The Tale of Bartolome De Las Casas, (1474-1566)

By Bob Corbett

This is the strange tale of Bartolome de las Casas, a man whom I regard as one of the most interesting cases in human history. He was, as you shall see, a great humanitarian. Yet, this tragic man was importantly instrumental in one of the greatest evils of human history. De las Casas has always signified for me the incredible dangers of putting heart exclusively over head. It would seem to me that one needs good intentions and a good heart to have the courage and will to carry out those intentions. But, one almost must have knowledge. Doing good is not only a matter of intention and will. It is also a matter of knowing what to do, and in the case of de las Casas, knowing what not to do.

Las Casas' father sailed with Columbus in 1492 and Bartolome made the third voyage in 1498. He settled in Hispaniola in 1502, ready to seek his fortune in the New World. He was deeply moved toward a sympathy toward the Amerindians by a Dominican priest in 1509, and gave up his slaves. From 1509 until his death in 1566 he was the great champion of the Amerindians.

This drawing of las Casas was taken from BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS IN HISTORY: TOWARD AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE MAN AND HIS WORK, edited by Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen. DeKalb, Ill., Northern Illinois University Press, 1971. That book, in turn, credits the Paris, 1822 edition of: DOM BARTHELEMI DE LAS CASAS, EVEQUE DE CHIAPA, PROECTEUR DES NATURELS DE L'AMERIQUE. Edition by J.A. Llotente. Frontpiece.

Las Casas did not campaign against slavery itself. His primary battle was to encourage, and demand, the practice of conversion and control of the Amerindians by peaceful means, not violence, war and cruelty. He had uncanny success in persuading the Kings of Spain, but their humanizing laws were constantly ignored in the colonies.

He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1510, became a member of the Dominican order in 1522 and was consecrated the bishop of Chiapas, Cuba in 1543. He wrote extensively of the horrible conditions of the Amerindians under Spanish rule, constantly pleading for peaceful and humane relations with them.

This image was taken from BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS: CHAMPION OF INDIAN RIGHTS by Dr. Fred Stopsky. Lowell, Mass, Discovery Enterprises, Ltd., 1992. p. 30 illustration is: by Leslie Carow. "...illustration is Ms. Carow's interpretation of a woodcut from the New York Public Library.

Ironically, this great and sincere humanitarian, convinced that the fast disappearing Arawak Indians could not physically tolerate the hard labor expected by the Spanish, recommended the importation of African slaves to do the hard labor. de las Casas believed that the Africans were constitutionally more fit for hard labor than were the Amerindians. Thus he was importantly, though indirectly, responsible for the growth of one of humanities greatest horrors -- black slavery in the New World.

A chronology of the career of Bartolome de las Casas

Some of the writing of de las Casas


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