Bartolome de Las Casas: Indigenous Advocate or Evangelical Imperialist?

Most of us know that colonisation, in its basest form, involves the subjugation of one particular race at the hands of another. What are perhaps overlooked in such an assumption are the methods through which this occurred and the individuals involved in forming colonies throughout the New World. This post will attempt to rectify such misconceptions by examining one particular individual, Bartolomé de Las Casas. Las Casas became heavily involved in the Spanish colonisation of Central America, which represents one of the bloodiest and most unique periods of European expansion. With Spanish conquistadors often engaging in atrocious acts in an attempt to subdue indigenous populations, Spanish colonisation of the Americas is not only renown for its brutal methods of conquest but also for its justification of imperial expansion. The use of Catholicism as a tool of Spanish colonisation led to the emergence of an intricate relationship between state and religion, and it is this tangled web of evangelical imperialism which Bartolomé de las Casas emerges from..

An often misunderstood figure, Las Casas became a prominent member of Spanish colonisation through his dedication to the Indian cause. Las Casas embraced the humanity of the indigenous peoples during a time when many others conceived of them as little more than a commodity to be traded, and as such his legacy of humanistic colonisation has led certain scholars to place him at the origins of modern international humanitarian law.[1] However, as Las Casas’ experiences and recollections reveal, in spite of his advocacy for the protection of Indian rights, he was resolutely dedicated to the imperial campaign of the Spanish crown.

Arriving in New Spain in 1521, Bartolomé de las Casas’ approach to the New World was dictated by his dedication to both country and religion. His initial experiences in the Spanish colonies of the Americas were shaped by his involvement with the encomienda system of Spanish governance. Adopted from a similar mechanism, which had already been institutionalized in Spain, the encomienda allocated Spanish farmers who traveled to the New World a number of Indians to act as a labour force.[2] An encomendero was also responsible for the Christian education of his laborers, therefore enabling the Spanish crown to institutionalize a program of christianization throughout their colonies. The encomienda exemplifies the application of religious propaganda and doctrine that Spanish colonists relied on for legitimacy throughout the colonial period. This can largely be attributed to the papal authority, dictated through the Alexandrine Bulls of 1493-1494, which legally granted the lands of Central America to the Spanish monarchs, granted they “lead the peoples dwelling in those lands and countries to embrace the Christian religion.”[3]

It is probably this religious aspect of the program that initially appealed to Las Casas, who actively participated as an encomendero for a number of years, before condemning the system for its rampant abuse of its Indian participants. In A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, the only text of his to be completed and published during his lifetime, Las Casas describes “the gulf that yawns between theory and practice.”[4] The failure of the encomienda to meet its aims of peacefully christianizing Indian populations is evidently what Las Casas is referring to and what sparked his determination bridge this gap in a number ways.

The first was through an alternate method of Christian education. Following his conversion to the Dominican order in 1514/1515, Las Casas set about establishing a system of segregated colonisation. This would see Spanish laborers travel to the New World to continue the extraction of resources from the land, whilst members of religious orders would be able to educate native communities away from the influence and brutality of Spanish conquistadors. Although this attempt effectively failed when Las Casas was confronted by numerous uprisings from Indian populations, it indicates Las Casas dedication to protecting what he perceived as peoples “innocent and pure in mind.”[5]

Las Casas also attempted to correct Spanish colonisation through his advocacy. Central to the development of Las Casas political ideology was the notion of equality. Where other prominent figures within Spain (such as Juan Sepulveda) continued to promulgate a typically colonial paradigm, which viewed the Spanish as infinitely superior to the bestial Indians, Las Casas refused to accept their inferiority and instead sought to humanize them. It is this aspect that Lewis Hanke, amongst others, views as the emergence of modern concepts of humanitarian law; as Las Casas’ promotion of universal equality amongst men mirrors contemporary standards of human rights.

Whilst the association between Las Casas and contemporary human rights standards is difficult to ascertain, his devotion to the protection of the indigenous populations of Central America is undisputable. However, what is also undeniable about Las Casas experiences of colonial rule is that he did not seek to liberate Indian communities. Rather, Las Casas remained throughout his life a faithful proponent of Spanish expansion through peaceful and religiously guided colonisation.


[1] See Lewis Hanke The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (2002)

[2] McAlister, L.N Spain and Portugal in the New World 1492-1700. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984)  pg.157

[3] “Pope Alexander IV – The Bull Inter Caetera – 4 May 1493.” Available from: http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/pope0214a.htm

[4] Las Casas, B. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. (London: Penguin Books, 1992) pg.34

[5] Ibid pg. 10

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4 comments on “Bartolome de Las Casas: Indigenous Advocate or Evangelical Imperialist?

  1. jessicawilks says:

    Great article, I enjoyed it very much. What appeals to me most in your article is that you provide a very nice, balanced and unbiased view of Las Casas. It is very easy nowadays to demonise the conquistadors for their treatment of native Americans. If we judge individuals like Las Casas by today’s standards, we would certainly be forgetting that for his day, he was a fairly advanced-thinking humanitarian.

    Although paragraphs were long at times, I found this article very interesting, particularly the way you approached a sensitive issue in a very balanced way. I, for one, now believe Las Casas must have been an admirable person for his time.

    Thanks for the great read,
    Jess

  2. chrisdumaine says:

    Hi Laura,

    This is an interesting article that is quite balanced regarding the intentions of Bartolomé de Las Casas, for/in his time. The article was quite well written; I also enjoyed the addition of pictures. I did not find the paragraphs too long. As someone who knows little regarding American colonisation, I found this article easy to read and thought provoking.

    It is of course, easy to be shocked by much colonisation history; especially the history of the Americas. These were times when Europe’s states were administered by staunch theology. These were times when free thinking women and men were killed as witches and heretics. It is true that we need not judge the historical frame of mind, at least not with contemporary sensibility. The indigenous people of the Americas, especially any ones who participated in ritual killings, would have been seen as extremely barbarous by most westerners of the time. The Spanish authorities would have certainly thought to bring them to Christ was the most humanitarian thing to do.

    Las Casas reminds me of some members of our own history. Namely George Augustus Robinson, the ‘protector’ of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Sadly the removal of Aboriginal children was also strongly linked to religion and doing the ‘right’ thing; raising them in good catholic homes etc.
    If Las Casas truly didn’t feel superior over the native peoples; than he certainly was quite remarkable in character. The fact that he later condemned the encomendero type of governance is also testimony to his humanity. I understand the encomenderos did last for centuries; although their legacy has long been linked to atrocities and oppression in South America.

    An original concept, with a logical historical message, well done.

    Cheers

  3. Hey,

    Great to read the work of another historian interested in the Spanish Empire of the period. I think it is fantastic that you distinguished between Spanish imperial desires and the techniques to apply these. De Las Casas is one of the more intriguing figures in the conquest of Latin America, and his views have important implications I think not just for conquest and colonialism, but also for religious practice back in the European continent.

    Did you get a chance to read much of Carlos V (Charles V)’s Leyes Nuevas (New Laws)? These were new rules for the treatment of the Indians which resulted very strongly from the works of Batolomé de Las Casas and the conquest of Peru.

    Overall a fantastic read, and a nice flashback to my studies overseas. Thanks!

    • lauraj11190 says:

      Thanks for the comments! He definately is an interesting character and I thoroughly enjoyed his texts as well as the secondary material. I did have a look at the New Laws and Las Casas involvement in forming them but 4000 words didnt prove to be enough to include them in the essay =P

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