Fray Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish Dominican friar who dedicated much of his life to the defense and protection of the indigenous peoples of the Americas under Spanish rule. Born in Sevilla in the 15th century, De las Casas came from a privileged background that granted him access to important connections and conditions that would allow him to receive an appropriate education and participate in the initial era of Spanish colonization of the Americas. He was a firsthand witness to the dramatic transformations that overtook the New World, frequently criticizing the resulting abuses and injustices.
De las Casas’ Early Life
Bartolome de las Casas was born in Sevilla, Spain in the later decades of the 15th century. It is believed that he was born either in 1474 or 1484, according to conflicting accounts. He was born into a privileged family and was the son of a successful merchant. Their dealings with the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church neared them to important figures, such as Cristopher Columbus. De las Casas’ family befriended Columbus and spent time with him during his stays in Sevilla.
De las Casas’ paternal uncle joined Columbus on his first travel to the Americas, where they found the “new passage to the Indies.” When they returned in 1493, they brought with them species from the New World as well as “Indians,” natives from the Americas who were still believed to be part of the Indies. These natives were enslaved, dehumanized, and displayed to the public as novelties. When Columbus passed through Sevilla, De las Casas witnessed for the first time the native peoples who, later in life, he would go on to defend.
His father joined Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. On his return, he gifted De las Casas a native. Interested in their language and beliefs, De las Casas interrogated him to discover the possible likeness between their cultures. This came to an end once the Spanish queen, Isabel I of Castile, decreed that the natives were to be considered fellow subjects and not slaves. It is believed that De las Casas finished his studies at the University of Salamanca and then left for the New World in 1502.
Arrival in the New World
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Upon arriving in the New World, De las Casas took over his father’s encomienda. The encomienda was an institution established as the main form of production for the Spanish labor system in the colonies. De las Casas was, therefore, in charge of overseeing work in the fields and the hunt. When the natives rebelled against a group of Spanish colonizers, a war broke out, lasting about a year. For his role in the war, De las Casas received an encomienda of his own, which he managed until 1506.
In 1506, De las Casas returned to Spain to become ordained into the Catholic Church. One year later, he traveled to Rome and became a presbyter, a Catholic priest able to celebrate mass and carry out most of the sacraments. De las Casas waited until 1510 to celebrate his first mass in the New World. He returned to Hispaniola, the Caribbean Island where he had lived previously. The Dominicans, a religious order known for their eventual support for the defense of the natives in the New World, arrived the same year. The Dominicans went on to clash with the encomenderos as they saw their practices as abusive and degrading to the natives. The dispute reached the Spanish crown, and in 1512, King Ferdinand II of Aragon sided with the natives.
The new laws signed by Ferdinand II, called Leyes de Burgos, set out new conditions for the organization of the New World and prohibited the enslavement of the natives. The laws attempted to protect the natives as subjects to the crown who had to serve it but were not to be exploited. These and many subsequent laws were difficult to enact in the New World, and many previous abuses continued.
The Encomienda System: A Colonial Institution of Exploitation & Abuse
To understand the beginnings of the Spanish Empire in the New World, one must pay close attention to the encomienda system. A colonial labor system established by the Spanish Crown and inspired by the feudal labor system established in medieval Spain, the encomienda granted specific individuals the right to extract the forced labor of native people. In exchange, the encomendero, responsible for the encomienda, had to take care of the natives, giving them appropriate protection and evangelizing them into the Catholic faith.
Although designed to keep the needs of the indigenous in mind, the encomienda system was, in truth, an exploitative and abusive institution that led to great suffering and had a widespread negative effect on the native population. Spanish conquistadors and settlers were granted land and the right to their encomienda. The institution quickly spread and eventually developed into a system of forced labor and subjugation more akin to slavery than the original Spanish labor system. The widespread injustices committed under the encomienda system were broadly criticized by important groups and figures, particularly those in Catholic religious orders, such as the Dominicans and later the Jesuits.
One important figure was none other than Bartolome de las Casas, who had previously been an encomendero himself but eventually turned against the institution, arguing it was abusive and exploitative towards the natives. De las Casas proposed instead that the labor done under the encomienda be carried out by enslaved Africans, who he considered more capable of handling the challenging conditions. He later regretted this position and argued that they were also subject to terrible suffering.
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Among all of De las Casas’ work, by far the most famous and consequential is his defining A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias). In said book, De las Casas denounces the abuses committed in the Spanish colonies by illustrating the violent atrocities the natives were subjected to. The book is dedicated to Prince Philip, who later became King Phillip II.
In his book, De las Casas illustrates the harsh conditions many natives were subject to in the Caribbean. De las Casas had witnessed and taken part in such cruelty, having been an encomendero himself and having fought the indigenous previously. But when he became a Dominican friar, he turned against his past behavior and beliefs and became an avid defender of the natives. In 1516, De las Casas was named Universal Protector of all the Indians of the Indies. He was in charge of overseeing the protection of the natives in the Caribbean and the mainland.
A highly controversial topic even today, the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas remains a fundamental chapter in understanding the history of the Americas and the modern era. De las Casas’ work was received without great altercation. It was criticized by some important figures who accused him of being a liar and writing in favor of the so-called Spanish Black Legend, the unfavorable narrative that depicts the Spanish Empire as uniquely cruel, spread by European enemies of Spain. Nevertheless, the impact of the Short Account was significant, arguably leading to substantial reforms in the shape of the New Laws (Leyes Nuevas), a set of laws that intended to, once more, end the exploitation and mistreatment of the natives.
Legacy & Aftermath
De las Casas’ legacy is one that undoubtedly remains relevant even today. His life’s work powerfully illustrates much of what makes the colonization of the Americas a powerful yet challenging subject. Some historians consider the Spanish colonization of the Americas as genocide or ethnocide. Even the coiner of the term, Raphael Lemkin, considered it to be at least a cultural genocide. Although some challenge this perspective, arguing it consists more of a perpetuation of the Black Legend, a propaganda campaign by Spain’s 16th-century European enemies, the atrocities and abuses remain a crucial testament to this tragic period in history.
De las Casas’ title of Protector of the Indians displays an intention of humanizing the conquest and colonization of the Americas. And while De las Casas’ work was fundamental in evidencing and attempting to correct the atrocities, his true intentions were never those of denouncing the conquest itself; he merely sought to change the course of the violence. Thus, De las Casas was not occupied with liberating the natives and denouncing the conquerors. Instead, he wanted a transformation of the conquest and the colonial system towards a more “human” model based on Spanish law and Catholicism. He still argued in favor of the evangelization of the natives, a conquest itself, if spiritual and not outright material.
Still, De las Casas’ legacy in history won’t be expressly judged by the nuances of his positions; instead, he will be remembered as the man who, though not alone nor the only one, challenged the Spanish Crown and the colonial institutions on their role in the colonization of the Americas. And while discussions about the colonization of the New World may remain forever inconclusive, De las Casas’ testimony will remain a valuable and important element.