The 16th-century Spanish historian and Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) fought against the violent colonization of and enslavement in the New World. He spoke against imperialism and for universal human rights. “All mankind is one,” he insisted; every individual possessed an identical, natural right to liberty.
Las Casas was born in Seville at a fortunate time. The Italian Renaissance had spread to Spain, where the flowering of philosophy and culture assumed a Spanish flavor. The School of Salamanca epitomized this golden age. The philosophical tradition drew on the work of Dominican scholar Francisco de Vitoria. The “father of international law” who was renown for his “just war” theory, Vitoria revived the rational philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. In a famous 1511 sermon, the Dominican Antonio Montesino expressed two core Salamancan beliefs: first, divine law comes from God but does not overrule human law, which comes from reason, and second, natural rights are inherent in every man’s being and cannot be forfeited “through sin.”
Thus, Spanish thinkers gave unique consideration to the morality of conquest and to the justice of governing native people. “Human rights became the focus of the writings of the School of Salamanca,” historian Leonard Liggio wrote, “because of the practical questions sent to them by the missionaries in the New World.”
Bartolomé’s father, Pedro de las Casas, accompanied Columbus on his first journey to the New World, as well as his second. His son was sent went to Salamanca to prepare for the priesthood, but in 1502 Bartolomé himself journeyed to Hispaniola, the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The natives there had been subdued, and the main city became a staging area to raid surrounding islands. Bartolomé de las Casas participated in at least two of these “pacification” expeditions. A few years later, he became the first priest ordained in the New World.
In 1510 a group of newly arrived Dominicans were repulsed by the brutality of slave owners. Through the encomienda system, the Crown assigned Spaniards tracts of land that included labor and tribute from resident natives. Savage owners literally worked Indians to death. The appalled Dominicans denied all slave owners the rite of confession and absolution, including the landholding las Casas. Montesino’s famous sermon explained, “[By] what right … do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands?… and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold.” The rebellious Dominicans were recalled to Spain.
But las Casas was shaken by the atrocities he had witnessed on military expeditions. In A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, he described the death of Hatuey, a chieftain from Hispaniola. Hatuey waged guerilla warfare in Cuba against the Spaniards until they captured and burned him at the stake. Before lighting the fires, a priest asked Hatuey to accept Jesus and enter heaven. Hatuey “asked … if Spaniards went to heaven.” The answer was yes. The chief then declared he wanted to go “to hell … where he would not see such cruel people.” Las Casas concluded, “This is the name and honor that God and our faith have earned.”
A few years later las Casas had an epiphany while studying a Bible passage: “The offering of him that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, is stained, and the mockeries of the unjust are not acceptable.” Las Casas released his slaves and relinquished his land holdings. He began openly to preach against the encomienda system, and in 1515 he took his battle to Spain, where New World laws originated. There, on Christmas Eve, he met with an ailing King Ferdinand, who granted him a second meeting. Unfortunately, Ferdinand died before it could occur.
On his way to visit Ferdinand’s successor — the underaged Prince Charles I, also known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor — las Casas stopped in Madrid to inform authorities of the New World’s brutality and the solution presented in his Memorial Remedies for the Indies. To his future regret, one remedy he offered was to import black slaves from Africa because he believed they were better able to bear hard labor and had been captured in just wars.
A commission was sent to the New World to investigate las Casas’s claims and to establish a new government, with las Casas as its adviser. The commission quickly sided with the encomienderos, however, and las Casas become so hated that he returned to Spain to resume his advocacy.
At the king’s request, las Casas coauthored a plan to radically reform the political system of the Indies. The encomienda would be eliminated and self-governing towns established for the Indians. The conquistador model of colonization would be replaced by transplanted Spanish peasants who peacefully worked the land. But the royal court shifted against las Casas, and the plan became a disastrous failure.
His next venture was an experimental colony in Venezuela in which Indians were to be peacefully converted to Christianity. Instead, four of las Casas’s men were massacred. Disheartened, he withdrew into religious study for about a decade and solidified the principles that guided the rest of his life. He also began work on his massive book, History of the Indies, which chronicled first-hand accounts of the colonization of the Indies.
Another controversy brewed. The Dominican and Franciscan orders disagreed on methods of conversion. The Franciscans favored mass conversions, while the Dominicans believed in individual ones. Circa 1530, las Casas began the treatise The Only Way to Draw All People to a Living Faith, which became a key missionary tract in Catholicism. It emphasized the need for peaceful conversion and for converting natives to a true understanding of Catholicism. Las Casas worked with like-minded theologians to draft a petition for Pope Paul III. The result was the 1537 papal bull Sublimis Dei, which prohibited the enslavement of Indians on the grounds that they were rational beings who should be converted peacefully.
From 1540 to 1544 las Casas recruited Dominicans in Spain for a new project in Guatemala while arguing for his method of conversion. He also read aloud at court the first version of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. People were shocked by the descriptions of graphic atrocities. Las Casas’s solution? Eliminate the encomienda system and place Indians under guardianship of the Crown.
The result were the “New Laws” (1542). For the first time in European history, native slavery was abolished, and encomiendas were to revert directly to the Crown when the current holders died. Las Casas returned to the New World, but the colonists were outraged. In Peru the Viceroy was killed for trying to enforce the New Laws. Widespread riots erupted and las Casas’s life was threatened. Fearing civil war, the king removed the inheritance ban that would have eliminated the encomienda system.
In 1546 the undaunted las Casas composed a Confesionario — the rules confessors should apply. Las Casas believed penitents should not only free slaves but also make restitution before receiving absolution. He became so unpopular in the New World that he left for Spain, never to return.
Arriving in 1547, he was accused of treason, which was punishable by death. Since the Crown held slaves, it was said las Casas would deny absolution to the king himself. In 1548 the Confesionario was ordered burned, which only made las Casas go on the offensive. Charles I was so disturbed by his passionate arguments that in 1550 he suspended all conquest in the New World. A junta (jury) of theologians and jurists was appointed to preside over a debate on the justice of conquest and occupation.
The Valladolid Debate
The resulting Valladolid Debate (1550-1551) is one of the most famous exchanges in European history. It occurred in a city of that name over several months. The famed humanist, jurist, and theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that Indians were barbarians whose subjugation was justified under Catholic theology and natural law. Las Casas rebutted that they were free people with natural rights. The two men presented their cases separately and sequentially before the junta.
Sepúlveda offered four basic arguments:
- The inferiority of Indians gave Spaniards a responsibility to master them;
- Indian practices, such as cannibalism, offended nature;
- Human sacrifice to false gods offended both nature and the true God; and
- Slavery was an effective conversion tool.
He viewed Indians as “natural slaves,” and drew heavily on Aristotle-le, whose influence within Catholicism ran deep.
Las Casas objected to citing Aristotle because the Indians did not fit the philosopher’s definition of the “barbarian” who was a “natural slave.” They were reasoning beings with natural rights and full souls. Citing St. Augustine and international law, las Casas insisted the Indians should be converted through persuasion not war.
Both men claimed victory, but the judges’ verdict was inconclusive. Nevertheless, the royal Council of the Indies continued to administer policy more in accord with las Casas’s views, and subsequent laws became more favorable to the Indians. Unfortunately, the laws were not widely enforced in the New World, where a sharp schism existed between what the law said and its application.
Las Casas’s last years
In 1551 las Casas withdrew to a monastery and devoted himself to writing. The next year he published several treatises, including his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.
But there was one last major battle to fight. In 1552 the Royal Council of the Treasury proposed selling encomiendas in perpetuity to their current holders in order to raise much-needed revenue. The new Spanish king, Philip II, ordered the policy to be implemented, but the relevant council refused in the belief that the land rightfully belonged to the Indians. A junta was appointed to judge the propriety of the policy, and las Casas coauthored a work vigorously against it. Eventually, after many machinations, the plan was abandoned.
By 1559 las Casas had completed his famous Apologetic History, a pioneering work in anthropology. In 1561 he completed the three-volume History of the Indies, which did not appear until 1875. In the History las Casas profusely apologized for his former advocacy of black slavery.
At 82, on July 18, 1566, Bartolomé de las Casas died in Madrid, where he had gone to petition for the restoration of a court of justice in Guatemala.
Las Casas’s political legacy has been co-opted repeatedly. In the early 1580s the British circulated his descriptions of New World atrocities to discredit Spain, against whom it was planning war. Modern “liberation theology” claimed las Casas because he advocated Indian rights. Liberation theology is sometimes called Christianized Marxism because it filters the teachings of Jesus through the goal of liberating the poor from economic and social injustice. Yet las Casas argued for the private-property rights of Indians. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism explains, “Dominicans who settled in Hispaniola were the first to call for free trade in the American colonies and also were great champions of private property.”
In his essay “All Mankind Is One: The Libertarian Tradition in Sixteenth Century Spain,” the voluntaryist Carl Watner also placed las Casas “within the libertarian tradition. The central thrust of that tradition is to oppose any and all forms of invasion against property rights of individuals in their own persons and in the material objects they have voluntarily acquired.” Watner concluded that “scholastics of sixteenth century Spain [were] … forerunners of later groups comprising the libertarian tradition: the Levellers and opponents of Charles II in seventeenth century England, the American rebels revolting against England in the eighteenth, and the English and American antislavery radicals of the nineteenth century. ”
Las Casas paved the way for the advocacy of universal natural rights based not on religion but on natural law that derived from man’s reason and free will.