7 Bartolome De Las Casas

A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies” (also known as “A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies”)

Bartolome de las Casas (1484 – 1566)

Bartolome de las Casas was born in Seville, Spain in 1484. In his lifetime, he became one of the most well-known advocates on the behalf of the native peoples of Mesoamerica. His father, Pedro de Las Casas, traveled to the Americas shortly after Columbus’ return from his initial voyage. He returned five years later, bringing with him a boy, Juanico, of the indigenous Taino tribe. For a young Bartolome, this was not only the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Juanico, but was also the origin of his lifelong affection and concern for the Caribbean people.

As a young man, Las Casas studied to be in the priesthood, and first journeyed to America in 1502, landing in Hispaniola (now Haiti). The widespread practice of enslaving the indigenous population left a lasting mark on him, and he began learning several native languages as to converse regularly with these ‘workers’. It is during this period that he began to sympathize with their plight and to deplore the the Spanish treatment of them.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain decreed  the encomienda — a system that delineated the treatment of indigenous peoples in Spanish colonies. It stated that colonists would receive land, and that the indigenous peoples of the Americas would be compelled to work for them. In exchange, the workers were supposed to receive the protection of the monarchy, instruction in the Catholic faith, and a small wage. However, in practice their labor was forced, and they received nothing for their labor, making them, for all intents and purpose, slaves of the colonists. Las Casas himself had such workers, given to him by the king in exchange for his services in converting the tribes to Catholicism.

By 1510, Las Casas had been ordained a priest. On the Sunday before Christmas in 1511, a fellow Dominican clergyman delivered a sermon in the church of Santo Domingo, Haiti. This marked the beginning of a movement among a number of Dominicans to help alleviate the subjugation of the Indians. The priest asked his congregation “With what right … do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? … Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves?” These comments, considered extremely radical at the time, aroused great anger among the colonists, but guided Las Casas’s work for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Las Casas realized that challenging other encomenderos’ treatment of the indigenous people was not going to be enough to effect real change. In 1514 he freed his own slaves and began to meet with local officials to advocate on behalf of the workers. Being unable to convince either encomenderos or the authorities to change their practices, he went to Europe in 1515 to make a personal plea to King Charles I of Spain. By this time, he was not alone in his feelings; others in the Americas, mostly influential members of the clergy, had begun to speak out about the treatment of  indigenous populations. After a heated debate lasting four years, Charles I finally ruled that the Indies could be governed without armed forces. However, in the West Indies under Spanish rule, things remained the same.

Over the next approximately twenty-five years, Las Casas continued to advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights. His works include In Defense of the Indians and the multi-volume History of the Indies (Historia de las Indias), among others. His work The Only Way (Del Único Modo), was published in 1537, the same year in which Pope Paul III issued his papal bull Sublimis Deus. Here, the pope stated that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational beings and had souls, and declared that their lives and property were worthy of protection. In that same year, Charles V of Spain supported the establishment of missions in Guatemala that were guided by the principles laid out by Las Casas in The Only Way.

The king eventually decreed the “New Laws” in 1542, which prohibited slavery of native peoples in Spanish-held lands of the Americas, and also ended transference of slaves by family inheritance. These “New Laws” were heavily influenced by Las Casas, who had read his “Short Account” to the royal court. They were shocked by his firsthand accounts of the atrocities the Spanish had committed against the indigenous people.

Accepting the position of Bishop of Chiapas (in what is now Mexico) in 1544, Las Casas attempted to implement the New Laws, which caused anger and revolt among the Spanish colonists. Even those in power in Spanish settlements refused to enforce the New Laws. After actively trying to effect change for six years, Las Casas resigned his bishopric in 1550 and moved to a monastery where he wrote A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies, recognized as his most important work.

Published in 1552, Las Casas “Short Account” is an eye-witness report of events, described exactly as they occurred “wherever Christians have set foot”, and written simply and directly. He also stated in his Account that “the massacres of innocent people” were so widespread that they threatened to destroy the very fabric of civilized society, “to bring a collapse of civilization and to presage the end of the world”, a new concept which certainly garnered the attention of his audiences. His “Short Account”, as well as his other works, are exceptional for the time in that they were experiential, whereas the writings of many other historians, although well-researched, were of events that they had not actually witnessed firsthand.

With the publication of A Short Account, Las Casas was hopeful that the destruction of the Indies and its people would halt, that the damage would be reversed, and that Europeans and native people would live and farm together peacefully. Unfortunately, with entire tribes wiped out and Spanish merchants systematically shipping the wealth of the New World back to Spain, it was too late. Hispanic countries in the Americas were doomed to colonialism for over two hundred more years, until the time of the ‘Great Liberator’, Simon Bolivar. However, Las Casas has never been forgotten in central and South America. Bolivar called him ‘‘that friend of humanity, who with such fervor and determination denounced to his government and his contemporaries the most horrific acts of that sanguineous frenzy … ” Dozens of statues of Las Casas exist throughout the Americas, each with the inscription, “In a century of ferocity, Las Casas, whom you see before you, was a benevolent man.”

References:

Donovan, William. “Las Casas, Bartolomé de (1474–1566).” Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, edited by Jay Kinsbruner and Erick D. Langer, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008, pp. 139-143. Gale Virtual Reference Library, ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=onondaga&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3078903128&it=r&asid=e2f90e0cd2b2fc4bcf7b8b220d10d0d9

The Core Curriculum, Columbia College  https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/bartolom%C3%A9-de-las-casas

Bolivar: http://cas.loyno.edu/sites/chn.loyno.edu/files/Bartoleme%20de%20Las%20Casas_The%20Eternal%20Gaurdian%20of%20the%20Indians.pdf

Suggested reading:

Historia de las Indias (vol 1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/49298/49298-h/49298-h.htm

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Bartolome De Las Casas by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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