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Bartolome de las Casas

B. at Seville, probably in 1474; d. at Madrid, 1566

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Casas (originally CASAUS), BARTOLOME DE LAS, b. at Seville, probably in 1474; d. at Madrid, 1566. His family was from France and settled at Seville. He called himself Casaus during his youth, and changed the name to Casas later on.

Francisco Casaus, or Casas, the father of Bartolome, had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage and brought back an Indian boy whom he left to his son as a servant. Bartolome studied law at Salamanca, took his degree of Licentiate, and enjoyed a fair reputation as a lawyer. He possessed the confidence of the Spanish Governors of the Antilles after the departure of Columbus, and the first of these, Ovando, took him to the Island of Hispanola in 1502. Both Ovando and his successor, Velasquez, relied, in more ways than one, on the advice of Las Casas, who did not, however, remain much longer a layman, for in 1510 we find him a secular priest.

The condition of the Indians, especially those of the Greater Antilles, was not a satisfactory one. The earliest Spanish colonists in America were not the choicest examples of their race, neither were they numerous enough to improve the country and its resources as fast as they wished. Hence it was that the Indians were pressed into service; but those of the Antilles were not fitted for labor. With them the women, not the men, formed the laboring class. This the Spaniards did not know and, as Europeans, could not understand. Nor could they comprehend how the Indian was physically unfit for manual labor, owing to the lack of training. Hence the aborigines s were overworked, and in many cases harshly treated, while epidemics were imported from the Old World, and a rapid decrease of the indigenous population set in. Las Casas saw all this, and sought to prevent it by every means at his disposal. He received, in the first years of his activity, full support from the clergy in America, and still more in Spain, where Cardinal Cisneros was counted among his most unfailing supporters.

In becoming a priest Las Casas gained two important points: almost complete freedom of speech and material independence. As an ecclesiastic he could penetrate nearly everywhere, and express himself as he liked. The rapid disappearance of the Indians in the Antilles caused much concern in Spain. Fears were entertained that it would ruin the colonies. Las Casas proposed a remedy. He suggested and, with characteristic vehemence, insisted that the natives should be placed under the control of the Church, and separated from contact with any portion of the laity. This measure could not replace the many aborigines who had already perished, and it gave but little relief to the remnant. Yet the Crown, always anxious to assist the Indians, and most favorably impressed by the philanthropic endeavors of Las Casas, was willing and eager that he should make a trial. The northeastern coast of South America (Venezuela) was selected, and Las Casas was sent there in 1519 with ample means for the experiment. It must be stated, however, that when Las Casas was in Spain the second time, in 1517, he had made great efforts to secure farmers as emigrants for the Antilles, but failed. About the same time another measure of relief was proposed: the importation of negroes. Las Casas was one of its advocates. When he went to Venezuela he took with him seven negroes as his own personal slaves, and it is certain that he recommended the distribution of negroes through the Antilles, allowing five or six hundred to each island..

‘The charge often made against Las Casas, that he introduced negro slavery into the New World, is unjust. As early as 1505 negroes were sent to the Antilles to work in mines. After that they were repeatedly imported, but without his cooperation. Besides, slavery was at that time sanctioned by Spanish custom and law. But the fact that he tolerated slavery in the case of negroes, while condemning Indian servitude, appears to us a logical inconsistency. It did not occur to him that the personal liberty of negroes and Indians alike was sacred, and that in point of civilization there was little difference between the two races. At a later period he recognized his error, but the cause of the Indians had so completely absorbed his sympathies that he did nothing for the black race.

The first attempt of Las Casas to carry out his plan of educating the Indian apart from the white man resulted in disastrous failure, caused by the Indians themselves. After establishing a post at Cumana, Las Casas returned to give an account of what he had done. In the meantime the aborigines, seeing a large building of frail material, filled with commodities ultimately destined for distribution among them as time went on, forcibly appropriated the supplies; set fire to the buildings, and, after killing as many of the Europeans as could not escape, withdrew to the interior with their booty. It was a sore blow to the priest, but, instead of drawing the true lesson from it, he laid the blame on his countrymen, accusing them of having instigated the catastrophe out of ill will towards himself and his projects. Thereafter the colonization of the New World became in his eyes a grave offense, even a sin. Embittered in spirit, he joined the Dominican Order and began a fierce crusade for what he considered the rights and interests of the Indians.

In his active sympathy for the American aborigines Las Casas had not stood alone. He had on his side, in principle, the sovereigns and the most influential men and women of Spain. He was sincerely admired for his absolute devotion to the cause of humanity, his untiring activity and zeal. He stood out among the men of his day as an exceptionally noble personality. But the more perspicacious among his admirers saw, also, that he was eminently unpractical, and, while they supported within reason, they could not approve the extremes which he peremptorily demanded. His very popularity spoiled his character. Among the clergy, the Hieronymites, who had been entrusted with the conversion and training of the Antillean natives, were his first active supporters. After his entry into the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans naturally stood by him. The conquest of Mexico brought the Spaniards into intimate contact with the most numerous and most cultured groups of Indians in America. The degree of culture and the civil polity of these groups were overrated, and the character of the people misunderstood, as well as their social organization. They were represented as highly civilized, and the coercion accompanying the conquest, even if indispensable for the changes which alone could set the aborigines upon the path of progress, appeared to many to be wanton cruelty. Las Cases was prompt to raise the cry of condemnation.

It was in 1522 that, after the failure of his plan at Cumana, Las Casas retired to a Dominican convent on the Island of Santo Domingo, where he soon after began to write his voluminous “Historia de las Indies”. His picture of the earliest times of Spanish colonization is gruesome. He exaggerated the number of aborigines on the island at the time of discovery, and magnified into a deed of revolting cruelty every act which savored of injustice. Sober common sense demands the revision and correction of his indictments. The life which Las Cases would have desired to lead could not, in the face of his disappointments, be led by a man of his temperament. At the same time the authorities favored further investigations into the condition of the Indians, chiefly in the regions last occupied. He therefore went to Nicaragua in 1527. Everywhere he found abuses, and everywhere painted them in the blackest colors, making no allowances for local conditions or for the dark side of the Indian character. That the natives, owing to centuries of isolation, were unable to understand European civilization did not enter his mind. He saw in them only victims of unjustifiable aggression. It is greatly to the credit of the Spanish Government’s goodwill to have not only tolerated but encouraged the visionary designs of Las Casas, who became more and more aggressive. Some of his biographers have unjustifiably extended the scope of his travels at that time. He is credited with having made a journey to Peru in the execution of his philanthropic mission; the truth is that Las Casas never touched South America, except on its northern coast. Nevertheless, he addressed to the king a memorial, couched in violent terms, on Peruvian affairs, of which he had not the least personal knowledge.

The critical question was that of Indian labor. Slavery had repeatedly been abolished, except in the case of prisoners of war and as a punishment for rebellion. The most rational solution appeared to be to let the Indian pass to enfranchisement through progressive stages of training under the supervision of the whites, such as might have the effect of initiating him little by little in the ways of European civilization. This plan demanded a feudal condition of things, and the Repartimientos and Encomiendas, while abolishing personal servitude, substituted for it agrarian serfdom. While not eliminating the possibility of individual and official abuses, however, it checked them in many ways. Las Casas was not satisfied with the improvement; it was not radical enough for him. He continued to agitate, and, though he does not appear as the framer of the “New Laws” for the Indies (promulgated in 1542), it is certain that those enactments were due to his influence with the Government, with the clergy, and with persons who, guided more by humanitarian theories than by practical knowledge of the New World, would not have stopped short of complete emancipation, regardless of its consequences to European settlement. The strong support which Las Cases found in Spain discredits the accusations of tyranny brought against the Spaniards by Las Cases himself and by his partisans. His violent denunciations were not only unjust, but extremely ungrateful. Throughout his career he never lacked either the means for support or for carrying out his schemes. But his vehemence and sweeping injustice estranged more and more those who, fully desirous of aiding the Indians, had to acknowledge that gradual reform, and not sudden revolution, was the true policy.

The “New Laws”, with their amendments of 1543 and 1544, were a surprise and a source of much concern, especially in America. They did not abolish serfdom, but they limited it in such a manner that the original settlers (Conquistadores) saw before them utter ruin by the eventual loss of their fiefs. The newly acquired territories belonged to the Crown. Those who had suffered unspeakable hardships, exposures, and sacrifices to secure this new continent for Spain had a right to expect compensation for themselves and their descendants. That expectation was now suddenly threatened with disappointment. Not only this, but the Indians obtained such favors that, as long as Spanish rule lasted in America, the reproach was justly made to the mother country that a native enjoyed more privileges than a creole. A storm of indignation broke out in America against the new code, and against Las Cases as its promoter. About that time the Emperor Charles V had Las Casas proposed for the episcopal see of Cuzco, in Peru, but he refused it. He had often declared that he would never accept any high office. In the case of Cuzco it was not so much modesty as prudence, for in Peru his life would have been in imminent danger. Certain it is that he afterwards accepted the Bishopric of Chiapas, in Southern Mexico. Notwithstanding his egregious failure in Venezuela, the Crown was disposed and even anxious to give him further opportunities and means to try once more the practicability of his schemes. He was in Central America, with intermissions, until 1539, disseminating his views and causing trouble everywhere. Received at Guatemala in the most friendly manner by Bishop Marroquin, he turned against his benefactor, because, while the latter was in full harmony with him so far as concerned his efforts in favor of the natives, he differed with him in regard to the mode of procedure. Little by little he alienated the sympathy of the most influential members of his own order, such, for example, as Fray Domingo de Betanzos. Some of the Franciscans, among them the celebrated missionary Fray Toribio de Paredes (Motolinia), took a decided stand against the methods of relief urged by Las Casas. Officials and private individuals, exasperated by the violence of his language, retorted with equal acrimony, and accusations of inconsistency were made against him. While he refused absolution to those who held fiefs, he did not hesitate to take advantage of personal service without compensation. Even his private character was, though unjustly, assailed. It must be said that Las Casas had set the example by his treatment of Bishop Marroquin.

The laws of the Indies were gradually modified so as to afford the necessary protection to the natives without injuring too much the interests of the settlers. But the bitterness of Las Casas grew with age. In 1552 there appeared in print his “Brevisima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias”, a most injudicious book, glaringly partial, based upon testimony often very impeachable and always highly colored. That so passionate and one-sided a document should have been published with the permission of the authorities argues a broad tolerance on the part of the Spanish Government, which, moreover, still continued its support to Las Casas. In 1555 an annual pension of 200,000 maravedis was granted to him, and five years later this was increased to 350,000 maravedis. Disappointed at the failure of his extravagant plans, he spent the last ten years of his life in comparative quietness, dying in the convent of Atocha, at Madrid, in the ninety-third year of his age.

Las Casas was a man of great purity of life and of noble aspirations, but his conviction that his own views were flawless made him intolerant of those of others. By no means thoroughly acquainted with the character of his Indian wards, he idealized them, but never took time to study them. His knowledge of them was far less correct than that of such men as Motolinia. Neither was he in any exact sense a missionary or a teacher. Between the years 1520 and 1540 he accompanied some of his Dominican brethren on missions—for instance, to Honduras. He occasionally visited certain districts, but the life of constant personal sacrifice among the aborigines was not to his taste. With the exception of what he wrote on the Indians of the Antilles, in the “Historia de las Indies”, he has left very little of value to ethnology, for the bulky manuscript entitled “Historia apologetica” is so polemical in its tone as to inspire deep mistrust. He did almost nothing to educate the Indians. The name “Apostle of the Indies”, which has been given him, was not deserved; whereas there were men opposed to his views who richly merited it, but who had neither the gifts nor the inclination for that noisy propaganda in which Las Casas was so eminently successful. Although for over fifty years an ecclesiastic, he always remained under the spell of his early education as a lawyer. His controversy with Juan Gines de Sepulveda on the Indian question is a polemic between two jurisconsults, adorned with, or rather encumbered by, theological phraseology.

Las Casas left no linguistic contributions like those of Marroquin, Betanzos, Molina, and other devoted priests. He was, however, a prolific writer, though not all of his writings have been published. The “Historia apologetica de las Indias”, for instance, has been only partly printed in the “Documentos para la Historia de Espana” (Madrid, 1876). The “Historia de las Indies”, the manuscript of which he completed in 1561, appeared in the same collection (1875 and 1876). His best-known work is the “Brevisima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias” (Seville, 1552). There are at least five Spanish editions of it. It circulated very quickly outside of Spain and in a number of European languages. Appearing at a time when every seafaring nation of Europe was jealous of Spain‘s American possessions, and bent upon damaging Spanish reputation for religious, as well as for political and commercial reasons, this violent libel, coming from a source so highly considered as Las Casas, was eagerly welcomed. Latin translations of it issued from Frankfort, 1598, Oppenheim, 1614, Heidelberg, 1664; French translations from Antwerp, 1579, Amsterdam, 1620 and 1698, Rouen, 1630, Lyons, 1642, Paris, 1697 and 1822; Italian from Venice, 1630, 1643, and 1645. A German translation appeared in 1599; Dutch translations at Amsterdam in 1610, 1621, and 1663. There is an English version: “A Relation of the first voyages and discoveries made by the Spaniards in America” (London, 1699). Many of the writings of Las Casas have been included in the work of J. A. Llorente: “Oeuvres de Don Bartollome de las Casas” (Paris, 1822).


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