Across the USA, there is a movement brewing that is asking us to reconsider historical figures from the past, asking if we should continue to revere them today. Christopher Columbus is often brought up in these discussions, and for good reason—it is hard to reconcile his boldness and visionary qualities as an explorer with the fact that as an administrator he was a monster, even by the standards of the time.
Given the problematic nature of Columbus’s legacy, let me suggest that we remove him from the pantheon of cultural heroes, and replace him with a different figure from the Age of Exploration… a man who moved in the same circles as Columbus and experienced many of the same things as his contemporary did, and yet took a very different path. Let us consider life and times of Bartolomé de las Casas.
Back when I was a working Latin American historian, I wrote the following as an article for the Encyclopedia of American History: Three Worlds Meet – Beginnings to 1607 (Facts on File Press: 2003), which in the age of Wikipedia is long out of print. Because it’s a published work, I’ve pretty much left it as-is, retaining the format of an encyclopedia article. It has not been updated to reflect new research, nor have I updated the reading list at the end. Please note that the capitalized terms indicate linked entries in the print edition that curious readers could turn to for more information.
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BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS
A former encomendero (holder of an ENCOMIENDA) who after experiencing the plight of the native peoples under Spanish rule in the early sixteenth century, took the vows of a DOMINICAN friar and became an energetic champion of native rights on both sides of the Atlantic.
Las Casas remains one of the most controversial figures in Latin American history. His attempts to convert and protect the indigenous people of the Americas earned him the adulation of missionaries and several key figures in the Catholic Church. Religious and secular leaders in England, France, and the Netherlands argued that he was a courageous figure for standing up to the corrupt, destructive actions of his fellow Spaniards, and his works were widely read in these countries.
In Spain itself, however, he faced a more mixed reaction—many Spaniards felt that he was unpatriotic, soiling the reputation of national heroes. His later writings seemed to undermine the legitimacy of the conquest, causing Las Casas to lose favor with the royal government. Many of the conquistadors and their families felt personally attacked by his writings and moved to have them denounced at court. One sixteenth-century polemic against Las Casas bore the revealing title: Against the Premature, Scandalous, and Heretical Assertions which Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Has Made in His Book About the Conquest of the Indies, Which He Has Had Printed Without the Permission of the Authorities. The controversy over his life and writings has continued through the twentieth century, where Spanish historians called him “mentally ill” (1927), “a pigheaded anarchist” (1930), a “leveler possessed by the Devil” (1946), and “a pathological liar” (1963). Those who doubt the veracity of his works have argued that he was creating a “BLACK LEGEND” about Spain’s actions in the New World, while his supporters have claimed that he is perhaps the only reliable figure of the conquest era.