Bartolomé de Las Casas
(1474–1566)

“Apostle of the Indies”

Against the dark backdrop of Spanish mistreatment of Native Americans during the Conquest, Bartolomé de Las Casas stood like a lighthouse. The fiery friar was the leading defender of the Indians against cruelty and abuses.

His father sailed on Columbus’s second voyage. Las Casas himself came to Hispaniola in 1502 as a priest, but he lived as most Spanish gentlemen, with land and Indian servants.

Several factors combined to change Las Casas’s life. In 1511 he heard the Dominicans’ preaching campaign against Spanish mistreatment of Indians. That same year he accompanied the Spanish expedition to Cuba and witnessed its cruelty toward the natives.

Then in 1514, Las Casas, age 40, turned around. He was preparing a sermon, searching the Scriptures for an appropriate text, when he chanced on this passage from the (apocryphal) Book of Sirach: “If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable” (34:18 RSV). The following Sunday, he announced from the pulpit that he was divesting himself of the natives entrusted to him (in effect, his slaves) and would now serve and defend the Indians.

For the next seven years, he spent most of his time traveling between Spain and America, seeking the crown’s help to protect Indians. After several years of agitation, Las Casas was granted by King Charles V a territory in present-day Venezuela. There, Las Casas could test his theory that the Indians would be better evangelized by persuasion than by force. But the project failed when the Indians rebelled against the settlement.

Las Casas went through a time of self-examination, finally entering the Dominican Order in 1522. ...

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