An Analysis of the Activism of Bartoleme De Las Casas
Often characterized by modern historians as the "Defender and the apostle to the Indians," Bartolome de Las Casas is known for exposing and condemning as well as exaggerating and misrepresenting the violent practices of Spanish colonizers of the New World against Native Americans. Marked by emotional polemic and often embellished statistics, Las Casas' voluminous works brought him both support and opposition in his own time. While being harshly criticized as a threat to Spanish rule in America, De Las Casas was also continually financially supported by the Crown and offered high offices by the Church (Benzoni 48). Though more than four hundred years have passed since his death, the works of this controversial Dominican friar continue to elicit strong reactions from both detractors and defenders -- from both those who condemn him and those who praise him -- for his humanitarian view of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and his revolutionary activism on their behalf. This paper will discuss the life of De Las Casas during the period in history when the New World was still being colonized by Spain -- when Mexico was known as Mexica -- and when the question of whether the natives could be considered the equals of the creoles was still debated in Europe. It will show how De Las Casas' own purity, pride, idealism, and religious life prompted him to a course of action that may be considered as the work of a radical humanist -- or an early human rights activist.
Spain was formed ultimately as an extension of the Castilian Kingdom in response to the Muslim threat of the medieval age. The language of Castile was the official language of Spain -- and Catholicism its official religion. The Empire of Spain stretched far and wide, with language and religion taking root in many places in the New World and elsewhere the Spanish crown carried out its enterprise for gold, God, and glory.
Even though the language survived, Imperial Spain died in a sense with Isabella. Columbus, the explorer who received her patronage, virtually knew as much upon hearing of her death. Isabella encompassed the regalia and glory of Spain that was exceptionally and violently Catholic, seen to a high degree in Columbus' own response to the queen's demise: "Her life was always Catholic and holy, and prompt in all things in His holy service; for this reason we may rest assured that she is received into His glory, and beyond the care of this rough and weary world" (Walsh 1930: 484). Yet, if with Isabella died the Empire, the conquest of the Americas continued on. The problem, however, was that the conquistadors had little to no understanding of the peoples they were conquering. They understood nothing of the cultures, their backgrounds, their habits, customs, work life, etc. Oftentimes, they lacked the supernatural charity that so had so marked the spiritual life of their Queen.
Nonetheless, many missionaries took the opportunity to understand the natives and accommodate them as best they could. De Las Casas was one such example: a very vocal critic of countrymen when he realized the native's sufferings; indeed, De Las Casas lost all patience with anyone who failed to adopt his perspective. He was adamant, unyielding, and passionate in his defense of the natives. Thus, he gained both popularity and notoriety in Spain.
Spain during the Golden Age (16th c. -- 17th c.) had become a very unique center of cultural creativity (not only in painting, but also in architecture, music, conquest, and literature). It was, in a word, inspired. Columbus had set sail under the Spanish flag, and Spain's Empire was colonizing the Americas. Gold, God and glory were themes of tremendous importance -- but so were the humanistic themes that had developed out of the Renaissance -- and these humanistic themes are what De Las Casas appealed to.
The High Renaissance drew from many sources: if likened to a mighty river, it can be said that its main source was the Church and that its many tributaries came from such disparate sources as classicalism, humanism, new wealth among the merchant class, artistic fervor, scientific revolution, and reformation. That out of it grew the Protestant Reformation and its challenge to institutional authority is a point only mentioned because parallel to that challenge may be seen De Las Casas' challenge to overturn the system of governance in the New World and curb the abuses of the natives at the hands of the conquistadors. This quixotic figure (a pre-cursor, in a way, of the Spaniard Cervantes' most famous hero) was armed not with a lance and helmet but with a powerful rhetoric that did not let facts get in the way of the picture he wished to paint. Yet, despite his embellishments and idealism, he was a genuine defender of the natives.
De Las Casas was certainly a man of integrity, who chafed at the treatment which the natives received from his own countrymen; but he was also an idealist -- a product of that Renaissance age, which was often unrealistic, highly humanistic, and on the verge of breaking out into revolution all throughout Europe. In one sense, De Las Casas may be said to be the personification of Europe's struggles with the new and approaching modern worldview in the Americas. Three years before Luther nailed his Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, De Las Casas began preaching against the Spaniards' treatment of the natives. As Iris Engstrand observes, it was a battle that would not easily be won: "The Spanish Crown, in its Royal Orders for New Discoveries of 1573, decreed that Indians should be taught 'to live in a civilized manner, clothed and wearing shoes…given the use of bread and wine and oil and many other essentials of life….Instructed in the trades and skills with which they might live richly" (13). Considering that De Las Casas had observed the need for such a decree as early as 1514 -- more than half a century earlier -- it is no surprise that he is still remembered today as an advocate of the indigenous peoples, the Apostle to the Indians.
From Seeker of Wealth to Fighter for Justice: Las Casas' Change of Heart
As Paul S. Vickery asserts, De Las Casas "came to the New World to acquire wealth and prestige," but his experiences in New Spain "caused him to undergo a complete change of both mind and heart" (2). As a chaplain in Hispaniola, the Spanish colony in Cuba, De Las Casas "lived off the toil of the Indians of his encomienda -- the system by which Spanish colonists were given tracts of land and the rights to the forced labor of the native people in return for a promise to instruct them in the faith" (Carozza 289).
It may be said that De Las Casas was blind to the injustice which he himself participated in for a time. The Dominican missionaries were the loudest voices of protest against the slave-based system of the conquerors. It was not until after "one Dominican refused to hear Las Casas' confession because he owned slaves" that seed of change began to take root in the future Apostle to the Indians.
The impetus for this change came from the fact that what he believed according to his Catholic faith was definitely not being realized or actualized in the land before him. In other words, there was a discernible discrepancy between his words in preaching the Gospel and the actions of the supposed hearers of the Gospel in the new colonies. "Las Casas experienced a crisis of faith, and instead of ignoring or dismissing his ethical inconsistencies, he changed his actions to conform to his beliefs" (Vickery 2). He became an agitator, a lobbiest, an activist and constant thorn in the sides of those who saw the native as nothing more than a source of labor to be exploited for gold, God and glory. If De Las Casas had also come to the New World in pursuit of gold, God and glory, he was not willing to sacrifice God for either of the other two.
De Las Casas was not alone in his newfound belief that the way to a Christian New World lay through "proclamation of the gospel and by demonstration of the love of Christ" rather than by brute force and oppression. Where he differed from other missionaries, however, was in his method of conveying this fact. To drive home his point, he utilized a rhetoric much given over to embellishment. His facts were exaggerated and his points contrived -- but the overall thesis of his work, the intention of his writings, was not to convict the Spaniards of crime, but to win for the natives the right to live as free men.
As Paolo G. Carozza notes, De Las Casas became "the midwife of modern human rights talk" (289). It is De Las…