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Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P. (November 1484 – 18 July 1566), was a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest, writer and the first resident Bishop of Chiapasmarker. As a settler in the New World he witnessed, and was driven to oppose, the torture and genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists and pushed for rights of the natives appealing to the imperial court of Charles V. His stance for African slaves' rights was later than the one for native slavery.


Las Casas was born in Sevillemarker in the year 1484 (or possibly 1485), most probably on 11 November. Several centuries of tradition had earlier placed Las Casas' birthdate in the year 1474. However, in the 1970s scholars conducting archival work demonstrated this to be an error, after uncovering in the Archivo General de Indiasmarker records of a contemporary lawsuit that demonstrated he was born a decade later than had been supposed. Subsequent biographers and authors have generally accepted and reflected this revision.

While a boy in 1493, Las Casas witnessed the return to Sevillemarker of Christopher Columbus after his first voyage, bringing along with him seven native Tainos from the newly discovered "Indiesmarker". Later the same year Las Casas' father Pedro and several of his uncles embarked for the New World as members of Columbus' second voyage. Returning from the voyage in 1498 Pedro gave his son Bartolomé a native Taino youth, named Juanico, as a servant. Juanico was returned in June 1500 by order of royal decree along with several other surviving slaves.

With his father, Las Casas emigrated to the island of Hispaniolamarker in 1502 on the expedition of Nicolás de Ovando, during which he witnessed the brutalities committed against the Tainos. Although the encomienda system, by which land was given to the Spanish colonists, along with native slaves, was officially established in 1503, it has been argued that its roots go back to Christopher Columbus' imposition of tribute on Hispaniola natives. Las Casas was critical of Columbus for capturing and sending natives back to Spain as slaves in order to repay the funding for his expeditions. Las Casas wrote in his History of the Indies, "slaves were the primary source of income for the Admiral (Columbus) with that income he intended to repay the money the Kings were spending in support of Spaniards on the Island. They provide profit and income to the Kings." The encomienda system began under Governor Nicolás de Ovando. Las Casas was deeply moved by the mistreatment of the natives, which included brutal torture, enslavement, and massacres. In 1513, Las Casas served as a chaplain during the conquest of Cuba. He witnessed the wholesale slaughter of the native people by Spanish soldiers. Without provocation thousands of Tainos were slaughtered by soldiers including men, women and children, "I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see." Natives were taken by force to mine for gold. Las Casas was awarded an encomienda and divided his time between being a colonist himself, and his duties as an ordained priest.
Fray Bartolomé de las Casas by Felix Parra
In December of 1511, a Dominican preacher Father Fray Antonio de Montesinos preached a fiery sermon that implicated the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples. He is said to have preached, "Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day."

The preaching of the Dominican friar as well as Las Casas' own study of Ecclesiasticus 34 (Sirach 34:18-22) for a Pentecost Sermon convinced Las Casas that all the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and a great injustice. He made up his mind to give up his slaves and encomienda and preached that other colonists should do the same. When his preaching met with resistance he realized that he would have to go to Spain to fight against the enslavement and abuse of the natives peoples. From 1516-1522 Las Casas would embark on a period of reform. He envisioned a utopian society where natives could peacefully co-exist with Spanish colonists. He petitioned to be allowed to establish a settlement in northern Venezuelamarker at Cumaná. He proposed reforms such as the natives would be paid fair wages, Indian pueblos would have hospitals and churches, and he would recruit Spanish farmers to teach them agricultural techniques. The entire episode ended in bitter failure. The Spaniards operating in a nearby island had already begun to antagonize the natives Caribs. When Las Casas left the settlement, the colonists against his orders sent off ships to go on slave raids. The native Caribs attacked the settlement, burned it to the ground and killed four of Las Casas men. To make matters worse, his detractors used this as an example of the need to pacify the Indians using military means.

Las Casas reacted by joining the Dominican monastery in Santo Domingomarker in 1523. There he continued his theological studies. He helped to oversee the building of a church in Puerto de Plata. He also began working on his History of the Indies in order to report many of the first hand experiences that he had witnessed in the conquest and colonization of New Spain. Las Casas continued to write including "The Only Method of Attracting All People to the True Faith" which argued for peaceful conversion of the natives, and continued to lobby the Council of the Indies against the slave trade.
"Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, convertiendo a una familia azteca" by Miguel Noreña
In 1537 Las Casas arranged to convert the warlike natives of Tuzulutlan. Using songs and merchant Indian Christians, he was successful in converting several native chiefs and building several churches in the territory named Verapaz, or True Peace. He returned to Spain to push for rights of the natives, and end of slavery. He was successful in the passage of the New Laws (1542) abolishing the encomiendas and removing certain officials from the Council of the Indies. However, the reforms were so unpopular back in the New World that riots broke out and threats were made against Las Casas' life. Las Casas had to return to Spain again to defend himself against treason. In 1550 a famous debate took place between Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who argued that the native people were inferior and should be pacified forcefully. Although no formal decision was handed down from the commission, the majority favored Las Casas and the New Laws were in the end upheld. The writings of Las Casas and the New Laws he helped implement were the beginning of international law and are very similar to the United Nations declaration of Human Rights. In 1552, Las Casas was finally able to bring international attention to his cause when he published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. This book, written a decade earlier and dedicated to then-prince Philip II of Spain, was one of the accounts by a colonial spaniard to depict the genocide committed against Native Americans.

Bartolome de Las Casas died on July 18, 1566 in Madrid.

Legacy and commemoration

Las Casas played a significant historical role as an eyewitness to one of the most important eras in history. Las Casas made an abstract and copy of the diary Christopher Columbus kept of his voyages. He incorporated much of Columbus' writings, diary and log in his own history. Today, both the Columbus diary as well as the copy have disappeared but Las Casas' abstract survived. He is an important source for the early period of Spanish Colonialism.

He is commemorated as a missionary in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on July 17. In 2000, the Roman Catholic Church began the process to beatify him. His work is a particular inspiration behind the work of the Las Casas Institute at Blackfriars Hallmarker, Oxford.

David Walker was fiercely critical of Las Casas, calling him a "wretch...stimulated by sordid avarice only", for favouring the importation of black slaves to the Americas. Las Casas later bitterly regretted and opposed his previous support for introducing African slaves in the American colonies after witnessing the maltreatment of black slaves by the colonists.

Las Casas began what became known as the "Black Legend", which created stereotypical images of the Spaniards as rapacious colonists and Indians as innocents. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the Native Americans because of their lack of immunity to new diseases brought from Europe.

Some scholars believe that Bartolomé de las Casas exaggerated the Indian population decline in an effort to persuade King Carlos to intervene, and that encomenderos also exaggerated it, in order to receive permission to import more African slaves.

Bartolomé de las Casas' book Historia de las Indias was first published in 1875.

Las Casas-Defender of the Indians, a play wrtten on the life of Las Casas by Marcus Whitfield was performed in London in 2007. This was a play, first ever in the English language, to be presented to Canning House.==Works==
  • . Trans. Nigel Griffin.
  • . Extracts.

See also



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