Bartolomé de las Casas


Bartolomé de las Casas : biography

c. 1484 – 18 July 1566

The second part of the memorial described suggestions for the social and political organization of Indian communities relative to colonial ones. Las Casas advocated the dismantlement of the city of Asunción and the subsequent gathering of Indians into communities of about 1000 Indians to be situated as satellites of Spanish towns or mining areas. Here, Las Casas argued, Indians could be better governed, better taught and indoctrinated in the Christian faith, and would be easier to protect from abuse than if they were in scattered settlements. Each town would have a royal hospital built with four wings in the shape of a cross, where up to 200 sick Indians could be cared for at a time. He described in detail social arrangements, distribution of work, how provisions would be divided and even how table manners were to be introduced. Regarding expenses, he argued that “this should not seem expensive or difficult, because after all, everything comes from them [the Indians] and they work for it and it is theirs.” He even drew up a budget of each pueblo’s expenses to cover wages for administrators, clerics, Bachelors of Latin, doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, advocates, ranchers, miners, muleteers, hospitalers, pig herders, fishermen, etc. He showed that this arrangement could easily be maintained and gold still be extracted at a profit.

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies () is an account written in 1542 (published in 1552) about the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in colonial times and sent to then Prince Philip II of Spain.

One of the stated purposes for writing the account was Las Casas’s fear of Spain coming under divine punishment and his concern for the souls of the native peoples. The account was one of the first attempts by a Spanish writer of the colonial era to depict the unfair treatment that the indigenous people endured during the early stages of the Spanish conquest of the Greater Antilles, particularly the island of Hispaniola. Las Casas’s point of view can be described as being heavily against some of the Spanish methods of colonization, which, as he described them, inflicted great losses on the indigenous occupants of the islands. His account was largely responsible for the adoption of the New Laws of 1542, which abolished native slavery for the first time in European colonial history and led to the Valladolid debate.

The book became an important element in the creation and propagation of the so-called Black Legend – the tradition of describing the Spanish empire as exceptionally morally corrupt and violent. It was republished several times by groups that were critical of the Spanish realm for political or religious reasons. The first edition in translation was published in Dutch in 1578, during the religious persecution of Dutch Protestants by the Spanish crown, followed by editions in French (1578), English (1583), and German (1599) – all countries where religious wars were raging. The first edition published in Spain after Las Casas’s death appeared in Barcelona during the Catalan Revolt of 1646. The book was banned by the Aragonese inquisition in 1659.Keen 1969:712

The images described by Las Casas were later depicted by Theodore de Bry in copper plate engravings that helped expand the Black Legend against Spain.

Apologetic History of the Indies

The Apologetic Summary History of the People of These Indies (Spanish Apologética historia summaria de las gentes destas Indias) was first written as the sixty-eighth chapter of the General History of the Indies, but Las Casas changed it into a volume of its own, recognizing that the material was not historical. The material contained in the Apologetic History is primarily ethnographic accounts of the indigenous cultures of the Indies – the Taíno, the Ciboney, and the Guanahatabey, but it also contains descriptions of many of the other indigenous cultures that Las Casas learned about through his travels and readings. The history is apologetic because it is written as a defense of the cultural level of the Indians, arguing throughout that indigenous peoples of the Americas were just as civilized as the Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations—and more civilized than some European civilizations. It was in essence a comparative ethnography comparing practices and customs of European and American cultures and evaluating them according to whether they were good or bad, seen from a Christian viewpoint. He wrote, "I have declared and demonstrated openly and concluded, from chapter 22 to the end of this whole book, that all people of these our Indies are human, so far as is possible by the natural and human way and without the light of faith – had their republics, places, towns, and cities most abundant and well provided for, and did not lack anything to live politically and socially, and attain and enjoy civil happiness…And they equaled many nations of this world that are renowned and considered civilized, and they surpassed many others, and to none were they inferior. Among those they equaled were the Greeks and the Romans, and they surpassed them by many good and better customs. They surpassed also the English and the French and some of the people of our own Spain; and they were incomparably superior to countless others, in having good customs and lacking many evil ones." This work in which Las Casas combined his own ethnographic observations with those of other writers, and compared customs and cultures between different peoples, has been characterized as an early beginning of the discipline of Anthropology.