Bartolomé de Las Casas was the earliest crusader for human rights in the New World. Much information about the one-time adventurer, encomendero, friar, and bishop, including his birth year is debated, with some asserting his birth occurred in 1474 and other in 1484. All agree that he arrived in the Americas as an adventurer in 1502. There, he witnessed the exploitation and slavery of the native populations. Returning to Latin America as a priest, he called on the church and the state to practice true Christianity and support the rights and dignity of the Indians. Though his contemporaries spurned many of his ideas, his powerful writings influenced Latin American revolutionaries of the 19th century.
Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain. He was the son of Pedro de Las Casas, a merchant. As a child, he was part of the crowds that welcomed Christopher Columbus back from his voyage to the Americas, and his father sailed on Columbus's second voyage to the New World. Las Casas studied Latin and theology in Seville. When he was 20, he fought with the local militia to suppress a Moorish uprising in the neighboring city of Granada.
In 1502, Las Casas made his first voyage to the Americas with Nicolás de Ovando, the governor of the island of Española (Hispaniola). Already in possession of family holdings on the island, he was granted additional land by royal charter for his role in subduing an Indian rebellion. The grant included the forced servitude of Indians to work the land, a system called encomienda. Las Casas began farming his lands and even at this early stage began preaching to his Indians to convert them to Christianity. Four years later, he returned to Europe to take vows with the Dominican order in Rome. When he returned to Española in either 1510 or 1512, he was ordained as a priest and probably celebrated his first mass in America. At this point in his life there was no indication of his eventual fervor for defending the indigenous populace from Spanish abuses. Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas became chaplain to Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar's troops during their conquest of Cuba. He received more land and the accompanying encomienda as a reward. Yet, as his later writings indicate, the Dominican friar already began to question the abusive treatment of the local natives at the hands of the Spanish due to his observations in the Cuban conquest.
That campaign seemed to be a turning point in Las Casas's awareness. He became conscious of the moral implications of the enslavement of Indians, the miserable and humiliating working conditions on the farms and in the mines, and the hypocrisy of forced evangelization. At the approximate age of 40, he gave up his claim to his land and became an outspoken advocate for the rights of the native people. He began to lobby for an end to the encomienda system, initially appealing to King Ferdinand, then later through the Regent, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, and eventually to Charles V (Carlos I of Spain). Pointing out that the encomienda was a form of slavery, he based his crusade on the messages of Jesus Christ in the Bible.
Returning to Spain in 1515, Las Casas gained the support of the cardinal archbishop of Toledo, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. Fray Las Casas was appointed priestprocurator of the Indians. He developed a plan for colonization that would enable farmers and native populations to live together peacefully. Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor and the king of Spain, granted land and permission for an experimental colony. Cisneros selected the Jeronymite order to serve as commissioners in the experience, and Fray Las Casas was tasked with choosing the friars who would recruit farmers to Curmána, Venezuela. As part of the plan, Las Casas recommended that Indians be paid wages and be gathered in villages where they should be provided with hospitals and churches. Las Casas additionally sought administrative oversight of the proposed colony—trading with the Indians and preventing further slave raiding expeditions into the interior of South America. To prevent continued abuse to the natives already under Spanish authority, he also recommended that African slaves be shipped to the colony. With a great sense of shame, he renounced this suggestion some years later when he realized that Africans should have as many rights as the American natives he was trying to protect. After the colony in Venezuela failed, Las Casas entered a Dominican monastery in Santo Domingo, where, over the course of 10 years, he wrote Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies).
In the 1530s, Las Casas worked to protect the rights of Indians in Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Puerto Rico, with the most success in Guatemala. In 1537, Pope Paul III officially recognized that Indians were rational and should receive instruction in the Bible and acceptance in the church. After this, Las Casas began writing Brevísima relación de las destuyción de las Indias occidentales (Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians). In it, he asserted: “Now Christ wanted his gospel to be preached with enticements, gentleness, and all meekness, and pagans to be led to the truth not by armed forces but by holy examples, Christian conduct, and the word of God, so that no opportunity would be offered for blaspheming the sacred name or hating the true religion because of the conduct of the preachers. For this is nothing else than making the coming and passion of Christ useless, as long as the truth of the gospel is hated before it is either understood or heard, or as long as innumerable human beings are slaughtered in a war waged on the pretext of preaching the gospel and spreading religion.”
Las Casas plainly accused the Europeans of subverting fair laws, and in fact enacting unjust laws, to support their own power and greed in the New World. He used his treatises as a campaign for the 1542 New Laws, which restricted the oppression and exploitation of native populations, with the intention of eliminating the use of encomienda and repartimiento within 20 years. However, as Las Casas expected, the New Laws were ignored and even revoked in the Americas, resulting in the actual increase of encomienda grants over the next two decades. He was determined to enforce the New Laws himself and returned to Guatemala in 1545. European colonists stridently protested until they forced Las Casas to return to Spain in 1547.
Exhausted from his unsuccessful efforts to enforce the New Laws in America, upon his return to Spain Las Casas was thrust into another stressful situation. He was challenged to a series of debates by the noted secular scholar, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda concerning the spiritual status of the souls of Native Americans. At the Valladolid debates, Sepúlveda asserted that Indians did not possess souls like white Christians, and it was the moral duty of the Spanish to control these inferior beings in the form of slavery as a means of civilizing and Christianizing them. Las Casas was able to clearly present his ideas, defending the rights of the Indians, gaining continued support from Charles V.
The various indigenous people of New Spain recognized fray Las Casas's efforts on behalf of the natives. Some, like the principal leaders of the Nahua (Aztec) in Mexico, wrote letters directly to Charles V, begging him to appoint Las Casas as a bishop and their defender. Should he not be able, due to Las Casas's health or possible death, these leaders implored the Spanish monarch to send a similar Christian of goodwill from Charles's own royal court to protect the Nahua from the plentiful wrongs and abuses of the local Spanish in America.
From the age of 75 until his nineties, Las Casas continued to tirelessly lobby from Spain for the protection of Indians of the New World through writing and public debate. He reiterated that the Indians were equal and not inferior to Europeans. He spoke in defense of Indians suing for freedom in court. He advised the Spanish court and the Council of the Indies. Recognizing the power of Las Casas's ideas, the king of Spain ordered that all of Las Casas's published and unpublished writings be preserved when he died in Madrid on July 31, 1566. To this day, Nicaragua and Cuba regard Las Casas as a national hero, the true “defender of the Indians.” Bartolomé de Las Casas and his works greatly impacted the Spanish policies regarding Native Americans through much of the 17th century. Declared the protector of the Indians, his penchant for exaggeration both strengthened the Crown's determination to reform colonial regulations concerning indigenous people of New Spain, while encomenderos also used it to justify circumventing the same regulations. Without a doubt, Las Casas brought attention to the treatment of subjugated peoples during the early Spanish colonial era. The debate he raised over the status of the souls, abilities, and rights of Native Americans was a forerunner of similar debates that continued through the centuries.
See also: Charles V (HRE) or Carlos I of Spain; Encomienda; Leyes Nuevas 1542–1543; Ovando, Fr. Nicolás de; Slavery, Role of; Velázquez, Diego (de Cuéllar).
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