Ports of Call  

Las Casas

Bartoleme de Las Casas

Bartoleme de las Casas (1484-1566), a Spanish colonist, a priest, founder of a Utopian community and first Bishop of Chiapas, was a scholar, historian and 16th century human rights advocate. Las Casas has been called the Father of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Others take a more guarded or modest view of his achievements. What there is little or no dispute about is that Las Casas was an early and energetic advocate and activist for the rights of native peoples.

Bartolome de Las Casas
Las Casas came to the Indies early, he knew Columbus and was the editor of the Admiral's journal. He knew conditions in the Americas first hand. As the first reading in our packet indicates, he was present during Spanish genocidal attacks on the native population of Cuba.

After coming to the realization that the Spanish treatment of the native population was unconscionable, Las Casas became a Dominican priest, and began traveling back and forth across the Atlantic. He was in part responsible for the repeal of the laws which allowed the Indians to be used in what amounted to slave labor gangs. This was the econmienda system. Government officials were willing to go along wi th this attempt to end the system for they feared that a new class of feudal lords would arise in the colonies. The Spanish colonists were outraged at this interference. Las Casas attempted to set up a colony on the coast of Venezuela where the native peo ple would be treated properly. It failed largely because of the bad example set by the colony's neighbors.

Because of pressures from the colonists, the encomienda system was restored. Las Casas returned to Spain and was eventually able to bring about the great debate of 1550 in the Spanish capital of Valladolid between Las Casas and the advocate for the colonists Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The second excerpt in our packet is from Las Casas' account of the debate. You will have a commentary to help you make your way through this section effectively.

The advocates of the encomienda system eventually triumphed. When the government realized that it might lose Peru to colonists revolting over this issue, it gave in. Still, Las Casas is a shining example of resistance to the ill treatment of native peoples. His works were translated across Europe. He likely influenced the French essayist Montaigne's views about the new world.

At this point read Benjamin Keen's essay "The Legacy of Bartolome de las Casas" to get a more detailed analysis of the life of Father de las Casas.

When you have finished reading Keen's essay, you should go on to the Commentary section of this unit.


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