left the settlement to complain to the authorities. The rumours even included him among the dead. The tragic outcome of Las Casas's great mainland adventure made him turn his life in a new direction. Devastated, Las Casas reacted by entering the Dominican monastery of Santa Cruz in Santo Domingo as a novice in and finally taking holy vows as a Dominican friar in He oversaw the construction of a monastery in Puerto Plata on the north coast of Hispaniola, subsequently serving as prior of the convent.
In he began working on his History of the Indies in order to report many of the experiences he had witnessed at first hand in the conquest and colonization of New Spain. In he wrote a letter to Garcia Manrique , Count of Osorno , protesting again the mistreatment of the Indians and advocating a return to his original reform plan of In a complaint was sent by the encomenderos of Hispaniola that Las Casas was again accusing them of mortal sins from the pulpit.
His party made it as far as Panama , but had to turn back to Nicaragua due to adverse weather. Lingering for a while in the Dominican convent of Granada , he got into conflict with Rodrigo de Contreras , Governor of Nicaragua, when Las Casas vehemently opposed slaving expeditions by the Governor. Also in , before venturing into Tuzulutlan, Las Casas went to Oaxaca , Mexico , to participate in a series of discussions and debates among the bishops of the Dominican and Franciscan orders.
The two orders had very different approaches to the conversion of the Indians. The Franciscans used a method of mass conversion, sometimes baptizing many thousands of Indians in a day. This method was championed by prominent Franciscans such as Toribio de Benavente , known as "Motolinia", and Las Casas made many enemies among the Franciscans for arguing that conversions made without adequate understanding were invalid. Las Casas wrote a treatise called " De unico vocationis modo " On the Only Way of Conversion based on the missionary principles he had used in Guatemala.
Motolinia would later be a fierce critic of Las Casas, accusing him of being all talk and no action when it came to converting the Indians. Las Casas returned to Guatemala in wanting to employ his new method of conversion based on two principles: 1 to preach the Gospel to all men and treat them as equals, and 2 to assert that conversion must be voluntary and based on knowledge and understanding of the faith. It was important for Las Casas that this method be tested without meddling from secular colonists, so he chose a territory in the heart of Guatemala where there were no previous colonies and where the natives were considered fierce and war-like.
Because of the fact that the land had not been possible to conquer by military means, the governor of Guatemala, Alonso de Maldonado , agreed to sign a contract promising that if the venture was successful he would not establish any new encomiendas in the area. Las Casas's strategy was to teach Christian songs to merchant Indian Christians who then ventured into the area.
These congregated a group of Christian Indians in the location of what is now the town of Rabinal. In Spain, Las Casas started securing official support for the Guatemalan mission, and he managed to get a royal decree forbidding secular intrusion into the Verapaces for the following five years. He also informed the Theologians of Salamanca , led by Francisco de Vitoria , of the mass baptism practiced by the Franciscans, resulting in a dictum condemning the practice as sacrilegious. But apart from the clerical business, Las Casas had also traveled to Spain for his own purpose: to continue the struggle against the colonists' mistreatment of the Indians.
He wrote a letter asking for permission to stay in Spain a little longer in order to argue for the emperor that conversion and colonization were best achieved by peaceful means. It also exempted the few surviving Indians of Hispaniola , Cuba , Puerto Rico and Jamaica from tribute and all requirements of personal service. However, the reforms were so unpopular back in the New World that riots broke out and threats were made against Las Casas's life. The Viceroy of New Spain , himself an encomendero, decided not to implement the laws in his domain, and instead sent a party to Spain to argue against the laws on behalf of the encomenderos.
He drafted a suggestion for an amendment arguing that the laws against slavery were formulated in such a way that it presupposed that violent conquest would still be carried out, and he encouraged once again beginning a phase of peaceful colonization by peasants instead of soldiers. Before Las Casas returned to Spain, he was also appointed as Bishop of Chiapas , a newly established diocese of which he took possession in upon his return to the New World.
In a pastoral letter issued on March 20, , Las Casas refused absolution to slave owners and encomenderos even on their death bed, unless all their slaves had been set free and their property returned to them. The New Laws were finally repealed on October 20, , and riots broke out against Las Casas, with shots being fired against him by angry colonists. Having been summoned to a meeting among the bishops of New Spain to be held in Mexico City on January 12, , he left his diocese, never to return. This resulted in a new resolution to be presented to viceroy Mendoza.
Indigenous peoples died quickly of such Old World illnesses as malaria and smallpox , having no exposure immunity. Europeans in the 16th century had no understanding of inoculation or immunity and assumed that Africans were just naturally better suited for labor, assigning this trait to their race.
In making this argument, Las Casas may have inadvertently provided the Spanish government endorsement of the new idea of slavery based on race, rather than the medieval concept of slavery as the result of war and conquest. Las Casas later advocated that all slavery be abolished, but the burgeoning European empires paid little attention to this moral idea when so much wealth and power was at stake.
Bartolomé de Las Casas
Las Casas also later advocated that indigenous groups be allowed self-governance under the Spanish crown. His argument drew upon theologians and moral philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. The Spanish bureaucracy again viewed this through an understanding of Muslim law, which granted non-Muslims the use of their own courts and legal justice system the protected status known as dhimmi. In cases that involved the Spanish government, they could use the court systems with an advocate known as a "protector" who would represent their interests and offer judgements based on traditional indigenous customs, as long as those customs were not deemed "heretical" or against the Catholic faith.
Las Casas himself was appointed the first protector. Indigenous and black activists and protestors for years have taken up his arguments to push for changes to the systems that have made them second-class citizens. As we look around the world today at the legal and economic situation of many indigenous communities, one wonders what Las Casas would make of it all and how much further we need to go.
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