Las Casas and the Nature of Man

Readings for this part of your journey

  1. Part I in your packet
  2. "The Legacy of Bartolome de las Casas"


First port of call -- Spain in 1492

Often when this course is taught it begins around 1641 with Descartes. We will get to Descartes soon enough. But why start earlier? One reason is that it is useful to get a look at two intellectual movements which had a big impact on Descartes -- Renaissance skepticism and the rise of natural philosophy, what we now call science -- and some events which influenced the character of the entire era. In order to understand Renaissance skepticism we really need to go back to Luther and the Reformation, which takes us back to about 1517. 1517 is a good date because it is not only the beginning of the Reformation, but it is the date on which Magellan's fleet began its epic journey circumnavigating the globe. This connects the Reformation and the discovery of the New World - America - as it came to be called. The discovery of America and other European voyages of discovery and conquest has many ramifications for the development of modern thought. It is one of those events which influenced the character of the entire era. To get some of these connections clear, however, it is useful to go back to 1492. What happened in 1492? 1492 is a date we all remember -- it is the year in which Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That is important, but there are other things of interest as well.

The Renaissance was in full bloom in 1492. Lorenzo de Medici, one of the great leaders of Florence died in 1492. Lorenzo was responsible for the development of the Floretine Academy with such philosophers as Pico della Mirandola and Marsillio Ficino -- who translated all of Plato's works into a modern European language for the first time. Lorenzo had also commissioned paintings by such artists as Boticelli. Alexander VI (1431-1503), "the Spanish Pope" became Pope in 1492. He was a corrupt, wordly and ambitious Pope, who played an important role in both in the Spanish conquest of the new world, and whose corruption contributed to the development of the Protestant Reformation.

The Renaissance is a complicated and mulit-faceted period. However, one characteristic feature of the Renaissance -- indeed a feature which is mainly responsible for the term 'renaissance' itself -- was an interest in the classical cultures of Greece and Rome. This interest was so strong that one might say that if one were ignorant of Greek and Latin (the languages of these classical cultures) one would hardly count as educated. The Greeks and Romans provided models or ideals of what could be achieved in art, architecture, politics, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy and so on. While this feature of European thought diminishes as time goes on, it is still noticeable in the last half of the eighteenth century where this course ends. One of the striking features about this period is that Europe is going beyond classical models and making new discoveries of its own. This is the reason why today the vast bulk of educated people feel no need to learn those classical languages, while back then they did.

Europeans in 1492 thought they understood the universe pretty well. The discoveries of Columbus and other explorers were deeply shocking. The Americas and the native peoples of the Americas were things which did not fit easily into the European scheme of things. Who were these people? Were they people at all? Europeans asked these questions and they came up with some odd answers. These people were "Indians" -- this name implied that they were inhabitants of the East Indies, what today would be Indonesia, Bali and so forth! These people were "the lost tribes of the Israelites!" These people were not really people at all! Perhaps they looked like people, but did they have souls? Or they were "uncivilized" -- going naked, committing abominable crimes like sodomy and cannibalism and engaging in human sacrifice!

Spanish Atrocities in the Americas

1492 is not only the year in which Columbus sailed. It is also the year in which the Reconquista -- the effort to drive the Moors out of Spain, came to its successful conclusion with the surrender of the Alhambra, the last Moorish fortress on Spanish soil. The Moors came to Spain from North Africa. They were not Christians -- they represented the rapidly rising tide of Islam. Islam founded in around 620 expanded with incredible rapidity east across Asia and west across North Africa, and north into Spain. The northward advance of Islam was stopped at the battle of Tours in Southern France in 720 C.E. -- exactly a hundred years after the expansion of Islam began! Islam developed a culture in many way superior to that of Christian Europe, and some of the highest points in that remarkable culture occurred in Islamic Spain. Christians began trying to reconquer Spain almost immediately, and it was this seven century long effort which finally came to an end in January of 1492 with the surrender of the Alhambra. This is important because it conditioned Spanish society. It was a culture constantly engaged in war which suddenly found itself at peace.

1492 is also the year in which Ferdinand and Isabella issued an edict expelling the Jews from Spain. Most other European cultures had done this earlier. These events may in part explain the way in which the Spaniards acted when they reached the new world. In a sense, the Reconquista just continued. Soldiers who had fought in the wars in Spain could now be conveniently sent far off to a place where they would not cause trouble in Spain. The attitudes toward the Jews and the Moors could be projected onto the Indians.

The Spanish felt that the papal bulls issues by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 drawing a line from pole to pole 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and giving Spain exclusive rights to the lands West of the line, along with treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494) with Portugal (which moved the line a futher 70 leagues West, the change being sanctioned by Pope Julius II in 1505) provided the legal basis for the conquest. It also provided the basis for the Portugese colonization of Brazil which was discovered by Cabral in 1500. Obviously, this meant nothing to the indigeneous peoples being conqurered!

Unfortunately, the conditions under which the Spanish and Portuguese and later other Europeans encountered the native peoples of the Americas, created temptations for them which they were quite unable to resist. Because of differences in cultures, Europeans brought with them (unknown to them) germs which decimated the population of the Americas. The native peoples had no equal load of deadly pathogens to put a stop to European encroachment (as for example, Africa did have). As a result of this, and others factors, Europeans found themselves able to dominate native peoples in an unprecedented way. They had the opportunity to take the lands, goods and kill or enslave the persons of an entire continent. This was temptation indeed! Europeans, beginning with Columbus, were interested in the acquisition of wealth -- of gold and silver in particular. Given this motivation, and their position of dominance as a result of disease and superior technology, the Spanish and later other Europeans and their descendants proceeded to commit genocide on the native peoples of the Americas and elsewhere.

In another effort to justify the conquest, in 1513 Spanish forces were required to read a document to the Indians they encountered. The document, known as the Requiremiento

The first reading in your class packet "Spanish Atrocities in the West Indies, c 1513-20" by Father de las Casas gives you a sense of how gruesome this could be. Being a witness to such events was in part what caused the conversion of Father de las Casas to the cause of defending the indigeneous peoples of the Americas. There were, no doubt, traditions in European culture which rejected such activities as cruel and illegitimate. The sermon by the Dominican priest, Father Antonio de Montesinos on the text "I am a voice crying in the wilderness," in 1511 was the first protest we know of denouncing Spain's treatment of the Indians. Father de las Casas appeals to these traditions and his display of incredible persistence and courage represent the best efforts of Europeans to use these traditions to stop the genocidal attacks, slave labor, and other abuses of indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, it is clear these traditions were relatively ineffective in curbing European crimes in the Americas.

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.

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 with 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 people 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