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Bartholome Las Casas

Father of Anti-Racism

The discovery of the Americas had significant repercussions on the intellectual life of Europe. It showed, for example, that the ancient geographers were wrong about world geography. The Spanish conquests in the New World also had repercussions in European intellectual life. The Spanish engaged in genocidal wars which involved theft of land and property on a grand scale, and the enslavement of large numbers of people. Father de las Casas is one of those shining figures who did their best to oppose and prevent the crimes which the Spanish were committing in the New World. It is for this reason that modern scholars refer to him as the father of anti-imperialism and the father of anti-racism.

Born in 1482, Las Casas sailed for the New World in 1502 with the new governor of Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando. Las Casas met Columbus and became the editor of the Admiral's journals. Las Casas began as a typical colonist who gained a grant of native slaves, but then both witnessed Spanish genocidal attacks on native peoples and heard Father Montesinos condemning the Spanish for the treatment of the native peoples. Las Casas was converted, and became a defender of the Indians. He pursued these efforts for the remainder of his life. Perhaps the most important event in this effort was the Great Debate in Valladolid in 1550 with Juan Gines de Sepulveda.

Las Casas's works were aimed at informing people in Spain of the crimes that were being committed in the new world against native peoples and, at various times, before two different Spanish kings, arguing that what was being done was criminal. The Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies, when it was published outside of Spain, provided other European powers with a justification for attacking Spanish colonies. Las Casas also wrote out a monumental defense of the Indians in his debate with Juan Gines de Sepulveda in 1550.

If you look at the map of the world at about the time Las Casas was born you see that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along with the continents of North and South America, Australia and Antarctica are all missing. 1492 represented an extraordinary year in the history of Spain and the world. In Spain the re-conquest of the peninsula from the Islamic Moors was completed, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and Columbus sailed on his first voyage of exploration. All of these events were to effect the intellectual history of Europe in various ways.

The four voyages of discovery which Columbus made led to the discovery of the islands of the Caribbean with their native peoples, and then the discovery of the American mainland. The wars of conquest against the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru. In 1519 Cortez began his expedition to Mexico, resulting in the conquest of Mexico. In 1531 Pizarro invades Peru and destroys the Inca empire. These are simply the biggest events in an ongoing conquest of the Americas.

From the first voyage of Columbus, the Spanish came to the new world looking for gold and converts. The search for gold required mining. Mining was a very labor intensive business. The Spanish used work gangs of Indians slaves to do their mining for them. The terrible conditions which the Spanish imposed on native communities, caused large numbers of people to die. Finally in Peru, the Spanish found Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) at Potosi, a mountain of silver. The stresses which the Spanish imposed on Indian communities were so severe that in the islands of the Caribbean the native peoples largely died out, to be replaced by black slaves from Africa.

The treatment of the Indians was genocidal -- that is we are talking about the destruction of peoples. In part this was a result of potent germs -- such as smallpox which was unknown in the Americas -- which the Spanish unknowingly brought with them. But, because of superior weapons, horses, metal armor, ships and cannon, the Spanish found themselves in a world where they had power over people, and those people had little recourse except to flee. Women were raped, property and land stolen in vast quantities, whole populations destroyed. All of this was done by the conquistadores with an attitude of considerable self-righteousness. There were some protests, largely from Dominican priests like Father Montesinos and Father de las Casas. From about 1515 until his death in 1566 Las Casas was a persistent critic of Spanish treatment of the Indians. It is amazing that Father Las Casas was as effective as he was in bringing the plight of the Indians to the attention of the Spanish government. The most important episode in Las Casas' long series of protests over the treatment of the Indians, is the great debate in 1550 in the Spanish capital of Valladolid.

Juan Gines de Sepulveda had recently returned to Spain from Italy where he had studied with one of the greatest Italian Aristotle scholars of the period. He was the spokesman for the interests of the conquistadores and Spanish colonists who wanted to continue taking the land and property of the native peoples as well as using the Indians for slave labor. In arguing on their behalf he used Aristotle's doctrine of natural slavery from the Politics and the Nichomachean Ethics.

Aristotle argues that slavery for some people is a natural condition which is good for them. Such people cannot effectively rule themselves, so they need to be ruled by others who are wiser than they. Such rulers can, in effect, make such people more civilized. Sepulveda applies this argument to the relation between the Spanish and the Indians. The Indians, he holds, cannot rule themselves, and so they should be ruled by the Spaniards. The Spanish, once they have conquered the Indians, can convert them to Christianity.

What makes someone a natural slave? According to Aristotle, there is a certain kind of barbarian who cannot rule himself who is a natural slave. Such barbarians can be hunted down like wild beasts and captured. The Spanish had various reasons for thinking the Indians were barbarians. These people were not Christians. And the Spanish were convinced that they engaged in horrible practices. They were sexually promiscuous, homosexuals, and worst of all the engaged in cannibalism and human sacrifice.

Las Casas in arguing against Sepulveda uses two strategies. First, he accepts the Aristotelian framework which Sepulveda proposes, and argues that the Indians are not barbarians in the strict sense which would make them natural slaves. Thus, the wars against them are unjust. Second, he argues that Christian morality would not allow even barbarians in the strict sense to be hunted like wild animals as Aristotle proposes. Thus he rejects the authority of the Philosopher.

Arguably Las Casas' triumphed in the debate. The Spanish government made some efforts to alleviate the condition of the Indians. Ultimately, the Spanish government, when it realized that the colonists in Peru would revolt if it continued to defend the Indians, gave up the policies proposed by Las Casas. Perhaps Las Casas' lasting legacy is to contribute to the formation of a tradition of protest against the ill treatment of native peoples. The present Bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, sees himself as the lineal descendent of the first Bishop of Chiapas -- Father Bartolome de las Casas.

Critics of Las Casas have pointed out that in his zeal to save the Indians, he suggested allowing the colonists to replace them with black African slaves. They charge him with a double standard, treating Indians better than Black Africans. Early historians suggested that it was Las Casas's suggestion which caused the Spanish crown to license the importation of black slaves to New Spain. This is rather unlikely. What is notable and genuinely unique about him in the history of European imperialism and colonialism, is that he saw that he was mistaken about this and publicly recanted.

Your goal in this unit is to understand Las Casas' arguments against Sepulveda. You also want to understand what Las Casas position is about black slavery. In order to achieve these goals you must begin the practice of reading analytically. You will have to ask yourself what the parts are and how the parts fit together into a whole. You will be provided quite a bit of help in doing this in the commentary section