The Curious Case of Bartolomé de las Casas

The Curious Case of Bartolomé de las Casas

Why you should care

The man some call the world’s first human rights advocate may have also promoted the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

No saints were they, the conquistadors. Throughout the New World, they killed, tortured and enslaved Native Americans, pillaged their towns and ruined their land. Today we know about this brutality largely because of one man: Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), a Spanish priest who witnessed and publicized his countrymen’s atrocities. Some call the friar the world’s first human rights advocate; others, the Apostle of the Indians.

In Las Casas’ telling, the natives were virtuous innocents, and the conquistadors were bloodthirsty sadists. “From the beginning, the Indians regarded the Spaniards as angels from heaven,” he wrote in The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account.

Everywhere he went, the priest heard horror stories that he committed to paper in stomach-churning detail.

In addition to Hispaniola (home to present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Las Casas journeyed to or lived in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. Everywhere he went, and from many places he didn’t, the priest heard horror stories that he committed to paper in stomach-churning detail: how the Spanish stabbed and dismembered pregnant women, tore babies from their mothers’ breasts and threw them into canyons, burned chieftains over long-smoldering flames, and trained their dogs to eat them

Though Las Casas may have exaggerated — he meant to shock the authorities into action — most historians accept the bones of his story: The Spanish perpetrated atrocities and killed on a mass scale. In 1542, he won a fleeting victory with the passage of the New Laws, which provided for the gradual abolition of encomienda, a system that effectively permitted slave labor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the New Laws proved deeply unpopular in the Americas: Colonists rioted, governors flouted them and Las Casas was shot at. The laws were soon repealed.

The Curious Case of Bartolomé de las Casas

Spanish conquistadors burn, torture and kill natives.

Source British Library/Getty

Las Casas had other tools in his arsenal. Among them was his status as Bishop of Chiapas. There he wrote a manual for confession that instructed priests to not allow slave owners to take confession. Not long after, though, the manual was confiscated and Las Casas, unpopular in the New World, was recalled to Spain. There he turned to writing and debate — it’s a wonder that he escaped the snatches of the Spanish Inquisition — and on the day he died, at 82, he voiced regret for not having done more for the Indian cause.

Las Casas hadn’t set off for the New World with humanitarian aims. For his first years there, he was an ordinary slave-holding settler. But after witnessing (some say participating in) the Spanish conquest of Cuba and hearing the sermons of abolitionist priest Antonio Montesinas, Las Casas converted to the Indian cause.

Perhaps convert’s zeal is to blame for Las Casas’ biggest misstep and the longest-lingering cloud over his career: advocating for the importation of African slaves to replace Indian ones. To be sure, many church critics of Indian slavery did, too. Later in life, Las Casas would recant. And it’s not clear whether Las Casas’ espousal of African slavery had an actual effect.

Still, that blip disconcerts and deeply. It’s hard to reconcile Las Casas’ passionate humanitarian defense of Native Americans with his inability to see everyone as human, and it’s hard to fathom how someone who was so ahead of his peers on human rights could be so backward. But it’s a good reminder: Even those who see best sometimes have blind spots.

This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 12, 2013.

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