“Bartholomew De Las Casas,” The Story of the Sea, 1895, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, GC21.Q11.

Bartolomé de las Casas

Bartolomé de las Casas was born in the important Spanish town of Seville, probably in 1474 (some sources list the year of his birth as 1484). His father, Pedro de las Casas, was a merchant who accompanied Christopher Columbus to the New World on his second voyage in 1493. Pedro was wealthy and influential enough to send his young son Bartolomé to the prestigious University of Salamanca, where he eventually earned a degree.

Around 1502, Las Casas went to the New World to oversee the lands granted to his family on the island of Hispaniola. The governor of the island, Nicolás de Ovando, was organizing a military expedition against the local Native Americans, which Las Casas joined, in hopes of gaining loot and native slaves. He did profit by the use of slaves, who mined and farmed his lands. Meanwhile, he was ordained as a priest, possibly around 1507.

In 1510, he served as the chaplain for Pánfilo de Narváez's campaign on the island of Cuba. As the religious advisor for the expedition, Las Casas was horrified by the treatment of the Native Americans (called "Indians" by the Spanish, who early on had mistakenly believed that the New World was part of India) by Narváez's troops. In one instance, Las Casas recounted that some two thousand natives were slain without provocation by the Spanish soldiers. He was further outraged when Narváez burned several native chieftains to death as punishment for their having fought against the Spaniards.

Outraged or not, Las Casas did profit from the conquest of Cuba by gaining more land grants and several dozen more Indian slaves. While concerned with the overall treatment of the natives by the Spanish, Las Casas was admittedly more concerned with keeping his fortunes intact. It was not until 1514 that he had a complete change of heart and reversed his stance on slavery and the entire topic of Spanish mistreatment of Native Americans. He gave up his plantations and his slaves and set off for Spain to tell the king how he felt.

News traveled slowly in 16th century Spain, so Las Casas did not know that King Ferdinand was quite sick and dying. By the time Las Casas was able to get an interview with the king, he was already dead, so he met instead with Francisco Jiménez de Ciscneros, the Spanish cardinal who ruled Spain as regent (a temporary ruler that keeps order until a new king is crowned). The Cardinal agreed with Las Casas' plan to remove natives from the oppressive, virtual-slave conditions of the Spanish encomiendas (a system whereby a Spanish landholder would be granted a certain number of natives to work the land whether they wanted to work it or not) and resettle them in towns, side by side with Spaniards, who could teach them about Christianity. Other, less native-friendly churchmen, notably Bishop Juan Rodriquez Fonseca of Burgos, balked at the idea. The natives, Fonseca and others argued, were heathen savages unworthy of learning the teachings of Christ.

Cisneros turned over the implementation of Las Casas' plan to Luis de Figueroa, Alonzo de Santo Domingo and Bernardino Manzanedo, all members of the Order of St. Jerome. Bartolomé de las Casas was given the title "Protector of the Indians," which he did his best to live up to. Returning to the island of Hispaniola, Las Casas quickly realized that the Jeronymites (as members of the Order of St. Jerome were called) were not of the same mindset; they wanted to investigate rumors of native abuse and get to know the island before tackling the system of encomienda, which was popular with Spanish settlers. Protecting the Indians was not a cause most settlers were willing to support, and after less than a year, Las Casas was on a boat back to Spain to complain to the new king, Charles.

King Charles was receptive to Las Casas' ideas, and reworked the encomienda system so that farm-minded settlers would be encouraged to move (with their families) to the New World and take up the colonizing of the land. Natives would not necessarily be needed to work the land, and settlers who stayed long enough would be rewarded with loans of money and the land they worked. Ironically, the system of encomienda had been designed to eliminate the enslavement of the natives; instead it actually ended up encouraging it. Las Casas agreed that if the natives were not to be used for labor (many were dying from European diseases brought to the New World by settlers), then perhaps the importation of Africans would solve the shortage of workers. Unfortunately, the scheme did not work out as planned; the settlers and natives near Cumaná (in modern day Venezuela) did not get along and both sides quickly took to fighting and killing one another.

In 1522, Bartolomé de las Casas tried to forget his troubles (and painful failure at Cumaná) by joining the Dominican Order. For ten years, he toiled away as a friar, living a simple life devoted to studying scripture and learning about Christianity. When he reemerged in 1531, he was a changed man. He was now a militant supporter of Native Americans' rights, even if it meant disturbing the economic benefit of Spanish landholders. It was a novel concept: Native Americans might have the same rights to own property as Europeans. He also called for a formal end to the encomienda system.

While some Spaniards argued that Las Casas was wrong in taking the side of the Native Americans, the Spanish crown saw differently. Charles was growing alarmed at the unchecked power of the conquistadors, the fearsome soldiers who had conquered much of the New World for Spain. Growing rich off of captured gold and native slaves, the conquistadors were seen as something of a threat to Charles' imperial power; he had enough problems to worry about in Europe without having to wonder if his subjects in the New World were plotting against him. Dismantling the encomiendas was seen as a way of limiting the power and influence of the conquistadors.

All the while, Las Casas was writing letters to influential men throughout the empire, calling for an end to the exploitation of Native Americans and noting horrific instances of Spanish abuse of them. Many of Spain's rival nations in Europe, notably England and the Netherlands, seized upon the stories of conquistador brutality in order to inflame anti-Spanish feelings across the continent.

While Las Casas is remembered for producing many works dealing with the innate humanity of the Native Americans, his best-known work is his Historia de las Indias ("History of the Indies"), which was compiled between 1527 and 1562. Though not widely published until the 19th century, Las Casas' research gave the curious in Europe a glimpse of how Native American cultures existed before, during and just after the Spanish conquest of the New World. Also valuable is the work's abstract of the logbook of Christopher Columbus' first voyage in 1492; since the original (and the copies Columbus himself had made of it) are now lost, Las Casas abbreviated version of the log comprises one of the best accounts of this important voyage.

Las Casas died in July, 1566 in Madrid, Spain, after pleading for the rights of Guatemalan natives before King Philip (King Charles had stepped down from the throne in 1556). He is remembered for his impassioned, reasoned defense of the rights of Native Americans, and for being a pioneer in the thinking that humans are all created equal, regardless of skin color or national origin.