Las Casas, Bartolomé de 1474–1566 Spanish Author and Activist

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Las Casas,
Bartolomé de
Spanish author and activist

Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish friar, is best known for his criticism of Spain's colonial policies in the Americas, particularly its cruel treatment of Native Americans. His role in bringing this injustice to the attention of the world has earned him a place in the struggle for human rights.

In 1502 Las Casas settled on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Spain's first American colony. Ten years later he took part in the conquest of Cuba. The Spanish friar soon recognized the unjust nature of Spain's encomienda system, which forced Indians to labor for colonists who were supposed to Christianize them. He gave up his own encomienda, freed his Indians, and claimed that the Spanish conquest was wiping out the Native American population. He joined forces with the Dominican* order, which had also been protesting the treatment of the Indians. In 1515 Las Casas and other friars met with the Spanish king to plead for a more just and peaceful way of converting the Indians to Christianity.

During the 1520s Las Casas began writing In Defense of the Indians and History of the Indies. In 1530 he set out for Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, criticizing Spanish officials wherever he found the Indians unjustly treated. He achieved some success. In 1537 Pope Paul III declared that Native American lives and property deserved protection, and soon afterward Las Casas established a peaceful mission community in Guatemala. Back in Spain, he persuaded Emperor Charles V to pass laws outlawing Indian slavery. Later, however, the emperor canceled some sections of the laws, fearing a revolt by angry colonists. Some Spanish intellectuals opposed Las Casas, arguing that it was proper to use war to bring the Indians to Christianity. Las Casas spent his final years in a Dominican convent.

Critics have accused Las Casas of writing inaccurate history and exaggerating Spain's cruelty to the Indians. However, recent studies of the decline of the Native American population have largely supported him. Las Casas has also been attacked for recommending the use of African slaves instead of Indian laborers, but in History of the Indies he stated that African slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery.

(See alsoSpain. )

* Dominican

religious order of brothers and priests founded by St. Dominic