LAS CASAS, Bartolome de

Bartolomes de Las Casas was an early Spanish missionary to the newly dis­covered Americas and Caribbean islands. Born in Seville, Spain, he witnessed Columbus's return after the first voyage to the New World. He accompanied the Spanish governor Nicolas de Ovando to Hispaniola (Haiti) in 1502 as a lawyer, but the treatment of the American Indians by the Spanish settlers led him to denounce such behavior and to seek ordination as a missionary priest. Ordained in 1507, probably in Rome, he returned in 1510 to Hispaniola, from where he accompanied Panfilo de Narvaez as a chaplain in the Spanish conquest of Cuba. There he became convinced that the whole pattern of Spanish conquest was unjust. He joined the Dominican order in 1522, was consecrated bishop of Chiapa in Mexico in 1543, and left the diocese in 1547 for Spain, where he spent the rest of his life defending the humanity and rights of the Indians. This he did in the Americas and in Spain, both through writing and by opposing the current Spanish colonial practices. Despite strong and often-violent opposition from the colonists, he successfully defended the rights of the native American Indians, presenting the case for their natural rights before Emperor Charles V* in 1515 and again in 1542 through his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A short account of the destruction of the Indies, written in 1542, published in 1552), which he read before the emperor. This latter case led to the promulgation of the New Laws of the Indies (1542), which limited the practice of granting hereditary encomiendas and other colonial abuses of the native American Indians.
His most famous case was his debate with Juan de Sepuslveda in 1555, in which he argued against Sepulveda's position that the native American Indians were less than human and could therefore be enslaved. The philosopher John Major (1469-1550) was among the first European thinkers to argue, on the basis of Aristotle's Politics, that there exist two classes of persons, the free and the "natural slave." The former, if they occupy the latter's territory, are therefore entitled to rule and to enslave the inhabitants. This was the line of argument developed by Las Casas's great opponent Sepulveda, himself a commentator on Aristotle and one who clearly regarded the native American Indians as barbar­ians lacking in virtue who could therefore be subjugated, by force if necessary. Las Casas won the debate, which resulted in a papal declaration of the humanity of the native American Indians and the prohibition of their enslavement.
Las Casas's works achieved fame and notoriety for the image portrayed of Spanish cruelty toward the native American Indians. In particular, his works Brevísima relacion and his later ethnological study, Apologetica historia de las Indias, powerfully argued for the humanity of the native American Indians and against the cruelty of the Spaniards. His works so powerfully described such abuse that they shaped Protestant Europe's image of Spanish colonial policy, creating what became known as the leyenda negra ('black legend'). Rejecting the dominant interpretation of Aristotle on biblical grounds and favoring St. Augustine, Las Casas argued for the unity, equality, and freedom of all peoples. His activity led to the promulgation of numerous imperial laws protecting in­digenous rights and forbidding slavery. While Las Casas was an advocate for Indian rights, initially he did not extend such rights to Africans, suggesting the importation of slaves to ameliorate the pressures on the Indian populations of the New World, an opinion he sharply rejected later when in his great History of the Indies he condemned the African slave trade. Contrary to most mission practices of the time, he argued that "persuading the understanding through reason" is the only acceptable approach to mission.
G. Gutierrez, Las Casas: In Search ofthe Poor ofJesus Christ, 1993.
L. Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians: A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World, 1959.
H. R. Wagner, The Life and Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas, 1967.
Iain S. Maclean

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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