Bartolome de Las Casas: Biography, Quotes & Timeline

Instructor: Julia Maypole

Julia has a master's degree in world history and has taught college history and other humanities courses.

This lesson will examine the life of a Dominican friar from Spain named Bartolome de Las Casas. He spent the majority of his life working to help the Amerindians in the wake of the Spanish conquest of the New World.

Early Experiences with the New World

''From the said year 1518, till the present day (and we are in 1542) all the iniquity, all the injustice, all the violence and tyranny that the Christians have practiced in the Indies have reached the limit and overflowed: because they have entirely lost all fear of God and the King, and they have forgotten themselves as well'' - Bartolome de Las Casas

Bartolome de Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain in 1484 and from an early age his life was intertwined with that of the Spanish conquistadors. As a child in 1493, he attended a homecoming parade for an explorer you may have heard of once or twice, Christopher Columbus. His father and uncle even accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World and were among the first Spanish settlers to claim and establish lands there. Las Casas was from a privileged enough family that he was able to attend school throughout his adolescence. He proved to be an apt and eloquent student, and he put himself on a lifelong path of religious study.

At the age of 18, Las Casas took his first journey to the New World, landing in Hispaniola (now the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He stayed there from 1502 until 1506, operating his families encomienda. An encomienda was a labor system where the Spanish crown granted settlers in the New World the right to use native workers. The native people worked in exchange for protection and instruction in the Catholic faith. The Amerindians who were forced into the encomienda system were often abused and treated brutally by the colonists. In 1507, Las Casas briefly returned to Rome where he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

First Conversion

By 1508, Las Casas was back in the New World. Now an ordained priest, he began traveling with soldiers as they marched throughout Latin America establishing Spanish rule through conquest and warfare. Las Casas' role was as a missionary, working to convert the natives to Catholicism. It was on these trips that he began to question the actions of the Spanish soldiers who often used extreme violence to subdue and control the Amerindians.

The arrival of a group of Dominican friars in 1509, who immediately denounced the encomienda system as appalling in its brutality, led to Las Casas' first conversion. Their comments against the system reinforced his growing feeling that what he was witnessing was terribly wrong. He vocally and publicly renounced his own encomienda, then applied himself to fighting against the injustices he saw the Amerindians suffering because of the Spanish conquest. For the rest of his life, he openly condemned the actions of the Spanish in the New World, denouncing them as not only morally wrong but as mortal sins as well.

Bartolome de Las Casas
Bartolome de Las Casas

Second Conversion

Known to scholars as his second conversion, Las Casas was formally accepted into the Dominican order in 1522. Part of the Dominican philosophy is a focus on scholarly religious studies, something Las Casas fit right into. He used his passionate way with words to successfully petition the most powerful Popes and Kings of his day on the plight of the Amerindians. From Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand to King (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles V and Pope Paul III, Las Casas enjoyed the respect and ear of them all. He successfully lobbied Charles V for change and eventually the encomienda system was ordered to be phased out in 1542 under the New Laws of the Indies. However, changes were difficult to enforce an ocean away and many abuses of the natives continued.

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