Contributed by: Evelina Guzauskyte
Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566)
Spanish defender of the Indians, theologian, and historian
Note: In your essays, please refer to Bartolomé de las Casas with his last name only, Las Casas, with the exception of the very first reference, in which please use his full name.
Summarized from: Bedini, Silvio A., ed. Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration: An Encyclopedia. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992 (408-412).
Son of Pedro de las Casas, a merchant in the New World.
Born and raised in Seville, then a great Spanish commercial and cultural center.
When Las Casas was eight years old, Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage. Young Las Casas watched a solemn procession led by Columbus and his Crew, followed by the first Indians to set foot in the Old World (1493).
Las Casas’ father and three uncles accompanied Columbus on his second voyage of 1493.
1502: Bartolomé (at eighteen years of age) traveled to the New World to manage the encomienda (land and Indians) that Columbus had granted to his father.
1506: Las Casas returned to Europe where he remained for several years. Accompanied Columbus’s brother, Bartolomé Colón, to Rome to inform Pope Julius II of the opportunities to spread faith in the New World.
1507 (Rome): obtained priesthood.
1507: returned to La Española with Columbus’s son and heir, Diego Colón. Received an encomienda.
1510: a group of Dominican friars arrived in the island. Horrified by the barbarous treatment of the Indians, they delegated Antonio Montesino to preach a sermon to the settlers about the wickedness of their deeds.
1513-4: Las Casas served as a military chaplain in the conquest of Cuba and was again rewarded with a large grant of Indians.
1514: experienced a conversion, an awakening of a dormant sensitivity as a result of the horrors he had seen about him. Renounced his own encomienda.
1515: accompanied by Antonio Montesino, set sail from Santo Domingo, determined to inform King Fernando about the destructiveness of the encomienda system.
1516: after King Fernando’s death, Las Casas proposed a reform plan to Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, according to which the Indians were to be removed from individual encomiendas and resettled in self-sustaining villages with Spanish administrators, paying tribute to the Crown. The experiment was approved but Cisneros assigned its supervision to a group of Jeronymite friars, with Las Casas to accompany them as “Protector of the Indians”. The Jeronymites soon proclaimed that the Indians were unfit to live by themselves in a civilized way. Las Casas fled La Española to escape arrest for disobeying the Jeronymites and returned to Spain.
1517: Cisneros died. Young King Carlos I (future emperor Charles V) arrives in Spain. He approved of Las Casas’s reformist project but the latter ended in a fiasco as the Spanish peasants recruited to work along with the indigenous abandoned the friar to join in profitable slave trade. The disastrous failure of the Venezuelan colonization project produced Las Casas’s “second conversion”.
1522: Las Casas entered the Dominican convent in Santo Domingo and emerged himself in juridical-theological study for almost ten years.
1531: left the convent, arguing the right of the Indians to their land, the principle of self-determination, and on the subordination of all Spanish interests (including those of the Crown) to Indian interests, material and spiritual. Claimed that all Spanish wars and conquests in the New World were illegal.
1516-1556: Las Casas received official support for his proposed reforms by Charles V (interested in curbing the power of the conquistadors).
1523: King Carlos sent Hernando Cortés an order forbidding the establishment of encomiendas in New Spain. In the face of Cortés’s disobedience, back by his followers, the Crown chose to retreat.
1542: the New Laws of the Indies were issued which forbade the enslavement of Indians and proclaimed that the existing encomiendas would lapse on the death of the holder.
1551-2: the famous debate with the humanist Juan Gimés de Sepúlveda over the justice of wars against the Indians took place.
1556: Philip II (son of Charles V) ascended to throne and abandoned the pro-Indian policy, based on pressure from the colonizers. Spain, in a deep financial crisis, increasingly depended on the Indian tribute. Marcel Bataillon has called it “the anti-Lascasian reaction”.
With time, Las Casas’ thought progressively became more radical. These were some of the goals of his utopian program:
-- the suppression of all encomiendas;
-- liberation of the Indians from all forms of servitude (except a small voluntary tribute to the Crown as thanks for its gift of Christianity);
-- the restoration of the ancient Indian states and rulers, the rightful owners of those lands.
Las Casas’ Works
Brevíssima relación de la destruición de las Indias (Very brief account of the destruction of the Indies).
Apologética historia sumaria (Apologetic history). Published in 1909.
De regia potestate (Concerning the royal power). A tract.
History of the Indies (written between 1527 and 1562, published in 1875) – contains a biography of Columbus and incorporates Las Casas’s abstract of the first voyage to the Indies. Las Casas passionately admires the Admiral for his providential task in opening “the doors of the Ocean Sea”, but criticizes him for the treatment of the indigenous.
Bibliography for further study
Friede, Juan, and Benjamin Keen, eds. Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and His Work. De Kalb, III., 1971.
Hanke, Lewis. Aristotle and the American Indians. London, 1959.
Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice. Philadelphia, 1949.
Wagner, Henry R. The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de las Casas. Albuquerque, 1967.