Bartolomé de las Casas was a Spanish historian and colonist, also known as a Dominican friar. He was also one of the first Europeans to openly condemn the atrocities committed by Europeans on the Native Indians of the Latin American lands and the West Indies. He called for the abolition of slavery in the American peninsula. He was born and raised in Seville, Spain. In 1502, he moved to the island of Hispaniola, the West Indies, with his merchant father. He was ordained a priest in 1510, becoming the first European to be ordained in the American islands. During the Spanish attack on Cuba, Bartolomé changed his mind. He gave up all his Native American slaves and advised others to do so but failed to convince them. He vowed to preach these thoughts in Spain and thus moved to Seville in 1515. In 1523, he joined the Dominican order and then wrote ‘Historia de Las Indias,’ which gave first-hand accounts of how Native Americans were being oppressed and explained why it was a sin to treat another human being that way. Although he failed in his pursuits, he is known in history as one of the first people who fought for human rights
Childhood & Early Life
Bartolomé de Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, on November 11, 1484, to Pedro de Las Casas, a merchant. His ancestors had moved to Spain from France.
As his father was a merchant, Bartolomé traveled quite a lot. During one of those business trips, he went to Rome and observed the Festival of Flutes.
It has also been acknowledged by many historians that at the age of 13, in 1497, Bartolomé had participated in an army expedition to Granada as a soldier. He enrolled to study Latin at an academy in Seville.
In 1502, when the then-Spanish governor, Nicolás de Ovando, left for Hispaniola, Bartolomé and his father accompanied him. By then, the Spanish has taken control of most of the West Indian islands. Bartolomé, owing to his significant role in many Spanish expeditions, was granted a piece of land in Hispaniola. There, he started converting many natives to Christianity and actively indulged in the slave trade.
In 1510, he was ordained a priest, the first one to be honored as such in the New World or the Americas. The same year, a group of Dominican friars arrived in Hispaniola and witnessed the atrocities committed by the slave owners on the natives. They preached against the idea of slavery and faced criticism and resistance from the slavers.
The friars did not back down. They stopped accepting confessions from the slavers. Bartolomé was one such slaver who was denied confessions. However, he did not withdraw his support to the ‘encomienda,’ the Spanish labor system that justified slavery. After a lot of backlash from the slavers, the friars were called back to Spain.
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Change of Heart
In 1513, Bartolomé de Las Casas participated in the Spanish attack on Cuba. This was the first time Bartolomé observed and felt the intensity of the Spanish cruelty unleashed upon the natives. He later wrote about the experiences and claimed that he had witnessed cruelty that nobody ever expects to see. He and one of his friends were rewarded with a small piece of land near the river Arimao, which was rich in gold and slaves.
Once, in 1514, he was studying a passage from the ‘Book of Sirach,’ when he arrived at the conclusion that all the actions the Spanish had taken in the Latin American lands were illegal and morally destructive. He tried convincing the local slavers to somehow stop the slave trade that was rampant there, but failed. He knew that he needed to talk to a much higher authority if he wished to bring about any significant change. He left for Seville, Spain, in 1515.
He tried meeting King Ferdinand on many occasions. However, it was much harder than he thought. Most of the members of his court themselves indulged in immoral practices. The Archbishop of Seville, Diego de Deza, finally helped Bartolomé and arranged a meeting with the king. However, the king seemed disinterested in listening to Bartolomé and asked him to meet him some other day.
As he prepared himself for the meeting with the monarch, Bartolomé presented his views in front of some god-men in Seville who were not impressed. Following this, Bartolomé’s only hope was to convince the king. However, this, too, did not happen, as the King died before he could meet Bartolomé again.
Bartolomé came up with a new plan. His new idea was related to the formation of “towns of free Indians.” He propagated a civilized system that would assist Indians and Spaniards live together as a joint community. He was also of the opinion that slavery could be justified in some cases. He was an advocate of the slave trade that involved the “blacks” from Africa.
He got a chance to present his plan to King Charles V in 1519. The king thought it was the correct way to deal with the issue. In 1520, Bartolomé left for the Indies with a few farmers. He intended to make his plan of a mutual community a success, but the Indians were not ready to accept those terms. They started a counter-attack on the Spaniards and the whole experiment was called off by 1522.
Escapade to Religion
Bartolomé had failed miserably in bringing peace in the Spanish-occupied American lands, and he took the route of religion to analyze his failures in Santo Domingo. He embraced the Dominican Order and started writing a book called ‘Historia Apologética’.
The book ‘Historia Apologética’ was written in preparation for a much more celebrated and elaborate book titled ‘Historia de las Indias.’ He instructed that the second book be printed only after his demise. In the book, Bartolomé was highly critical of the Spanish ways in the Americas and claimed that God’s wrath would befall Spain because of all the atrocities they had committed on the American islands.
Success & Later Life
Bartolomé de Las Casas finally managed to convince the king of Spain, Charles V, to pass the ‘New Laws.’ According to the ‘New Laws,’ the “encomienda” would no longer be a hereditary grant and the slaves were to be set free after serving one generation of the slavers.
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For a flawless implementation of these laws, Bartolomé was appointed as the bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala. In July 1544, he returned to America with 44 Dominican friars. He forbade the absolution of the Spaniards involved with the “encomienda” and faced a lot of criticism from the slavers. His extreme pro-Indian stance did not go down too well with his colleagues, and he left for Spain in 1547.
King Charles was impressed with his humanitarian work and gave him a place in his royal court at the ‘Council of the Indies.’ Following this, he faced direct conflict with another important court member, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Juan held extremely regressive opinions about Indians and compared them to apes. Naturally, this did not sit well with Bartolomé and he continued to defend the Indians.
Although the king of Spain also considered Juan’s opinions to be too extreme to support, the Spaniards in America were his ardent supporters. However, without backing down, Bartolomé continued to write in support of the Indians and tried his best to instil humanity in the cruel minds of the European population in the Indies.
During the last few years of his life, Bartolomé had established himself as a key member of the royal Spanish court. He gave many useful advices to deal peacefully with various troublesome problems occurring in the American lands.
Death & Legacy
Before his demise in 1566 at the age of 92, Bartolomé de Las Casas finished writing two more books on the Spanish conquests of the American lands. Despite giving instructions that his book ‘Historia de las Indias’ must only published 40 years after his death, he himself got it published in 1562. After his death, the king ordered his men to collect every piece of writing that Bartolomé had written during his lifetime.
‘Destrucción’ remains one of his most popular books. It was a success across various European countries. Due to his multiple failures in convincing the kings and slavers to abolish slavery, his name almost disappeared in the Indies and Spain a few years after his death. Not many people talked about him.
19th century Latin American revolutionary Simón Bolívar considered Bartolomé one of his idols. He claimed that the letters Bartolomé had written had become his source of inspiration to continue his fight against the European oppression against Spain. A number of other heroes of Mexican independence revered Bartolomé as a solid inspiration.
During the “indigenista” movements in Peru and Mexico, several revolutionaries hailed Bartolomé as a true hero.
Throughout history, Bartolomé is known as the first European to have acknowledged the political, social, and cultural injustice inflicted by the European powers upon the indigenous population of Africa, Asia, America, and Latin America.