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Definition: Las Casas, Bartolomé de from Philip's Encyclopedia

Spanish missionary and historian of early Spanish America, known as the Apostle of the Indies. He went to Hispaniola in 1502, and spent his life alleviating the conditions of the Native Americans; his History of the Indies recounts their persecution by Spanish colonists.

Summary Article: Las Casas, Bartolomé de
from Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

While his work as a historian seems to be one of his major contributions to the understanding of the conquest and colonization of the Americas, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (ca 1485–1566) is best known as the ‘defender of the Indians’ for his work in protection for the human rights of native population in the Americas. He challenged the myth of superiority that constructed the Amerindians as barbaric, deficient, irrational, naturally inferior, and created to serve. His hope was that this challenge would transform the treatment of Amerindians by the Spaniards conquistadores.

Las Casas arrived in the Americas in 1502 and observed the mistreatments of indigenous populations first hand, but it was not until 1511, after listening to a sermon in which the Dominican priest A. Montesino (1480–1540) denounced the behaviour of Spanish conquistadores towards indigenous people, that Las Casas began his quest for the elimination of the encomienda system. Las Casas saw the encomienda system as a mortal sin because it was a legal way of enslaving Amerindians in order to use them as forced labour. He was not against the missionary endeavour; indeed, he saw it as the only just motive for the colonization of the Americas. But he was against the violence that, in his eyes, had prevented the establishment of a real missionary enterprise.

Las Casas understood that while it was important to confront the actions of the Spaniards, it was more important to challenge the ideology behind those actions. This ideology, which defined Amerindians as less than human, was supported by a philosophy that talked about two different kinds of human beings: those born to be served, and those born to be servants or slaves. Against this perspective, Las Casas believed that all humans were created equal and that the idea of two different types of humans would imply that God somehow failed in the creation (see Theological Anthropology).

After twice presenting his defence of the Amerindians before Spain’s King Charles I (r. 1516–56) and having been named bishop of Chiapas, Las Casas officially presented his arguments in favour of the humanity of the Amerindians during his famous debate against J. Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494–1573) in 1550. Two years later, he published his best-known work,

The Destruction of the Indies, where he not only narrates the atrocities committed by the conquistadores but also engages in a more general condemnation of Spanish actions, including the killing of Amerindians. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that Las Casas did not make the same defence of Africans: although he later regretted it, he suggested that Africans should be used as workforce in the sugar mills, as this would liberate the Amerindians from that hard labour.

The work of Bartolomé de Las Casas is still important in today’s society in Latin America, as indigenous communities still struggle for human rights. The resurgence of Las Casas’ message has become present in the theological discourse called teología india.

  • Gutiérrez, G., Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993 [1992]).
  • Hjamil A. Martinez-Vazquez
    © Cambridge University Press 2011

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