Bartolome de Las Casas, Defender of Native Americans

He Witnessed Firsthand Their Deplorable Conditions in the Caribbean

Bartlome de Las Casas
Bartlome de Las Casas. Artist Unknown

Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566) was a Spanish Dominican friar who became famous for his defense of the rights of the native people of the Americas. His brave stand against the horrors of the conquest and the colonization of the New World earned him the title “Defender" of the Native Americans.

The Las Casas Family and Columbus

Christopher Columbus was well-known to the Las Casas family. Young Bartolome, then about 9 years old, was in Seville when Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493 and might have met members of the Taíno tribe that Columbus brought back with him.

Bartolome’s father and uncle sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. The family became quite wealthy and had holdings on Hispaniola. The connection between the two families was strong: Bartolome's father eventually interceded with the pope on the matter of securing certain rights on behalf Columbus’ son Diego, and Bartolome Las Casas himself edited Columbus’ travel journals.

Early Life and Studies

Las Casas decided that he wanted to become a priest, and his father’s new wealth allowed him to send his son to the best schools at the time, the University of Salamanca and then later the University of Valladolid. Las Casas studied canon law and eventually earned two degrees. He excelled in his studies, particularly Latin, and his strong academic background served him well in years to come.

First Trip to the Americas

In 1502, Las Casas finally went to see the family holdings on Hispaniola. By then, the natives of the island had been mostly subdued, and the city of Santo Domingo was being used as a resupply point for Spanish incursions in the Caribbean.

The young man accompanied the governor on two different military missions aimed at pacifying those natives who remained on the island. On one of these, Las Casas witnessed a massacre of poorly armed natives, a scene he would never forget. He traveled around the island a great deal and was able to see the deplorable conditions the natives suffered.

The Colonial Enterprise and Mortal Sin

Over the next few years, Las Casas traveled to Spain and back several times, finishing his studies and learning more about the sad situation of the natives. By 1514, he decided that he could no longer be personally involved in the exploitation of the natives and renounced his family holdings on Hispaniola. He became convinced that the enslavement and slaughter of the native population was not only a crime, but it was also mortal sin as defined by the Catholic church. It was this iron-clad conviction that made him such a staunch advocate for fair treatment of the natives in the years to come.

First Experiments

Las Casas convinced Spanish authorities to allow him to try and save the few remaining Caribbean natives by taking them out of slavery and placing them in free towns, but the death of Spain's King Ferdinand in 1516 and the resulting chaos over his successor caused these reforms to be delayed. Las Casas also asked for and received a section of the Venezuelan mainland for an experiment. He believed that he could pacify the natives with religion, not weapons. Unfortunately, the region that was selected had been heavily raided by slavers, and the natives’ hostility to the Europeans was too intense to overcome.

The Verapaz Experiment

In 1537, Las Casas wanted to try again to show that natives could be controlled peacefully and that violence and conquest were unnecessary. He was able to persuade the crown to let him send missionaries to a region in north-central Guatemala where the natives had proved particularly fierce. His experiment worked, and the natives were brought under Spanish control peacefully. The experiment was called Verapaz, or “true peace,” and the region still bears the name. Unfortunately, once the region was brought under control, colonists took the lands and enslaved the natives, undoing almost all of Las Casas’ work.

Las Casas' Legacy

Las Casas’ early years were marked by his struggle to come to terms with the horrors he had seen and his understanding of how God could allow this kind of suffering among the Native Americans.

Many of his contemporaries believed that God had delivered the New World to Spain as a reward of sorts to encourage the Spanish to continue to wage war upon heresy and idolatry as defined by the Roman Catholic Church. Las Casas agreed that God had led Spain to the New World, but he saw a different reason: He thought it was a test. God was testing the loyal Catholic nation of Spain to see if it could be just and merciful, and in Las Casas’ opinion, it was failing God’s test miserably.

It is well-known that Las Casas fought for justice and freedom for the New World natives, but it is frequently overlooked that his love for his countrymen was no less than his love for the Native Americans. When he freed the natives working on the Las Casas family holdings in Hispaniola, he did it as much for the sake of his soul and those of his family members as he did for the natives themselves.

In the later part of his life, Las Casas translated this conviction into action. He became a prolific writer, traveled frequently between the New World and Spain and made allies and enemies in all corners of the Spanish Empire.