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Bartolomé de Las Casas

1484 CE – 1566 CE

Bartolomé de Las Casas was born in 1484 in Sevilla, Spain.  In 1502 he left for Hispaniola, the island that today contains the states of Dominican Republic and Haiti.   He became a doctrinero, lay teacher of catechism, and began evangelizing the indigenous people, whom the Spaniards called Indians.   He was probably the first person ordained as a priest in America, on either 1512 or 1513. During his first twelve years in the New World, Las Casas participated in various expeditions of conquest in the Caribbean. Due to his service, the Spanish crown rewarded him with an encomienda (a royal land grant including native inhabitants) as it was the custom of the time to pay for the services of those Spaniards participating in the exploration of the new territories.

Like many other Spanish missionaries who had traveled to America and experienced the brutality of the conquest, Las Casas became an advocate for the Indians and a critic of the brutal exploitation of indigenous slave labor and the lack of serious religious instruction.  In 1514, he returned his Indian serfs to the governor of Santo Domingo, and a year later, traveled to Spain to defend the natives and plead for their better treatment. Las Casas sought to change the methods of the Spanish conquest, and believed that both the Spaniards and indigenous communities could build a new civilization in America together.  For this reason, during his stay in Spain he conceived the Plan para la reformación de las Indias (Plan for the Reformation of the Indies). The emperor Charles V appointed Las Casas as the priest-procurator of the Indies, the head of a commission to investigate the status of the Indians, and in 1519 supported his project to found communities of both Spaniards and Indians.   This settlement was located on the Gulf of Paria in the present-day Venezuela.  Las Casas traveled to the new colony from Spain in 1520, but two years later had to return to Santo Domingo after his experiment failed due to the opposition of the powerful encomenderos and the attacks of native communities of the region.

After his failure, Las Casas decided to devote his life to religious service. In 1523, he joined the Dominican order and became the prior of the Convent of Puerto De Plata.   This was the beginning of a very prolific writing period.   During the following years, Las Casas produced his most important works.   In 1527, he began to write the Historia Apologética (Apologetic History), one of his major works, which served as an introduction to his masterpiece Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies).   The work was published by his own request after his death.


Las Casas became an avid critic of the encomienda system.  He argued that the Indians were free subjects of the Castilian crown, and their property remained their own.   At the same time, he stated that evangelization and conversion should be done through peaceful persuasion and not through violence or coercion.  Between 1531 and 1540, he wrote several texts attacking the encomenderos and accusing persons and institutions of the sin of oppressing the Indians.  He also developed a new system of evangelization that the Dominicans used favorably in Central America. In 1542, Charles V signed the “New Laws” that reformed the encomienda in response to Las Casas and some of his supporters complain. It ceased to be a hereditary grant, and the encomenderos had to set free their Indians. Slaves from Africa who had begun arriving in the 1530s had slowly replaced the indigenous labor force. After the emperor approved these new laws, Las Casas became bishop of Chipas in today’s Guatemala, where he oversaw their enforcement and the evangelization campaigns.  In 1547, Las Casas returned to Spain where he became an influential advisor to the emperor and the Council of the Indies until the moment of his death in 1566.

In 1550, Las Casas debated in Valladolid his views on the American Indians with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in front of the Spanish court.  Sepúlveda, a humanist lawyer born in 1490, was an important figure in the court of Charles V where he served as the Emperor's chaplain and his official historian.  In 1544, Sepúlveda wrote Democrates Alter (or, on the Just Causes for War Against the Indians).  This became the most important text at the time supporting the Spanish conquest of the Americas and their methods.  The text justified theoretically following Aristotelian ideas of natural slavery the inferiority of Indians and their enslavement by the Spaniards. He claimed that the Indians had no ruler, and no laws, so any civilized man could legitimately appropriate them.  In other words, Sepúlveda considered the Indians to be pre-social men with no rights or property. The debate, which continued in 1551, reached no firm conclusion; but the court seemed to agree with Las Casas, and demanded a better treatment for the Indians.



Sources consulted:
Anthony Pagden, “Dispossessing the Barbarism: The Language of Spanish Thomism and the Debate over the Property Rights of the Americas” in David Armitage (ed) Theories of Empire, 1450-1800: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 20.  Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 1998, 159-178.

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625.  Grand Rapids, Mi:  William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Margaret Kohn  "Colonialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/colonialism/


Simón Calle  Department of Music, Columbia University

Historical Contexts

Apologetic History of the Indies

Las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria lived during the first decades of the conquest of the Americas and consolidation of the Spanish Empire.  By 1492, Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragón had set the foundations for the unification of the several kingdoms that would later conform Spain.  That year, they successfully ended their campaign to conquer the Emirate of Granada in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. In October, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and a year later, the Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull that granted the Spanish crown sovereignty over all the lands inhabited by non-Christians that they might continue discovering in the Atlantic. Isabel and Ferdinand’s grandson Charles was the heir to three of European dynasties and by 1519 he ruled over several territories in Central, Western, and Southern Europe, and all the Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean, America and Asia.  

The Emperor often consulted theologians and jurists on several matters related to the Empire’s policy.  Historian Anthony Pagden states that the Hapsburg court had appointed itself as the guardian of universal Christendom. Then it was very important that the crown acted--or was seen to act--according to Christian ethico-political principles established by the consulted experts. As soon as the Spaniards discovered the New world and realized that is was inhabited by non-Christian people that they considered to be barbarians, they began to debate the use of military force to control the new land, and the conversion of the indigenous population. The legitimacy of the conquests was at stake in the debates between figures like Las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria.

In 1503, the Spaniards established the encomienda (from the Spanish encomendar ‘to entrust’), a system to organize the Indian population to meet the needs of the early colonial economy.  To pay for his service, the Spanish crown granted a conquistador, soldier, or official a piece of land and number of Indians living in a particular area. The Indians acted as serfs and paid the encomendero tribute in gold, kind, or labor in exchange of protection and evangelization. Many Spaniard missionaries sent to the New World, including Las Casas, noticed and denounced the brutal exploitation of Indians by encomenderos, and their lack of commitment in evangelization.  In fact, the indigenous population of Hispaniola, the island where Columbus landed, reduced from 250,000 to 15,000 in two decades due to the war and forced labor.  This genocide called the attention of those theologians like Vitoria and Las Casas who were concerned with the morality of the conquest. Nonetheless, as Brian Tierney states:  “In the end, all the writings on behalf of the Indians did little or nothing to ameliorate their plight.  The battles that were sometimes won in the debating halls of Salamanca and Madrid were nearly always lost among the hard realities of life in Mexico and Peru.”




Sources consulted:

Anthony Pagden, “Dispossessing the Barbarism: The Language of Spanish Thomism and the Debate over the Property Rights of the Americas” in David Armitage (ed) Theories of Empire, 1450-1800: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 20.  Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 1998, 159-178.

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625.  Grand Rapids, Mi:  William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Margaret Kohn  "Colonialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/colonialism/




Other Resources:

Bartolome de Las Casas
at http://www.lascasas.org

Benjamin Keen, The Legacy of Bartolomé de Las Casas
at http://www.roebuckclasses.com/201/conquest/legacylascasaskeen.htm

Simón Calle  Department of Music, Columbia University

Thirty Very Juridical Propositions

Las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria lived during the first decades of the conquest of the Americas and consolidation of the Spanish Empire.  By 1492, Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragón had set the foundations for the unification of the several kingdoms that would later conform Spain.  That year, they successfully ended their campaign to conquer the Emirate of Granada in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. In October, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and a year later, the Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull that granted the Spanish crown sovereignty over all the lands inhabited by non-Christians that they might continue discovering in the Atlantic. Isabel and Ferdinand’s grandson Charles was the heir to three of European dynasties and by 1519 he ruled over several territories in Central, Western, and Southern Europe, and all the Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean, America and Asia.  

The Emperor often consulted theologians and jurists on several matters related to the Empire’s policy.  Historian Anthony Pagden states that the Hapsburg court had appointed itself as the guardian of universal Christendom. Then it was very important that the crown acted--or was seen to act--according to Christian ethico-political principles established by the consulted experts. As soon as the Spaniards discovered the New world and realized that is was inhabited by non-Christian people that they considered to be barbarians, they began to debate the use of military force to control the new land, and the conversion of the indigenous population. The legitimacy of the conquests was at stake in the debates between figures like Las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria.

In 1503, the Spaniards established the encomienda (from the Spanish encomendar ‘to entrust’), a system to organize the Indian population to meet the needs of the early colonial economy.  To pay for his service, the Spanish crown granted a conquistador, soldier, or official a piece of land and number of Indians living in a particular area. The Indians acted as serfs and paid the encomendero tribute in gold, kind, or labor in exchange of protection and evangelization. Many Spaniard missionaries sent to the New World, including Las Casas, noticed and denounced the brutal exploitation of Indians by encomenderos, and their lack of commitment in evangelization.  In fact, the indigenous population of Hispaniola, the island where Columbus landed, reduced from 250,000 to 15,000 in two decades due to the war and forced labor.  This genocide called the attention of those theologians like Vitoria and Las Casas who were concerned with the morality of the conquest. Nonetheless, as Brian Tierney states:  “In the end, all the writings on behalf of the Indians did little or nothing to ameliorate their plight.  The battles that were sometimes won in the debating halls of Salamanca and Madrid were nearly always lost among the hard realities of life in Mexico and Peru.”




Sources consulted:

Anthony Pagden, “Dispossessing the Barbarism: The Language of Spanish Thomism and the Debate over the Property Rights of the Americas” in David Armitage, ed., Theories of Empire, 1450-1800: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 20.  Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 1998, 159-178.

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625.  Grand Rapids, Mi:  William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Margaret Kohn  "Colonialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/colonialism/




Other Resources:

Bartolome de Las Casas
at http://www.lascasas.org

Benjamin Keen, The Legacy of Bartolomé de Las Casas
at http://www.roebuckclasses.com/201/conquest/legacylascasaskeen.htm

Simón Calle  Department of Music, Columbia University