December 10, 2010
The Contributions and Perceptions of Bartolome de Las Casas
After reading Carlos Fuentes’ book, “The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World”, he devoted a section to Bartolome de Las Casas which allowed the reader to capture his unique perspective (32-38). In the introductory text before the reading of “The Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies” (as read in class), Bartolome de Las Casas is viewed as a devoted Saint and missionary that was an activist for the Indian’s human rights and against Spain’s military conquest of the “New World” (Briffault). However, Fuentes illustrated Bartolome in a different perspective; even though Bartolome tried to stop the obvious brutal treatment of the Indians by the Spaniards, he ultimately became the Spaniard’s “most useful tool” in an evolved attack to the Indian’s humanitarian values in a newly “disguised” method of slavery. This was a very unique perspective because of the fact that after discussing and reading about him, Bartolome is largely perceived as a good Saint that brought about great awareness of the injustice of the Indians. So how could he contribute to the Crown’s corrupt rule over the land? As a result, in order to understand the true ultimate historical value of Bartolome de Las Casas, we will take an in-depth look into his life, what he believed, what he did for the Indians, and discuss the general opinion of Bartolome de Las Casas versus Fuentes impression of him. I will then prove that Bartolome de Las Casas did not impact the Indian community as beneficially as many people thought he did – and in fact, he indirectly and unintentionally contributed to the very image of the original corruption of both the private and public life in Spanish America.
Bartolome de Las Casas was born in 1474 in Seville, Spain to Pedro de Las Casas who was a small business merchant. He immediately sent his son to The Academy at the Cathedral of Seville in 1497 for his education. As a missionary, in 1502 he leaves Spain with the Spanish governor, Nicolas de Ovanda, and his father to the “New World” to evangelize to the Indians. While he was there on the island of Hispaniola, he helped resolve a native revolt that rewarded him an encomienda (land and labor of the native population) where he always treated his workers humanely. In 1506, he then returns briefly to Europe to become ordained as a deacon in Rome. Eventually, in 1512, he becomes the first ordained priest in the New World. He began to be disturbed by Spanish abuses at the massacre of natives at Caonao, Cuba when he saw a stream of Indian blood running “as if cows had been killed.” Then, in 1514 while preparing his sermon for church, he read a scriptural passage that stated “Tainted are his gifts who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods!” which convicted Las Casas as an encomendero. He realized that his own property and goods were “ill-gotten and tainted”. With this conviction, he freed the Indians that he had in his encomienda and returned to Spain to begin a fight against the Spanish oppression of the native peoples. In 1516, Las Casas was appointed the “Protector of the Indians” by the archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros, and began to devise a scheme to replace the encomienda system. This resulted in some success. He continued to travel back and forth across the Atlantic in his process to repeal the laws of the mistreatment and the rights of the oppressed Indians. He was able to get government officials to collaborate with this attempt to end the encomienda system because they feared that a new class of feudal lords would arise in the colonies. The Spanish colonists were outraged at his interference as Las Casas then set up a colony on the coast of Venezuela in 1520, where the native people would be treated humanely and in peace. However, this setting failed because their neighbor Spanish slave masters continued to harass the...
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Briffault, Herma. Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.
Kiefer, James E. “Biographical Sketches of the Memorable Christians of the Past: Bartolome de Las Casas, Missionary, Priest, Defender of the Oppressed 17 July 1566.” Computer Services Offered by the Society of Archbishop Justus. 9 Dec. 2010 <http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/203.html>
Kramer, Wendy. Encomienda Politics in Early Colonial Guatemala, 1524-1544. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.
Uzgalis, Bill. “Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566).” Great Voyages: the History of Western Philosophy from 1492-1776. Winter 1997. Dept. of Philosophy, Oregon State U. 9 Dec. 2010 <http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/las_casas.html>
Welch, John R. Other Voices: Readings in Spanish Philosophy. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2010.
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