Las Casas Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Bartolomé de Las Casas exposed and criticized the cruelties of the Spanish conquistadores toward the indigenous peoples of the New World, describing the human price of the Spanish conquest, in a work that was widely distributed during his time.

Summary of Event

The Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas arrived in the West Indies during 1502, ten years after Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Las Casas became a constant critic of Spanish cruelties toward indigenous peoples, writing several books on the subject, including Brevísima relación de la destruyción de las Indias (1552; The Tears of the Indians, 1656; also known as A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies). While the reports of Las Casas did little to stop the cruelty of the conquest, they did help influence papal declarations that the indigenous were to be regarded as human beings and not as beasts. Las Casas and other priests also found the indigenous peoples to be eligible for conversion to Christianity. Native Americans;Catholicism and Native Americans;cruelty against Tears of the Indians, The (Las Casas) Las Casas, Bartolomé de Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Sepúlveda, Juan Ginés de Vitoria, Francisco de Balboa, Vasco Núñez de Narváez, Pánfilo de Las Casas, Bartolomé de

The writings of Las Casas were part of a broader debate in Spain over the treatment of the indigenous by the Spanish during the sixteenth century. The Spanish crown was very legalistic, and very concerned that its policy concerning the indigenous pass muster with the Church’s moral dictates. A debate raged beginning about the year 1500 over whether the indigenous peoples of the New World possessed souls and could be regarded as human by European standards. The Church, after lengthy debate, agreed with Las Casas that the indigenous did indeed possess souls, and that these souls were fit to receive Christianity.

Once that question had been settled, European kings, popes, and savants wrestled with the question of how their nations could “discover” and then “own” lands that were obviously already occupied by the peoples of the Americas. Around 1550, the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, initiated a debate over these questions in which Las Casas argued for indigenous rights and Spanish theologian, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, argued against.

Another Spanish theologian, Francisco de Vitoria, had already written in 1532 that “the aborigines in question were true owners, before the Spanish came among them, both from the public and the private point of view.” Vitoria wrote in De Indis et de juri belli relectiones De Indis et de juri belli relectiones (Vitoria) (1557; English translation, 1917) that “The aborigines undoubtedly had true dominion in both public and private matters . . . neither their princes nor private persons could be despoiled of their property on the ground of their not being true owners.” Spain could not, therefore, simply assert ownership of lands occupied by indigenous peoples; title by discovery could be justified only if the land was without an owner. In Vitoria’s opinion, Spain could legally acquire title to indigenous peoples’ land in the New World by conquest resulting from a “just” war, unless the indigenous surrendered their title by “free and voluntary choice.” A “just war” was precisely defined. War was not to be undertaken on a whim or solely to dispossess the original inhabitants.

In the Americas, the conquistadores generally ignored the dictates of Spanish theologians. The Tears of the Indians and other books by Las Casas are filled with graphic details describing the horrors of the Spanish conquest. Las Casas wrote, for example, of how the Spaniards disemboweled indigenous men, women, and children.

Unlike the conquistadores, Las Casas did not want gold. He wanted, instead, to convert American Indians to Christianity. While he was not averse to Spanish exploration and Catholic conversion, the state and Church conundrum on which the conquest was built, Las Casas bitterly opposed the brutality with which both were carried out. Las Casas protested the brutal aspects of the conquest, but never doubted the religious virtue of the Spanish religious mission. Missions;Spanish in the Americas

In Mexico, Las Casas speculated that the Aztec Empire had been the most densely populated area on earth before Cortés’s conquest and European diseases depopulated it. He wrote that

The Spanish found pleasure in inventing all kinds of odd cruelties, the more cruel the better, with which to spill human blood. They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [indigenous] at a time in honour of Christ Our Savior and the twelve Apostles. When the indigenous were thus alive and hanging, the Spaniards tested their strength and their blades against them, ripping chests open with one blow and exposing entrails, and there were those who did worse. Then straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive. One man caught two children about two years old, pierced their throats with a dagger, then hurled them down a precipice.

Las Casas also described one conquistador pastime that was indicative of their sadistic disregard for human life. It was called “dogging”—the hunting and maiming of indigenous people by canines specifically trained to relish the taste of human flesh. The use of dogs occurred so frequently during the conquest that a scholarly book described this aspect of the conquest alone. Some of the dogs were kept as pets by the conquistadores. Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s favorite was named Leoncito, or “Little Lion,” a cross between a greyhound and a mastiff. On one occasion, Balboa ordered forty individuals “dogged” at once. “Just as the Spanish soldiers seem to have particularly enjoyed testing the sharpness of their yard-long blades on the bodies of indigenous children, so their dogs seemed to find the soft bodies of infants especially tasty,” wrote scholar David E. Stannard in his 1992 book.

Las Casas also severely criticized the practice of “commending” the indigenous to encomenderos, Encomenderos a condition of virtual slavery, but was rebuffed by Spanish authorities. Las Casas, the first priest ordained in the New World and son of a veteran of Columbus’s first voyage, called down a formal curse on the main agent of the bloody terror that eliminated indigenous people from Cuba, Pánfilo de Narváez. Las Casas wrote that one of the gentle Tainos, who had been offered baptism as he was about to be burned at the stake, refused it because he thought it might take him to heaven, where he might meet even more Christians. Tainos

In writing of the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, Las Casas stated that the Spanish viewed the indigenous “not like beasts, for that would have been tolerable, but look upon them as if they had been but the dung and filth of the earth.” Caribbean Indians Las Casas pointed out in another work, Historia de las Indias (wr. 1527-1561, pb. 1875-1876; partial translation, History of the Indies History of the Indies (Las Casas) , 1971), that the Spanish

have so cruelly and inhumanely butchered [the indigenous peoples], that of three million people which Hispaniola itself did contain, there are remaining alive scarce three hundred people.

Significance

Like few other Spaniards, Las Casas understood the human dimensions of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The Caribs, Arawaks, and other indigenous peoples whom Columbus met during his earliest voyages were not the simple, autonomous savages he often imagined them to be. As in many other areas of the New World, the places that Columbus visited were thickly populated. The island chain including Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas was home to roughly four million people in 1492. The indigenous people of the islands had evolved a class-stratified society, with a caste of chiefs (Tainos) at the top. Indigenous economies had developed an intricate seaborne trade between the islands.

While modern historians calculate that Hispaniola’s original population was 250,000 (not the three million that Las Casas estimated), the priest’s testimony is nevertheless a searing tale of conquest and death for the Taino people.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">González-Casanovas, Roberto J. Imperial Histories from Alfonso X to Inca Garcilaso: Revisionist Myths of Reconquest and Conquest. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1997. Examines the political and ideological functions of official historiographies of Spanish conquest in America and reconquest in Iberia. Reads Las Casas’s critiques of colonialism alongside the pro-colonial writings of his contemporaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodgkins, Christopher. Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Study of the ways in which Protestantism became a major discourse for both justifying and condemning the early modern English colonial project. Includes a study of English representations of Spanish conquistadors and the relationship between Las Casas’s descriptions of Spanish conquest and Milton’s portrayals of satanic Spaniards.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, William F., ed. Earliest Hispanic/Native American Interactions in the Caribbean. New York: Garland, 1991. A scholarly collection of articles about both Spanish and Native American institutions, including the encomienda system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keen, Benjamin. Essays in the Intellectual History of Colonial Latin America. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. This collection includes an essay surveying 460 years of Las Casas scholarship, and another essay evaluating his legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Las Casas, Bartolomé de. The Devastation of the Indies. Translated by Herma Briffault. New York: Seabury Press, 1974. A fine translation, but not the earliest in English, of the Spanish missionary’s most famous work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Las Casas, Bartolomé de. History of the Indies. Translated and edited by Andree Collard. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. This ably edited translation provides an excellent introduction to the famous history written by Las Casas. Offers a vivid description of indigenous-Spanish conflicts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lupher, David A. Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth Century Spanish America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Study of the influence of Roman models of empire upon the Spanish imperial project. Discusses competing attitudes of Las Casas and Sepúlveda.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Remesal, Antonio de. Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1474-1566, in the Pages of Father Antonio de Remesal. Translated and annotated by Felix Jay. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2002. Translation and commentary upon a life of Las Casas written sixty years after his death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stannard, David E. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. This scholarly work provides a revisionist perspective on the legacy of the Spanish conquest of the New World.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Varner, John Greer, and Jeanette Johnson Varner. Dogs of the Conquest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. A history of the harsh treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

1495-1510: West Indian Uprisings

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1545-1548: Silver Is Discovered in Spanish America

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

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