|Bartolomé de Las Casas was a 16th century Spanish priest,
and the first resident Bishop of Chiapas. As a settler in the New
World, he was galvanized by witnessing the brutal torture and genocide
of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists.
He became famous for his advocacy of the rights of Native Americans,
whose cultures especially in the Caribbean he describes with care.
His descriptions of Caciques (chiefs or princes), Bohiques (shamans
or clerics), Ni-Taínos (noblemen), and Naborias (common
folk), clearly show a feudal structure. His book A Short Account
of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación
de la destrucción de las Indias), published in 1552, gives
a vivid description of the atrocities committed by the conquistadors
in the Americas – most particularly, the Caribbean, Central
America, and what is now modern Mexico – including many
events to which he was a witness, as well as some events he reprints
from others' eye witness accounts.
one of his last works before his death, De thesauris in Peru,
he vigorously defended the rights of the natives of Peru against
the native slavery imposed by the early Spanish Conquest. The
work also questions the right of property Spain had in taking
the treasures derived from the ransom to free Atahualpa (the Inca
leader), as well as those valuables found and taken from the burial
sites of the indigenous population.
to King Philip II of Spain, Las Casas explained that he supported
the acts of barbarism when he first arrived in the New World,
but that he soon became convinced that the horrendous acts would
eventually lead to the collapse of Spain itself in an act of Divine
retribution. According to Las Casas, it was the responsibility
of the Spanish to convert the Indians, who would then be loyal
subjects of Spain, rather than to kill them. To avoid the burden
of slavery on them, Las Casas proposed that Africans be brought
to America instead, though he later changed his mind about this
when he saw the effects of slavery on Africans. Largely due to
his efforts, the New Laws were adopted in 1542 to protect the
Indians in colonies.
Casas also wrote the monumental Historia de las Indias and was
the editor of Christopher Columbus' published journal. He was
instrumental, on his repeated return trips to Spain, in gaining
the temporary repeal of the encomienda regulations that established
virtual slave labor gangs in Spanish America. Las Casas returned
to Spain and was eventually able to bring about the great debate
of 1550 in Valladolid between Las Casas and the advocate for the
colonists, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.
the encomienda system triumphed, championed by the colonial Spanish
classes who were profiting from it, the writings of Las Casas
were translated and republished across Europe. His published accounts
are central documents in the "Black Legend" of Spanish
colonial atrocities. They influenced the essayist Montaigne's
views of the New World.
Las Casas was born in Seville, probably in 1484, although 1474
is the traditional date. With his father, he emigrated to the
Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1502. He became a priest eight
years later, and served as a missionary to the Arawak (Taino)
of Cuba in 1512. His 1520-21 attempt to create a more equitable
colonial society in Venezuela was brought down by his colonial
neighbors, who were able to incite a native rebellion against
him. In 1522, he joined the Dominican order.
accounts claim that Las Casas was descended from a converso family,
that is, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. He died
in Madrid in 1566.
[the Christian Europeans] forced their way into native settlements,
slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children,
old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth.
They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their
swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They
even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in
two at a stroke, or cut an individual's head from his body, or
disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed
suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mothers'
breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks. Others, laughing
and joking all the while, threw them over their shoulders into
a river, shouting: "Wriggle, you little perisher." They
slaughtered anyone and everyone in their path, on occasion running
through a mother and her baby with a single thrust of their swords.
They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which
they could string their victims up with their feet just off the
ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honour
of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their
bodies and set fire to it. "
he [the native lord Hatuey in Cuba] was tied to the stake, a Franciscan
friar who was present, a saintly main, told him as much as he
could in the sort time permitted by his executioners about the
Lord and about our Christian faith, all of which was new to him.
The friar told him that, if he would only believe what he was
now hearing, he would go to Heaven there to enjoy glory and eternal
rest, but that, if he would not, he would be consigned to Hell,
where he would endure everlasting pain and torment. The lord Hatuey
thought for a short while and then asked the friar whether Christians
went to Heaven. When the reply came that good ones do, he retorted,
without need for further reflection, that, if that was the case,
then he chose to go to Hell to ensure that he would never again
have to clap eyes on those cruel brutes. This is just one example
of the reputation and honour that our Lord and our Christian faith
have earned as a result of the actions of those 'Christians' who
have sailed to the Americas. On one occasion, when the locals
had come some ten leagues out from a large settlement in order
to receive us and regale us with victuals and other gifts, and
had given us loaves and fishes and any other foodstuffs they could
provide, the Christians were suddenly inspired by the Devil and,
without the slightest provocation, butchered, before my eyes,
some three thousand souls -- men, women and children -- as they
sat there in front of us. I saw that day atrocities more terrible
than any living man has ever seen nor ever thought to see."
a large band of Christians mounted an attack on this [native]
lord [Paris, of Panama], butchering him along with vast numbers
of his people and taking all the survivors into slavery, where
they duly perished, so that today not a trace remains of what
was previously a community with dominion over an area of some
Christians seized all the maize the locals [of Nicaragua] had
grown for themselves and their own families and, as a consequence,
some twenty or thirty thousand natives died of hunger, some mothers
even killing their own children and eating them."
reader may ask himself if this is not cruelty and injustice of
a kind so terrible that it beggars the imagination, and whether
these poor people would not fare far better if they were entrusted
to the devils in Hell than they do at the hands of the devils
of the New World who masquerade as Christians."
... in order to help ensure that the teeming millions in the New
World, for whose sins Christ gave His life, do not continue to
die in ignorance, but rather are brought to knowledge of God and