Bartolomé de las Casas was only a child in 1493 when Christopher Columbus returned from the New World and passed by his hometown of Seville. Seeing the riches up for grabs, Las Casas traveled to the New World and became a wealthy landowner with multiple slaves. But through a series of revelations, Las Casas came to realize the evil of slavery and conquest. He dedicated the rest of his life to becoming one of the earliest advocates of human rights to atone for his past sins.
Today it is not an unusual or controversial thing to say you believe in human rights. In fact, seemingly everyone does. How could you not be in favor of human rights? What are you, some kind of monster? But when did this term come into vogue? We all use it now, but for most recorded history, the phrase human rights was not deliberately uttered or written by many thinkers, though the concepts and ideas behind them were developed and grappled with, of course. Today I will be chatting about a hero of mine, Bartolomé de las Casas one of the first people to say Derechos Humanos, or in English, human rights. He made a name for himself in the 16th‐century as an advocate for the rights of the Amerindians. He spent his life condemning the brutal imperialism of the Spaniards. Over time he grew more radical, arguing that all forms of slavery were a moral evil, two hundred years before the abolitionist movement ever gained traction.
I think there is a huge amount we can learn both politically and personally from Las Casas. On the political end, he articulated a philosophy that defended the dignity and rights of all peoples. By the end of his life, he ardently believed “all of mankind is one.” Every person, regardless of religion, race, or culture, is entitled to an equal and identical right to freedom. But on a more personal level, I believe he is an inspiring figure of humility and deviation. He spent the majority of his life atoning for his past wrongs and fighting for the rights of others.
History can at times be a disgusting and endless list of the cruelest, greediest, and disgusting people who lorded over others, took what they wanted and left destruction wherever they went. Worse yet, often warlords, kings, and dictators are praised as the great men of history. Las Casas represents the humane side of history, a person who had no interest in dominating others. He didn’t fight for power. Instead, he dedicated himself selfless to fighting for the freedom of others.
But I am getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s start from the very beginning.
Las Casas was born on November 11th, 1484, into a small noble family in Seville in Spain. It is possible that his family descended from Conversos, Jewish people who converted to Christianity. 1492 was a momentous year for Spain. After hundreds of years of fighting, under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s leadership, the Spainards accomplished their goal of driving out the Muslim Moors of the Iberian Peninsula.
In the same year, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, America. By 1493, when Columbus returned to Spain, he triumphantly toured throughout the country, making his way towards King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. When Columbus passed through Seville, an eight‐year‐old Las Casas caught his first‐ever glimpse of an Amerindian specifically captured Taino Indians from the Caribbean that Columbus had hauled back against their will. The Tainos were unlike anything the people of Seville had ever seen. They wore strange feathers and ornaments made of gold and fishbone. All of a sudden, the provincialism and relative insularity of the medieval world was replaced by an era of new possibilities through seafaring. Columbus represented a new way of life, one defined by exploration, discovery, and trade.
Initially, Columbus described the Amerindians as a meek and gentle people receptive to the Christian faith. But as contact with the Amerindians increased, their image took a dramatic shift. Many walked around naked and took part in polygamous marriages shocking the Christian sensibilities of the Spanish. But the Amerindians were not thought of as just alien but also vicious. Some groups like the Caribs practiced cannibalism, while others performed elaborate rituals of human sacrifice. With the new world’s abundant wealth up for the taking, the Spanish began to rationalize why it was morally acceptable to conquer and subjugate the Amerindians, their supposed lack of morality and rationality.
Pope Alexander VI published a papal bull entitled Inter Caetera, which granted the Spanish monarchy dominion over large tracts of the New World. The pope wrote, “that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” Furthermore, he solidified the Spanish Kingdoms claim over the New World, writing, “we make, appoint, and depute you and your said heirs and successors lords of them with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind.” Thus the Spaniards could say that their conquest had the backing of God’s representative on earth, the pope of all people.
By 1510, the Scotsman John Major theorized that the Amerindians were slaves by nature. He cribbed the term from Aristotle, who described a natural slave as a person who “participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it.” The Amerindian’s practice of cannibalism, polygamy, and human sacrifice was evidence enough that they could not understand or interpret natural law. Major explained that the Amerindians “live in a bestial manner…Wherefore, the first person to conquer them, justly rules over them, because these people, as is evident, are slaves by nature.” Juan Gines Sepulveda would further develop this line of thought that I will flesh out later. Suffice to say, a large number of Europeans viewed the Amerindians as backward savages who had to be ruled by a superior culture for their own good, lest they descend further into barbarism.
Without a proper sense of morality and rationality, the Spanish believed it was their duty to guide and protect the Amerindians, who were little more than adults with the minds of children, according to one observer.
The conquest of the New World by the Spanish had an overtly religious angle. After fighting against the Moors for so long, the Spanish had developed a vocabulary of religious warfare, punishing infidels, and fighting for Christ. Much of the Spanish monarchy’s legitimacy stemmed from their image as a protector of the Christian faith against infidels. The Spanish thought of their war against the Moors not as a war over land and resources but over true faith and heresy. The language of punishing so‐called infidels was firmly established. The forced conversions of Muslims and Jews were a common occurrence in Spain during this time. When the Spaniards reached the new world, they brought with them this rationale of punishing infidels allowing them to enact brutal slaughter, slavery, and rapine in the name of God.
Las Casas had ties to Columbus; his uncle helped fund Nina and the Pinta while his father joined Columbus’ second voyage. When Las Casas’s father returned to Spain in 1499, he gave his son an Amerindian slave Columbus had gifted him. However, Las Casas did not hold his new slave for long. Queen Isabella was furious with Columbus for enslaving the people she thought to be her new subjects. She commanded slave owners to return Amerindians to their homes, threatening death if they disobeyed.
After completing his studies in the school of San Miguel in 1502 at the age of 19, accompanying his father, Las Casas set sail for the New World under the expedition of Nicolas de Ovando. He arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Spanish colony Espanola. While present, Las Casas became a slave owner under the institution of encomienda. Under this system, Aerindiains were forced to work on plantations or in mines; their bodies and labor were awarded to settlers who were expected to protect and instruct their slaves in the way of the Christian faith. Slaves were kept in check by whips, canes, and dogs that would chase and maul them if they attempted to run. Slaves were marched miles away from their homes, worked to the point of exhaustion, and beaten. Women were overworked and underfed, and babies were born in a malnourished state with no breast milk for nourishment. Women were forced to abort their children out of desperation, and some even drowned their babies. In some places, entire generations were wiped out. To replace their human livestock, settlers went out on military expeditions and slave raids. Las Casas took part in these horrendous events where he saw many acts of brutality.
The more slaves settlers captured, the more gold that could be mined. Many settlers were driven almost to the point of madness in their pursuit of wealth at the expense of the native population. Las Casas witnessed first hand the endless bloody slaughters. Later he would describe the Spaniards “like wolves, tigers, and lions which have been starving for many days,” killing indiscriminately and without compassion or remorse. Though at the time, like many others, Las Casas did not question the legitimacy of conquest. After all, European theologians and jurists alike for over millennia had no issue embracing the peculiar institution of slavery. After all, Las Casas grew up in Seville, where scholars have estimated 10% of the population were slaves. Slavery was accepted, widespread, and often unquestioned by Europeans, especially those who benefited from slavery.
Las Casas returned to Spain in 1506 and then was ordained as a priest in Rome by 1507. He then continued his training and studies in Salamanca, eventually returning to the New World, where he performed his first mass in 1510. Around the same time, friars from the Dominican order arrived at Santa Domingo. The Dominicans were deeply disturbed by the bloodshed and oppression that their fellow men had unleashed upon the innocent Amerindians.
The small group of Dominicans decided that their consciences would not allow them to idly standby. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, Father Antonio de Montesinos, an event with many important officials and a large audience in attendance, delivered his sermon condemning slavery and imperialism in no unclear terms. Montesinos explained the grave spiritual consequences of the settlers’ actions; he explained that they “are all in mortal sin and live and die in it, because of the cruelty and tyranny they practice among these innocent peoples.” Pleading with the settlers, he asked, “are these people not men? Do they not have rational souls? With what right do you keep them in servitude? With what authority have you waged these detestable wars against these peoples who lived peacefully in their own lands?”
Las Casas was an eyewitness to the sermon but did not immediately change his mind, still holding onto numerous slaves bolstering his wealth like many others by forcing them to toil in the plantations or mine for gold, the new god of the settlers. Wealthy slave owners were appalled, and royal representatives were disgusted at the Dominicans, who now refused to give confession to any who owned slaves. Even Las Casas, a fellow man of God, was denied confession for holding slaves.
Las Casas began to fear for his soul, unable to absolve himself of sin. He began to worry about his fate in the afterlife, whether he would arrive at the gates of heaven or be punished for the slaves he captured, the expeditions he aided, and the slaves he used to extract wealth at the cost of other’s blood sweat and tears. In 1512 Las Casas aided in quelling natives rebelling against settlers, and for his efforts, he was awarded more slaves. But the scale of violence he saw deeply impacted his psyche. He wrote that in Cuba, he witnessed “cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.” Las Casas recounts a story while in Cuba of a chieftain who was finally caught after running away from the settlers. He was tied to a stake to be burned. Las Casas observed a Franciscan friar begging to baptize him so he could die a Christian and go to heaven. The friar told him about heaven, but the chieftain asked if there are Christians in heaven. After the friar said yes, the chieftain said, “Well, I don’t want to go where Spaniards go.” So brutal was their reputation that the natives wouldn’t even follow them into heaven. Witnessing massacre after massacre wore down Las Casas as he realized the great gulf between Christian thinking and the reality of how many Christians were acting.
While praying, he encountered a biblical passage that reads, “Unclean is the offering sacrificed by an oppressor. Such mockeries of the unjust are not pleasing to God.” Though other factors contributed, this passage made Las Casa realize his soul was not fit for heaven. If he did not change his ways, he would be damned to an eternity in hell. Las Casas gave up his slaves and stolen lands, encouraging others to the same. He then dedicated the rest of his life to atone for his past sins by fighting on behalf of the rights and dignity of the Amerindian peoples. From this point on, they emphatically refused to give any person confession who owned slaves. He simply argued, “You cannot be saved while still holding Indians!”
Las Casas decided the best way to help the American Indians was to appeal directly to King Ferdinand himself, and by 1515 he had crossed the Atlantic yet again. Over the course of his life, Las Casas would travel back and forth across the Atlantic and to countries like Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. He was one of the most well‐traveled men in the world at the time. Back in Spain for the first time in 12 years, he gained the necessary documents to meet with the king thanks to the archbishop of Seville, who was impressed by his integrity. But even still, it would be a hard debate, the king held more slaves than anyone else in the kingdom, and his officials all held numerous slaves. Though the king listened to Las Casas being sickly and near‐death, his concerns simply lay elsewhere.
When King Ferdinand died, his son Charles V succeeded him becoming one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe thanks to advantageous marriages. The young Charles was not capable of ruling due to his age, so two regents were appointed until he matured. Las Casas wasted no time preparing to extensively discuss with them the viciousness and cruelty happening across the sea. For the two regents, he composed Memorial of Remedies for the Indies in 1516, where he argued that the ecomienda should be abolished and the Indians ought to live in self‐governing towns while paying tribute to the king as his vassals. Las Casas also affirmed that the Amerindians are free human beings and ought to be treated as both human and free. Though Las Casas also oddly argued that Amerindians’ suffering could be relieved by replacing the ecomienda with African slaves. An older and wiser Las Casas would later emphatically recant this position, stating that all slavery was wrong, regardless of race. He also displayed a deep sorrow for his past views realizing his errors.
Las Casas’s work convinced the regents to set up an independent commission to evaluate the system of encomienda. Las Casas was appointed as the first‐ever Protector of the Indians in 1516. Along with a group from the order of Saint Jerome, Las Casas returned to the New World to implement his reforms. However, the entrenched interest of slave owners dulled the members of Saint Jerome’s spirit for reform as they made it clear any sort of reform affecting their lucrative system would result in rebellion. Las Casas, furious and disappointed, condemned the royal officials who held slaves, saying, “They are murderers and deserve to die.” Fearing Las Casas, many slave owners decided to work their slaves even harder to extract the maximum amount of gold they could before their way of life was undermined. But Las Casas was a radical but isolated voice that couldn’t enact much change. By 1517 Las Casas licking his wounds, returned to Spain.
Through skillful persuasion and lobbying, after three years, Las Casas convinced King Charles to grant him permission to found settlements located in modern‐day Venezuela. Las Casas fought an uphill rhetorical battle against the king’s advisors, many of whom greatly benefitted from the Amerindians’ exploitation. But he convinced king Charles that salvation in the afterlife and a clean conscience was greater than any worldly wealth. Las Casas intended to establish settlements where settlers and natives lived alongside one another, and no settlers were granted the privilege of owning slaves. Only preachers were to be permitted to travel into Amerindian territories to avoid the temptation of exploitation. Although without the lucrative benefits of slavery, money was hard to raise, Las Casas eventually gathered enough funds to start his venture thanks to his brother‐in‐law providing funds.
While here, Las Casas attempted to establish a process of peacefully converting the natives with persuasion, not violence. However, his plan deteriorated when Spanish pearl raiders attacked the Amerindians leading many to distrust Las Casas. After years of being slaughtered by Spaniards, the Amerindians distrusted anyone from across the Atlantic, even the sympathetic Las Casas. The native Caribs attacked Las Casas’s settlement which eventually collapsed. The failure of Las Casas’s efforts strengthened many of the king’s advisors’ belief that the only way to live alongside the natives was by subjugating them by force.
Depressed by the combination of greed and apathy from his fellow Spaniards, Las Casas joined the Dominican order at Santo Domingo, starting as a novice in 1522, he became a friar a year later. For the next ten years, Las Casas plunged himself into extensively studying the Dominican curriculum of Scripture, the Church Fathers, ancient philosophy, canon law, and scholastic philosophy. Las Casas was greatly influenced by the writings of the church father Thomas Aquinas, a proponent of natural law and giant of both theological and philosophical thought. By 1527, he began work on his History of the Indies, a book he would edit, tweak, and add material to for the next 30 years until its final version in 1561. In this book, Las Casas recounted many of the horrors he saw while also condemning his former advocacy of replacing Indian slaves with black slaves, making him virtually the only European to oppose black slavery in the 16th‐century, quite the forward‐thinking man considering the origins of the abolitionist movement date to the 18th‐century 200 years after Las Casas death.
During his decade of missionary work and scholarly research, Charles, the king of Spain, was elected as Holy Roman Emperor making him now Charles the first in Spain and the fifth in Germany. He now held one of the largest empires in human history, and the Spanish attitude adapted to this new political reality with an increased zeal for an extensive empire. With a small army of 550 men, Hernan Cortes brought about the destruction of the Aztec empire, of course, with some help from general smallpox that killed millions of natives whose immune systems had no defense against the European disease. Francisco Pizzaro, in 1534 conquered the Incan Empire by force also.
Las Casas and many other members of religious orders traveled to the mainland to preach the Christian faith in 1536. The Fransciain order believed the most efficient way to convert the natives was to simply baptize them en masse with little to no instruction. In 1537, Las Casas wrote a book entitled The Only Method of Attracting People to the True Faith, where he refuted the idea that the Amerindians could only be converted by force. Sounding very much like a classical liberal, Las Casas would write, “War…fills every place with highwaymen, thieves, ravishers, fires, and murders,” and he pondered, “what is war but general murder and robbery among many?” The only way to convert people was by appealing to their reason and persuading them as rational and equal beings worthy of respect. Freedom exists not for Las Casas simply because people want to be free, but because it is a fundamental part of their nature as human beings, God gave the gift of free choice to his creation, leaving each person to decide their fate. Influenced by Las Casas sound arguments, the pope published the papal bull Sublimis Deus in the same year, stating that the Amerindians were rational beings capable of receiving the Christian faith willingly by learning instead of dunking some confused people’s heads in water and then telling them they will be in heaven when they die.
But Las Casas’s book was not simply a philosophical treatise; it was a guide to action. To avoid settlers’ interference, Las Casas went deep into Guatemala, where there were no colonies, and the natives were thought to be particularly savage and militaristic. Las Casas was successful in converting many natives through persuasion and argumentation. What was once dubbed the Land of War started to be called Verapaz, meaning True Peace. Las Casas left Guatemala to recruit more Dominican friars for missionary work. After a year in Mexico, Las Casas once again braved the Atlantic returning to Spain for the first time in twenty years. While Las Casas’s official reason for being in Spain was to recruit more friars, he seized the opportunity to lobby the Spanish king Charles who was no longer a boy but a fully grown man at the head of one the most powerful states in the world. The institution of encomienda synonymous with slavery had been abolished in 1523 but quickly reversed by 1526 after royal officials protested. Las Casas wanted to firmly abolish the encomienda and the slavery that followed from it once and for all.
He put immense pressure on Cardinal Garcia de Loasya, who had no affection for Las Casas and the Council of the Indies that acted as the governing body for the New World colonies. By 1542 Charles called a special council to assemble in the city of Valladolid to examine Las Casas arguments and issue appropriate laws in response. Las Casas’s predominant strategy was the overwhelm the council with bottomless amounts of evidence of the brutal and cruel mistreatment of the Amerindians. For weeks Las Casas entered the meetings and read for hours his memorial of atrocities as his aides distributed piles of documents affirming what Las Casas recounted. Las Casas described in horrific detail how the Amerindians were tortured, raped, killed, and enslaved for hours on end. He constantly urged his listeners to meet the standards expected for a good Christian by citing scripture, but he also reminded them of the fiery torment of hell that would await them if they sat apathetically, letting so many suffer. To atone for these atrocities, Las Casas proposed abolishing the econmienda eliminating slavery, restoring the freedom of currently held slaves, allowing the Amerindians to rule over their own lands, and acknowledging that conquest was not only illegal but fundamentally immoral.
His account would later be published in 1552 under the name A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies. Observers were stunned by his stories and impressed by his unparalleled passion. King Charles even sat in on some of the sessions in shock at the brutality that had been done in his kingdom’s name. Charles issued the New Laws of 1542 that aimed to eliminate slavery, prohibit wars of conquest, and affirm the dignity of Amerindians as subjects of the Spanish crown. It was a colossal change in the relationship between the settlers and natives. The system of encomienda was to be phased out by reverting slaves to the crown after the death to phase out slavery over time. For Las Casas, these laws did not go far enough as numerous natives would be held in slavery until their death, but it was at least a step in the right direction, or so he thought.
In 1542 Las Casas was appointed as Bishop of Chiapa in Mexico, where he planned to replicate his success in peacefully converting natives and enforcing the New Laws. When Las Casas returned to the New World, he was hated by the bitter slave owners who saw him as a thief of their fortune. Words on a page don’t always translate into reality. Many slave owners rioted, and with many public officials owning many slaves, the laws simply were not enforced. Las Casas became a figure of opprobrium, being awarded for his integrity with death threats from settlers. By 1545 the New Laws had been revoked to strengthen the system of encomienda, infuriating Las Casas.
While serving as the bishop of Chiapa, Las Casas forbade his priests from giving confession to any slave owner, causing an uproar. Some begged Las Casas for special exceptions. One slave owner told him that he was building his home and that after it was completed in a few months, he would liberate his slaves. Las Casas did not budge an inch for any excuses or mitigating circumstances that slave owners provided. Sadly, Las Casas became so unpopular that he would resign his position at Chiapas but not before publishing Confessionario, where he yet again affirmed that priests should deny confession to Spaniards who owned slaves and until they abandoned their ill‐gotten gains.
Las Casas made one last voyage back to Spain to resign his position as bishop in 1547. Fearing slave owners would pass their slaves onto the next generation, creating a perpetual bondage cycle, Las Casas redoubled his efforts writing frantically despite all of the hardships, ridicule, and hatred he had endured. Charles, moved by Las Casas while also fearing for his soul, called for all military expansion in the New World to halt until a special council of jurists and theologians examined the arguments for and against conquering the New World. For the first and probably only time, a king/emperor ordered war to cease until it had been proven just.
Unsurprisingly, Las Casas represented the side against conquest while Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, an acclaimed scholar and translator of Aristotle, argued in favor of conquest and slavery. Sepulveda had already published Democrats Segunda, where he argued in favor of waging war against the Amerindians. Both speakers presented their arguments and rebuttals separately. The council met at Valladolid and began by hearing Sepulveda’s.
Following his Democrats Segunda closely to justify the conquering of the New World and subjugation and enslavement of natives, Sepulveda believed the Amerindians resembled what Aristotle called slaves by nature. Aristotle wrote that a natural slave is a kind of person who “participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it.” Simply put, Sepulveda viewed the Amerindians as an inferior species, almost like children who ought to be ruled and guided by their colonizing betters. It took Sepulveda three hours to make his argument where he expressed that the Amerindians were not fully human, or at least they were a kind of inferior bred of human.
Las Casas took five full days of reading his writings that would later be published as Apologetic History of the Indies. In stark contrast to Sepulveda, Las Casas explained that the Bible contradicted the idea of natural slaves in Genesis where it is written “God created mankind in his image: in the image of God he created them,” affirming the universality of human nature. Sepulveda’s assertion that huge swathes of humanity were mentally deficient contradicted God’s design for humans. Since all humans are made in the image of God, who is the supreme intellect, human beings are capable of using reason to interpret and understand the world and discern moral principles. Las Casas wrote, “Thus all mankind is one, and all men are alike in what concerns their creation and all‐natural things, and no one is born enlightened. From this, it follows that all of us must be guided and aided at first by those who were born before us.” All humans are capable of improvement through their use of reason. Thus force is an inappropriate tool to use on humans. Las Casas believed the only way of advancing other civilizations is through what he calls “the method that is proper and natural to man..namely, love and gentleness and kindness.” Las Casas’s arguments remind me of the first line of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group of persons may do them without violating their rights.” Threats and violence are ill‐suited to humans who are rational by nature.
The jury never reached a conclusive victor, and both Sepulveda and Las Casas claimed victory. Las Casas spent much of the rest of his life in Spain writing extensively about the cause he had already dedicated the majority of his life to in an effort to save his soul. By 1561 Las Casas moved to a Dominican monastery in Madrid where he would reside for the rest of his days, finishing his History of the Indies and Apologetic history while also writing Concerning Kingly Power, a treatise on the nature and limits of political power. Las Casas outlined his three main political principles, all power comes from the people, power is vested in rulers to benefit and serve the people, and lastly, all important government decisions require the consent and consultation of the people. With the death of Charles, a much less sympathetic Philip assumed the throne who had no doubts about the legitimacy of brutal conquest as long as it yielded profit. As Las Casas neared his death, he must have despaired as the Spanish government turned away from his humane teachings.
Las Casas eventually passed away in 1566. He spent the majority of his 81 years fighting for the rights of Amerindians. He risked his life crossing the Atlantic numerous times, went completely against his time’s dominant beliefs, suffered scorn, mockery, ridicule, and threats, all to make up for his past misdeeds. His life was dedicated to fighting imperialism and racism while affirming the basic dignity and rights that ought to be universal. I have barely scratched the surface of Las Casas’s complex life and thought. He lived in interesting times, whether he liked it or not, but he rose to the challenge. I can think of no other way to describe Las Casas, the humane hero of history. If the questionable Christopher Columbus can have a holiday named after him, I think there is an argument there ought to be a Bartolome Las Casas day dedicated to celebrating resistance to tyranny and oppression.