Bartholomew de Las Casas; his life, apostolate, and writings
by Francis Augustus MacNutt
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Fray Bartholomew de Las Casas

From the portrair drawn and engraved by Enguidanos.

Bartholomew de Las Casas; his life, apostolate, and writings

By Francis Augustus MacNutt

Cleveland, U.S.A. The Arthur H. Clark Company


To my beloved wife, Margaret Van Cortlandt Ogden this volume is affectionately dedicated


The controversies of which Bartholomew de Las Casas was, for more than half a century, the central figure no longer move us, for slavery, as a system, is dead and the claim of one race or of men to hold property rights in the flesh and blood of another finds no defenders. We may study the events of his tempestuous life with serene temper, solely for the important light on the history of human progress.

It is sought in the present work to assign to the noblest Spaniard who ever landed in the western world, his true place among those great spirits who have defended and advanced the cause of just liberty, and, at the same time, to depict the conditions under which the curse of slavery was first introduced to North America. It in no degree lessens the glory of Las Casas to insist upon the historical fact that he was neither the first Spaniard to defend the liberty of the American Indians, nor was he alone in sustaining the struggle, to which the best years of a life that all but spanned a century were exclusively dedicated.

Born in an age of both civil and religious despotism, his voice was incessantly raised in vindication of the inherent and inalienable right of every human being to the enjoyment of liberty. He was preeminently a man of action to whom nothing human was foreign, and whose gift of universal sympathy co-existed with an uncommon practical ability to devise corrective reforms that commanded the attention and won the approval of the foremost statesmen and moralists of his time. True, he also had a vision of Utopia, and his flights of imaginative altruism frequently elevated him so far above the realities of this world, that the incorrigible frailties of human nature seemed to vanish from his calculations, but when the rude awakening came, he neither forsook the fight nor failed to profit by the bitter lesson.

When his dream of an ideal colony, peopled by perfect Christians labouring for the conversion of model Indians, adorned with primitive virtues, was dispelled, he girded his loins to meet his enemies with undiminished courage, on the battle-ground they themselves had selected. His moral triumph was complete, and he issued from every encounter victorious. The fruits of his victories were not always immediate or satisfying, nor did he live to see the practical application of all his principles, yet the figure of this devoted champion of freedom stands on a pedestal of enduring fame, of which the foundations rest on the eternal homage of all lovers of justice and liberty, and it is the figure of a victor, who served God and loved his fellow-men.

It will be seen in the following narrative, that monks of the Order of St. Dominic were the first to defend the liberty of the Indian and his moral dignity as a reasonable being, endowed with free will and understanding. Associated in the popular conception with the foundation and extension of the Inquisition, the Dominicans may appear in a somewhat unfamiliar guise as torch-bearers of freedom in the vanguard of Spanish colonial expansion in America, but such was the fact. History has made but scant and infrequent mention of these first obscure heroes, who faced obloquy and even risked starvation in the midst of irate colonists, whose avarice and brutality they fearlessly rebuked in the name of religion and humanity: they sank, after lives of self-immolation, into nameless graves, sometimes falling victims to the blind violence of the very Indians whose cause they championed—protomartyrs of liberty in the new world.

The conditions under which Las Casas and his co-workers laboured were discouragingly adverse. The mailed conquerors and eager treasure-seekers who followed in the wake of Columbus were consumed by two ruthless passions—avarice and ambition.

Avarice and ambition alone, however, do not adequately explain their undertakings, and we find among them a fierce zeal for Christian propaganda strikingly disproportionate to their fitness to expound the doctrines or illustrate the virtues of the Christian religion. They seem to have frequently compounded for their sins of sensuality and their deeds of blood by championing the unity and purity of the faith—two things that were held to be of paramount importance, especially in Spain, where to be outside formal communion with the Church was to be either a Jew or a Mahometan, or in other words, an enemy of God.

Perverted as their conception of the true spirit of Christian propaganda may appear to us, it may not be doubted that many of these men were animated by honest missionary zeal and actually thought their singular methods would procure the conversion of the Indians. On the other hand, few of those who left Spain, animated by high motives, resisted the prevalent seductions of avarice and ambition, amidst conditions so singularly favourable to their gratification, and we find Las Casas denouncing, as ridiculous and hypocritical, the pretensions to solicitude for the spread of religion, under cover of which the colonists sought to obtain royal sanction for the systems of slavery and serfage they had inaugurated.

The essential differences observable in the Spanish and English colonies in America are traceable to the directly contrary systems of government prevailing at that time in the mother countries. All nations of Aryan stock possessed certain fundamental features of government, inherited from a common origin. Climatic and geographical conditions operated with divers other influences to produce race characteristics, from which the several nations of modern Europe were gradually evolved. Within each of these nations, the inherited political principles common to all of them were unequally and diversely developed. The forms of political liberty continued to survive in Spain, but, under Charles V., the government became, in practice, an absolute monarchy, the liberties of the Cortes and the Councils being gradually overshadowed by the ever-growing prerogatives of the Crown.

In England, on the contrary, the share of the people in the government was, in spite of opposition, of steady growth, only interrupted by occasional periods of suspension, while the power of the Crown declined. These conditions were repeated in the colonies of the two nations, with some variations of form that were due to local influences in each of them. The Spanish colonies relied entirely on the Crown and were, from the outset, over-provided with royal officials from the grade of viceroy to that of policeman, and even with clergy, all of whom were appointed by the king's sole authority and were removable at his pleasure. These settlements generally owed their existence to private enterprise, having been founded by explorers and treasure-seekers, but in none of them did the colonists enjoy any political rights or liberties, other than what it pleased the sovereign to grant them.

They were ruled through a bureaucracy, of which were the members were rarely efficient and usually corrupt, hence it followed that Spaniards were bereft of any incentive to colonise, save one—their individual aggrandisement. Their inherited habit of obedience reconciled them to the absence of any share in the direction and control of the colony in which their lot was thrown, but such a system of administration deprived them of the possibility of acquiring experience in the management of public affairs. Its effects were pernicious and far-reaching, for when the colonies outgrew the bonds that linked them to Spain, their people, ignorant of the meaning of true liberty, and untrained in self-government, followed their instinct of blind submission to direction from above, and fell an easy prey to demagogues. Deprived of participation in framing the laws, the colonists employed their ingenuity in devising means to evade or nullify those which they deemed obnoxious or contrary to their interests, and constant practice soon perfected their perverted activities in this direction, until obstruction and procrastination were erected into a system, against which even royal decrees were powerless.

The results that followed were logical and inevitable. Laws devoid of sufficient force to ensure their effective execution fail to afford the relief or protection their enactment designs to provide, and ineffectual laws are worse than no laws at all, for their defeat weakens the government that enacts them and tends to bring all law into contempt. Conditions of distance, the corruption of the colonial officials, the conflict between local authorities, and the astutely organised opposition of the colonists repeatedly thwarted the honest efforts of the home government to safeguard the liberty of the Indians, which the Spanish sovereigns had defined to be natural and inalienable, definitions that had received the solemn sanction of the Roman pontiffs.

Spanish and English methods of dealing with the aboriginal tribes of America offer as sharp a contrast as do their respective systems of colonial government. Whether the devil himself possesses ingenuity in inflicting suffering, superior to that displayed by the Spanish conquerors and their immediate followers, has never been demonstrated. The gentle, unresisting natives of the West Indian Islands, whose delicate constitutions incapacitated them to bear labours their masters exacted of them, were their first victims. The descriptions penned as of the cruelties practised on these harmless creatures dispense me from the ungrateful task of attempting to depict them. But, while the individual Indian suffered inhuman tortures at the hands of the Spaniards, the race survived and, by amalgamation with the invaders, it continues to propagate, and to rise in the scale of humanity.

The English colonists found different conditions waiting them when they landed on the northern coasts of America, where the Indian tribes were neither gentle nor submissive. Two absolutely alien and hostile races faced one another, of which the higher professed small concern for the amelioration of the lower, while amalgamation was excluded by the mutual pride of race and the instinctive enmity that divided them. There was no enslaving of Indians, and the torturing was done entirely by the savages, but, while the English method spared the individual Indian the suffering his defenceless brother in the south had to endure, the aboriginal races have everywhere receded before the relentless advance of civilisation. The battle between the civilised and savage peoples has been uncompromising; the stronger of the Indian nations have gone down, fighting, while the remnants of such tribes as survive remain herded on the ever-encroaching frontiers of a civilisation in which a tolerable place has been but tardily provided for them. We cannot escape the conclusion that our treatment of the races we have displaced and exterminated has been as systematically and remorselessly destructive as was the spasmodic and ofttimes sportive cruelty operated by the Spaniards. The Spanish national conscience recognised the obligation of civilising and Christianising the Indians, a task which Spaniards finally accomplished. The Spanish sovereigns were honestly desirous of protecting their new subjects, and the injustice inflicted on the latter was done in defiance of the laws they enacted, as well as of public opinion in Spain, which condemned it as severely as could the most advanced humanitarian sentiment of our own times.

Las Casas voiced this condemnation and organised a masterly campaign of education on the subject of the proper method of dealing with the Indians. He suffered and endured for their sakes, while the men whose selfish and inhuman undertakings he thwarted poured the vilest abuse and calumny upon him. Nature had mercifully endowed him with no sensitiveness save for the sufferings of the oppressed, and he was as much a born fighter as the fiercest conqueror who ever landed in Spanish America. He waged a moral battle, animated by only the noblest motives, and in his damning arraignment of his countrymen, he eschewed personalities and, with a charity as rare as it was becoming to his sacerdotal character, he occupied himself exclusively with the principles at stake, leaving the punishment of the criminals to the final justice of God.

The records of the earliest peoples of whom history preserves knowledge—Chaldeans, Egyptians, Phenicians, and Arabians—show that slavery has existed the remotest antiquity. Slavery was the common fate of prisoners of war in the time of Homer; Alexander sold the inhabitants of Thebes, and the Spartans reduced the entire population of Helos to servitude, so that Helot came to be synonymous with slave, while one of the laws inscribed on the Twelve Tables of Rome gave a creditor the right to sell an insolvent debtor into slavery to satisfy his claim. Wealthy Romans frequently possessed slaves, over whose lives and fortunes the owners were absolute masters.

Christianity first taught the unity and equality of mankind; salvation was for bond and free, for Jew and Gentile; the immortality of each human soul was affirmed; each man's body was defined of the Holy Ghost and a new dignity was conferred by these novel doctrines on universal mankind, which the lowly shared equally with the mighty. The Christian conception of liberty and equality however, referred more to the moral than to the material order. "The truth shall make you free." It was not subversive of existing mundane conditions, but taught the duty of rendering Caesar his due, and of the servant being subject to his lord, the woman to her husband, and children to their parents. The early Christians too sincerely despised the prizes of this world—including the greatest of all, liberty—to struggle for possession of any of them; unresponsive to the lure of earthly honours and treasures, they fixed their desires on things eternal. Slavery continued to coexist with Christianity: children were sold publicly in the markets of Bristol during the reign of King Alfred, and the villeins were bound to the glebe, changing masters with the transfer of the property from one proprietor to another. The laws of Richard III. and of Edward VI. dealt severely, not only with slaves, but with all deserters, runaway apprentices, and other recalcitrant dependents, who were reduced to partial or perpetual slavery for the most trivial offences. The condition of these various categories of bondmen, however, was more one of serfage and vassalage, the ancient system of slavery that had culminated in the Roman Empire having been modified by the mild doctrines of Christianity and the gradual spread of the new civilisation.

From the discoveries along the west coast of Africa, made by the Portuguese in the first half of the fifteenth century, may be dated the revival of the trade in slaves for purely commercial purposes. Portugal and southern Spain were thenceforward regularly supplied with cargoes of negroes, numbering between seven and eight hundred yearly. The promoter of these expeditions was Prince Henry of Portugal, third son of John I. and Philippa, daughter of John Gaunt, though in justice to that amiable and learned prince, it must be borne in mind that the capture and sale of negroes was merely incidental to explorations the unary purpose of which was purely scientific. Prince Henry held that the negroes thus captured into his dominions were amply compensated for the loss of such uncertain liberty as they enjoyed, by receiving the light of Christian teaching. It seems evident that most of them merely changed masters and probably gained by the exchange, for they were born subjects of barbarous rulers, in lands where the traffic in slaves was active. Many were obtained from the Arabs and Moors, who already held them in bondage and, without minimising the sufferings inseparable from all slave-trade, we may not unreasonably assume that those who reached Portugal and Spain were the least unfortunate of all their kind.

Las Casas, being a native of Andalusia, was familiar with this slave-trade, for Seville was well provided with domestic slaves, whose lot was not a particularly hard one. So much a matter of course was the presence of these negroes in Spain, that he never admits he had never duly considered their condition or the matter of their capture and sale. It thus fell, as will be later described, that he assented to the demands of the Spanish colonists in the Indies for permission to import Africans from Spain to take the place of the rapidly perishing Indians. In the recommendation of this measure, several later historians pretended to discover the origin of negro slavery in America, despite the authenticated fact that sixteen years before Las Casas advised the importation of negroes into the Indies, the slave-trade had been begun; nor is it unlikely that other negroes had been brought to America by their Spanish owners at a still earlier date. Although the original intention had been to import only Christian negroes, this provision of the law had been easily and persistently evaded, under the leniency and indifference of the authorities, who connived at such profitable violation. It was contended that the labour problem in the colonies admitted of no other solution; the inefficient Indians were rapidly disappearing, of white labour there was none, and, to respond to the demand for labourers, the Dominican Order, in 1510, sanctioned the importation of negroes direct from Africa, still maintaining the proviso that all who were Jews or Mahometans should be excluded.

Ovando had reported the Indians as so naturally indolent that no wages could induce them to work. He represented them as flying from contact with the Spaniards, leaving Queen Isabella to suppose that their avoidance was due to a natural antipathy to white men. The Queen, in her zeal to fulfil the conditions imposed on her conscience by the papal bull of donation, was easily tricked by the representations of the Governor, coinciding as they did with those of other advisers of influence and high station, into assenting to the enforced labour of the Indians.

Her reason is explicitly stated to be "because we desire that the Indians should be converted to our holy catholic faith and should learn doctrine." For this motive, and with many restrictions as to the period of work and the kinds of labour to be performed by the natives, the gentle treatment to be shown them, and the wages to be paid them, the royal order was finally issued. It is evident that the misinformed and deluded sovereign regarded the labour of the Indians almost as a pretext for bringing them into contact with the Spaniards, solely for their own spiritual and moral advantage.

The discovery of America, following as it did so closely upon the development of the negro slave traffic, had given great impetus to it and, during the three succeeding centuries, Portuguese, Italians, Spaniards, English, and Dutch quickly became close rivals for an ignominious primacy in the most heinous of crimes. The highest figures I have found, assign to England one hundred and thirty vessels engaged in the trade, and forty-two thousand negroes landed in the Americas during the year 1786 from English ships. The annals of slavery are so uniformly black, that among all the nations there is not found one guiltless, to cast the first stone. More than their due proportion of obloquy has been visited upon the Spaniards for their part in the extension of slavery and for the offences against justice and humanity committed in the New World, almost as though they alone deserved the pillory. Consideration of the facts here briefly touched upon should serve to restrain and temper the condemnation that irreflection has too often allowed us to heap exclusively upon them for their share in these great iniquities. If they were pitiless towards individuals, we have shown ourselves merciless towards the race; as a nation, they recognised moral duties and responsibilities towards Indian peoples which our forefathers ignored or repudiated; the failure of the benevolent laws enacted by Spanish sovereigns was chiefly due to the avarice and brutality of individuals, who were able to elude both the provisions of the law and the punishment their crimes merited. On the other hand, Las Casas thrilled two worlds with his denunciations of crimes which our own enlightened country continued for three centuries to protect. His apostolate was prompted, not by the horrors he witnessed nor by merely emotional sympathy, but by meditation on the fundamental principles of justice. The Scripture texts that startled him from the moral lethargy in which he had lived during eight years, revealed to him the blasphemy involved in the performance of acts of formal piety and works of benevolence, by men who degraded God's image in their fellow-men and sacrificed hecatombs of human victims to gratify their greed for riches.

From the hour of his awakening, we follow him during sixty years of ceaseless activity such as few men have ever displayed. His vehemence tormented his adversaries beyond endurance, and they charged him with stirring up dissensions and strife in the colonies, ruining trade, discouraging emigration to the Indies, and, by his importunate and reckless propaganda, with inciting the Indians to rebellion. Granting that some abuses existed, they argued that his methods for redressing them were more pernicious than the evils themselves; prudent measures should be employed, not the radical and precipitate method of the fanatical friar, and time would gradually do the rest. Men who argued such as the Bishop of Burgos and Lope Conchillos, were large holders of encomienda properties, who objected to having their sources of income disturbed. Las Casas penetrated the flimsy disguise they sought to throw over their real purpose, to smother the truth the better to consolidate and extend their interests, and realising that his only hope of success lay in keeping the subject always to the front, he pursued his inexorable course of teaching, writing, journeying to America to impeach judges and excommunicate refractory colonists, and thence back again to Spain to publish his accusations broadcast and petition redress from the King and his Councils.

The most respectable of his contemporary opponents in the New World was Toribio de Benevente, under his popular Indian name of Motolinia. In 1555, Motolinia wrote a letter to in which he dealt severely with the accusations of Las Casas, whom he described as a restless, turbulent man, who wandered from one colony to another, provoking disturbances and scandals. He confined himself to a general denial of the alleged outrages, without attempting to refute them by presenting proofs of their falsity, while his indignation was prompted by his patriotism. He was shocked that a Spaniard should publish such accusations against his own countrymen; things which would be read by foreigners and even by Indians, and thus bring reproach on the Spanish national honour. He expressed astonishment that the Emperor permitted the publication and circulation of such books, taxing their author with wilful exaggeration and false statements, and pointing out that the accusations brought more dishonour on the monarch than on his subjects.

Motolinia was a devout man, whose apostolic life among the Indians won him his dearly loved name, equivalent to "the poor man" or poverello of St. Francis, but with all his virtues, he belonged to the type of churchman that dreads scandal above everything else. The methods of Las Casas scandalised him; it wounded his patriotism that Spaniards should be held up to the execration of Christendom, and he rightly apprehended that such damaging information, published broadcast, would serve as a formidable weapon in the hands of the adversaries of his church and country. It must also be remembered that he lived in Mexico, where Las Casas admits that the condition of the Indians was better than in the islands and other parts of the coast country.

The Bishop of Burgos and Lope Conchillos will be seen to be fair exponents of the bureaucratic type of opponents to the reforms Las Casas advocated. The Bishop in particular appears in an unsympathetic light throughout his long administration of American affairs. Of choleric temper, his manners were aggressive and authoritative, and he used his high position to advance his private interests. He was a disciplinarian, a bureaucrat averse to novelties and hostile to enthusiasms. He anticipated Talleyrand's maxim "Surtout pas de zole," and to be nagged at by a meddlesome friar was intolerable to him. Such men were probably no more consciously inhuman than many otherwise irreproachable people of all times, who complacently pocket dividends from deadly industries, without a thought to the obscure producers of their wealth or to the conditions of moral and physical degradation amidst which their brief lives are spent.

The most formidable of all the adversaries of Las Casas was Gines de Sepulveda. A man of acute intellect, vast learning, and superlative eloquence, this practiced debater stood for theocracy and despotism, defending the papal and royal claims to jurisdiction over the New World. In striving to establish a dual tyranny over the souls and bodies of its inhabitants, he concerned himself not at all with the human aspect of the question nor did he even pretend to controvert the facts with which his opponent met him. He was exclusively engaged in upholding the abstract right of the Pope and the Spanish sovereigns to exercise spiritual and temporal jurisdiction over heathen, as well as Catholic peoples. To impugn this principle was, according to Sepulveda, to strike at the very foundations of Christendom; that a few thousands of pagans, more or less, suffered and perished, was of small importance, compared with the maintenance of this elemental principal. First conquer and then convert, was his maxim. His thesis constitutes the very negation of Christianity.

Juan Gines de Sepulveda

From the engraving by J. Barcelon, after the drawing of J. Maca.

Las Casas repeatedly challenged his opponents to refute his allegations or to contradict his facts and, in a letter to Carranza de Miranda in 1556, he wrote:

"It is moreover deplorable that, after having denounced this destruction of peoples to our sovereigns and their councils a thousand times during forty years, nobody has yet dreamed of proving the contrary and, after having done so, of punishing me by the shame of a retraction. The royal archives are filled with records of trials, reports, denunciations, and a quantity of other proofs of the assassinations…There exists also positive evidence of the immense population of Hispaniola—greater than that of all Spain—and of the islands of Cuba, Jamaica, and more than forty other islands, where neither animals nor vegetation survive. These countries are larger than the space that separates us from Persia, and the terra-firma is twice as considerable…I defy any living man, if he be not a fool, to dare deny what I allege, and to prove the contrary."

His enemies were devoid of scruples, and unsparingly used every means to nullify his influence and destroy his credit. He was ridiculed as a madman—a monomaniac on the subject of Indians and their rights; his plainly stated facts were branded as exaggerations, though nobody accepted his challenge to contradict them. Such tactics alternated with others, for he was also described as a heretic, as disloyal and unpatriotic, seeking to impeach the validity of Spanish sovereignty in the Indies and to bring ruin on the national interests.

The missionary period of the life of Las Casas in America ended with his return to Spain in 1549 and the resignation of his episcopal see that followed in 1552. From that time may be dated the third and last period of his life, which was marked by his literary activity, for, though he never again visited America, his vigilance and energy in defending the interests of the Indians underwent no diminution. His writings were extraordinarily luminous; and all he wrote treated of but one subject. He himself declared that his sole reason for writing more than two thousand pages in Latin was to proclaim the truth concerning Indians, who were defamed by being represented as devoid of human understanding and brutes. This defamation of an entire race outraged his sense of justice, and the very excesses of the colonists provoked the reaction that was destined to ultimately check them.

Of all his numerous works the two that are of great and permanent interest to students of American history, the Historia General and the Historia Apologetica de las Indias, were originally designed to form a single work. The writer informs us he began this work in 1527 while he resided in the Dominican monastery near Puerto de Plata.

Fabie writes that his examination of the original manuscripts of the two works preserved in the library of the Spanish Academy of History in Madrid, shows that the first chapter of the Apologetica was originally the fifty-eighth of the Historia General. Prescott possessed a copy of these manuscripts, which is believed to have been burned in Boston in 1872, and other copies still exist in America in the Congressional and Lenox Libraries, and in the Hubert Howe Bancroft collection.

During his constant journeying to and fro, much of the material Las Casas had collected for the Historia General was lost and when he began to put that work into its actual form—probably in 1552 or 1553—he was obliged to rely on his memory for many of his facts, while others were drawn from the Historia del Almirante, Don Cristobal Colon, written by the son of Christopher Columbus, Fernando.

The first historian who had access to the original manuscript, in spite of the instruction of Las Casas to his executors to withhold them from publication for a period of forty years after his death, was Herrera, who dipped plenis manibus into their contents, incorporating entire chapters in his own work published in 1601. His book obtained a wide circulation despite the fact that it was prohibited in Spain.

It was not until 1875-1876 that a complete edition of the Historia General and the Apologetica was printed in Spanish. This work was edited in five volumes by the Marques de la Fuensanta and Senor Jose Sancho Rayon, and was issued by the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. A Mexican edition of the Historia General in two volumes, but without the Apologetica, appeared in 1878. The Historia Apologetica treats of the natural history, the climate, the flora, fauna, and various products of the Indies, as well as of the different races inhabiting the several countries; their character, costumes, habits, and forms of government. Though its purpose bore less directly upon the injustices under which the natives suffered, it was none the less educational, the author's purpose being to put before his countrymen a minute and accurate description of the New World and its inhabitants that should vindicate the latter's right to equitable treatment at the hands of their conquerors. Misrepresented and defamed, as he maintained the Indians were, by the mendacious reports sent to Spain, Las Casas composed this interesting apology as one part of his scheme of defence. As a monument to his vast erudition, his powers of observation, and his talents as a writer, the Apologetica is perhaps the most remarkable of all his compositions.

I append to this present volume an English translation of the most celebrated of all the writings of Las Casas; that is, of the short treatise published in 1552 in Seville under the title of Brevissima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias, and which recited in brief form his accusations against the conquerors and his descriptions of the cruelties that formed the groundwork of all his writings.

This was the first of nine tracts, all treating different aspects of the same subject. The full titles of these little books, of which a complete set is now extremely valuable, may be found in Henry Harrisse, Notes on Columbus, pp. 18-24; also in Brunet's Manuel, the Carter-Brown Catalogue, and other bibliographical works.

The first quarto gothic edition, printed by Trujillo in Seville in 1552, entitled Las Obras Brevissima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias Occidentales por los Espanoles, contains seven tracts. The second edition, in Barcelona, 1646, bore the title Las Obras de B. de Las Casas, and contains the first five tracts.

The Brevissima Relacion was quickly translated into most of the languages of Europe. A French version, published in Antwerp in 1579, was entitled Tyrannies et Cruautes des Espagnols, par Jacques de Miggrode. Le Miroir de la tyrannie Espagnole, illustrated by seventeen horribly realistic engravings by De Bry, contains extracts from several of the nine treatises, composed into one work, issued in Amsterdam in 1620. Other editions followed in Paris in 1635, in Lyons in 1642, and again two others in Paris in 1697 and 1701: these latter were translated and edited by the Abbe de Bellegarde.

The Italian translation, made by Giacomo Castellani, followed closely the original text, by which it was accompanied; editions were printed in Venice in 1626, 1630, and 1643, bearing the title Istoria o Brevissima Relatione della Distruttione dell' Indie Occidentali. Three different Latin versions were published as follows: Narratio regionum Indicarum per Hispanos quosdam devastatarum Verissima, per B. Casaum, Anno 1582; Hispanice, anno vero hoc Lating excusa, Francofurti, 1597; Regionum Indicarum Hispanos olim devastatarum accuratissima descriptio. Editio nova, correctior…Heidelbergae 1664. Despite the fact that Las Casas was the first and most vehement in denouncing the Spanish conquerors as bad patriots and worse Christians, whose acts outraged religion and disgraced Spain, his evidence against his countrymen was diligently spread by all enemies of his country, especially in England and the Netherlands, while Protestant controversialists quoted him against popery, and in the conduct of the conquerors the evidences of the Catholic depravity.

The earliest English edition was printed in 1583 under the title of The Spanish Colonie or Briefe Chronicle of the Acts and Gestes of the Spaniardes in the West Indies, called the Newe Worlde, for a space of XL Yeares.

John Phillips, who was a nephew of Milton, dedicated another version, called The Tears of the Indians, to Oliver Cromwell.

Other English editions, bearing different names, appeared in 1614, 1656, and 1689. This last volume bore a truly startling title: Casas's horrid Massacres, Butcheries and Cruelties that Hell and Malice could invent, committed by the Spaniards in the West Indies. It doubtless had a large sale.

Ten years later another edition was printed in London: An Account of the Voyages and Discoveries made by the Spaniards in America, containing the exact Relation hitherto published of their unparalleled cruelties on the Indians in the Destruction of about Forty Millions of People.

The Netherlands being in revolt, both against the Catholic religion and the Spanish government, it is not surprising to find that, in addition to the French editions published in Amsterdam and Antwerp, no less than six different versions were circulated in the Flemish and Dutch vernaculars, as follows: Seer cort Verhael van de destructie van d'Indien, etc., Bruselas, 1578. Spieghel der Spaenscher tyrannye, in West Indien, etc., Amstelredam, 1596. Another edition of the same followed in the same year and another in 1607. Den Spieghel van de Spaenscher Tyrannie, etc., Amstelredam, 1609. Second edition of the same work in 1621.

A German translation entitled Umstaendige Wahrhafftige Beschreibung der Indianischen Laendern, etc., was published at Frankfurt-am-Main, in 1645.

It seems hardly necessary, otherwise than as a matter of quaint chronicle, to notice the fantastic attempt of the Neapolitan writer, Roselli, to prove that the Brevissima Relacion was not written by Las Casas, but was composed years later by an unknown Frenchman. This suggestion was too agreeable to Spanish susceptibilities to lack approval in Spain when it was first advanced, but it has since been consigned by general consent to the limbo of fanciful inventions.

The limits of the present volume exclude the possibility of dealing adequately with a life so fertile in effort, so rich in achievement, as that of Las Casas, and I have confined myself to composing, from an immense mass of material, a brief narrative of the acts and events that seem to best illlustrate his character and to establish his claim to a foremost place among the great moral heroes of the world.

I have drawn largely upon his own works, and by frequent and ample quotations from his speeches I have sought to reveal my hero more intimitely to my readers. In reluctantly quitting this field of profitable research, I confidently promise myself the satisfaction of one day seeing literature enriched by an abler presentation of this great theme than I have felt myself prepared to undertake.



Principal authorities consulted in the preparation of this work:

ANTONIO DE REMESAL, Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiyapa, 1619. DAVILA PADILLA, Historia de la Fundacion, etc., 1625. ANTONIO DE HERRERA, Historia General de las Indias Occidentales, 1601. GONZALO FERNANDEZ DE OVIEDO Y VALDEZ (in Ramusio). MOTOLINIA in volume i. of Icazbalceta's Documentos Ineditos. JUAN DE TORQUEMADA, Monarquia Indiana, 1614. AGOSTINO DE VETANCOURT, Teatro Mexicano, 1698. FRAY DOMINGO MARQUEZ, Sacro Diario Dominicano, 1697. J.A. LLORENTA, OEuvres de Las Casas, 1822. JOSE ANTONIO SACO, Historia de la Esclavitud, 1875-78. MANUEL JOSE QUINTANA, Vidas de Espanoles Celebres, 1845. CARLOS GUTIERREZ, Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, sus Tiempos y su Apostolado, 1878. ANTONIO MARIA FABIE, Vida y Escritos de Don Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, 1879. SIR ARTHUR HELPS, The Spanish Conquest in America. HENRY STEVENS, The New Laws of the Indies, 1893. ARISTOTLE, Politics (Canon Weldon's translation). WILLIAM ROBERTSON, History of America. History of Charles V. FLECHIER, Vie de Ximenez. MARSOLLIER, Vie de Ximenez. BAUDIER, Histoire de Ximenez. HENRY HARRISSE, Notes on Columbus. JUSTIN WINSOR'S Narrative and Critical History of America. JOHN BOYD THATCHER'SChristopher Columbus.




Fray Bartholomew de Las Casas Juan Gines de Sepulveda Christopher Columbus Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros Charles V. Paul III. Philip II. Scenes of Las Casas's Labours Holograph of Las Casas Giving Directions for the Publication of his Work.


The Spanish wars against the Moors, no less than the Crusades against the Moslems in the Holy Land, enlisted under the Christian standard the chivalry of Europe, and during the victorious campaign of the King, St. Ferdinand, knights from France, Germany, Italy, and Flanders swelled the ranks of the Spanish forces in Andalusia. Amongst these foreign noblemen were two French gentlemen called Casaus, who claimed descent from Guillen, Viscount of Limoges, one of whom was killed during the siege of Seville. The city was taken in 1252, and the surviving Casaus shared in the apportionment of its spoils, and founded there a family, whose descendants were destined to become numerous and illustrious. The name Casaus assumed with time the more Spanish form of Casas, though it continued to be spelled in both ways for several centuries, and Bartholomew de Las Casas himself used both spellings indifferently, especially during the earlier years of his life.

This family ranked among the nobility of Seville and mention is found of the confirmation by Alfonso XI. of Guillen de Las Casas in the office of regidor of the city in 1318. This same Guillen became Alcalde Mayor of Seville, and when he died his body was buried in one of the chapels of the cathedral. His son, Alfonso, is stated in the chronicles of Don Juan II. (1409) to have been appointed by the Infante, Don Fernando, to the lieutenancy of Castillo de Priego, "because he was a valiant man who could hold it well." The names of Guillen and Bartolome are of frequent recurrence in the annals of the family, whose members constantly occupied the honourable offices of judge, alcalde mayor, and captain, using the title of Don and intermarrying with the most illustrious families of Andalusia.

According to indications equivalent to proofs in the absence of any positive record, from such respectable forebears descended Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, who was born in Seville, in 1474. He himself speaks of Seville as his native city, and the popular tradition, which fixes the ancient suburb of Triana as his birthplace, was recognised in 1859 by the municipality of Seville assigning the name of Calle del Procurador to one of the streets of Triana, in honour of the Bishop, whose proudest title was Protector (or Procurador) General of the Indians.

In his voluminous writings, which teem with information about the men and events of his times, the references to his own family history are infrequent and imperfect, so that from his own records of his life, very little is to be gleaned concerning it. His father's name is variously given by different writers as Alonso, Antonio, and Francisco, while he himself states(1) that he was named Pedro, thus contradicting all his biographers from Remesal, who was the first, down to Don Antonio Fabie, whose admirable Vida y Escritos, published in 1879, was the last important contribution on this interesting subject. Zuniga, in his Discurso de Ortices, assumed that Alonso de las Casas and Beatriz Maraver y Cegarra of Triana were the parents of Fray Bartholomew, but in the Anales de Sevilla, a later work, Francisco is given as the father's name. Neither Llorente nor Gutierrez, who has followed him, gives any authority for his affirmation that the father's name was Antonio, while Quintana and Fabie accept Remesal(2) and name the father Francisco.

The genealogy of the family furnished me by the dean of the Royal College of Heralds in Madrid shows the descent of Fray Bartholomew through his frather, named Francisco, from Alonso de Las Casas, "Senor de Gomez Cardena, Veinticuatro de Seville, la Villa de Priego" in 1409, and his wife, Maria Fernandez Marmolejo. The children of this couple were Guillen, Isabel, Juan, Pedro, and Francisco, who is described in the genealogy as the father of Bartholomew. Pedro, whom Fray Bartholomew mentions as his father, is described as Dean of Seville, in which case his ecclesiastical state would exclude matrimony and legitimate issue.

Fabie affirms that in several passages of his writings Fray Bartholomew confirms the assertion of those authors who have designated his father as Francisco, but he does not indicate the whereabouts of these passages nor have I, in my unaided researches, succeeded in finding them. The descendants of the original founder of the family had multiplied and, by the close of the fifteenth century, were divided into many prolific branches, hence the difficulty of identifying the unimportant father of an extraordinarily important son is not wonderful. Las Casas himself may be reasonably assumed to have known his own father's name and we must conclude, in view of his assertion, that all other authorities, including the Royal College of Heralds, are wrong, and that not Francisco, but a Pedro de Las Casas, who was not however Dean of Seville, was the immediate progenitor of the illustrious Bishop of Chiapa.

The scarcity of positive information concerning his immediate family is equalled by the paucity of trustworthy details of the first twenty-eight years of Fray Bartholomew's life. He completed his studies and obtained the degree of licentiate in law at the University of Salamanca, the most celebrated in Spain, and which ranked high amongst the great seats of learning in Europe at that time. Jurisprudence was divided into the branches of Roman law as interpreted by the school of Bologna, and of canon law, the principles of which were interwoven with the common practice, whose severer tendencies they somewhat tempered. The precepts of Aristotle as interpreted by scholastics formed the basis of philosophical studies, and the Thomistic doctrine was taught by professors of the Dominican Order.

It has been judiciously observed that in that age of growing absolutism, both spiritual and temporal, only a skilful Thomistic scholar could have discerned the limits to the legitimate exercise of the royal authority which Las Casas so clearly perceived and so boldly defined in the very presence of the autocratic sovereigns of Spain.

Grammar, ethics, physics, and the branches of learning necessary to complete the education of a young man of his social position and mental capacity, were doubtless embraced in his course of study. His use of the Latin tongue was fluent, though his style has been criticised as cumbersome and wanting in elegance; certainly his writings abound in diffuse generalities, a multiplicity of repetitions, and a vast array of citations from Scripture and the classics which render his unexpurgated manuscripts wearisome enough to modern readers. He shared the defects of most of his contemporaries in this respect and followed the fashion common in his times. The training he received in the Spanish schools and the University, and which he afterwards perfected—as will be seen—by the studies he resumed after his profession in the Dominican Order, rendered formidable as an advocate one whom nature had endowed with a rare gift of eloquence, a passionate temperament, and a robust physical constitution which seems to have been immune to the ills and fatigues that assail less favoured mortals. Gines de Sepulveda, whose forensic encounter with Las Casas was one of the academic events of the sixteenth century, described his adversary in a letter to a friend as "most subtle, most vigilant, and most fluent, compared with whom Homer's Ulysses was inert and stammering."

The father of Las Casas accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to America and acquired profitable interests in the island of Hispaniola. He returned to Spain in 1496, bringing with him an Indian lad whom he sent as a present to his son, who was then a student at Salamanca.

Bartholomew's ownership of this Indian boy was brief, owing to Queen Isabella's intense displeasure when she learned that Columbus had brought, and permitted to be brought back Indians, as slaves. Nothing sufficed to appease the Queen's indignation that the Admiral should thus dispose of her new subjects without her leave and authority, and a royal order was published from Granada, where the court then was, commanding, under pain of death, that all those who had brought Indians to Spain as slaves should send them back to America. When Francisco de Bobadilla was sent in 1500 to Hispaniola to supersede Columbus as Governor, all these Indians returned with him and Las Casas himself states, "Mine was of the number."

Thus strangely is the future apostle of freedom first introduced to our notice in the guise of a slave-holder, constrained by a royal edict to surrender his human property.

Upon his return from Salamanca to Seville Las Casas found himself, through his father's relations with Columbus, in daily intercourse with the men whose voyages and discoveries were thrilling Europe. Amongst these navigators was his uncle Francisco de Penulosa, and it was but natural that his eager temperament should catch the adventurous fever which prevailed throughout Spain and notably in Andalusia. Salucchi, in his Latin treatise on Hebrew coins, says that Las Casas accompanied his father on the second voyage of Columbus in 1493 and brought back the Indian slave himself. Llorente, who has been followed by several modern writers, asserts that his first voyage to America was made with Columbus on his third expedition. He deduces this conclusion from a statement at the close of the Thirty Propositions which Las Casas addressed to the Royal India Council in 1547 and from a sentence in the First Motive of his Ninth Remedy which he presented to the Emperor in 1542. The first of these passages reads "Thus, most illustrious Sirs, have I thought since forty-nine years, during which I have witnessed evil-doings in America and since thirty-four years that I have studied law." The passage merely refers to Columbus having permitted certain Spaniards who had rendered important services during his voyage to bring back each an Indian and concludes, "And I obtained one."

Christopher Columbus

From an engraving by P. Mercuri after a contemporary portrait

The deductions of both these learned writers would seem to require more positive corroboration. Not only are they destitute of confirmation, but in the second chapter of his Historia General, Las Casas gives the names of many persons who did accompany Columbus in 1493, describing several incidents connected with that expedition and concluding by saying that he heard all these things "from my father who returned [to America] with him, when he went to found settlements in Hispaniola." In the preface which he wrote in 1552 to accompany the publication of his history, Destruycion de las Indias, which had been composed ten years earlier, he speaks of his experience extending over more than fifty years, but in his Historia General, which is almost a diary of the first half of his life in America, the first voyage that he mentions is that of Don Nicholas de Ovando in 1502. Las Casas was most careful in describing every particular of the events in which he had a part and he nowhere mentions that he accompanied Columbus on any voyage, whereas he dwells at length upon the expedition of Ovando, and in the third chapter of the second book of the Historia General he affirms, "I heard this with my own ears for I went on that voyage with the Comendador de Lares [Ovando] to this island." The phrase is characteristic, for the positive note is rarely absent in the affirmations of Las Casas, nor is it admissible that his experiences on any voyage previous to that of Ovando should find no place in the exact and scrupulous narrative he has left us of his relations with America and his beloved Indians.

In consequence of the persistent and bitter complaints of Columbus against the second Governor of Hispaniola, whose appointment violated the rights secured to the Admiral and his successors by the capitulations of Granada, the catholic sovereign decided to recall Francisco de Bobadilla, whose administration gave cause for dissatisfaction in other respects, and to send Don Nicholas de Ovando to replace him. Ovando was at that time Comendador de Lares and was later raised to the supreme commandership of the Order of Calatrava. He is described as a most prudent man, worthy to govern any number of people, but not Indians; man in word and deed, an avowed enemy of avarice and covetousness; not wanting in humility, as shown in his habits of life, both public and private, though he maintained the dignity and authority of his position.(3)

The new Governor was endowed with full powers to judge the accusations against his predecessor and to dispose of the nettlesome questions which had provoked the Roldan rebellion.

The preparations for his departure were delayed by many causes; his fleet was the most considerable one that had thus far been organised to sail for America, being composed of thirty-two vessels on which were to sail some two thousand five hundred persons, many of whom were knights and noblemen. Twelve Franciscan friars under the direction of their leader, Fray Alonso del Espinal, formed part of the company.

It was this brilliant expedition that Fernando Cortes intended to join when he was prevented by injuries incurred while engaged in an amorous adventure which led him over garden walls into risky situations where he ended with broken bones, and was consequently left behind. The fleet sailed from San Lucar de Barrameda on February 13, 1502, which according to Las Casas was the first Sunday in lent of that year.(4)

The usual course, by way of the Canary Islands, was followed, but after eight days at sea, a violent tempest wrecked one ship, La Rabida, with one hundred and twenty people on board, and scattered the remainder; some vessels were obliged to throw most of their cargo overboard, but all, after many dangers, gradually found refuge in various ports of the neighbouring islands.

The wreckage of La Rabida, and that of some other vessels which had also foundered while carrying sugar from the islands, drifted back to the Spanish coast and gave rise to the rumour that the entire fleet was lost. This caused such a general sense of affliction that the sovereigns, on receipt of this false report, shut themselves up in the palace at Granada and mourned for eight days.

The vessels which had weathered the tempest united after some delay in the port of the island of Gomera, and being joined there by another, fitted out in the Canaries by people eager to go to America, the fleet was thus brought up to its original complement. The commander divided his squadron in to two sections, the first of which, composed of the fastest vessels, he kept under his command, while the second was placed under command of Antonio de Torres. Ovando's division reached Hispaniola on the fifteenth of April and the second squadron came safely to port some twelve days later. Thus did Bartholomew de Las Casas first land in the New World.


In the ever-memorable month of October, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the New World he had discovered by sailing westward. To this great undertaking Columbus had advanced through a long career during which he had had unusual adventures and experiences in almost every part of the known world. A Genoese by birth, he had studied at Pavia,(5) where he had acquired some knowledge of Latin, and was introduced to the study of those sciences to which his inclinations and his opportunities enabled him later to devote himself. He knew the Atlantic Coast from El Mina in Africa,(6) to England and Iceland,(7) and he had visited the Levant(8)and the islands of the Grecian Archipelago.

Writing of himself to the Catholic sovereigns, he says that he had been a sailor from his earliest youth, and curious to discover the secrets of the world. This same impulse led him to the study of navigation, cosmography, and kindred sciences, and his son Ferdinand states that the book which most influenced his father was the Cosmographia of Cardinal Aliaco in which he read the following passage: Et dicit Aristoteles ut mare parvum est inter finem Hispanicae a parte Occidentis, et inter principium Indiae a parte Orientis. Et non loquitur de Hispania citeriori quae nunc Hispania communiter dicitur sed de Hispania ulteriori quae nunc Africa dicitur.(9)

The illustrious Florentine, Paolo Toscanelli, definitely encouraged the conviction Columbus had formed from his reading of Marco Polo's descriptions of Cipango, Cathay, and the Grand Khan, that the lands might be reached by sailing west, and there was doubtless little the ancients had written concerning the existence of islands and continents lying beyond the Pillars of Hercules with which he was not acquainted.

The story of his attempts to secure the necessary means and authority for undertaking his great enterprise does not belong to our present subject, but before hearing his own description of what and whom he found in the western hemisphere when first he landed there, it is necessary to consider the arguments by which his friends finally prevailed on the sovereigns of Castile to grant him their patronage. That they did this contrary to the the counsels of the learned cosmographers of the age and in defiance of contemporary common-sense, is in itself a most noteworthy fact which testifies both to the singular qualities of Columbus and to the rare sagacity of the Catholic Queen who, in her momentous decision, acted alone, there being little in the scheme to commend it to the colder temperament of King Ferdinand.

By almost no intellectual effort can we of to-day realise the chimerical stamp which the proposition of Columbus bore, and which served to mark him as an adventurer and a visionary or, to use a forceful Americanism, as a "crank" in the estimation of sensible, practical people. He has himself recorded that he believed he was acting under inspiration and was merely fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. The council of cosmographers summoned by the Queen's confessor, Fray Hernando de Talavera, to study the project which Columbus, through the exertions of his friends, the Prior of Santa Maria de la Rabida, and Alonso de Quintanilla, treasurer of the royal household, had succeeded in presenting to the sovereigns, decided "that it was vain and impossible, nor did it belong to the majesty of such great Princes to decide anything upon such weak grounds of information."(10)

Spain was at that time engaged in a costly war against the Moors, who still held Granada; hard pushed as the sovereigns were for money to carry on the necessary military operations, it is not strange that no funds were forthcoming to finance the visionary schemes propounded by an obscure foreigner. After some years of vain striving, Columbus was on the point of quitting the country in despair, when two powerful allies intervened—Cardinal Mendoza, Archbishop of Toledo, and Luis de Santangel, who held the office of Receiver of Revenues of the Crown of Aragon.

It must have argued powerfully in favour of Columbus that he had won to his support, not only several great ecclesiastics and the Duke of Medina Celi, but also two of the most astute financiers of the realm,—Santangel and Quintanilla, men not easily accessible to enthusiasms nor inclined to encourage non-paying investments.

Whatever was the motive that prompted these men to take the project under their protection, the Queen was primarily swayed by religious arguments, which also with Columbus were as powerfully operative as his desire for profit and glory.

The preface of his journal contains a review of of the year 1492, which was signalised by the fall of Granada and the final expulsion, after seven centuries, of the Moors from Spain. He recalls his petition to the Pope, asking that learned Catholic doctors should be sent to instruct the Grand Khan in the true faith, and to convert populous cities that were perishing in Idolatry, to which his Holiness had vouchsafed no answer, after which he continues:

"Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes, promoters of the Christian religion, and enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, thought to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the aforementioned provinces of India to see the said princes, the cities, the countries, their position and everything concerning them and the way that should be adopted to convert them to our Holy Faith."(11)

This passage reflects the mind and character of Columbus as he is described by Las Casas; for even beyond the glory of penetrating the world's mysteries that so powerfully influenced him, he nurtured dreams of religious propaganda, another crusade to recover the Holy Sepulchre, and the conversion of all the heathen to the faith.

"He fasted with strictest observance on the fasts of the church; he confessed and received communion frequently; he recited the canonical hours like an ecclesiastic or a monk; most inimical to blasphemies and oaths, he was most devoted to Our Lady and to the seraphic Father, St. Francis…most jealous of the Divine honour, eager and desirous for the conversion of these peoples, and that the faith of Jesus Christ should be everywhere spread, and singularly given and devoted to God that he might be made worthy to help in some way to win the Holy Sepulchre."(12)

Patient, long-suffering, prone to forgive injuries, Columbus was a man of courageous soul and high aspirations, always pervaded with infinite confidence in Divine Providence and never failing in loyalty to the sovereigns whom he served.

Such were the qualities of the man whose great discovery prepared the scene on which Las Casas was to play the noblest part of all; such were the influences which promised to shape his actions in conformity with the intentions of the saintly Queen who sustained him. These influences are seen to be first and always religious; religious in the prevailing conception of a century, when the interpretation of the command "go ye and teach all nations" admitted of no shirking an obligation laid by the Divine command on each Christian, whether priest, king or subject. An infallible Church provided the one ordained channel of divine grace and salvation for mankind, dissent from which meant damnation, and hence into that Church all nations must be gathered.

Bearing these conditions of the age and these convictions which dominated both the Queen and Columbus well in mind, we shall later have occasion to observe the startling contradiction of essential principles of Christianity shown in the acts of the latter in his dealings with the Indians; for he not only prepared the stage Las Casas was to tread, but he likewise provided the tragedy of iniquity to be thereon enacted.

The first soil on which Columbus landed was that of a beautiful island some fifteen leagues in length, fruitful, fresh, and verdant like a fair garden, in the midst of which was a lake of sweet water. The weary eyes of the mariners, strained for weeks to catch a glimpse of the despaired-of land, were refreshed by the sight of this pezzo del cielo, and the landing of Columbus was a scene of picturesque and moving simplicity in which were not wanting the features of martial grandeur and religious solemnity, furnished by steel-clad knights with drawn swords, bearing the royal standard of Castile and the emblem of man's salvation, before which all knelt in a fervour of triumph and thanksgiving. Both as wondering witnesses and interested actors in this memorable drama, there appeared the natives of the island, transfixed in silent awe in the presence of their mysterious guests. Columbus describes them as well-built, with good features and beautiful eyes, but with hair as coarse as a horse's mane; their complexion was yellowish and they had their faces painted. They were entirely naked and neither carried weapons nor understood the use of such things.

"They ought," he says, "to make faithful and intelligent servants, for I perceive they very quickly repeat all that is said to them and I believe they would very quickly be converted to Christianity as it appeared to me that they had no creed."

In another passage he writes: "As they showed us such friendship and as I recognised that they were people who would yield themselves better to the Christian faith and be converted more through love than by force, I gave some of them some coloured buttons and some glass beads which they wore around their necks, and many other things of small value, with which they were delighted, and became so attached to us that it was a marvel to behold."

The natives were not slow to reciprocate these gifts and hastened to offer the best of all they possessed to the Spaniards in return for their trifling presents.

Indeed, since it is better to give than to receive, the Admiral describes the natives of Marien as being of such a generous disposition that they esteemed it the highest honour to be asked to give. What could be more idyllic than his description of the people he found at Rio del Sol in Cuba?—"They are all very gentle, without knowledge of evil, neither killing nor stealing." Everywhere he touched during his first voyage, he and his men were welcomed as gods descended upon earth, their wants anticipated, and such boundless hospitality showered upon them that Columbus was touched by the gentleness and grace of the natives.

"They are a loving uncovetous people, so docile in all things that I do assure your Highness I believe in all the world there is not a better people or a better country; they love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest and gentlest way of speaking in the world and always with a smile."

When it came the turn of Las Casas to describe the Indians in the islands, he wrote:

"All these infinite peoples were created by God the most simple of all others, without malice or duplicity, most obedient and faithful to their rulers, whom they serve; the most humble, patient, loving, peaceful, and docile people, without contentions or tumults; neither factious nor quarrelsome, without hatred, or desire for revenge, more than any other people in the world."

Such were the accounts of the New World given to the Catholic sovereigns by Columbus on his return from his first voyage, and afterwards by Las Casas in his terrible indictment of his countrymen's destructive invasion of those peaceful realms, peopled by innocent and genial heathen. Had Shakespeare heard this fair report when he put the description of the magic isle in the mouth of the King's counsellor, Gonzalo?

I' the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things; for no kind of traffic Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, And use of service, none; contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; No occupation; all men idle, all; And women too, but innocent and pure; No sovereignty; All things in common nature should produce Without sweat or endeavour; treason, felony, Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine Would I not have; but nature should bring forth, Of it's own kind, all foison, all abundance To feed my innocent people.(13)

Upon such virgin soil, Columbus felt confident that the gospel seed would produce an abundant harvest and he says:

"I hold it for certain, Most Serene Princes, that by means of devout, religious persons, knowing their language they would all quickly become Christians and thus I hope in Our Lord that your Highnesses will provide for this with much diligence to bring such numerous people into the Church and convert them, as you have destroyed those who would not confess the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and that after this life (for we are all mortal) you will leave your kingdoms in a very tranquil state, purified from heresy and evil."

Wonderful and humiliating is it to observe how little these first impressions of the Indians and these elevated Christian aspirations influenced his conduct in dealing with them, once he was master of their destinies.

The declared purposes of the second voyage of 1493 were the colonisation of the newly discovered countries, the conversion of the natives, and the extension of his discoveries. Pope Alexander VI. had conferred the lands thus far discovered and others to be discovered upon the sovereigns of Castile and Leon, with the fullest rights over navigation, and imperial jurisdiction over the western hemisphere. The Bull bestowing these concessions was dated the fourth of May, 1493, in the first year of his pontificate. An imaginary line, drawn from pole to pole and passing one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, separated the spheres of Spanish and Portuguese exploration, and the Bull expressly laid down as the principal reason for this grant, that the natives would be converted to Christianity.(14)

The conditions imposed by the Pontiff corresponded perfectly to the sincere desires of the Spanish sovereigns, who had, from their first knowledge of the existence of the Indians, displayed the keenest and tenderest zeal to provide for their welfare. They instructed Columbus to deal lovingly with the Indians, to make them generous gifts, and to show them much honour; and if perchance any one should treat them unjustly, the Admiral should punish him severely.(15)

This second expedition was composed of 1500 men, of whom twenty were horsemen; many knights and gentlemen, especially from Seville, and some members of the royal household also went. The number of officials of various grades appointed to exercise problematical functions in the new colony exceeded the necessities of the case and gave promise of the many dissensions and petty conflicts which were not slow in declaring themselves. A priest, Father Buil, and other ecclesiastics were sent to undertake the instruction and conversion of the Indians; in all, seventeen ships left the Bay of Cadiz on September 25, 1493.(16) Upon his arrival at Hispaniola, the Admiral found the little colony he had left there completely exterminated, and learned from his friend the Cacique Guacanagari that, after his departure for Spain, the Spaniards had fallen to quarrelling amongst themselves and had scattered throughout the island, provoking hostilities with the natives and had, in consequence, been killed by a neighbouring chieftain, Caonabo, who also burned the tower the colonists had built. The first report on the state of the new colony of Isabella, which Columbus sent to Spain in January, 1494, was in the form of an instruction to Antonio de Torres, receiver for the colony, whom Las Casas describes as "a brother of the Governor of the Infante Don Juan, a notable person, prudent and efficient for such a post."(17) In this notable document occurs the first mention of slavery in the New World. The Admiral directs Torres to inform the sovereigns that he has made slaves of some Indians captured the cannibal islands, and has sent them to Spain have them taught Spanish in order that they may later serve as interpreters. The justification he advanced for this measure was that by taking from their surroundings they would be cured of their cannibalism, converted to Christianity, and their souls saved; besides which, if the cannibals were thus converted, the Indians of the neighbouring islands, who were peaceable and lived in fear of them, would conceive a still higher regard for the Spaniards.

This reasoning doubtless commended itself to most people, but the sagacious Queen instantly put her finger upon the flaw in the argument, and on the margin of Columbus's report is written her answer: "This is all very well and so it must be done; but let the Admiral see whether it might not be there arranged to bring them to our Holy Catholic Faith and the same with the Indians of those islands where he is."

The next suggestion, despite any possible excellence of his motives, was a frank proposal to establish a thriving trade in human flesh as barefaced as could be made by the least scrupulous "blackbirder." The Admiral, always dwelling upon the spiritual welfare of the cannibal natives, proposed that the more of them that could be captured, the better it would be, and then, mingling temporal advantages to Spaniards with spiritual blessings to the natives, he explained that the quantities of live stock and other necessaries required by the colonists, might be paid for by the sale of slaves sent back to Spain in the ships which would bring these supplies several times a year to the colony. The sovereigns are to be reminded that they may collect duties on this slave-trade, and an early answer is desired in order that the arrangements for the new commerce may be pushed forward.(18)

The Queen's observation on this passage was not as positive as it might have been and, though the proposition was evidently repugnant to her, she merely directed that the matter be suspended for the present until some other way of providing on the spot be found and that the Admiral should report further. Columbus, however, did not wait to receive the royal approval of his slave-trading schemes. During a voyage which resulted in the discovery of Jamaica and other islands, he visited that of San Juan (Puerto Rico) for the purpose of capturing more cannibals, and on his return Hispaniola, where he had left his brother Don Diego in charge as President and Don Pedro Margarite as Captain-General, he found affairs in the worst possible condition owing to the foolish and inconsiderate conduct of the colonists, which had converted the friendly natives into hostile enemies and placed the very existence of the colony in jeopardy. After some hostilities, a degree of tranquillity was established and Columbus laid a tribute upon the entire population of the island which required that each Indian above fourteen years of age who lived in the mining provinces was to pay a little bell filled with gold every three months; the natives of all other provinces were to pay one arroba of cotton. These amounts were so excessive that in 1496 it was found necessary to change the nature of the payment, and, instead of the gold and cotton required from the villages, labour was substituted, the Indians being required to lay out and work the plantations of the colonists in their vicinity. This was the germ of the cruel and oppressive repartimientos and encomiendas which were destined to depopulate the islands and to bring an indelible stigma on the Spanish colonial system in the Indies. In that year, 1496, Bartholomew Columbus sent three hundred natives, who were convicted or accused of killing Spaniards, to Spain to be sold as slaves. Though the Spanish sovereigns admitted a difference in the status of such natives, there is nevertheless a letter of theirs addressed to Bishop Fonseca, who was at the head of Indian affairs, directing him to receive no money from the sale of Indians until theologians and canonists had pronounced upon the question whether they might with a good conscience, permit such Indians to be sold. No positive decision is recorded, but order were given that all Indians taken in acts of flagrant "rebellion" and found guilty should be sent to Spain. There was but one fate awaiting them so that, if not formally approved, the enslaving of Indians, accused of rebellion, was by this edict tolerated.

Another piece of colonial legislation was effected in 1497 by the issue of a royal patent to the Admiral, authorising him to grant parcels of land in the islands to the Spanish colonists; there is no mention in this grant of repartimientos of Indians to work on the lands. The affairs of the colony were not prospering, complaints against the Admiral were numerous, and the situation was much complicated by the open rebellion of the chief justice, Roldan, in which the unfortunate Indians found themselves, whether they would or no, involved on one side or the other and, no matter which way victory went, upon them it fell to pay the costs. Regular raids were organised upon tribes and villages, on the pretext that a chief had not performed the services required in lieu of tribute and had fled with his people to the forests; pursuit followed and all who were captured were considered rebels taken in open fight and were immediately dispatched in the vessels of Columbus's fleet, which had reached Hispaniola in August, 1498, to be sold as slaves in Spain. Still invoking the name of the Holy Trinity, Columbus explained to the sovereigns that he could supply as many slaves as the Spanish market required, estimating, according to his information, that four thousand could be disposed of, the value of whom, together with that of a shipment of logwood, would amount to 40,000,000 maravedis. The consignment mentioned consisted of six hundred slaves, of whom one third was given to the masters of the ships to cover the carrying charges.

In the same letter, Columbus asked that the colonists should be allowed to use Indian labour for a year or two until their affairs should become more settled and prosperous, and so satisfied was he with the equity of this arrangement that he set it at once in operation without waiting for the royal sanction of his plan. After two years of dissensions, Roldan and his rebellious supporters were pacified and Columbus partitioned lands and slaves among them with unstinted generosity. Those of Roldan's adherents who elected to remain in the colony received from the Admiral repartimientos, consisting of a certain number of hillocks of cazabi (the plant from which flour for cassava bread was made), which were placed in charge of a cacique whose people were obliged to till them for the profit of the holder. This was the second stage in the development of repartimientos, viz., the Indians were bound to the land and forced to cultivate it. Fifteen of the Roldan party, however, decided to return to Spain, each of whom received from one to three slaves, whom they took back with them in October, 1499.

The Queen's proclamation issued at Seville, Granada, and elsewhere ordering all holders of slaves given them by Columbus to return them forthwith to Hispaniola under pain of death distinguished, however, between such and the others who had been taken as prisoners of war and sold into slavery. The distinction is a fine one and points to the conclusion that even Queen Isabella admitted that some Indians might, for defined causes, be enslaved, and that her assent was based upon some pronouncement of the canonists and theologians to whom she had submitted the question; but there is nothing to show that the slaves given to Roldan's followers were captured in any different way from the others. This inconsistency, which so sadly weakens the noble character of the royal proclamation and detracts from the merits of the Queen as an enemy of slavery, could hardly have proceeded from her own inclinations but was rather the outcome of some casuistry that constrained her action without convincing her judgment. The Queen doubtless saw with pain and disappointment that, owing to the Admiral's measures and proposals, which were in surprising contradiction with the lofty and pious principles he professed, her own Catholic aspirations for the speedy conversion of the Indians and the pacific extension of Spanish rule were being thwarted. The noise of the controversies in which the sublime unreason of Columbus had fortunately prevailed over the scientific opinions of the age, the interest of the Queen, and all the circumstances of his first voyage had fastened the attention of the Spanish and Portuguese courts upon his expedition, excluding any hope that failure might escape notice. For he had failed in his ultimate purpose. Instead of Cathay, the Grand Khan ready to welcome Christianity and a short road to the wealth of the East, he had found a few semi-tropical islands, producing parrots and cocoanuts chiefly, and inhabited by harmless barbarians living in an idyllic state of poverty and idleness. The enthusiasm aroused by his first voyage subsided and his fame as an explorer was obscured by his incompetency as a governor. He himself never lived to comprehend the real importance of his discovery and he persisted in regarding the islands as the outposts of a great Oriental empire. Having sailed to seek a short route to the ancient East, Columbus was constrained to render his disappointing discovery acceptable by making it profitable and, since the promised gold and rare spices were not forthcoming, only the trade in slaves remained to furnish immediate profits. In July, 1500, Francisco de Bobadilla sailed to supersede Columbus, with full powers from the sovereigns, and had he gone as a messenger of vengeance to chastise the Admiral's moral backsliding, he could not have enacted the role more consistently, for, from the moment of his landing, his treatment of Columbus was ruthless, and an amazed world was shortly furnished the humiliating spectacle of the great Admiral, in chains, shipped back to the kingdom he had endowed with a world. Bobadilla's moral, social, and economic administration proved a complete failure and his own excesses contributed to his speedy removal, without his management of the colony having corrected the abuses he was sent out to redress or having relieved the Indians from the bonds of slavery which, in defiance of the sovereign's commands, were being daily riveted more securely upon them.

The justified protests of Columbus found a hearing, and the man who had inflicted a supreme indignity upon him was recalled, Don Nicholas de Ovando being appointed by a royal cedula of September 3, 1501, to succeed him.


The arrival of Don Nicholas de Ovando's fleet at Hispaniola was an event of the greatest importance to the colony. The first news that greeted the new arrivals was that of the discovery of a huge nugget of gold, the largest yet found and which, in fact, was never again equalled in size until the rich lodes in California were tapped in 1849, for it weighed thirty-five pounds and was valued at 3600 pesos in the money of that time.

This famous nugget was found eight or nine leagues from the settlement of San Domingo, by an Indian girl, who, while resting from her labours, idly turned up the soil with an instrument she held, and thus brought to light the wonderful treasure. The Governor appropriated it for the King, paying its value to the two owners of the mine. The jubilant Spaniards used the nugget, which was shaped like a broad, flat dish, to serve up a roast sucking-pig at a banquet given in honour of the occasion, saying that no king ever feasted from such a platter. Las Casas remarks that as for the miserable Indian girl who found it, we may without sin suppose that they never gave her so much as a red silk petticoat, and lucky was she indeed if she got even a mouthful of the pig!

The second piece of glad news the colonists communicated was, that owing to a recent uprising of the Indians in a certain province, they had been able to enslave a goodly number of the rebels. Such occasions rejoiced their hearts, over the profits they thus derived from the struggles of the unhappy natives to recover their freedom, and it may likewise without sin be supposed that their ingenuity was not barren in suggesting devices for provoking such lucrative revolts.

In the instructions delivered to Ovando, as well as in the Queen's verbal behests to him before sailing, the sovereigns sought to remedy the abuses under which the Indians suffered. The Queen explicitly laid down the fundamental principle that "all the Indians in Hispaniola are and should be free from servitude; nor should they be molested by any one, but should live as free vassals, governed and protected as are the vassals of Castile." They were to pay a tribute—all Spanish vassals were taxed—and they were to work in the gold-mines but for their labour they were to receive a daily wage. The Queen's obvious intention was that the government should, in some measure at least, be carried on for the benefit of the Indians it was instituted to govern. The orders describing the measures to be taken for the instruction and conversion of the natives were equally clear and imperative.

Ovando was authorised to permit the importation into Hispaniola of negroes who were born slaves, belonging to Christian owners. (19) They were consequently brought to the colony in such numbers that the Governor soon wrote to Spain, advising that the traffic in African slaves be stopped, as the negroes constantly escaped and took refuge in the forests and mountains, taking with them also many Indians. These negroes were for the most part born in Andalusia of slave parents, who had been brought there by the Portuguese who had carried on the slave-trade since early in the fifteenth century.

The first official action of the new Governor was to institute an inquiry into the administration of his predecessor, Bobadilla, against whose harsh and arbitrary treatment of him, Columbus had filed complaints. The Admiral had meanwhile been received by the sovereigns, and Queen Isabella's compassionate heart had been much grieved by the sad accounts of the indignities put upon him, the confiscation of his properties, the violation of the rights solemnly conferred upon him and his heirs under her signature, and finally the supreme outrage of his deposition and his return to Spain wearing the chains of a common malefactor. Francisco de Bobadilla had far outstripped the limits of the sovereign's intentions as well as those of his own authority and had, by his treatment of Columbus, violated the commonest sentiments of justice and humanity. Ovando made full restitution of the confiscated properties, and the rights and privileges guaranteed to Columbus were once more recognised and made valid. The latter organised his fourth and last expedition to America, which sailed on the ninth of May, 1502, (20) and arrived at Hispaniola after a prosperous voyage, on the twenty-ninth of June. Bobadilla set sail for Spain on board the same ship which carried the famous gold nugget, but neither arrived, as the vessel was overtaken by a violent hurricane, and was lost when barely forty hours out from port. Thus perished one whose iniquities have caused his name to be handed down to eternal execration in the pages of American history.

Such was the condition of the colony in Hispaniola, when Bartholomew de Las Casas, then a young licentiate, twenty-eight years of age, arrived there. The purpose of his coming was no different from that of the other gentlemen-adventurers who were bent on acquiring speedy fortunes in a land of supposed riches that formed the theme of fabulous and alluring tales, which often enough had but slender foundation in fact. As his father had already acquired properties in the island, it is probable that Bartholomew came to assume the direction of them. There is nothing to show that he was at that time especially impressed or moved by the sad condition of the Indians and the violation of their rights; on the contrary, he procured slaves, worked them in the mines, and attended to the cultivation of his estates with the energy he employed in every undertaking to which he put his hand. He says himself that during eight years of Ovando's governorship, this "pestilential disorder" took root without there being a man who spoke or heeded or thought anything about it, notwithstanding that such multitudes were being sacrificed, that out of the infinite number of the inhabitants of whom the Admiral first wrote to the Catholic sovereigns, there perished more than nine tenths in that brief period. (21)

He took part in the second war against the Cacique Cocubano(22) in the province of Higuey, of which he afterwards wrote the most horrifying description. He related incredible cruelties, concluding thus: "All these deeds, and others foreign to all human nature did my own eyes witness, and I do not now dare to recount them, being hardly able to believe myself, lest perhaps I may have dreamed them." Throughout these massacres Las Casas, young, enthusiastic, generous-hearted, noble-minded, and with his naturally keen sensibilities refined and sharpened by the best education of his times, appears to have played his part with the others, neither better nor worse than they, equally blind to the injustice and tyranny practised upon the inoffensive and defenceless Indians and only eager for his share of the profits derived from their sufferings. The contradiction is as flagrant as in the case of the great Admiral who initiated the system which brought all these horrors in logical sequence. The war in Higuey finished with the capture of the unfortunate Cocubano, whom Ovando caused to be hanged at San Domingo instead of allowing him to be torn to pieces with pincers as the Spaniards demanded should be done. Such was the quality of mercy in that Governor's heart.

The affairs of Las Casas prospered and he grew rich, though it is difficult to believe that his yearly income from his properties amounted to 100,000 castellanos—an enormous sum, given the value of money at that time,—yet this is the figure he himself has given in his own writings. (23)

Such being the attitude of a man of finer temperament during eight years passed amidst scene of rapacious ferocity, something must be admitted to explain the callousness of men of fewer sensibilities and lower moral standards, who found themselves far removed from the usual restraint of civilised society and confronted by many hard ships and severe disappointments. The moral and physical condition of the majority of these men was indeed deplorable. Many of them had staked all they could obtain on this great venture in the Indies, hallucinated by the craze for gold, of which they dreamed as lying, waiting to be picked up, in lands where pearls strewed the sands of the beach. Rapid exploitation of such sources of fabulous wealth and a speedy return to Spain, rather than the enterprises usually suggested to Anglo-Saxons by the term "colonisation," had lured them over the mysterious ocean. Little thought was given to the pastoral and agriculture resources of a rich soil that would have yielded abundant crops in response to the simplest tillage and made of the islands a granary sufficient to feed all Spain. Unaccustomed to manual labour, ignorant of the simplest principles of mining, poorly supplied—when at all—with the necessary implements, they rushed to the mines with but scanty provision even of food; fevers seized them, strange diseases attacked them—most of all, disillusion confronted them; out of Ovando's 2500 men more than one thousand died within a brief period, in the most wretched manner. Those who had the courage and strength to work, barely made enough to feed themselves, for it not infrequently happened that after the royal fifth was deducted and other expenses met, the remainder, when divided, hardly gave to each colonist more than his daily, scanty living. The state of degradation into which they sank was pitiable and there is little cause to wonder that, in their brutalised condition, they took small account of the physical sufferings of the Indians and no interest at all in weighing their claims to liberty and just treatment. The few who did turn their attention to agriculture fared better, both as to the comforts of their surroundings and the profits they derived from their occupation; their Indians likewise led far easier lives than their fellows who worked for the miners. The vicious principles underlying slavery once established, innumerable abuses are bound to follow, and when responsibility for an iniquitous system is widely distributed, even the most humane unconsciously drift into acquiescence in continuous and monstrous acts of inhumanity, partly from want of strength to combat the established order of things and partly from the easy ability of each to shift his share of the blame for what his instincts condemn, onto the shoulders of others. Reforms left to the collective conscience of such a community are apt to languish. Such is man's nature that the most unnatural and abnormal conditions come to be tolerated by common acquiescence, until something—an event without or a stirring of his soul within—startles his better self into a realisation of his surroundings, the scales fall from his eyes which, having, he saw not, and in a flash, the iniquity of proceedings to which he has assented, in which he has shared, and by which he has profited, becomes manifest.

In the Indies a premium was placed on rebellion; the oftener the Indians could be goaded into open revolt, the more slaves could be acquired according to due process of law, and everybody's profits increased. To such profitable encouragement the colonists were not slow to respond and they were fertile in devices for rendering the lives of the Indians intolerable.

No champion was forthcoming to defend the helpless native or even to make his woes known; the tender-hearted Queen, who loved justice and hated iniquity, was remote and her beneficent intentions towards her humble subjects in the islands were inoperative. "The heavens are high and the Tzar is far" say the long-suffering mujiks, whose road to their "little father's" throne is barred by an army of interested bureaucrats. Tyranny is of divers sorts and one tyranny differs from another other in infamy, but the worst tyranny of all is the dual tyranny over both body and soul exercised collectively by irresponsible men over their fellows, and this was the tyranny of such slavery as prevailed in the Spanish colonies. The specious argument that the only way to convert the Indians was to keep them among the Spaniards, was constantly insisted upon in pious phrases meant to delude the Queen by a display of zeal in carrying out her plan for their conversion. Ovando wrote complaining of the desertion of the Indians, who escaped whenever they could from contact with the Spaniards and fled in numbers to the remotest recesses of the forests, facing starvation rather than endure their life in the settlements. And what wonder! for would any rational Indian voluntarily live amidst such surroundings and submit to such labour for the sole benefit of his tyrants? Nothing that the afflicted natives saw of the religion or the civilisation of the Spaniards could possibly attract them to either.

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