Bartolome de Las Casas: early reporter and convert on the terrible impact of the Doctrine of Discovery

One of the first known people to report on horrible treatment of Original Nations and Peoples by European settlers was Bartolome de Las Casas.  This is from a quick overview of what is on the internet.  The following is from an article, which also explains how de Las Casas came to his position and opportunity through Indian labor.

Bartolome de Las Casas, Defender of Native Americans, Witnessed Firsthand Their Deplorable Conditions in the Caribbean

 Bartlome de Las Casas
 Bartlome de Las Casas. Artist Unknown

Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566) was a Spanish Dominican friar who became famous for his defense of the rights of the native people of the Americas. His brave stand against the horrors of the conquest and the colonization of the New World earned him the title “Defender” of the Native Americans.

The Las Casas Family and Columbus

Christopher Columbus was well-known to the Las Casas family. Young Bartolome, then about 9 years old, was in Seville when Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493 and might have met members of the Taíno tribe that Columbus brought back with him. Bartolome’s father and uncle sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. The family became quite wealthy and had holdings on Hispaniola. The connection between the two families was strong: Bartolome’s father eventually interceded with the pope on the matter of securing certain rights on behalf Columbus’ son Diego, and Bartolome Las Casas himself edited Columbus’ travel journals.

Early Life and Studies

Las Casas decided that he wanted to become a priest, and his father’s new wealth allowed him to send his son to the best schools at the time, the University of Salamanca and then later the University of Valladolid. Las Casas studied canon law and eventually earned two degrees. He excelled in his studies, particularly Latin, and his strong academic background served him well in years to come.

First Trip to the Americas

In 1502, Las Casas finally went to see the family holdings on Hispaniola. By then, the natives of the island had been mostly subdued, and the city of Santo Domingo was being used as a resupply point for Spanish incursions in the Caribbean. The young man accompanied the governor on two different military missions aimed at pacifying those natives who remained on the island. On one of these, Las Casas witnessed a massacre of poorly armed natives, a scene he would never forget. He traveled around the island a great deal and was able to see the deplorable conditions the natives suffered.

The Colonial Enterprise and Mortal Sin

Over the next few years, Las Casas traveled to Spain and back several times, finishing his studies and learning more about the sad situation of the natives. By 1514, he decided that he could no longer be personally involved in the exploitation of the natives and renounced his family holdings on Hispaniola. He became convinced that the enslavement and slaughter of the native population was not only a crime, but it was also mortal sin as defined by the Catholic church. It was this iron-clad conviction that made him such a staunch advocate for fair treatment of the natives in the years to come.

First Experiments

Las Casas convinced Spanish authorities to allow him to try and save the few remaining Caribbean natives by taking them out of slavery and placing them in free towns, but the death of Spain’s King Ferdinand in 1516 and the resulting chaos over his successor caused these reforms to be delayed. Las Casas also asked for and received a section of the Venezuelan mainland for an experiment. He believed that he could pacify the natives with religion, not weapons. Unfortunately, the region that was selected had been heavily raided by slavers, and the natives’ hostility to the Europeans was too intense to overcome.  

The Verapaz Experiment

In 1537, Las Casas wanted to try again to show that natives could be controlled peacefully and that violence and conquest were unnecessary. He was able to persuade the crown to let him send missionaries to a region in north-central Guatemala where the natives had proved particularly fierce. His experiment worked, and the natives were brought under Spanish control peacefully. The experiment was called Verapaz, or “true peace,” and the region still bears the name. Unfortunately, once the region was brought under control, colonists took the lands and enslaved the natives, undoing almost all of Las Casas’ work. 

Las Casas’ Legacy

Las Casas’ early years were marked by his struggle to come to terms with the horrors he had seen and his understanding of how God could allow this kind of suffering among the Native Americans. Many of his contemporaries believed that God had delivered the New World to Spain as a reward of sorts to encourage the Spanish to continue to wage war upon heresy and idolatry as defined by the Roman Catholic Church. Las Casas agreed that God had led Spain to the New World, but he saw a different reason: He thought it was a test. God was testing the loyal Catholic nation of Spain to see if it could be just and merciful, and in Las Casas’ opinion, it was failing God’s test miserably.

It is well-known that Las Casas fought for justice and freedom for the New World natives, but it is frequently overlooked that his love for his countrymen was no less than his love for the Native Americans. When he freed the natives working on the Las Casas family holdings in Hispaniola, he did it as much for the sake of his soul and those of his family members as he did for the natives themselves.  In the later part of his life, Las Casas translated this conviction into action. He became a prolific writer, traveled frequently between the New World and Spain and made allies and enemies in all corners of the Spanish Empire.

Chapter 8 Fray Ramón Pané, Taíno People Rene JaraNicholas Spadaccini University of Minnesota Press BOOK View Citation (translated by Andres E Moreno and Gwendolyn Barnes-Karol)

Columbus, seeking a shorter route to the East Indies, accidentally found some islands not charted on European maps. During his trip, he described the landscape of those islands and placed in that landscape some exotic beings whom he called Indians. On his next hip, he brought along a Hieronymite friar, whom he commissioned to investigate the “beliefs and idolatries” of those strange beings. The friar, following these orders, went to live among the Indians, learned their language, listened to their songs and their tales, and wrote down what he could of their astonishing tales. As part of this process of inquiry, he discovered the nature of the American people and rescued for posterity the fascinating mythical world of the ancient residents of the Antilles. The importance of the extraordinary feat of the friar went almost unnoticed until some twenty years ago. It was known that he had given Columbus somenotes, known by the title Relacion acerca de las antiguedades de los indios (Historical Account of the Antiquities of the Indians). But in looking for the original text, researchers found only a defective translation into Italian, inserted into a book whose very authenticity was doubtful. Moreover,the real name of the friar was not known; was it Roman, Romano, Roman,or Ramon Pan, 266 Pane,or Pane so little attention was paid to the ravaged document that in 1970 Ernesto Tabio, a competent Cuban anthropologist, summarized the state of the question in these words:

The collector of the greatest part of those myths was a Catalonian member of a religious order who accompanied Columbus during his second voyage. Las Casas… pointed out that he had very little culture and…in addition, he had scant knowledge of the language of the aboriginal people. It must be very difficult for a rationalist man of science to accept this information, which from the start, has been corrupted by many difficulties. (47)1 Tabio was right in that the problems posed by the text were neither few nor easy to solve.

However, instead of discarding the text as a result of these problems, what was urgently needed was a way to take advantage of the information that it contained. To do this, it became necessary to start from the beginning. Initially, Fray Ramon Pane—for this was his name—landed on the island of Hispaniola in January of 1494.

At first, he went to live in the province of Macoris,which was inhabited by a group of Indians who did not speak the standard language. After a few months, he realized that he had to carry out his inquiry among those who spoke the predominant language of the island: the Taino people. Thus, in the spring of 1495, he moved to the area under the control of the Indian chieftain Guarionex. He lived with Guarionex and his subjects for about four years, sufficient time for Pane to learn enough of the language of his informants to carryout the task that had been given to him. Around 1498, he gavethe Admiral the notebook in which he had been translating into Spanish the essence of the mythical tales that he had heard in the aboriginal language. The Admiral,or his emissary, took it to Seville. It was there that Pedro Martir de Angleria read it and, inspired by the novelty of the news, hurriedly relayed the information that most interested him to Cardinal Ludovicoof Aragon, in a letter in Latin.

Thisletter was published in the first of Angleria’s De Orbe Novo Decades (27-87). The manuscriptwas also seen in Sevilleby Fray Bartolome de Las Casas.In his zeal to gather any information that mightbe helpful in defending Indian dignity, Las Casas summarized what he found most useful. These notes, along with some commentaries of his FRAY RAMON PANE, DISCOVERER OF THE TAINO PEOPLE 267 own, became part of three chapters of his Apologetica historia delas Indias (Apologetic History of the Indies). Finally, Columbus’s second son included the entire Relation in his Vida delAlmirante Cristobal Colon por su hijo Fernando (Life of Admiral Christopher Columbus by his Son Fernando). This work was unpublished when Fernando died and remained unpublished, for in those years it was extremely difficult in Spain to print a work that was essentially a plea in defense of his father’s rights. For at that time, there was a campaign of defamation against the Admiral in full swing, with the evident purpose of denying him the privileges granted by…


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