Las Casas, Bartolome de

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Las Casas, Bartolome de

Las Casas, Bartolome de (1474-1566)

Spanish missionary and historian

Bartolome de Las Casas was the first European author to condemn imperialism and enslavement in the New World. Born to the lower middle class in Seville, Spain, he was the son of a merchant who enriched himself by sailing with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493-94. Las Casas studied law and religion at the University of Salamanca, intending to become a priest. In 1502, he traveled to Hispaniola (present-day Haiti) with Governor Nicolas de Ovando, a commander of the Military Order of Alcantara, mentor to the explorer Hernan Cortes, annihilator of the indigenous Arawak and Carib of the West Indies, and despoiler of African slaves. He stayed in Santo Domingo for four years, during which time he witnessed the massacre of a large number of Indians. He returned to Spain in 1506 to resume his studies, and he was ordained the following year. He subsequently returned to Salamanca for a degree in Canon law, upon which he set sail for Hispaniola, arriving in September 1510. Though a property owner himself, he deplored the Spanish system of land development and forced labor (encomienda). The capture and burning at the stake of the Taino chief Hatuey on February 2, 1512, so dismayed Las Casas that he dedicated his life thereafter to improving the lot of black and Indian slaves in the Greater Antilles, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru. He renounced his personal ownership of slaves in 1514; he later declared that the subjugation and exploitation of Indians was a mortal sin.

In the early 1520s, under the aegis of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V Las Casas attempted to build a utopian community and mission in Cumana on the north coast of Venezuela. He envisioned a trade relationship between peaceful farmers and European merchants as a New World crusade and a fertile ground for Christianization of pagans. Colonial Spanish investors undermined his work by fomenting an Indian uprising that climaxed in murder and arson. Discouraged, he returned to Hispaniola in 1522 and joined the Dominican order. He continued to campaign against slavery and the abuse of Indians, often angering his superiors. In his tract Confessionario (1545), Las Casas ordered new priests assigned to the Caribbean to deny forgiveness of sins to enslavers of Indians.

Eventually, while dividing his time between Spain and his work in the Americas, Las Casas accumulated the materials that would form the core of his great work, Brevisima relation de la destruction de las Indias (Brief report of the devastation of the Indies, 1552). The chronicle, part of the humanitarian backlash against Spain's New World regime, offers the only eyewitness account of the indigenous tribes whom Columbus encountered and of the Spanish-made misery that developed in Central America and the West Indies, especially in mines and on plantations. Las Casas's virulent arguments against European exploiters of the Western Hemisphere were based on a humanist philosophy that deemed all people were created in God's likeness. In a blaze of indignation, he leveled charges of greed and GENOCIDE against ostensibly Christian investors and settlers under the enco- mienda system. He described the aboriginal labor pool controlled by European trustees as victims of a satanic form of usurpation and SLAVERY. He denounced “vexations, assaults, and iniquities” and “murder and torture inflicted on the natives in this relentless search for gold” (Las Casas 1999, 14, 35). Those who survived outright murder by impaling in pits or burning in locked buildings faced lives shortened by brutal labor, rape and concubinage, child enslavement, disease, accidents, and insufferable living conditions.

After the failure of a second utopia at Verapaz, Honduras, in 1545, Las Casas settled at Puerto de Plata, Santo Domingo. There he began composing a New World masterwork, his three-volume geological and social revelation, Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies), which he worked on for the rest of his life; it remained unpublished until 1875. In this work, Las Casas condemned maltreatment of the innocent and declared, “Indians descend from Adam our father, and this suffices for us to respect the divine principle of charity toward them” (Las Casas 1971, 66). One of his comments was a supreme insult to contemptuous Spanish—a belief that Indians were more spiritual and more respectful of divine powers than the Greeks and Romans, whom Europeans revered for philosophy and morality. He claimed that Indians displayed wisdom, political savvy, and jurisprudence based on their inclination toward peace and humility. As a model of evangelism gone wrong, he cited the defiance of Chief Hatuey, who chose public burning at the stake rather than baptism. His reasoning shocked the clergy: Hatuey spurned the sharing of heaven with blood-guilty Christians. Las Casas's summation proclaimed the right of Amerindians to eradicate Europeans from the earth.

A short time before his final illness and death, Las Casas outlined a legal brief condemning Spain for invasion and VIOLENCE in South America. In De thesauris in Peru (On treasure in Peru, 1562), he cited medieval precedent that upheld native sovereignty. Among European enslavers and criminals, his treatise castigated looters of native tombs and the conquistador Francisco Pizarro's strangulation of Atahualpa, the 31-year-old Incan Emperor, at Cajamarca, Peru. In 1566, writing directly to Pope Pius V, Las Casas predicted that God would damn Spain eternally for dispatching priests to the New World to enrich themselves at the expensive of suffering natives. In the priest's last days at Our Lady of Atocha monastery in Madrid, he entrusted to the Dominican staff his History of the Indies, the most severe criticism of Spanish imperialism of its time. For Las Casas's native rights activism, Cubans and Nicaraguans revere him as a national hero.


Adorno, Rolena. The Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.

Castro, Daniel. Another Face of Empire: Bartolome de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007.

Las Casas, Bertolome de. History of the Indies. Translated by Andree Collard. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. . A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Translated by Nigel Griffin. London: Penguin, 1999. Orique, David. “Bartolome de Las Casas: A Brief Outline of His Life and Labor.” Available online. URL: Downloaded on January 9, 2009.