What would you do if you found yourself surrounded by a violent, unjust system? Bartolomé de Las Casas risked everything and spoke out.
Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484 – July 17, 1566) was a 16th century Spanish priest.
In 1513, as a chaplain, Las Casas participated in Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar‘s and Pánfilo de Narváez‘ conquest of Cuba. He participated in campaigns against the native Ciboney and Guanahatabey peoples and in the execution of native resistance leader Hatuey. He later wrote of these experiences: “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.” During the next years, he divided his time between being a colonist and his duties as an ordained priest.
Las Casas and his friend Pablo de la Rentería were awarded a joint encomienda – a population of natives assigned to pay Las Casas in the form of tribute and labor. In turn, encomenderos were to take responsibility, among other things, for instruction in the Christian faith. In fact, the spread of the Christian faith was a large part of the Spanish justification for their often brutal conquest and reign over indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples were forced into many kinds of work, from mining to construction of roads and buildings for their masters. In addition, these enslaved peoples were often put to work cultivating and harvesting crops that remain key to the Cuban economy even five hundred years later – sugar cane and tobacco.
In 1514, while living in Cuba, Las Casas was studying a passage in the Bible from the book Ecclesiasticus, which reads in part – “The Lord is only for them that wait upon him in the way of truth and justice.” Las Casas was finally convinced that all the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and that they constituted a great injustice. He made up his mind to give up his slaves and encomienda, and started to preach that other colonists should do the same. When his preaching met with resistance, he realized that he would have to go to Spain, taking his fight against the enslavement and abuse of native peoples directly to the royal court of King Charles.
Las Casas became famous for his advocacy of the rights of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, whose cultures, especially in the Caribbean, he described with care. His book A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, published in 1552, gave a vivid description of the atrocities committed by the conquistadors in the Americas – most particularly, in the Caribbean, Central America, and what is now Mexico – including many events to which he was a witness. 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 slavery imposed on them by the early Spanish Conquest. The work also questioned the right Spain had to take the treasures found and taken from the burial sites of the Indios population. Las Casas explained that he had supported the acts of barbarism when he first arrived in the New World, but that he became convinced that the horrendous acts would eventually lead to the collapse of Spain itself in an act of Divine retribution. Largely due to his efforts, the New Laws were adopted in 1542 to protect indigenous Americans living under Spanish rule.
The dark legacy of Las Casas is that to the extent that his New Laws were successful in protecting the rights of indigenous peoples of the Americas, these laws contributed to the growing demand for African slaves, whose rights were not protected.
Las Casas’s Eye-Witness Account
The following is a graphic account from Las Casas describing Spanish treatment of Indios:
“The Spaniards with their horses, their spears and lances, began to commit murders and other strange cruelties. They entered into towns and villages, sparing neither children nor old men and women. They ripped their bellies and cut them to pieces as if they had been slaughtering lambs in a field. They made bets with each other over who could thrust a sword into the middle of a man or who could cut off his head with one stroke. They took little ones by their heels and crushed their heads against the cliffs. Others they threw into the rivers laughing and mocking them as they tumbled into the water. They put everyone they met to the edge of the sword.
One time I saw four or five important native nobles roasted and broiled upon makeshift grills. They cried out pitifully. This thing so troubled our Captain that he could not sleep. He commanded that they be strangled to end their misery. The Sergeant (I know him and his friends from Seville) would not strangle them but put bullets into their mouths instead.
I have seen all these things and others infinite. Most tried to flee. They tried to hide in the mountains. They tried to flee from these men. Men who were empty of all pity, behaving like savage beasts. They are nothing more than slaughterers and enemies of mankind. These evil men had even taught their hounds, fierce dogs, to tear natives to pieces at first sight.
AND, when, although rare, the Indians put to death some Spaniards upon good right and law of justice; the Spaniards made an agreement that for every one Spaniard killed they had to slay one hundred Indians.
One time the Indians came to meet us and receive us with food and good cheer! Instead, the devil, which had put himself in the Spaniards, put them all to the edge of the sword in my presence, without any cause whatsoever, more than three thousand souls. I saw there such great cruelties, that never any man living either have or shall see the like.
In three or four months (myself being present) there died more than six thousand children, which the Spanish had sent into the Gold mines.”
-Bartolomé de Las Casas
The Bottom Line
- Why are the Spanish committing such brutal acts toward the Indios?
- Why do you think Las Casas wrote about this topic in such detail? Who was his audience in the 1500s?
- Do you think Las Casas was the only one who felt troubled by this situation? Why aren’t there many books written by different Spaniards about this topic?
- Do you think modern Americans would be capable of such brutality? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why are Americans different?