Las Casas, Bartolomé de (1474-1566)
Bartolomé de Las Casas, a historian and strong advocate of human rights, was born in Seville, Spain. He studied in Seville and at the University of Salamanca, and in 1502 he went to America. For a decade, he developed a large mining and agricultural operation in Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) with labor from Indian slaves. He also was involved in the conquest of Cuba, for which he was awarded a large land grant. In 1512, he became a priest, but it was not until 1514, while he was preparing a sermon, that he changed his views. He decided to return his slaves and devote his life to the justice of the Indians.
Las Casas became the most famous propagandist of American Indian rights and a champion of human rights. He did not always champion objectivity, prudence, and truth. His lengthy Apologetic History attempted to show that American Indians were superior in virtue and reason not only to Spaniards but also to ancient Greeks and Romans. His utopian attempt to create a colony using free labor ended in dismal failure.
He achieved fame after his death with the publication of his Destruction of the Indies, an indiscriminate attack on a segment of the Spanish leadership. Soon after it first appeared as an appendix to his Apologetic History, the book was promoted by the enemies of Spain. During the following century, it was translated into six European languages in more than 50 editions. This widespread republication gave rise to the “Black Legend,” which showed an exaggerated view of the negative aspects of the Spanish conquest of America. During the early part of the 19th century and at the end of the 20th century, his writings again became popular, for the most part employed as propaganda in support of certain social issues. In the 19th century, they were used to encourage the emancipation of native peoples, and at the end of the 20th century, in Chiapas, the region of Las Casas’s bishopric, an insurgent movement encouraged a selective focus on Las Casas’s writings. These writings were pushed by supporters of liberation theology, who, unlike Las Casas, favored socialism and neglected Las Casas’s orthodox Christian doctrines.
Las Casas’s views on economics are less known. The Dominicans who settled in Hispaniola were the first to call for free trade in the American colonies and also were great champions of private property. In 1537, in a response to the Dominicans, Pope Paul III affirmed the rights of the Indians to liberty and property.
Las Casas’s struggle for the oppressed did not call for socialism, but for giving the natives the same rights to private property, free trade, and freedom of conscience that most Dominicans were seeking for the Spaniards. Spaniards living in the New World could only trade with the motherland and also were banned from trading with other colonies.
Las Casas, in contrast, is an unlikely figure given his fame as a champion of individual rights inasmuch as he was an orthodox Catholic. He did not depart from his creed, which today would be regarded as radically conservative in values and religion, while his views on economics were close to those of classical liberalism. However, Las Casas’s self-adulatory but engaging propagandist style and rhetorical skills, in addition to his indiscriminate attack on powerful figures of his day, lent his writings to those who later sought to manipulate the public. By manumitting his slaves and foregoing a search for economic or social power, he lent credibility to his popular, yet sometimes exaggerated, accounts.
Hanke, Lewis. All Mankind Is One: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Gins de Sepulveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.
Watner, Carl. “‘All Mankind Is One’: The Libertarian Tradition in Sixteenth-Century Spain.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 2 no. 8 (Summer 1987): 293–309.
Originally published .