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Las Casas, Bartolomé De (1474–1566)

LAS CASAS, BARTOLOMÉ DE (14741566)

LAS CASAS, BARTOLOMÉ DE (14741566), Spanish historian and missionary. Bartolomé de Las Casas was a missionary, Dominican theologian, historian, and bishop of Chiapas. In 1493 he saw Christopher Columbus pass through Seville on his return from the first voyage across the Atlantic. That year Las Casas's father, Pedro de Las Casas, and his uncles sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. Las Casas first traveled to the Western Hemisphere in 1502 to manage the land Columbus gave his father. Like other colonists, Las Casas at first gave no thought to the encomienda system of royal land grants that included Indians to work the fields in exchange for educating them in Christianity.

Returning to Europe in 1507, Las Casas was ordained a priest in Rome. He returned to the West Indies and in 15131514 served as chaplain to the invaders during the conquest of Cuba. After that campaign he was awarded additional land. Upon listening to a sermon by a Dominican father denouncing the treatment of Indians, Las Casas relinquished his holdings to the governor.

Las Casas returned to Spain to plead the Indians' cause before King Ferdinand II (ruled 14791516). With the support of the archbishop of Toledo, Las Casas was named priest-procurator of the Indies in 1516. He returned to the Western Hemisphere as a member of a commission of investigation. During 1520 he developed an alternative to the encomienda system in Venezuela with a colony of farm communities. After the failure of this idealistic scheme to get Spanish farmers to work alongside free natives, Las Casas joined the Dominican order in Santo Domingo during 1522.

Over the following decades Las Casas ceaselessly promulgated an ideological position that Indians had the right to their land and that papal grants to Spain were for the conversion of souls, not the appropriation of resources. Developing into a politically astute lobbyist, he was often able to effect positive change, such as insuring a peaceful entry into Guatemala by Dominican friars. During 1544 he was named bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala to enforce the "New Laws" of Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556), which prohibited slavery and limited ownership of Indians to a single generation. The settlers objected to any limits, and many clergy would not follow the new bishop's lead. After the king rescinded the prohibition on inheritance, Las Casas resigned his office in 1547 and returned to Spain.

This tireless "Defender of the Indians" crossed the Atlantic ten times in all. After he published his Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies in Seville during 1552, a flood of hectoring books followed. In 1550 he came into conflict with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490?1572 or 1573), a scholar who was attempting to gain the right to publish a book approving war against the Indians. Las Casas appeared at a debate before the Council of Valladolid, where he spoke for five days straight. He influenced the committee not to approve his opponent's book for publication.

Las Casas's massive History of the Indies, finished in manuscript during 1562 but unpublished until 1875, incorporates an invaluable abstract of Columbus's now lost first logbook. The book demonstrates a prophetic intent to reveal to Spain that the injustices of its colonial rule would lead to a terrible punishment at God's hand. His example influenced both Simon Bolívar (17831830) during the nineteenth-century revolt against colonial rule and Mexicans during their struggles for independence.

Spanish patriots condemned Las Casas for helping create with his tireless propaganda a "Black Legend" that Spaniards were exceptionally cruel. The English published a translation of the Brief Relation when they were about to seize Jamaica. Another edition was issued by the U.S. government during the Spanish-American War to justify taking Spain's island possessions.

Las Casas has been applauded by proponents of human rights. In all his actions and writings he operated, however, from an unexamined theoretical foundation that maintains that Catholic Christianity is God's chosen creed for all people, and thus the argument with his opponents was primarily over the means to that conversion. In this sense the Indians were treated by him as wards who were allowed no doctrinal choice. Enemies in his time and some later scholars have argued that Las Casas shaped the truth as he wished it to be, exaggerating statistics about the loss of life and sometimes writing about places he had never been. Some recent estimates of the population of the mainland and islands argue that the loss of life was originally higher than even Las Casas believed, and so the decline was much steeper than he estimated. It has also been shown that some of his remarks about areas outside the scope of his observation were drawn from official reports. He and his writings continue to be controversial, but he remains a key figure in historical scholarship about human rights.

See also Colonialism ; Rights, Natural ; Sepúlveda, Juan Ginés de ; Spanish Colonies: The Caribbean ; Toleration .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Las Casas, Bartolomé de. History of the Indies. Edited and translated by George Sanderlin. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1971.

. In Defense of the Indians: The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapa against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World Discovered across the Seas. Translated and edited by Stafford Poole. Dekalb, Ill., 1992.

. A Short Account of the Destruction of the West Indies. Edited by Nigel Griffin. New York and London, 1992.

Secondary Sources

Friede, Juan, and Benjamin Keen, eds. Bartolomé de Las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and His Work. Dekalb, Ill., 1971.

Hanke, Lewis. Aristotle and the American Indians. London, 1959.

Wagner, Henry Raup. The Life and Writings of Bartoloméde Las Casas. Albuquerque, N.M., 1967.

Marvin Lunenfeld

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Casas, Bartolomé de las (1484-1566)

Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566)

Spanish priest

Source

Background in Seville. Bartolomé de las Casas was born in 1484 to a fairly well-to-do merchant family in the bustling Spanish port city of Seville. His family took part in Spains New World enterprise from its earliest stages. Bartolomés father, Pedro de las Casas, and three uncles, for instance, sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. As a reward for his services on this expedition, Pedro received from Columbus a young Indian slave whom he in turn gave to his son Bartolomé as a companion. The young Las Casas reportedly rejected this gift, returning the Indian boy to Spanish authorities in order that he might be sent back to his home in the Indies. This incident constituted the first expression of Las Casass lifelong crusade against Spains exploitation of the natives of the New World.

Early Years in the New World. In 1502 at the age of eighteen, Las Casas went to the Indies for the first time, and in 1512 he became the first priest to be ordained in the New World. He subsequently served as a chaplain on a Spanish military campaign that conquered various regions of the island of Cuba. Like other members of such expeditions Las Casas received in return for his services a grant of land and Indian slave labor. Hardly a typical Spanish settler, however, Las Casas in 1514 shocked the conquistadores by freeing all of his slaves and preaching an inflammatory sermon against the Spaniards inhumane treatment of the natives. He then began an active campaign of intercession with Spanish authorities on behalf of the rights of conquered Indian populations.

Eyewitness to Atrocities? Over the coming decades Las Casas became the most passionate and vocal critic of Spains New World policies. In the 1520s he began to publish a series of writings about Spanish massacres of native communities and other atrocities that he claimed to have witnessed. He aimed his writings squarely at the moral consciences of Spanish civic and religious officials, whom he hoped would respond with strict policies preventing mistreatment of New World natives by Spanish settlers. His most famous work, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, was published in its definitive form in Seville in 1552. In this short book Las Casas portrayed Spanish conquerors and settlers in the New World as barbaric murderers of gentle and innocent Indians. He supported his case with dozens of dramatic and horrifying tales of Spanish cruelty. Opponents charged that Las Casass work was misleading and inaccurate, and it is true that Las Casas frequently exaggerated the number of Indians directly killed by the Spaniards. Nonetheless his writings attracted a great deal of attention both inside and outside of Spain, contributing significantly to a growing debate about the proper treatment of conquered populations in the New World.

Response. Among the people moved by Las Casass chilling accounts of Spanish atrocities in the Americas, none was more important than Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As early as 1520 Charles responded to the pleas of Las Casas and other Native American rights advocates by ordering that New World natives be governed equitably and without force of arms. In 1542 the kings government issued the famous New Laws aimed at eliminating the system of forced labor that had developed in the decades since Columbuss earliest voyages. Pope Paul III, likewise moved by Las Casass tales of Spanish cruelty, issued a proclamation in 1537 in which he stated that the natives of the New World were rational beings who had souls and that they should thus be governed humanely. Half a world away on the other side of the Atlantic, however, the proclamations of kings and popes in Europe meant little. Spanish settlers in the Americas frequently either disregarded or circumvented such laws, and exploitation of New World natives continued into the seventeenth century.

Legacy. Any portrayal of Las Casas as a human rights advocate must be balanced by the recognition that his campaigns for better treatment of conquered Native American populations included calls for increased use of African slave labor to take the place of the Indians. Although some biographers note that Las Casas also appears to have developed misgivings late in life about the enslavement of Africans, he never publicized such views in print. In addition the image of Spanish cruelty and barbarism fostered ironically by the Spaniard Las Casas continued to shape foreign opinion of Spain well into the twentieth century. Soon after its publication Las Casass Devastation of the Indies was quickly translated into English, French, Dutch, and other major European languages. Las Casass tales of Spanish barbarism in the New World in turn contributed to the growth of the Black Legend, the image of Spain as a corrupt, evil empire. Even as late as 1898 U.S. officials during the Spanish-American War used stories from Las Casass Devastation of the Indies as propaganda to justify the expulsion of Spain from the vestiges of its New World empire.

Source

Bill Donovan, Introduction, in Bartolomé de las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, translated by Herma Briffault (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

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Bartolomé de Las Casas

Bartolomé de Las Casas

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566) was a Spanish priest, social reformer, and historian. He was the principal organizer and champion of the 16th-century movement in Spain and Spanish America in defense of the Indians.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, the son of a merchant, was born in Seville. Apparently he did not graduate from a university, although he studied Latin and the humanities in Seville. The facts of his life after 1502 are well known. In that year Las Casas sailed for Española in the expedition of Governor Nicolás de Ovando. In the West Indies he participated in Indian wars, acquired land and slaves, and felt no serious qualms about his actions, although he had been ordained a priest.

Not until his fortieth year did Las Casas experience a moral conversion, perhaps the awakening of a dormant sensitivity as a result of the horrors he saw about him. His early efforts at the Spanish court were largely directed at securing approval for the establishment of model colonies in which Spanish farmers would live and labor side by side with Indians in a peaceful coexistence that would gently lead the natives to Christianity and Christian civilization. The disastrous failure of one such project on the coast of Venezuela (1521) caused Las Casas to retire for 10 years to a monastery and to enter the Dominican order. He had greater success with an experiment in peaceful conversion of the Indians in the province of Tezulutlán—called by the Spaniards the Land of War—in Guatemala (1537-1540).

Las Casas appeared to have won a brilliant victory with the promulgation of the New Laws of 1542. These laws banned Indian slavery, prohibited Indian forced labor, and provided for gradual abolition of the encomienda system, which held the Indians living on agricultural lands in serfdom. Faced with revolt by the encomenderos in Peru and the threat of revolt elsewhere, however, the Crown made a partial retreat, repealing the provisions most objectionable to the colonists. It was against this background that Las Casas met Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, defender of the encomienda and of Indian wars, in a famous debate at Valladolid in 1550. Sepúlveda, a disciple of Aristotle, invoked his theory that some men are slaves by nature in order to show that the Indians must be made to serve the Spaniards for their own good as well as for that of their masters. The highest point of Las Casas' argument was an eloquent affirmation of the equality of all races, the essential oneness of mankind.

To the end of a long life Las Casas fought passionately for justice for his beloved Indians. As part of his campaign in their defense, he wrote numerous tracts and books. The world generally knows him best for his flaming indictment of Spanish cruelty to the Indians, Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), a work based largely on official reports to the Crown and soon translated into the major European languages. Historians regard most highly his Historia de las Indias, which is indispensable to every student of the first phase of the Spanish conquest. His Apologética historia de las Indias is an immense accumulation of ethnographic data designed to demonstrate that the Indians fully met the requirements laid down by Aristotle for the good life.

Further Reading

Lewis Hanke is the principal American authority on Las Casas; see especially his Bartolomé de Las Casas: An Interpretation of His Life and Writings (1951) and Aristotle and the American Indians (1959). Other studies of Las Casas include Alice J. Knight, Las Casas: "The Apostle of the Indies" (1917); Marcel Brion, Bartolomé de las Casas: "Father of the Indians" (trans. 1929); and Henry Roup Wagner, The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de las Casas (1967). An account of Las Casas is in the lively and colorful narration of the adventures of Spanish, Portuguese, and English explorers by Louis Booker Wright, Gold, Glory, and the Gospel: The Adventurous Lives and Times of the Renaissance Explorers (1970).

Additional Sources

Helps, Arthur, Sir, The life of Las Casas: the apostle of the Indies, New York: Gordon Press, 1980. □

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Las Casas, Bartolomé de

Bartolomé de Las Casas (bärtōlōmā´ dā läs kä´säs), 1474–1566, Spanish missionary and historian, called the apostle of the Indies. He went to Hispaniola with his father in 1502, and eight years later he was ordained a priest. In 1514 he began to work for the improvement of conditions among the indigenous population, especially for the abolition of their slavery and of the forced labor of the encomienda. He devoted the rest of his life to that cause, going to Spain to urge the government to action, converting uncivilized tribes, and striving to break the power of Spanish landholders over native laborers. He tried unsuccessfully to establish a model colony for people of indigenous descent (1520–21), went to Peru with a royal cedula prohibiting native enslavement, worked among the native people of Guatemala, and for a brief time (1544–47) was bishop of Chiapa. In his concern to help the indigenous people of South America he endorsed the proposal to import African slaves, but repented his action almost immediately. Chiefly through his agency, humanitarian laws, called the New Laws, were adopted (1542) to protect the indigenous people in Spanish colonies, although later alterations, notably those of Pedro de la Gasca, rendered them almost ineffective. The writings of Las Casas contain good anthropological and historical material. He spent much of his time writing the monumental Historia de las Indias (1875–76); for selections in English translation, see Tears of the Indians (ed. by John Phillips, 1953) and Devastation of the Indies (1974).

See biographies by H. R. Wagner (1967), and J. Friede and B. Keen, ed. (1971).

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Las Casas, Bartolomé de

Las Casas, Bartolomé de (1474–1566) Spanish missionary and historian of early Spanish America, known as the Apostle of the Indies. He went to Hispaniola in 1502, and spent his life alleviating the conditions of the Native Americans; his History of the Indies recounts their persecution by Spanish colonists.

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Casas, Bartolomé de las

Bartolomé de las Casas: see Las Casas.

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