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.
Early Life and Conversion
Las Casas was born in SEVILLE, Spain, in either 1474 or 1484. His mother’s family was considered to be “old Christian,” meaning that they had no trace of Jewish or Moorish blood in their background. His father, however, was from a family of conversos, or Jews that had converted to Christianity during the RECONQUISTA. His family was sufficiently wealthy to provide a Latin education at the cathedral academy. Las Casas’s father Pedro accompanied CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS on his second voyage, and received a native slave as a reward for his efforts. Apparently, Pedro gave his son custodian of this slave, but the younger Las Casas freed him and had him sent back to the Indies. In 1502, Las Casas journeyed to the Caribbean for the first time as a doctrinero (teacher of Christian doctrine), although he returned to Europe shortly thereafter. He arrived back in the Caribbean in 1512, settling on the island of HISPANIOLA, where he became the first priest ordained in the New World. The following year he took part in the conquest of CUBA, serving as the expedition’s chaplain. During these early years, he mingled freely with several conquistadors, including HERNAN CORTÉS and PEDRO DE ALVARADO.
Significantly, as part of his reward for the successful campaign in Cuba, Las Casas received an encomienda, royal grant that gave him the use of native labor within a clearly defined geographic area with the stipulation that he would protect the natives and convert them to Christianity. At first, he felt this was a just, honorable grant. He took seriously his charge to teach his natives the Christian doctrine and Spanish culture, and so it was only fair that he would profit from their labor. As part of his duties toward converting the natives, Las Casas studied the native languages himself.
When the Dominican order first protested that encomenderos were abusing the natives, who were little more than slaves under the encomienda system, Las Casas initially disagreed. He treated his charges fairly, and expected that all other conquistadors did as well. But over time, his first-hand observations about encomiendas and encomenderos began to change his mind. He personally witnessed several encomenderos brutally overworking their natives, and became concerned that many Spaniards were not converting the natives at all. Gradually, he became convinced that the encomienda system was exploitative, and would never truly bring the indigenous people into Christianity. According to him, he read a passage from Ecclesiasticus 34 that turned him against the encomienda forever: “Tainted the gifts who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods.”
In 1514, Las Casas began a new life dedicated to protecting the natives of the New World. He began by dissolving his own encomienda. On Pentecost Sunday, he preached a fiery sermon against the encomienda system, and demanded that fellow encomenderos abandon theirs, too, lest they face the wrath of God. He approached the colonial authorities, insisting that they hold the encomenderos responsible for their abusive actions, and take more rigorous steps to protect the natives. Initially, his actions were treated with shock, then polite dismissal. The encomienda was too entrenched to be dislodged, the officials responded; and besides, the colonial administrators felt the natives were simple-minded heathens who needed discipline. Las Casas was not discouraged, but realized that it was not enough to pressure single encomenderos—he had to end the encomienda system altogether. To this end, he traveled back to Spain where he enlisted the support of two powerful figures at court, the co-regents Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros and Adrian of Utrecht. With their backing, Las Casas was declared Protector of the Indians in 1516. He began proposing several alternatives to the encomienda system, including the development of African slavery—a decision he later regretted, and sought to rectify as well.
Las Casas the Colonizer
In 1520, Las Casas entered a more active phase of his career. He had become a well-known figure in the intellectual circles of Spain, and his writings came to the attention of the king, CHARLES V. With the support of a number of missionaries from the New World, Las Casas presented his ideas before the king in 1520. He argued that the time for conquest by “fire and sword” had passed. He felt that instead, the Crown should focus on peaceful conversion of the natives, who would make loyal subjects and Christians if given the chance. Las Casas pointed out that putting them to work for individual encomenderos did not contribute to the public good or even the development of the colony. Moreover, encomenderos who had unlimited power over the natives abused them, leading to the depopulation of the colonial territories. Instead, he argued that the natives should be put under the protection of missionaries, who would acculturate them into Spanish culture as they Christianized them. Under this system, the colonies would continue to be productive, and fully populated. Although there were many voices of dissent, Charles decided to give Las Casas a chance to put his ideas into practice. He was assigned to colonize the newly-explored territories of Venezuela, which he did in 1520.
Despite his high hopes, the new Venezuelan colony was a disaster. His goals were simple: to convert the natives and create a self-sustaining agricultural colony. But congregating the natives together actually helped spread European DISEASES that the natives had no immunity to, such as SMALL POX, measles, and mumps. Also, colonial officials in the area were hostile to Las Casas’s ideas, arguing that the natives were heathens who did not deserve royal protection. They attempted to stifle Las Casas’s project through bureaucratic means—denying or delaying Las Casas’s requests or “waiting” for official instructions. Spanish conquistadors were even less subtle, and began raiding the colony for captives. The natives began to feel that they had merely been corralled so that the Spaniards could capture them more efficiently, and began to revolt. This in turn brought in the full wrath of the conquistadors, who argued that since the natives had rebelled against their Spanish king, they were fully justified in enslaving them. By 1522, the colony had entirely collapsed, and most of the natives had been dragged away to serve in Caribbean encomiendas. Dismayed, Las Casas temporarily abandoned his project, taking the vows as a Dominican monk and removing himself from politics as a penance.
In time, Las Casas turned again to the problem of colonization, and made an effort to develop his utopian plans more fully. First and foremost, he created a clear agenda and methodology for building a new colony. These were articulated in his work, The Only Method of Attracting Everyone to the True Religion (Del único modo de atraer a todos los pueblos a la verdadera religión). In this book, Las Casas forcefully argued that the Spaniards would never be able to convince the natives of God’s love while the natives viewed all Europeans with fear and hatred. He demanded an end to violence, even when Spaniards themselves were threatened. He also forbade the Spaniards to confiscate land from native communities, and in fact advocated returning land already confiscated by Europeans. But Las Casas ultimately realized that his proposed colony would have to be well removed from the conquistadors, either in an area that they could not travel to, or was considered so worthless that they would leave it alone. He selected for his next project a dangerous area in the Guatemalan highlands called Tuzultán, meaning “land of war.”
This new experiment was far more successful than the Venezuelan venture. He was able to secure an agreement that no secular Spaniard would enter the region for five years, and that no encomiendas would be created from the territory. Since no Spaniard entered the unstable region willingly, the royal officials did not object. In 1537, Las Casas and a handful of Dominicans arrived, having composed a series of educational hymns regarding the Creation, the Fall of Man, and the life of Jesus in the natives’ own language. They taught these hymns to several local traders, and convinced them to travel throughout the region teaching others in turn. After repeated concerts, the local leaders were impressed enough to invite the Dominicans in themselves. Over time, Las Casas was able to convince the local population of their honesty and sincerity. The native leaders were particularly impressed to discover that Las Casas had stopped the Spanish raids in the region. The local CACIQUE or native chieftain converted, ordering an end to blood sacrifice and the worship of stone idols. The Spaniards were shocked that Las Casas and his fellows had not been killed, and eventually Pedro de Alvarado wrote to the king commending his actions. By royal decree, the “Land of War” was renamed Verapaz (“True Peace”), a name it has retained to the present time.
The Decline of the Encomienda
Buoyed by the success of his Guatemalan colony, Las Casas redoubled his efforts to end the encomienda system once and for all. He developed a two-pronged assault—first to turn public opinion in Spain against the institution, and second to petition the king to end it directly. For both these ends, he wrote and later published his most famous work, The Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias). Las Casas was fairly successful in both his goals. His short book created a sensation, particularly when he read sections of it to the royal court. His writing style was firm and direct, using numerous examples to show how the Spaniards’ actions were annihilating the native populations of the New World. He named names, places, and events with horrifying detail. The king and his advisors were not only appalled, but convinced by his rhetoric. In response, the king promulgated the New Laws of 1542, which forbade the enslavement of the natives, and greatly curtailed the encomienda system. Moreover, it forbade encomenderos from bequeathing their encomiendas to their heirs, effectively ending all encomiendas after a generation.
Although this was a victory for Las Casas, the war over the encomienda was far from over. Spanish colonists reacted with outrage over the New Laws. Encomenderos felt that the encomiendas were justifiable rewards for their actions of conquering territories for the Spanish Crown. Additionally, they had begun to see them as personal property. Even those colonists without encomiendas were angered, for many hoped to earn an encomienda of their own. Across Spanish America, the colonists rose up in violent protest against the New Laws. With royal backing, Las Casas returned to the New World as the bishop of Chiapas. He provoked further hostility by threatening any Spaniard who maintained an encomienda with excommunication. The encomenderos responded by threatening Las Casas’s life. Those members of the Church with ties to encomenderos refused to support him. Again, Las Casas pushed the envelope by publishing a confessional that instructed priests to withhold absolution from encomenderos, while declaring that all wealth derived from encomiendas was tainted by sin. As much of Spain’s wealth in the New World ultimately derived from encomiendas, many saw this as a direct assault on the Spanish colonial system as a whole. Opposition grew to the point that in 1545 Charles was forced to modify the New Laws, allowing some inheritance rights. In the face of violent hostility, Las Casas resigned from his post in 1550.
This same year, Las Casas took part in a famous debate over the future of the natives. Back in Spain, Las Casas’s ideas came under fire from the influential JUAN GINÉS DE SEPÚLVEDA. Sepúlveda was an ardent scholar who was well versed in the works of Aristotle. Using Aristotle’s classification of humans, Sepúlveda argued that the natives were inherently inferior to Europeans, and as such could be subjected to slavery. His ideas were circulated widely in Spain, ultimately coming to the attention of the king. In an attempt to decide how best to proceed in the New World, Charles invited both Las Casas and Sepúlveda to present their cases before the royal court in the city of Valladolid. The modern perception is that the two great figures argued their cases together, using withering cross examination, heated objections, and rhetorical attacks against their opponent. In reality, both men spoke separately, and did not address each other’s points directly. Sepúlveda spoke first, arguing for three hours that the natives were barbarians who would only turn away from their savagery if forced to at sword point. Las Casas responded over the course of five days by reading aloud from his writings. His use of specific examples and eyewitness testimony on the realities of the colonial system made much more of an impact on the court than did Sepúlveda’s abstract reasoning. Although there was no official “winner” of the debate, the Crown sided with Las Casas, and many of his proposals were later codified in the Ordinances of Discovery and Settlement of 1573, which prohibited conquest by “fire and sword.”
After the great debate, Las Casas began to retreat from public life. He continued to be an advocate for native rights, but his ceaseless travels (including 14 trans-Atlantic voyages) began taking their toll. Most of his efforts went into completing and publishing his various writings, again hoping a win public approval for his ideas. In the late 1550s, a group of Peruvian conquistadors offered the new king PHILIP II a substantial sum of silver to eliminate all restrictions on inheriting encomiendas. Las Casas used his influence to delay a final decision on this matter. In the meantime, he organized a collection among native nobles that produced an even larger amount of silver, which he successfully used to bribe Philip into maintaining the restrictions. Still, his constant denunciations eroded his popularity at court, as did the constant efforts against him by encomenderos. He died in 1566, expressing dismay that he did not do more on the natives’ behalf.
Las Casas’s Legacy
Perhaps the most enduring legacy Las Casas left behind was his voluminous collection of writings. His most famous work was the Destruction of the Indies, which was translated into every major European language by 1560. Spain’s enemies pounced on the book as proof that the Spaniards were depraved, cruel, and undeserving of a colonial empire, which has hurt his stature in Spain ever since. More valuable to modern scholars were his writings on the events of the conquest. His History of the Indies (Historia de las Indias) provides a great deal of information on the important events of the conquest. Since Las Casas either witnessed these events directly or spoke to the principal actors, this book has been invaluable in reconstructing the past. The book also provides a sustained criticism of the actions of Spain, questioning the morality of violent conquest, slavery, and the obligation of secular governments toward their people. From an anthropological perspective, the most valuable of Las Casas’s writings was the Apologetica Historia which documented how a number of native cultures lived around the time of the conquest. While not nearly as comprehensive as such works as the FLORENTINE CODEX, it does provide information on groups across Latin America who were vanishing even as Las Casas wrote. Amazingly, many of Las Casas’s works were not published until 1990, and several have yet to be translated from the original Spanish.
Las Casas has also been instrumental in uncovering what exactly happened to the native cultures after the arrival of the Europeans. He wrote that tens of thousands had died in the Caribbean area alone, and that within 50 years of the conquest the region was almost completely depopulated. For centuries, scholars scoffed at these accusations, relying on other Spanish accounts to suggest Las Casas was mistaken, or possibly delusional. Modern work has confirmed that the native populations were every bit as extensive as Las Casas claimed, and that the native population did decline by as much as 90% between 1500 and 1600. Disease seems to have been the greatest single factor in this demographic collapse, but in substantiating Las Casas’s claims, scholars have begun to place more weight on the rest of his observations. He also provides a critical second opinion about the conquests. Most of the accounts of the conquest and early colonial period were written by the conquistadors or their supporters, and naturally tended to glorify the Spaniards’ actions. As a direct or near-direct witness, Las Casas provides a fuller description and often a “reality check” on these accounts. He presents a more direct, unvarnished description of Spain’s actions in the Americas.
Las Casas was one of the most remarkable figures of the sixteenth century. He was a prolific writer, gifted public speaker, and one of the earliest human rights activists. Alternately praised and damned throughout history, he provides crucial insights into the process of Spain’s conquest and colonization of the New World.
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Further Reading: Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Search for Justice in the Conquest of America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949); Lewis Hanke, All Mankind Is One; a Study of the Disputation Between Bartolomé De Las Casas and Juan Ginés De Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974); Benjamin Keen, The Aztec Image in Western Thought (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1971); Bartolomé de las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Bartolomé de las Casas, History of the Indies (New York: Harper and Row, 1971); David M. Traboulay, Columbus and Las Casas : the Conquest and Christianization of America,1492‑1566 (Lanham: University Press of America, 1994); Henry Raup Wagner, The Life and Writings of Bartolomé De Las Casas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967).