Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) Part One:
Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas was a Spanish Dominican friar who became famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his defense of the rights of the native people of the Americas. His brave stand against the horrors of the conquest and the colonization of the New World earned him the title “Defender of the Indians.”
The Las Casas Family and Columbus:
Christopher Columbus was well-known to the Las Casas family. Young Bartolomé, then about nine years old, was in Seville when Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493 and may have met the Taíno Indians that Columbus brought back with him. Bartolomé’s father and uncle returned with Columbus on his second voyage. The family became quite wealthy and the family had holdings on Hispaniola. The connection between the two families was strong: Las Casas would eventually intercede with the pope on the matter of securing certain rights on behalf Columbus’ son Diego, and Bartolomé himself edited Columbus’ travel journals.
Las Casas’ Early Life and Studies:
Bartolomé decided that he wanted to become a priest, and his father’s new wealth allowed him to send his son to the best schools at the time: The University of Salamanca, and then later the University of Valladolid. Young Bartolomé studied Canon Law, eventually earning two degrees. He excelled in his studies, particularly Latin, and his strong academic background would serve him well in years to come.
First Trip to the Americas:
In 1502, Bartolomé finally went to see the family holdings on Hispaniola. By then, the natives of the island had been mostly subdued and the city of Santo Domingo was being used as a resupply point for Spanish incursions in the Caribbean. The young man accompanied Governor Ovando on two different military missions aimed at pacifying those natives who remained on the island. On one of these, Las Casas witnessed a massacre of poorly-armed natives, a scene he would never forget. He traveled around the island a great deal, and was able to see the deplorable conditions in which the natives were kept.
Over the next few years, Las Casas traveled to Spain and back several times, finishing his studies and learning more about the sad situation of the natives. By 1514, he decided that he could no longer be personally involved in the exploitation of the natives, and renounced his family holdings on Hispaniola. He became convinced that the enslavement and slaughter of the native population was not only a crime, but it was also mortal sin, as defined by the church. It was this iron-clad conviction than made him such a staunch advocate for fair treatment of the natives in the years to come.
Las Casas convinced Spanish authorities to allow him to try and save the few remaining Caribbean natives by taking them out of slavery and placing them in free towns, but the death of King Ferdinand in 1516 and the resulting chaos over his successor caused these reforms to be delayed. Las Casas also asked for and received a section of the Venezuelan mainland for an experiment: he believed that he could pacify the natives with religion, not weapons. Unfortunately, the region that was selected had been heavily raided by slavers, and the natives’ hostility to the Europeans was too intense to overcome.
The Verapaz Experiment:
In 1537, Las Casas wanted to try again to show that natives could be controlled peacefully and that violence and conquest were unnecessary. He was able to convince the crown to let him send missionaries to a region in north-central Guatemala where the natives had proved particularly fierce. His experiment worked, and the natives were brought under Spanish control peacefully. The experiment was called Verapaz, or “true peace,” and the region still bears the name. Unfortunately, once the region was brought under control, greedy colonists took the lands and enslaved the natives, undoing almost all of Las Casas’ work.
Las Casas' Later Years:
See Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) Part Two: Las Casas' Later Years, the second part of this article.
Las Casas’ early years are marked by his struggle to come to terms with the horrors he has seen and his understanding of how God could allow His creatures to suffer so. Many of his contemporaries believed that God had delivered the New World to Spain as a reward of sorts, to encourage the Spanish to continue to wage war upon heresy and idolatry as defined by the Catholic Church. Las Casas agreed that God had led Spain to the New World, but he saw a different reason: it was a test. God was testing the loyal Catholic nation of Spain to see if it could be just and merciful, and in Las Casas’ opinion, it was failing God’s test miserably.
It is well-known that Las Casas fought tooth and nail for justice and freedom for the New World natives, but it is this aspect of Las Casas’s beliefs that is frequently overlooked. His love for his countrymen was no less than his love for the Indians: just as he wanted to see the latter live in freedom in this life, he wanted the former to go to heaven in the next. When he freed the natives working on the Las Casas family holdings in Hispaniola, he did it as much for the sake of his soul and those of his family members as he did for the natives themselves.
In the later part of his life, Las Casas would translate this conviction into action. He became a prolific writer, traveled frequently between the New World and Spain, and made allies and enemies in all corners of the Spanish Empire. For the second part of this article, which deals with Las Casas’ later life, click here.