Two men of the church stand opposed to one another in a public debate. The question at hand: do indigenous peoples have rights under the Spanish empire?
on one side, a priest representing the majority of Spaniards, argues that indigenous people are inferior and therefore deserve to be subjugated, but the man on the other side has witnessed the atrocities committed by the Spaniards in the new world. In fact, he himself previously participated in those atrocities, and he’s been spending his life trying to atone for it. His name is Bartolome de Las Casas and he’s the world s first human rights activist.
Born in the late 1400s in Seville, Bartolome de las casas made his first voyage to the new world in 1502, sailing with his father to Hispaniola, an island currently divided between Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. There he did what so many young Spanish men did to make their way in the world, he pillaged the Caribbean, and he fought as a soldier in battles against the native islanders, raided for slaves, and took captives. He also helped conquer Cuba, and for his service to the Spanish crown was granted a recommendation. The encomienda was a Spanish system, dividing the territory of conquered peoples into units of land, and labor in short the crown gave las casas control over both a large tract of land, and the indigenous peoples on it, to exploit for his own monetary gain.
it was a horrifying system, that took people already scarred by war, and subjugated them to conversion slavery, and extreme violence. But, at the time las casas didn’t question that system. even in 1510, when he became the first catholic priest ordained in the Americas, he continued to financially benefit from the cruelty that kept his land grant running, then a few months after his ordination a group of Dominican friars arrived, and were appalled at the conditions of the encomienda, system the starvation whippings abuse, and wanton slaughter which today we would most certainly call genocide, they preached passionate sermons condemning the system. They even denied enslavers the right to confession, including Bartolome de las Casas. Furious, las Casas and the other colonists petitioned the king and had the Dominicans recalled to Spain. A victory and yet, something began to stir in him, then in 1514, he was studying a scripture passage in preparation for a sermon when a particular line struck him.
“he that sacrifices a thing wrongfully gotten” it said “his offering is ridiculous and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted the most high is not pleased with the offerings of the wicked whoever brings an offering of the goods of the poor does as one that killed the son before the father s eyes the bread of the needy is their life he that defrauds them of it is a man of blood”.
As he sat with the passage, and grappled with its meaning, something truly amazing happened. las casas did something that took true strength, and courage that few people even today ever managed to do, he changed his mind. from the seeds planted by the Dominican friars years ago, doubt grew until he realized that his actions and the actions of the Spanish colonists in general were wrong, he freed all of the enslaved people whose labor skills and knowledge of native agriculture he had stolen, and gave up the land he realized was not rightfully his and he began to preach that others should follow in his footsteps and as you can imagine his colonist friends did not take kindly to this and rallied against him.
In 1515, now unwelcome in the new world, las casas returned to his homeland to fight against the enslavement and abuse of native people at the source, but that was easier said than done. most people in power either owned, and commands themselves, or at the very least profited from the vast wealth coming in from the colonies, King Ferdinand was ill that winter, but even so he briefly met with las Casas on Christmas eve to discuss the situation. las Casas laid out the arguments, but due to the king s weakened state the monarch said he would need to save the meat of their discussion for when he recovered. While he waited, las Casas published papers and reports on the inhumane conditions he d witnessed in Spanish America, writings that were met with scorn and mockery. but if he could convince the king las casas knew if he made the case and put his faith in king Ferdinand s ability to see what was right the rest of society would follow, but sadly that was not to be.
King Ferdinand died exactly a month after their meeting on January 25th 1516. Thankfully, he managed to snare a new patron as the next king came of age and the political regime shifted, a powerful cardinal bestowed on las Casas the official title protector of the Indians.
a role where he d advise colonial governors and speak on behalf of native people in Spanish courts, and a council of monks was meant to assist him in this task. despite the new fancy title, las casas faced determined opposition even from his own ranks, most Spanish including the monks meant to guard the rights of the colonized looked at indigenous people as even savages, not only worshipping false gods, but unable to live in a society without heavy handed Spanish control.
But the simple fact was, that the encomienda system made so much money that no one wanted to dismantle it. This disappointed and infuriated las Casas, who accused his fellow monks of perpetuating the system rather than helping improve it. After years of internal feuding, he once again returned to Spain in temporary defeat, undeterred and convinced more than ever that the system was broken he then made it his personal.
He planned year’s long project to create new systems that would be more humane. in one plan, the encomienda would be abolished entirely, with indigenous communities reorganizing into self governing townships, they would for all intents and purposes become like Spanish peasants paying taxes to the crown, he even started a few pilot towns to show it could work, but the government s support wasn’t there . the underfunded, and under supplied bottle communities failed, partially because neighboring in towns proved too hostile.
Frustrated, and dispirited by the experience, las Casas took vows as a friar, and entered a Dominican monastery joining the very order of monks who had previously rallied against him. Now, he was not only on their side but also one of them. He continued to write and teach about the cruelty of Spanish colonialism, and wrote letters to politicians urging reform, and when the Spanish needed a representative two indigenous peoples, they often called on las casas who would serve as a go between even negotiating peace treaties. By 1545, he was so known for this work, that the pope appointed him bishop in the newly founded diocese of Chiapas Mexico. Though, looking back the pope probably didn’t realize what he d done. There las casas started a new policy, he refused to forgive the sins of slave owners, or those that owned an encomienda, and he also excommunicated anyone that mistreated indigenous people.
On your deathbed, want to go to heaven? Great just free all your slaves and return their property and then i ll give you absolution. Don’t worry I’ll wait. That is how las casa did his plan
This made him not popular, Spanish colonists rioted against him, and even took a shot at him once or twice. After a year, he was forced to flee his own diocese, but in Spain his enemies were organizing to greet, him they argued that his anti-slavery anti encomienda positions. Undermined Spanish rule in the Americas, he wasn’t just a rabble-rouser; he was a traitor to the crown. It was decided that las Casas would defend himself in a public debate.
For him, it was a chance to promote and defend his ideas. For his enemies, it was the perfect chance to discredit him.
Thus began, the first human rights debate in recorded history. His opponents argued that the indigenous people were uncivilized and that the Spanish were morally obligated to convert and subjugate them.
las casas went second, he argued that scripture did not support war against indigenous people, and that the tribes were not uncivilized, they had their own societies and their own languages he did believe that conversion was a duty, but one that must be done peacefully without abuse and slavery. For months, the judges debated, disgust, and in the end turned in an inconclusive ruling, all of the things las casas hated would continue.
But he still didn’t give up.
las Casas would go on to spend years the rest of his life, advocating for the rights of indigenous people. However, sadly he wasn’t able to gain much traction, now it should be noted that las casas was not perfect, not only did he first benefit from the oppressive systems he later decried, but he also never argued against the campaigns of conversion campaigns that were culturally destructive. Even when peaceful, and he was unfortunately, not so quick to condemn African slavery. Though, he did eventually.
What’s interesting about las Casas, though is that he was willing to change his mind, a former slave owner he realized his error and let go of wealth, and power using his privilege, and platform to advocate for the people he d harmed.
Unlike, so many in his time when confronted with his complicity in violence, and injustice he decided to learn grow, and commit himself to doing better, and doing better is something we can all do.