Bartolomé de las Casas (c. 1484-1566), the 16th-century Spanish Dominican friar, historian and social reformer, is best known for his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies), one of the earliest and most impassioned critiques of Spanish treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Las Casas made his first voyage to the Indies in the decade following Christopher Columbus (that is, sometime between 1492 to 1502). By 1510, he had begun opposing the greed of Spanish colonists and the violence that was being inflicted upon the natives in Hispaniola. He returned to Spain in 1515 to take the cause of indigenous populations before the Crown.
Written in 1542, the manuscript of Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias was handed over to King Charles V of Spain (1500-1558). Full of frank and disturbing details of torture and mutilation, the account was an assault upon the royal conscience. Although the appeal did not magically spell the end of colonial oppression, it did soften the attitude of the colonisers, leading to the passage of the Leyes Nuevas (“New Laws”) the same year. These “New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians” were issued to prevent the exploitation of native populations by encomenderos (landowners) by restricting the extent of their dominion. Las Casas’s writing also led to the Valladolid debate (1550-1551), the first moral debate in European history that discussed the rights and treatment of a colonised people by colonisers.
There was a dark side to the legacy of Las Casas’s critique. In the latter half of the 16th and through the 17th centuries, it was distributed widely in rival Protestant European countries to tarnish the image of Spain as a cruel, bloodthirsty realm and of the Spanish as natural-born mass murderers and oppressors (the ‘Black Legend‘). Today, however, the account is remembered mostly for the important place it occupies in the history of international law and its contribution to the development of modern human rights.
Read an excerpt:
In the wake of their open rebellion against the Crown, others, too, in many parts of the New World, have taken the law into their own hands and, while affecting to observe the new dispensations, are now in fact in open revolt. They have all been, in every case, extremely reluctant to give up the position and the wealth they have won for themselves during their lives of crime, and unwilling, also, to free the natives they have acquired and condemned to perpetual slavery. Now they have sheathed their swords and no longer murder the natives on sight, they have got into the habit of killing them slowly with hard labour and the imposition of other intolerable and totally unmerited vexations. And, to date, the Crown has not shown itself strong enough to put a stop to these injustices, because everyone, young and old alike, who journeys to the New World is either openly or in secret a fortune-hunter, albeit that some are worse than others, and all such fortunes are made at the expense of the local people. That they serve their own ends while pretending to serve those of the Crown is something that not only damages the Spanish interest but also brings dishonour on the name of God and on that of the King.
Here I share an extract from a scholarly book that will make things clearer.
Drawing from his studies of philosophy, theology and Roman and Canonical law, Las Casas elaborated a theory of natural law and international law with the aim of protecting the Indians from the cruelty of conquistadors. […] Las Casas’ work was mainly engaged with the relationship between Spanish invaders and the peoples of the “New World”. Las Casas’ preoccupation was again that of creating a base for the universal jurisdiction, an international legal framework able to apply to Indians and Spaniards. [,,,] Las Casas’ elaboration of natural rights doctrine sough to counteract the butchery of the war of conquest. Las Casas’ arguments were addressed to other representatives of the ideology of the just war, in particular to Juan de Sepúlveda. A cleric and lecturer with whom Las Casas engaged in the “Controversy of Valladolid” in 1550, Sepúlveda wrote:
The Spaniards rule with perfect right over the barbarians who, in prudence, talent, virtue and humanity are as inferior to the Spaniards as children to adults, women to men, the savage and cruel to the mild and gentle, the grossly intemperate to the continent, I might say as monkeys to men.
Contradicting Sepúlveda, Las Casas contended that the Native Americans were gentle, moderate and as rational as ancient Greeks and Romans. For Las Casas there was no doubt about the humanity of the Indians, nor about the unity of the human race. Drawing from the Stoics’ idea of universal brotherhood and from medieval theories of natural rights, Las Casas wrote:
All the peoples of the World are humans and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational…Thus all the races of humankind are one.
~ José-Manuel Barreto in Human Rights from a Third World Perspective: Critique, History and International Law (2013, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
Featured: Bartolomé de las Casas depicted as Savior of the Indians by Mexican painter Felix Parra (1845-1919)
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