The Morning Star of Human Rights
By Gabriel Blanchard
The life of de las Casas is a study in colonialism, conversion, and zeal for justice.
Born in the Spanish city of Seville in 1484, less than a decade before the notorious voyage of Christopher Columbus, Bartolomé de las Casas was the son of a prosperous merchant who emigrated to the northern coast of Hispaniola when his son was 18. Young Bartolomé apparently reflected little on the customs of the Spanish colonists; he participated in military expeditions against the Taíno, the native populace of the island, and became an hacendado like his father. The hacendados were beneficiaries of the encomienda system: put briefly, this allowed Spanish conquistadors to force the conquered into labor on their behalf—in all but name, enslavement—in “return” for which they received certain assets, though materially this meant little but conversion to Catholicism. After studying at the prestigious University of Salamanca back in Spain and being ordained a priest in 1507, Las Casas returned to Hispaniola, where he resumed both his plantation and his slaves. A less promising candidate for spearheading the belief in universal human rights can scarcely be imagined.
Three years later, a group of Dominican friars came to the island, led by the inquisitor Pedro de Córdoba. For all their institutional faults in Europe, to their credit, the Dominicans were appalled by the behavior of the hacendados toward the local peoples. Within in a year of their arrival, they had begun preaching against the abuses they witnessed among the colonists; they eventually began to refuse absolution to the hacendados, until and unless they freed the people of their haciendas. Las Casas was among those denied the sacrament. Infuriated, the hacendados appealed to King Ferdinand II, and the Dominicans were recalled from Hispaniola. Yet their preaching seems to have wormed its way into the young priest’s heart; a few years later, accompanying a Spanish expedition against the native people of Cuba as a chaplain, Las Casas too was horrified by the cruelty of the conquistadors there, and by 1514, he became convicted of the need to give up his slaves—and started preaching that other Spaniards needed to do likewise. Now aided and mentored by de Córdoba, Las Casas returned to Spain late the following year, to plead with the king for an end to the encomiendas.
Thus began a career of more than forty years of striving on Las Casas’ part, to protect and advocate for the rights of the Native American peoples against the imperial practices of the Spanish. He received the title Protectoría de los Indios, “Protector of the Indians,” with the duty of looking after their legal interests and sending regular reports to the Spanish crown. A few of his fellow clerics sympathized, but most Spaniards, churchmen and nobility alike, were at best indifferent to the native plight; the slave trade (which at this early stage even Las Casas considered acceptable in itself) was too normal, and too profitable, and its New World brutalities were too far away, to arouse any widespread and serious indignation in Europe. Some individual cases were remedied; but the perceived extremism of the Dominican party, who were now not only refusing absolution to the hacendados but preaching that priests who did absolve them while they kept their slaves were committing a mortal sin, was met with rage by the colonists.
Las Casas made two attempts at a kind of “compromise colonialism,” one which would allow Spain to continue extracting resources from its New World territories (like precious metals and sugar) without exploiting the populace; instead, he proposed bringing over Spanish peasant settlers and supplementing them with slaves from Africa. Both attempts proved disastrous—especially the second, which ended when the Caribs, provoked by ongoing raids from colonists, chose to attack Las Casas’ settlement, which his enemies used as evidence that no relations could exist between the Spanish and the American peoples except subjugation and war.
In 1522, Las Casas decided to join the Dominican Order, whose preaching had gradually changed his own heart a decade before. Amid his studies in Thomist philosophy, he also began writing his History of the Indies, in which he not only chronicled several peoples of Central America, but argued that they had achieved a high level of civilization and that the imperialist arguments that they “needed” Spanish domination for their own good were thoroughly false. He went still further, confronting Franciscan missionaries over their policy of mass conversion with little catechesis; Las Casas insisted that while evangelism was not only licit but a grave duty, all conversion must be peaceable (as against the conquistador colonists) and based in a genuine grasp of the Catholic faith (as against the practices of the Franciscans). The Dominicans saw some success among the Maya of what is now Guatemala, and Las Casas’ name became prominent enough that in 1538 he was chosen to become the Bishop of Chiapas in the south of modern Mexico.
In 1542, he was allowed to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor (Charles V, who was also King Carlos I of Spain) to plead once more for an end to the encomiendas and the recognition and protection of the dignity of the “Indios.” It was at this time that he wrote one of his most important works, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. (This work was later used in the English-speaking world, rather hypocritically, to prop up the “Black Legend.”) In response to this, the Emperor did abolish the encomienda system and promulgated the New Laws—which, it turned out, pleased nobody: in Las Casas’ opinion the New Laws did not go far enough in upholding the rights of the native peoples, while the Spanish settlers rioted against their promulgation, and many local authorities refused to enforce them. They were repealed just three years later, and Las Casas himself was chased out of his diocese. His last act as bishop was to publish a manual for confessors, again ordering that hacendados were not to be absolved, even on their deathbeds, unless they freed their slaves and restored their property to them. (Las Casas’ Franciscan enemies gleefully burned all copies of this manual they could find, on the instructions of the crown.)
In 1547 he arrived in Spain once again, where the scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that his positions of the rights of the Americans were treasonous. Backed by other theologians from Salamanca, Las Casas took part in a famous debate against de Sepúlveda at Valladolid, conducted from 1550 to 1551. The debate was judged inconclusive (and both parties, naturally, claimed to have won); Las Casas’ arguments stated, among other things, that holy Scripture did not in truth sanction wars against non-Christians in general, that all proselytizing was morally bound to be peaceable, and that some native peoples suffering at the hands of others was less unjust than all of them suffering at the hands of the Spanish.
Las Casas spent the remainder of his days in his native Spain, where he continued to advocate for the “Indios” both in general and in particular cases at the Spanish court. Late in life, he even recanted his previous acceptance of the trade in African slaves, a highly radical position at the time. He died in Madrid on this very date in 1566, leaving his only major possession, his personal library, to the college in he had spent the evening of his life. The development of classical Liberalism and the theory of universal human rights in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and with them the roots of abolitionism, drew upon the tireless work of Las Casas; he has been declared a “Servant of God” by the Vatican, the first step on the path to recognition as a Catholic saint.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor-in-chief for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might be interested in some of our other profiles of figures from the Author Bank, like Josephus, Chaucer, Erasmus, and Darwin.
Published on 18th July, 2022. Page image of a sketch the cloister of the Colegio de San Gregorio, located in Valladolid, Spain, where Las Casas spent his last fifteen years.