Bartolomé de Las Casas: Two Sides of the Same Peso
There is perhaps no more interesting figure in all of history than Bartolomé de Las Casas. In one lifetime he was a conquistador and Dominican friar; a slave holder turned peace seeker; a voice for the voiceless in a world wide empire, and an unwitting instrument of that very same state. Las Casas was, and continues to be, a man of many contradictions. And that’s precisely why his story is such a fascinating one.
Born sometime around 1484 in Seville, Las Casas made his first voyage to the New World in 1502, sailing with this father to Hispaniola (what is today the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Las Casas went on to spend his late teens and early twenties as a soldier and slave owner in the Caribbean. During this time he participated in slave raids and battles against the Taíno people of Hispaniola, and took part in the conquest of the island of Cuba.1 For his service, Las Casas received an encomienda from the crown, with an allotment of native slaves to work the land.
And this is where his story changes. Realizing “our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle, and destroy…”2 Las Casas abandoned the life of a conquistador, giving up his slaves and encomienda.3 He than became a Dominican friar and began actively fighting for the Native Americans affected by conquistadors and Spain’s expansion.
As the details of this work are available in myriad formats and sources, I won’t dive into here. I want to, instead, concentrate on what Las Casas saw as his priorities, rather than those super-imposed onto him by later generations of peace seekers and revolutionaries.
When writing his work, History of the Indies, Las Casas tells us:
I undertook this rather burdensome task, adding it to my many other occupations for the following reasons. One: (and this is the principal reason) for the honor and glory of God, for the manifestation of His profound and unscrutable judgement, for the execution of His right and infallible divine justice and for the good of His universal Church. Two: for the common benefit, both spiritual and temporal, of the innumberal Indians, if there are any left when I finish my History.4
Thus, at the beginning of his work, in which “he wanted to make the Spanish reading public aware of its collective guilt for the enslavement and massacre of the Indians,” he points out that his first priority was, in fact, the spreading of Christianity.5 Once the ‘honor and glory of God’ was assured, only then did the well being of the Native populations come into play.
Contradictory to what later generations claimed, Las Casas didn’t want to save the Native Nations of the Caribbean and continental Americas from all things Spanish, only Spanish violence. He felt a deep seeded conviction that God had allowed Spain to find these new lands in order to spread the Christian faith. This belief proved so core to Las Casas that he argued the name Christopher Columbus stemmed from the Latin, “Christum ferens, which means carrier or bearer of Christ.”6 This took me for a loop, given that Columbus, in a letter to the Spanish monarch (which Las Casas transcribed!), wrote, “whenever Your Highnesses may command, all of them [Native inhabitants he encountered] can be taken to Castile or held captive in this same island; because with 50 men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish.”7
As showed by his rhetoric in the work A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Las Cases believed the monarch of Spain (given the title the Most Catholic Monarch or Most Catholic Majesty by the Pope in 1493)8 also put the evangelization of the Americas’ indigenous population before the conquest of the region and the extraction of its resources. It was the ‘wicked governors,’ captains, and soldiers who came to the New World that distorted this vision and sought wealth through violence, “even while the various ordinances and decrees governing the treatment of the native peoples have continued to maintain that conversion and the saving of souls has first priority.”9 Indeed, Las Cases would go so far as to claim that upon Queen Isabella’s death, “only a small number of provinces had been destroyed through unjust military action… and news of even this partial destruction had by and large been kept from the Queen, because she… took a close personal interest in the physical and spiritual welfare of the native peoples.”10
Based on these writings, it seems Las Cases never envisioned a world in which Native Nations once again held sovereignty or practiced their own religion. But by spelling out every tragic detail of the various Spanish-Native American wars that resulted in Spain’s New World Empire – the largest the world had yet seen – Las Cases hoped to bring peace to besieged peoples. He hoped his words would strike a chord with his European audiences and drive the Crown to act against the conquistadors whom they sent over the ocean in droves. But, in the end, spurred on by his desire to evangelize, it seems that Las Cases became an unwitting arm of the empire against whose violence he fought so hard.
- Wikipedia article on Bartolomé de Las Casas
- History of the Indies, Bartolomé de Las Casas, ed. Andrée Collard, 78.
- Wikipedia article on Bartolomé de Las Casas
- History of the Indies, Las Cases, 9.
- Ibid, x.
- A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Bartolomé de Las Casas, ed. Nigel Griffin – Introduction and citations from Anthony Pagden, xv.
- Diaro, Christopher Columbus.
- Wikipedia article on Rex Catholicissimus
- A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Las Cases, 32.
- Ibid, 23.