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Bartolome de las Casas: Destruction of the Amerindians

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  • 0:02 Encomienda System
  • 1:32 Bartolome the Encomendero
  • 2:32 A New Venture
  • 3:23 Advocate for Amerindians
  • 4:35 Bishop & Scholar
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will meet Bartolome de las Casas, a 16th century priest and scholar who fought for the rights and dignity of Amerindians in the Spanish colonies of the New World.

The Encomienda System

Spain's conquest of the New World was largely driven by prospect of wealth, especially in gold and silver. Along the way, the Spaniards sought to Christianize the native peoples, or Amerindians, they encountered as they spread out across the continent. Spain sponsored many exploratory expeditions, which were led by military commanders called conquistadors.

As rewards for their service and successful missions, the king granted encomiendas to these conquistadors, as well as to other officials, soldiers, and colonists. These grants entitled their holders, who were called encomenderos, to tribute from the Amerindians of a particular region. The natives were required to provide produce and gold, but especially labor for the encomenderos' mining operations and other projects. In return, the encomenderos promised to protect the Amerindians and convert them to Christianity.

Not surprisingly, many Amerindians resisted the encomienda system, which resulted in violence as the Spanish enslaved, tortured, and massacred the rebellious natives. Most Spaniards paid little attention to the brutality. In their eyes, the Indians weren't really human anyway, so they were beneath their care. One man, however, disagreed. His name was Bartolome de las Casas.

Bartolome the Encomendero

Bartolome was born in Spain in 1484. His father traveled with Columbus on the explorer's second voyage, and he brought back treasures and stories that sparked his son's curiosity. In 1502, Bartolome headed for the New World for the first time. The young man impressed the governor so much by his hard work and leadership that he earned his own encomienda.

Pretty soon, though, Bartolome began to be appalled by the Spaniards' treatment of the Amerindians. He despised the atrocities he witnessed, and he hated to see the natives forced to accept Christianity against their will. Bartolome returned to Spain to study for the priesthood, received his ordination in 1507, and went back to the New World as a catechist to the Amerindians. In 1514, he renounced his encomienda and started preaching against his former way of life.

A New Venture

Bartolome often spoke and wrote about a better way to convert the Amerindians to the Christian faith. He wanted to convince them through love rather than by force and slavery. He figured that maybe if Spaniards and Amerindians could live peacefully side by side, the natives would be more willing to embrace the Spanish religion and way of life.

In the early 1520s, Bartolome decided to put his ideas into action. He founded a colony in Cumaná (modern Venezuela) that consisted of several villages where Spaniards and Amerindians lived and worked together freely. The experiment might have worked, but neighboring encomenderos did not appreciate Bartolome's new way of treating the native peoples. They incited their own Amerindians to attack, and that was the end of Bartolome's little colony.

An Advocate for the Amerindians

Discouraged, Bartolome joined the Dominican order in 1523. He decided that he would concentrate on telling the Amerindians' story through writing and preaching and trying to gain legal protection for them. His thunderous sermons echoed through the Spanish Empire, earning him enemies and sometimes an order of silence from the government. Bartolome didn't give up. When he didn't preach, he wrote, advocating the peaceful spread of Christianity, describing the abuses suffered by the Amerindians, calling for humane treatment of the natives, and recounting the history of the New World.

In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a document declaring that the Amerindians were human beings who were not to be deprived of their freedom or property. Bartolome worked hard to spread the pope's document and enforce its decrees. In 1540, he returned to Spain to petition King Charles V on behalf of the Amerindians. The king actually listened. In the New Laws of 1542, he abolished slavery and ended the encomienda system.

A Bishop and a Scholar

Bartolome must have rejoiced, but he knew he faced a struggle as he returned to the New World to enforce the New Laws. By this time, he had been ordained a bishop, and he traveled widely, preaching about the king's orders and punishing those who disobeyed. Meanwhile, disgruntled encomenderos were lobbying the king to retain their control over the Amerindians and their labor. The king feared that he would lose the income, especially the gold and silver, from his colonies, so he allowed himself to be influenced, and he revoked part of the New Laws in 1545. Bartolome hurried back to Spain to do some lobbying of his own.

In 1550, Bartolome argued for Amerindian rights and fair treatment in a five-day debate with scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Bartolome's opponent argued that the natives were natural slaves who were created to work for the Spaniards. Bartolome firmly maintained that they were human beings who should be treated with love and fairness rather than exploitation and abuse. A panel of judges declared the debate a draw.

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