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 on Bartolomé de Las Casas

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 Biography Sources

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

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