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Sep 11 Bartolome de la Casas

Today in the Spanish priest and fierce defender of indigenous peoples Bartolome de la casas ended his term as bishop of Chiapas in Mexico. His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies. He described the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples. Casas became one of the most influential thinkers of his day. His views on slavery and the rights of indigenous peoples make him key in the development of ideas of what we would now call human rights.


In sixteenth-century Spain, slavery was a widely accepted practice, although increasingly questioned. Spanish law of the time considered all captives of war as potential slaves, yet there were some provisos. Theologians and philosophers in the School of Salamanca, including the influential Luis de Vitoria, father of modern international law, restricted this only to include captives of war who were not Catholic. This category included Lutherans, Muslim Turks, Orthodox Slavs, non-Catholic Africans, and native peoples of the New World. In addition, there existed the legal idea, modelled on Muslim laws regarding captured peoples, which allowed non-Catholics to convert instead of becoming slaves.

Las Casas had immigrated the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1502 with his father, and soon became a land and slave owner, joining military expeditions against the native peoples but in 1510 he had become a priest the first one to be ordained in the Americas. He was awarded a joint comienda, a community with land and slaves, with his friend – the land was rich in gold and close to Cienfuegos. During the next few years he divided his time between being a colonist and his duties as an ordained priest. A group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo led by Pedro de Córdoba; appalled by the injustices they saw committed by the slaveowners against the Indians, they decided to deny slave owners the right to confession. Las Casas was among those denied confession for this reason. A Dominican preacher Montesinos preached a fiery sermon that implicated the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples. He is said to have preached, "Tell me by what right of justice 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? The young Las Casas himself argued against the Dominicans in favour of the justice of the encomienda. The colonists, dispatched a complaint against the Dominicans to the King, and the Dominicans were recalled from Hispaniola

A few years later, as a chaplain, Las Casas participated in the conquest of Cuba. He witnessed many atrocities committed by Spaniards against the natives and later wrote: "I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see." Then In 1514, Las Casas was studying a passage in the book Ecclesiasticus for a Pentecost sermon and pondering its meaning. He became convinced that the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and that they constituted a great injustice. He made up his mind to give up his slaves and encomienda, and started to preach that other colonist should do the same. When his preaching met with resistance, he realized that he would have to go to Spain to fight there against the enslavement and abuse of the native people and arrived in Seville in November. As Las Casas’ ideas percolated throughout the Spanish legal system, and indigenous peoples were ultimately allowed to adjudicate in inter-indigenous matters. In cases that involved the Spanish government, they could use the court systems with an advocate known as a "protector" who would represent their interests and offer judgements based on traditional indigenous customs, as long as those customs were not deemed "heretical" or against the Catholic faith. Las Casas himself was appointed the first protector of the Indians.

He petitioned a land grant to be allowed to establish a settlement in northern Venezuela at Cumaná. To make the proposal palatable to the king, Las Casas had to incorporate the prospect of profits for the royal treasury. He suggested fortifying the northern coast of Venezuela, establishing ten royal forts to protect the Indians and starting up a system of trade in gold and pearls. All the Indian slaves of the New World should be brought to live in these towns and become tribute paying subjects to the king. In 1520 Las Casas's concession was finally granted, but it was a much smaller grant than he had initially proposed; he was also denied the possibilities of extracting gold and pearls, which made it difficult for him to find investors for the venture. Arriving in Puerto Rico, in January 1521, he received the terrible news that the Dominican convent at Chiribichi had been sacked by Indians, and that the Spaniards of the islands had launched a punitive expedition, led by Gonzalo de Ocampo, into the very heart of the territory that Las Casas wanted to colonize peacefully. The Indians had been provoked to attack the settlement of the monks because of the repeated slave raids and he arrived in his colony already ravaged by Spaniards. Las Casas worked there in adverse conditions for the following months, being constantly harassed by the Spanish pearl fishers who traded slaves for alcohol with the natives. Early in 1522 Las Casas left the settlement to complain to the authorities. While he was gone the natives attacked the settlement, burned it to the ground, and killed four of Las Casas's men. He returned to Hispaniola in January 1522, and heard the news of the massacre. Devastated, Las Casas reacted by entering the Dominican monastery of Santa Cruz in Santo Domingo as a novice in 1522 and finally taking holy vows as a Dominican friar in 1523

Las Casas also later advocated that indigenous groups be allowed self-governance under the Spanish crown. His argument drew upon theologians and moral philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. The Spanish bureaucracy again viewed this through an understanding of Muslim law, which granted non-Muslims the use of their own courts and legal justice system (the protected status known as dhimmi).Though his petitions began in 1515, they would continue until his death in 1566 as he cajoled, shamed, and begged the Spanish crown to end its practices of violent invasion and enslavement. The Spanish government in return treated Las Casas' pleas with ambivalence, in part because indigenous enslavement was so profitable. Until his death, Bartolomé de las Casas, worked tirelessly to prevent the enslavement of all native people


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