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Bartolomé de las Casas

Portrait of Bartolomé de las Casas
Born c. 1484
Seville, Crown of Castille
Died 18 July 1566 (aged 81–82)
Madrid, Spain
Nationality Castillian; Spanish
Occupation Priest, writer, indian apologist
Title Bishop of Chiapas;
Attorney General and Universal Protector of the Indians
Religion Roman Catholic

Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P. (November 1484 – 18 July 1566), was a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest, writer and the first resident Bishop of Chiapas. As a settler in the New World he witnessed, and was driven to oppose, the torture and genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists and advocated before King Charles V on behalf of rights for the natives. Originally having proposed to replace the slave labor of the natives with the importation of slaves from Africa, he eventually recanted this stance as well and became an advocate for the Africans in the colonies.[1][2]



Bartolome was born in Seville in the year 1484 (or possibly 1485), most probably on 11 November.[3] Centuries of tradition had earlier placed Las Casas' birthdate in the year 1474. However, in the 1970s scholars conducting archival work demonstrated this to be an error, after uncovering in the Archivo General de Indias records of a contemporary lawsuit that demonstrated he was born a decade later than had been supposed.[4] Subsequent biographers and authors have generally accepted and reflected this revision.[5]

While a boy in 1493, Las Casas witnessed the return to Seville of Christopher Columbus after his first voyage, bringing along with him seven native Taínos from the newly discovered "Indies".[6][7] Later the same year Las Casas' father Pedro and several of his uncles embarked for the New World as members of Columbus' second voyage.[8] Returning from the voyage in 1498 Pedro gave his son Bartolomé a native Taíno youth, named Juanico, as a servant. Juanico was returned in June 1500 by order of royal decree along with several other surviving slaves.[9]

With his father, Las Casas emigrated to the island of Hispaniola in 1502 on the expedition of Nicolás de Ovando, during which he witnessed the brutalities committed against the Taínos. Although the encomienda system, by which land was given to the Spanish colonists, along with native slaves, was officially established in 1503, it has been argued that its roots go back to Christopher Columbus' imposition of tribute on Hispaniola natives. Las Casas was critical of Columbus for capturing and sending natives back to Spain as slaves in order to repay the funding for his expeditions. Las Casas wrote in his History of the Indies, "slaves were the primary source of income for the Admiral (Columbus) with that income he intended to repay the money the Kings were spending in support of Spaniards on the Island. They provide profit and income to the Kings." [10] The encomienda system began under Governor Nicolás de Ovando. Las Casas was deeply moved by the mistreatment of the natives, which included brutal torture, enslavement, and massacres. In 1513, Las Casas served as a chaplain during the conquest of Cuba. He witnessed the wholesale slaughter of the native people by Spanish soldiers. Without provocation thousands of Taínos were slaughtered by soldiers including men, women and children, "I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see." [11] Natives were taken by force to mine for gold. Las Casas was awarded an encomienda and divided his time between being a colonist himself, and his duties as an ordained priest.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas by Felix Parra

In December 1511, a Dominican preacher Father Fray Antonio de Montesinos preached a fiery sermon that implicated the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples. He is said to have preached, "Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day." [12]

The preaching of the Dominican friar as well as Las Casas' own study of a passage in the book of the Roman Catholic bible, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach)[13] 34:18-22 for a Pentecost Sermon convinced Las Casas that all the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and a great injustice. He made up his mind to give up his slaves and encomienda and preached that other colonists should do the same. When his preaching met with resistance he realized that he would have to go to Spain to fight against the enslavement and abuse of the native peoples. From 1516-1522 Las Casas would embark on a period of reform. He envisioned a utopian society where natives could peacefully co-exist with Spanish colonists. He petitioned to be allowed to establish a settlement in northern Venezuela at Cumaná. He proposed reforms such as the natives would be paid fair wages, Indian pueblos would have hospitals and churches, and he would recruit Spanish farmers to teach them agricultural techniques.[14] The entire episode ended in bitter failure. The Spaniards operating in a nearby island had already begun to antagonize the natives Caribs. When Las Casas left the settlement, the colonists against his orders sent off ships to go on slave raids. The native Caribs attacked the settlement, burned it to the ground and killed four of Las Casas men.[15] To make matters worse, his detractors used this as an example of the need to pacify the Indians using military means.

Las Casas reacted by joining the Dominican monastery in Santo Domingo in 1523. There he continued his theological studies. He helped to oversee the building of a church in Puerto de Plata. He also began working on his History of the Indies in order to report many of the first hand experiences that he had witnessed in the conquest and colonization of New Spain. Las Casas continued to write including "The Only Method of Attracting All People to the True Faith" which argued for peaceful conversion of the natives, and continued to lobby the Council of the Indies against the slave trade.[16]

"Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, convertiendo a una familia azteca" by Miguel Noreña

In 1537 Las Casas arranged to convert the warlike natives of Tuzulutlan in Guatemala. Using songs and merchant Indian Christians, he was successful in converting several native chiefs and building several churches in the territory named Verapaz, or True Peace.[17] He returned to Spain to push for rights of the natives, and end of slavery. He was successful in the passage of the New Laws (1542) abolishing the encomiendas and removing certain officials from the Council of the Indies. However, the reforms were so unpopular back in the New World that riots broke out and threats were made against Las Casas' life.[18] Las Casas had to return to Spain again to defend himself against treason. In 1550 a famous debate took place between Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who argued that the native people were inferior and should be pacified forcefully. Although no formal decision was handed down from the commission, the majority favored Las Casas and the New Laws were in the end upheld.[19] The writings of Las Casas and the New Laws he helped implement were the beginning of international law and are very similar to the United Nations declaration of Human Rights. In 1552, Las Casas was finally able to bring international attention to his cause when he published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. This book, written a decade earlier and dedicated to then-prince Philip II of Spain, was one of the accounts by a colonial Spaniard to depict the genocide committed against Native Americans.

Bartolome de Las Casas died on July 18, 1566 in Madrid.

Legacy and commemoration

Las Casas played a significant historical role as an eyewitness to one of the most important eras in history. Las Casas made an abstract and copy of the diary Christopher Columbus kept of his voyages. He incorporated much of Columbus' writings, diary and log in his own history. Today, both the Columbus diary as well as the copy have disappeared but Las Casas' abstract survived.[20] He is an important source for the early period of Spanish Colonialism.

He is commemorated as a missionary in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on July 17. In 2000, the Roman Catholic Church began the process to beatify him. His work is a particular inspiration behind the work of the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.[21]

David Walker was fiercely critical of Las Casas, calling him a "wretch...stimulated by sordid avarice only", for favouring the importation of black slaves to the Americas.[22] Las Casas later bitterly regretted and opposed his previous support for introducing African slaves in the American colonies after witnessing the maltreatment of black slaves by the colonists.[2]

Apologists for Spanish colonial policies see Las Casas as an originator of the "Black Legend", a discourse conceived as having created stereotypical images of the Spaniards as rapacious colonists and Indians as innocents.[23] Some scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was a major cause or even the main cause of the population decline of the Native Americans because of their lack of immunity to new diseases brought from Europe.[24] Some believe that Bartolomé de las Casas exaggerated the Indian population decline in an effort to persuade King Carlos to intervene, and that encomenderos also exaggerated it, in order to receive permission to import more African slaves.[25]

Bartolomé de las Casas' book, Historia de las Indias was first published in 1875.

Las Casas-Defender of the Indians, a play written on the life of Las Casas by Marcus Whitfield was performed in London in 2007. This was a play, first ever in the English language, to be presented to Canning House.


See also


  1. ^ "Columbus 'sparked a genocide'". BBC News. October 12, 2003. Retrieved 2006-10-21. 
  2. ^ a b Blackburn 1997: 136; Friede 1971:165–166. Las Casas' retraction of his views on African slavery is expressed particularly in chapters 102 and 129, Book III of his Historia.
  3. ^ Parish & Weidman 1976: 385
  4. ^ Parish & Weidman 1976: passim.
  5. ^ eg. Saunders 2007: 162
  6. ^ Saunders 2007: 162
  7. ^ Bartolome de Las Casas; Columbus' Reception in Barcelona, April 1493. Bartolome de Las Casas, "Witness: Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas (Maryknoll, Orbis books, 1993), 2.
  8. ^ Saunders 2007: 162
  9. ^ Saunders 2007:
  10. ^ Bartolome de Las Casas: Indian Freedom, the cause of Bartolome de las Casas. Trans and ed by Francis Patrick Sullivan (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995) 60.
  11. ^ Ibid., 146.
  12. ^ Bartolome de Las Casas: Witness: Writing of Bartolome de Las casas. ed and trans by George Sanderlin (Maryknoll: Orbis books, 1993) 66-67.
  13. ^ Ecclesiasticus, Encyclopædia Britannica online
  14. ^ Brading 1997:
  15. ^ Brading 1997
  16. ^ Giménez Fernández 1971: 89
  17. ^ Giménez Fernández 1971: 90
  18. ^ Giménez Fernández 1971: 89–90
  19. ^ Bartolome de Las Casas: Indian Freedom: the Cause of Bartolome de las Casas. trans by Francis Patrick Sullivan (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995).6-7
  20. ^ S Lyman Tyler, Two Worlds: The Indian Encoutner with the European 1492-1509 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988) 13.
  21. ^ Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hall website
  22. ^ Walker's Appeal p. 40
  23. ^ Cultural Readings - Viewers and the Viewed - Black Legends
  24. ^ Stacy Goodling, "Effects of European Diseases on the Inhabitants of the New World"
  25. ^ Zinn, Howard (2003). A People's History of the United States 1492 - Present. HarperCollins. pp. 7. ISBN 0060528427. 


Alcedo, Antonio de (1786). Diccionario geográfico-histórico de las Indias Occidentales ó América: es á saber: de los reynos del Perú, Nueva España, Tierra Firme, Chile, y Nuevo reyno de Granada. vol. 1. Madrid: Benito Cano. OCLC 2414115.  (Spanish)
Blackburn, Robin (1997). The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (1st Verso pbk [1998 printing] ed.). London: Verso Books. ISBN 1-85984-195-3. OCLC 40130171. 
Brading, David (1997). "Prophet and apostle: Bartolomé de las Casas and the spiritual conquest of America". in J.S. Cummins (ed.). Christianity and Missions, 1450-1800. An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800 [Ashgate Variorum series]. vol. 28. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing. pp. 117–138. ISBN 978-0-86078-519-4. OCLC 36130668. 
Friede, Juan (1971). "Las Casas and Indigenism in the Sixteenth Century". in Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen (eds.). Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and his Work. Collection spéciale: CER. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. pp. 127–234. ISBN 0-87580-025-4. OCLC 421424974. 
Giménez Fernández, Manuel (1971). "Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas: A Biographical Sketch". in Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen (eds.). Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and his Work. Collection spéciale: CER. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. pp. 67–126. ISBN 0-87580-025-4. OCLC 421424974. 
Guitar, Lynne (1997). "Encomienda System". in Junius P. Rodriguez (ed.). The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. vol. 1, A-K. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. pp. 250–251. ISBN 0-87436-885-5. OCLC 37884790. 
MacNutt, Francis Augustus (1909) (PDF online reproduction). Bartholomew de Las Casas: His Life, Apostolate, and Writings (Project Gutenberg EBook no. 23466, reproduction ed.). Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark. OCLC 2683160. 
Parish, Helen Rand; and Harold E. Weidman (August 1976). "The Correct Birthdate of Bartolomé de las Casas". Hispanic American Historical Review (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, in association with the American Historical Association) 56 (3): 385–403. doi:10.2307/2514372. ISSN 0018-2168. OCLC 1752092. 
Saunders, Nicholas J. (2005). Peoples of the Caribbean: An Encyclopedia of Archeology and Traditional Culture. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-701-2. OCLC 62090786. 

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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From Wikiquote

Never have the Indians in all the Indies committed any act against the Spanish Christians, until those Christians have first and many times committed countless cruel aggressions against them or against neighboring nations.

Bartolomé de las Casas (November 1484 – July 1566) was a 16th century Spanish priest and a settler in the New World, where he witnessed the brutal torture and genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists. His book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias), published in 1552, gives a vivid description of atrocities committed by the conquistadors in the Americas – most particularly, the Caribbean, Central America, and what is now modern Mexico.

Account of the Devastation of the Indies (1552)

  • And never have the Indians in all the Indies committed any act against the Spanish Christians, until those Christians have first and many times committed countless cruel aggressions against them or against neighboring nations.
  • Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days.
  • More than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated, and the land laid waste.
  • We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.
  • After the wars and the killings had ended, when usually there survived only some boys, some women, and children, these survivors were distributed among the Christians to be slaves.
  • And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve.
  • These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world.
  • Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.
  • It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies.
  • With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it. ...Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned.
  • They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.
  • They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, "Boil there, you offspring of the devil!
  • They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.
  • They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.
  • With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim's neck, saying, "Go now, carry the message," meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains.
  • They made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them.

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