Bartholome de Las Casas
Born 1484 or 1474 - Died 1566
Native Rights and Missionary to the Americasby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Bartolome de Las Casas was born in either 1484 or 1474. His father was a merchant who had gone with Columbus on one of his voyages. Las Casas studied at the Cathedral of Seville and studied Latin and theology. Later he studied at the University of Salamanca, from which he graduated with a degree in law in 1498.
In 1498 he accompanied his father on Columbus’s third voyage. Then information is a little sketchy. He either went back to Spain and then returned and settled in Hispaniola as a lay teacher in 1502, or he stayed in the area and then settled in Hispaniola in 1502.
In Hispaniola he settled an uprising by the natives there and in reward he was given an Encomienda. The Encomienda system was originally put in place to evangelize the natives. For every forty natives they needed to train at least one of them in religious matters. This system quickly turned into an economical enterprise. For some time he used the encomienda, but he treated the natives more nicely than other owners. But the apex of the matter came when he heard Antonio de Montesimos preach against slavery.
He went to Rome and took religious vows. He became a Roman Catholic priest in 1510. Later, in 1522, he became a Dominican.
Returning to Hispaniola he became the first priest to take his first mass in the New World. He was assigned to be the chaplain of the bloody conquest of Cuba. For his part in that he was rewarded another encomienda, and native serfs. Troubled with the treatment of the natives he soon gave it up and went to Europe to plead before royalty on their behalf.
His first appearance before King Ferdinand occurred in about 1515. Appointed as the Protector of the Indies then he went back to the New World where he worked at missions. In 1520 he appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was also King Ferdinand’s grandson and heir, Charles I. Arguing that there were more peaceful ways of converting natives than by force, he presented a plan. The plan included free natives and Spanish farmers, instead of encomiendas, in community farms. Charles approved the plan.
Going to modern day Venezuela to implement the plan, he met extreme opposition by the encomenderos. There was such opposition to the plan that it failed after one year. Although the Spanish façade for conquering the Americas was to convert, the real reason for most was economic. Greed, the heart of the matter, took over in Venezuela.
After that failure he created many missions all over the new world. Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Guatemala, and many other places, heard his proclamation of the Gospel.
He wrote Historia de las Indias. Requesting that it be published forty years
after his death, the work was actually published in 1875. In this work of literature
he painted the natives as having an idealistic utopian life. In reality that
was not the case. The natives actually were frequently at war with each other.
In that work of literature he emotionally cries:
“How much damage, how many calamities, disruptions and devastations of kingdoms have there been? How many souls have perished in the West Indies over the years and how unjustly? How many unforgivable sins have been committed? ... What we committed in the West Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind....”
Tears of the Indians was a pamphlet of deeds done against the natives by the Spanish. Documenting the atrocities committed against the natives he portrayed a sentimental scene. English propagandists used that document as proof as why the English should settle in the New World. The English would obviously be much kinder to those poor natives who had been mistreated by the evil wicked Spanish.
Asked to debate Juan Gines de Sepulveda by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1550 Sepulveda was a famous philosopher, but he had never been to the Americas. They debated on four major issues:
1. Indians are barbarous
2. Indians commit crimes against natural law
3. Indians oppress and kill innocent people
4. Wars may be waged against the infidels in order to prepare the way for preaching the faith.
Las Casas won the debate.
In either 1422 or 1424 he was appointed the Bishop of Chiapas, or Guatemala. After being appointed he implemented the confessionario. The confessionario said that any Spaniard found mistreating natives would be denied absolution. Although a noble effort, the priests did not follow this.
Bartholeme de Las Casas died at a ripe old age in 1566. At the Dominican monastery in Madrid he spent much of his later years. He wrote many writings which were published after his death. Noticing that the Africans were stronger than the natives he suggested that Africans would be better fit as slaves. Some theorize that he caused the African slave trade. Saving one race from slavery he sent another into it. Although often overly dramatic about the conditions of the natives in the New World he did have one point. All need to hear the gospel and all men are created equal.
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4. Corbett, Bob “The Tale of Bartolome de Las Casas”, 19 June 1995 <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43/025.html> (31 December 2003)
5. Kiefer, James “Biography: Bartolome de Las Casas, missionary (17 July 1566)” <http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/07/17.html> (31 December 2003)
6. Scott, Meredith “The Encomienda” <http://muweb.millersville.edu/~columbus/papers/scott-m.html> (31 December 2003)
7. Scholtes, Eryn M “Bartolome de las Casas Defends the Rights of Native Peoples” <http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/Americas/DelasCasas.CP.html> (31 December 2003)
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