BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS: A Hero for all Time
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Bartolome de Las Casas was a simple Spanish priest, willing to risk all, including his very life, in order to blow the whistle on the first and one of the worst incidents of modern genocide, a wave of cruelty, greed and destruction that swept mercilessly across both continents of the so-called New World, beginning with Columbus’s first voyage. Las Casas pulled no punches, told it all, peeling off the heroic facades that have been perpetuated by generations of jingoists and schoolteachers regarding Cortez, Columbus, Pizzaro and other explorers and conquistadors.
He arrived in the Americas in 1502 with Nicolas de Ovando’s expedition. After journeying to Rome to be ordained a deacon, he returned to the Indies and became the first priest ever ordained in the Americas. He accompanied Diego de Velasquez on his expedition to conquer Cuba and was granted land and the slave labor of the Indians living on it in return for his services.
The encomienda system, devised by the Spanish to force the labor of the conquered Moors, amounted to slavery. Spanish officials ceded lands to the conquistadors, and those who lived there were forced to work on it. Las Casas appeared to be well on his way to becoming just another acquiescent encomendero, but his disenchantment with the system was festering beneath his calm surface.
On Pentecost Sunday, 1514, Las Casas turned “traitor to his class,” preaching a sermon condemning Spanish treatment of native peoples. He subsequently freed all his slaves and began advocating on behalf of Indian people.
For forty years, he was to witness Spanish atrocities rivaling the darkest days of the Third Reich or the Gulag Archipelago. In his tell-all book The Devastation of the Indies, he speaks of Native men, women and children being burned alive, sometimes thirteen at a time to represent Christ and his Apostles, of shops specializing in human flesh sold for dog food, horror stories of rape, torture and murder. Las Casas tells of entire families committing suicide to escape the cruelty of the invaders.
According to Las Casas, captains of slave ships could navigate by following the trail of the dead cast overboard by the ships ahead of them. Entire populations of inoffensive people who had approached the Spaniards in a spirit of friendship were annihilated by disease and genocide. Thousands were worked to death as slaves in the mines and sugar plantations of the Americas.
Rather than condemn the acts of individual conquistadors and encomenderos, he attacked the entire system. Standing before Charles V of Spain, he demanded an end to the military conquest of native peoples and their enslavement.
Central to Las Casas’s struggle for Native American rights were the famous Valladolid Debates of 1550-1551, during which he contradicted the arguments of the Spanish philosopher Juan Gines de Sepulveda who attempted to justify the enslavement of indigenous peoples on Aristotelian and Humanistic grounds that such actions were justified to uproot such real and imagined crimes against nature as idolatry, sodomy, cannibalism and human sacrifice, and that slavery can be an effective instrument for Christian conversion. In Sepulveda’s view, certain races lack the power of reason and, therefore, are naturally predisposed to slavery and bondage.
Las Casas argued that the Aristotelian/Humanistic tradition did not apply to Native American people, who demonstrated that they did, indeed, possess the capacity for reason and that they should be peacefully converted to Christianity. He declared that individuals are obligated to prevent the mistreatment of innocents. The debate caused Las Casas to be regarded as a lone voice crying out for the rights of indigenous peoples in an age of brutality, enslavement and genocide.
Pope Paul III issued a papal bull sublimis deus in 1537, proclaiming the rational humanity of natives and demanding protection for their lives and property. The New Laws of 1542, issued by Charles V, forbade Indian slavery and the transfer of encomiendas by inheritance, thus, hopefully eventually abolishing the system. Las Casas was officially appointed Protector of the Indians.
In 1544, Las Casas was made Bishop of Chiapas in southern Mexico. He outraged many communicants by denying absolution for sins to anyone failing to free their slaves and provide them with restitution. For this, his life was threatened. Those possessing wealth and power seldom relinquish it peacefully. In 1552, Las Casas returned to Spain and published Devastation of the Indies. The book is not for the weak of heart or stomach, describing in gruesome detail the atrocities committed in the name of a Savior who would never countenance such actions, but overlaying an all consuming hunger for gold, land and wealth.
While the New Laws decreed humane treatment of indigenous peoples, they were largely unenforceable, given the distance of the colonies from the mother country, and the plight of Native Americans improved only slightly. And yet Las Casas endures as one of history’s first and most effective whistle blowers, a hero for all times.
Remembering the barbarism of Christopher Columbus, I have scratched out his name on my kitchen calendar and penciled in “Father Bartolome de Las Casas”.