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Las Casas, Valladolid Debate & Converting the New World

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  • 0:05 The Las Casas Family Tree
  • 1:54 Las Casas Begins Reform
  • 2:55 The Verapaz Experiment
  • 4:11 The Valladolid Debates
  • 5:56 Final Years
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson will focus on Las Casas, a Spanish priest who fought for the rights of the native inhabitants of the Americas. It will also highlight the New Laws of 1542 as well as the Valladolid debates.

The Las Casas Family Tree

Throughout time, there have been courageous men and women who have stood up against the oppression of others. They are heroes who have faced ridicule, sacrificed wealth, and even risked life to end the suffering of others. Although merely human, they have stepped out in bravery to right a wrong and to free the oppressed from the yoke of cruelty.

Today's lesson is about one such man. His name is Bartolome de Las Casas, a man who dedicated his life to the defense of the native people of the Americas during the Age of Exploration.

Las Casas was a Spanish clergyman who stood against the atrocities visited upon the inhabitants of the New World. Ironically, Las Casas' own family played a role in the ravaging of the Americas, and it was this that would forever change his course in life.

To explain, Las Casas' father explored the New World with the famous Christopher Columbus. In fact, history shows the elder Las Casas and Columbus were very close. Through this alliance, the Las Casas family grew very wealthy and was even given an encomienda on Hispaniola. An encomienda was a grant given by the Spanish Crown to an explorer of the Americas, giving them the right to demand payment and forced labor from the native inhabitants.

Yes, you heard that right. It was the royalty of Spain actually giving away the lives and freedom of the native inhabitants, while also making the inhabitants pay their oppressors. Although this practice seems absurd, we need to remember that many, if not most, Old World Europeans believed God had given them the New World in order to rid it of all savage religion and heresy, and this was to be done by any means and at any cost.

Las Casas Begins Reform

Now, back to Bartolome Las Casas. Rather than following in the footsteps of his father, Bartolome chose the priesthood. Being a true lover of the Catholic faith, Las Casas became a master of Latin and religious studies, earning two degrees in these fields.

In the early 1500s, Las Casas made his first voyage to his family's land in the New World. While there, he witnessed a massacre of a group of natives. In a move that made him extremely unpopular with his wealthy peers, Las Casas declared such treatment a mortal sin. Not being able to reconcile this with his Catholic faith, he put his money where his mouth was, renouncing all his family's land holdings in Hispaniola.

Not being satisfied with just this, Las Casas used his family status to directly petition King Ferdinand of Spain for reform over the fair treatment of the natives. However, the death of Ferdinand in the year 1516 erased all the strides Las Casas had made.

The Verapaz Experiment

Fortunately, he would not give up, and in 1537, he was given permission to send a group of missionaries to the region of what is today Guatemala. In this experiment, Las Casas worked to peacefully integrate with the native populations, and surprise, surprise...it worked! The region was peacefully brought under Spanish control without violence and bloodshed. The area was named Verapaz, which means true peace, and it still bears this name today. This success is known today as the Verapaz experiment, in which an area of the New World was peacefully integrated into Spain. Sadly, this experiment only lasted a short time, as greedy Spaniards soon invaded the area.

By the 1540s, Las Casas had risen to bishop in the Catholic Church. Through this position, he was able to lobby for the New Laws of 1542 which limited the encomienda system and its abuses. With these laws in hand, Las Casas returned to the Americas but was basically ignored by the wealthy encomienda owners. As Las Casas pushed for reform, he himself became in danger of being assassinated for his beliefs. Sadly, most of these laws fell by the wayside.

The Valladolid Debates

Frustrated, Las Casas returned to Spain. Exasperated, but not willing to stay silent, he soon found himself at the center of a series of academic arguments, which have become known as the Valladolid debates. These debates, held in the early 1550s in Valladolid, Spain, centered around the treatment of the natives of the New World. They pitted Las Casas against Sepulveda, a fellow clergyman who strongly disagreed with Las Casas. Using Aristotle's argument of natural slavery, or the idea that some were born to be slaves, Sepulveda argued that slavery of the natives was not only just, but was in keeping with the Catholic faith. He went even further by proclaiming Catholics had a moral duty to rid the world of pagan religions, again, by any means necessary.

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