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Casas, Bartolomé de Las (1484 - 1566)
"The reason the Christians have murdered on such a vast scale and killed anyone and everyone in their way is purely and simply greed."

-- Bartolomé de las Casas

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.

Works
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.

In 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.

Dedicated 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.

Las 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.

Though 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.

Biography
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.

Some 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.

Quotations

"They [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. "

"Once 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."

"Later, 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 thirty leagues."

"The 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."

"The 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."

"I [write] ... 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 thereby saved."

 
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