Biography of Bartolomé de Las Casas, Spanish Colonist

Bartolomé de Las Casas

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Bartolomé de Las Casas (c. 1484–July 18, 1566) was a Spanish Dominican friar who became famous for his defense of the rights of the Indigenous peoples 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 Indigenous peoples." Las Casas' efforts led to legal reforms and early debates about the idea of human rights.

Fast Facts: Bartolomé de Las Casas

  • Known For: Las Casas was a Spanish colonist and friar who advocated for better treatment of Indigenous peoples.
  • Born: c. 1484 in Seville, Spain
  • Died: July 18, 1566 in Madrid, Spain
  • Published Works: A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Apologetic History of the Indies, History of the Indies

Early Life

Bartolomé de Las Casas was born around 1484 in Seville, Spain. His father was a merchant and was acquainted with the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Young Bartolomé, then about 9 years old, was in Seville when Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493; he might have met members of the Taíno tribe who Columbus enslaved and brought back with him from the Americas. Bartolomé’s father and uncle sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. The family became quite wealthy and had holdings in Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean. The connection between the two families was strong: Bartolomé's father eventually interceded with the pope on the matter of securing certain rights on behalf of Columbus' son Diego, and Bartolomé de Las Casas himself edited Columbus' travel journals.

Las Casas eventually decided that he wanted to become a priest, and his father’s new wealth allowed him to attend the best schools of the era: the University of Salamanca and 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 the years to come.

First Trip to the Americas

In 1502, Las Casas finally went to see the family holdings in Hispaniola. By then, the Indigenous peoples 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 Indigenous people who remained on the island. On one of these trips, Las Casas witnessed a massacre of poorly armed Indigenous people, a scene he would never forget. He traveled around the island a great deal and was able to see the deplorable conditions in which the Indigenous people lived.

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 Indigenous peoples. By 1514, he decided that he could no longer be personally involved in their exploitation and renounced his family holdings in Hispaniola. He became convinced that the enslavement and slaughter of the Indigenous population was not only a crime but also a mortal sin as defined by the Catholic Church. It was this ironclad conviction that would eventually make him such a staunch advocate for fair treatment of Indigenous peoples.

First Experiments

Las Casas convinced Spanish authorities to allow him to try to save the few remaining Caribbean Indigenous people by freeing them from enslavement 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 he could pacify Indigenous people with religion rather than weapons. Unfortunately, the region that was selected had been heavily raided by enslavers, and the Indigenous peoples' hostility toward the Europeans was too intense to overcome.

The Verapaz Experiment

In 1537, Las Casas wanted to try again to demonstrate that Indigenous people could be interacted with peacefully and that violence and conquest were unnecessary. He was able to persuade the crown to allow him to send missionaries to a region in north-central Guatemala where the Indigenous people had proved particularly fierce. His experiment worked, and Indigenous tribes were peacefully brought under Spanish control. 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 these Indigenous people, undoing almost all of Las Casas’ work.

Death

Later in life, Las Casas became a prolific writer, traveled frequently between the New World and Spain, and made allies and enemies in all corners of the Spanish Empire. His "History of the Indies"—a frank account of Spanish colonialism and the subjugation of the Indigenous people—was completed in 1561. Las Casas spent his final years living at the College of San Gregorio in Valladolid, Spain. He died on July 18, 1566.

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 Indigenous peoples. 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 for it: He believed 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, the country failed God’s test miserably.

It is well known that Las Casas fought for justice and freedom for Indigenous people of the New World, but it is frequently overlooked that his love for his countrymen was just as powerful. When he freed the Indigenous people 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 people themselves. Though widely disparaged in the years after his death for his critiques of colonialism, Las Casas is now seen as a significant early reformer whose work helped pave the way for the liberation theology movement of the 20th century.

Sources

  • Casas, Bartolomé de las, and Francis Sullivan. "Indian Freedom: the Cause of Bartolomé De Las Casas, 1484-1566: A Reader." Sheed & Ward, 1995.
  • Casas, Bartolomé de las. "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies." Penguin Classics, 2004.
  • Nabokov, Peter. “Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden History.” The New York Review of Books, 24 Nov. 2016.