Born in Seville, probably on August 24, 1474, Bartolom© de las Casas was the son of baker Pedro de las Casas and his wife, Isabel de Sosa. His father’s family was descended from conversos, former Spanish Jews, and, during his childhood, his father and three uncles accompanied Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the New World as entrepreneurs. Las Casas attended Latin school in Seville and Grenada and was present as part of the militia to put down the 1497 Morisco revolt. Intrigued by his family’s connection to the New World, especially his short ownership of a slave boy (freed by royal command in 1500), las Casas, having taken minor orders with the Dominicans and been tonsured in the Catholic Church, sailed for Hispaniola (Espa±ola) in 1499 alongside his father. In the new world, Bartolom© las Casas acted as a soldier, while putting down a native revolt in Higuey (15021506). During a visit to Rome in 1506, he took formal vows as a priest. Like many Spanish settlers, however, las Casas was more concerned with his land allotment in Hispaniola, given to him by Diego Columbus, than with the spiritual welfare of his native workers, who mined gold and farmed his encomendia (a land grant, which also included rule over its peoples).
Although repelled by the massacres during the conquest of the island, he continued to behave as a conquistador himself until 1514, when he was scolded harshly by his own confessor, a Dominican priest, who refused him absolution until he attended to his spiritual obligation to his native slaves. This crisis of faith proved a turning point in las Casas’s life. He sold his properties and returned to Spain with a mission to reform the treatment of natives and push for their evangelization. Bartolom© de las Casas, one of the first Spanish missionaries in the Americas, is called the Apostle of the Indies for his advocacy of just treatment for native peoples. (Archivo de Indias, Seville, Spain/Mithra-Index/Bridgeman Art Library) Back in Spain, las Casas studied law at the Collegio de San Gregorie, adding legal heft to his arguments in favor of abolishing the encomendia system and establishing free native communities. He found powerful patrons, including Archbishop Francisco Ximines de Cisneros and Jean de Sauvage, but was continually blocked by equally powerful conquistador landowners and their representatives in Spain, including several Catholic orders. Although unable to impress Ferdinand of Aragon, las Casas found favor with his royal successors, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the young heir to the throne, Philip II of Spain.
With royal backing, las Casas returned to the New World with a plan to found a model community at Cumana, Venezuela. His Franciscan friars were scattered in a storm, and the local landowners fiercely resisted aiding the community, despite being ordered to do so. In the chaos surrounding the communeros revolt, the plan foundered, and las Casas retreated to the Dominican monasteries at Santo Domingo in 1522 and then Puerto de Plata in 1526. At the monasteries, he began his massive Historia de las Indias and Apologitica Historia, which outraged Spanish landowners by insisting that the natives were not lesser beings and that they should not be enslaved on the false premise of their inferiority. His Historia, using many documents in the library of Diego Columbus, is an indictment of the violent takeover of the New World by the Spanish, as well as a rich, though exaggerated, ethnographic view of native life, including the medicinal use of plants, religious rituals, languages, and social customs. Setting off the conquistadors again by insisting that they return the loot taken from the conquest of Peru, he further antagonized them by refusing absolution to slave owners. He also made inspection trips to dioceses in Mexico and Puerto Rico in 15311532.
Despite royal connections, las Casas was a deeply unpopular figure among the Spanish in America. His bishopric in Chiapas, an appointment from Philip II, was a disaster repeated in 1537 in Guatemala, when the local Europeans refused to accept him as their spiritual authority. He, in turn, refused them his services as a priest until they reformed and allowed him to form communities of free natives. This resistance on the part of the Spanish in America ran counter to stated royal and papal policy of peaceful conversion and evangelizing the native population. Las Casas was forced to return to Spain unsuccessful.
Institutionally, las Casas did get the Council of the Indies overhauled in 15401541, after years of petitioning and royal audiences. Its new members agreed with his plans for instructing the natives and prosecuting corruption in the Spanish administration. What should have been his greatest triumph, the 1542 New Laws of the Indies, which categorized the natives as subjects, not slaves, and ended the encomendia system, was blunted by the protests of the conquistadors, who were able to bend the new laws and force Philip II to allow similar exploitation under new forms of indenture. At the end of his life, las Casas was still writing, endlessly revising his histories and writing pamphlet after pamphlet decrying the treatment of the native peoples. These received wide distribution, as did the transcript of his five-day debate with Juan Gin©s de Sepºlveda before the royal theological council. Bartolom© de las Casas died sometime before July 20, 1566, when he was buried at the Convent of Stocha in Madrid. A revered figure among native Catholics in the Americas, the Dominican priest was one of the first historians and ethnographers of the New World. He also was one of the few Europeans of his time who spoke for the rights of the native people.
Margaret Sankey See also: Catholic Church; Government, Spanish Colonial; Native American-European Relations; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Frede, Juan, and Benjamin Keen, eds. Bartolom© de las Casas in History. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971. Hanke, Lewis. Bartolom© de las Casas: An Interpretation of his Life and Writings. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1951. Traboulay, David. Columbus and Las Casas. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.
Las Casas, Bartolomé de 1474–1566 Photo Gallery
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