The New Laws of 1542:
Undaunted, Las Casas returned to Spain to lobby for new legislation to protect the natives. Charles V was sympathetic, and the New Laws of 1542 were passed. These laws limited the corrupt encomienda system, which was essentially legalized slavery. Las Casas, now Bishop of Chiapas, returned to the New World to implement the laws, but they were unpopular with the colonists and were rarely enforced. Las Casas himself was in danger of being killed for his role in devising and enforcing them. Eventually, most of the more extreme aspects of the New Laws were repealed when the crown feared they could lead to a rebellion.
The Valladolid Debates:
Returning to Spain after several frustrating years trying to enforce the New Laws, Las Casas found himself at the center of an academic debate. The secular scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda had written a treatise which defended the conquest as necessary. Using Aristotle’s theory of natural slavery, Sepúlveda declared that the Spanish had a moral duty to assert control over the New World natives. Las Casas refuted Sepúlveda’s claims, and a series of debates took place in Valladolid in 1550-1551. Las Casas is considered to have won in the sense that he was able to articulate his ideas and make them heard by the public.
A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies:
All the while, Las Casas had been working on his monumental history, Historia de las Indias. In 1552, he published a very short version of it entitled A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. In this text, Las Casas tells graphic stories about the horrors of conquest and colonization. The Brief Account caused quite a stir and gained him a lot of support for his cause in Spain. At the same time, Spain’s Protestant enemies, such as England and the Netherlands, used Las Casas’ book as propaganda to show that Spain did not deserve its colonies: this was the birth of the “Black Legend.”
Las Casas’ Final Years:
Las Casas was almost seventy at the time of the Valladolid debates, although you wouldn’t have known it from the energy with which he pursued his cause. In his final years, Las Casas became more radical in his beliefs, claiming that each and every conquest carried out by the Spanish in the New World was morally unjustifiable, and that any and all who had participated in these conquests were doomed to damnation. It was the natives who had cause for a morally just war, not the Spanish. Las Casas never returned to the New World, spending the final years of his life in a monastery in Madrid, where he died in 1566.
Las Casas’ birth date is not known for certain. Most sources have him being born in 1484, while some others claim it was 1474. Other important reformers of the Spanish Colonial Era include Motolinía (Toribio de Benavente) and Antonio de Montesinos.
The Life and Work of Las Casas:
It is difficult to gauge what sort of success Las Casas had in his life’s work of rights for the New World natives. It is easy to point out his failures: the natives continued to die in the thousands, his peaceful experiments ended up in disaster for the missionaries and enslavement for the natives, and although significant legislation was passed, it was never really enforced. Las Casas himself was certainly frustrated by his inability to change the conditions of his wards.
In addition, there are occasional startling stains on Las Casas’ record. Although he fought fiercely for native rights, he did not feel the same way about black African slaves, to whose plight he was apparently indifferent. Las Casas occasionally suggested that Africans could be brought in to work instead of enslaving native populations. Although he shared a fervor for protecting natives with his contemporary Fray Toribio de Benavente, he let a minor ecclesiastical detail drive them apart and refused to work together.
Nevertheless, one can only imagine how horrible the plight of the New World natives might have been had Las Casas not stepped up to defend their rights. Although he was widely despised by colonists during his lifetime, he has been recognized by history as a great man who stood up to a corrupt system and fought for the lives of the natives and the souls of his countrymen. He has been honored by many nations: there is a city named for him in Mexico, there are statues of him in Guatemala and several nations including Columbia, Cuba and Nicaragua have created coins and postage stamps with his image on them.