Bartolomé de Las Casas
1484 - July 1565
A brief biography.
Bartolomé de las Casas was born in Sevilla Spain in 1484 to a farming and merchant family. In 1490 he saw for the first time in Seville the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. On March 31, 1493, at the age of nine, he witnessed Columbus’ parade through Seville following his maiden voyage to the Americas. On Palm Sunday seven Taino Indians were passed through the streets along. This was Las Casas’ initial experience with the Amerindians.
During the next five years, with his father away, Bartolomé studied Latin and his letters, perhaps at the cathedral school in Seville of the famous Latinist and grammarian Antonio de Nebrija.
When his father returned in 1498 with newfound wealth, Bartolomé told him he wanted to be a priest, whereupon the elder Las Casas sent him to the best college in Spain at the time, Salamanca, to study canon law in preparation for the priesthood. He received two degrees in canon law, a bachillerato at Salamanca and a licenciatura at Valladolid.
First trip to the Americas 1502.
Before finishing his initial studies, at the age of eighteen, he embarked on his first trip to the Americas, travelling to the Island of Hispaniola. He arrived on April 15, 1502, in Santo Domingo, the place where he lived and laboured for the next five years before again returning to Spain. During this early period, while accompanying two different military expeditions of Governor Ovando, he observed the tragic massacre of a large group of Indian leaders on the island.
The priesthood in Rome, 1507.
Returning to Spain in 1506, he was ordained a deacon in Seville and resumed his studies for the priesthood. He then went to Rome where he was ordained a priest on the third Ember Day in Lent, 1507. Since Christopher Columbus had died, Las Casas accompanied the Admiral’s older brother Bartholomew Columbus to a private audience with Pope Julius II in order to help secure for Christopher’s son Diego the inheritance promised by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
During his visit with the Pope, Las Casas informed the pontiff about events in the New World and the opportunity to convert natives. Later, back in Spain, he completed his studies for a degree in canon law at Salamanca and then journeyed to Hispaniola with Columbus’ son and heir Viceroy and Second Admiral Diego Columbus. He took up his task as Indian doctrinero, the official catechist to the Indians, but remained a holder of Indians and property, a contradiction his conscience could not sustain much longer.
Return to Hispaniola.
With the arrival of the first Dominicans to Hispaniola in September of 1510, Las Casas’ status as a “gentleman-cleric” was challenged. After observing the situation on the island for over a year the call for justice rang-out when Friar Antóny Montesino delivered, on December 21, 1511, the fourth Sunday of Advent, his famous speech on behalf of the Indians. Along with his Dominican confreres he denounced as a mortal sin the encomienda system of forced labour.
On Pentecost of 1514, de Las Casas renounced his ownership of Indians and the inter-island provisions business. He then started to preach his own provocative sermons against the wrongs of the conquest, particularly the encomienda system.
To Seville with Antony Montesino, O.P. 1515.
In 1515 he returned to Spain with Antóny Montesino, with the intention of informing King Ferdinand of the situation in the Indies (Isabella had died in 1504). Upon reaching Seville, Montesino introduced Las Casas to the Dominican Archbishop and advocate of Columbus, Fray Diego de Deza, who had authority over all diocesan priests in the New World. The Archbishop provided letters of introduction to influential persons in the royal household and the King, so that Las Casas and Montesino could meet with the ailing King in Plasencia to convince him to redress the abuses of the conquest. As a result, the Laws of Burgos were promulgated on December 27, 1512. After the King’s death, Las Casas continued his reform plans with the aging regent, Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros. He gave Las Casas the title “Protector of the Indians”.
After the deaths of King Ferdinand and Cardinal Cisneros, Las Casas sought the support of the new Flemish-born Spanish King, Charles -- Charles I (Spain, 1516-1556) = Charles V (Holy Romen Emperor, 1519-1558) -- , the grandson of the Catholic monarchs.
Las Casas a Dominican 1522.
With letters from the Flemish Franciscans in Hispaniola, Las Casas won speedy approval from Charles for another of his early schemes, colonization by farmers instead of soldiers. He obtained a grant to try his peaceful settlement idea in the early 1520’s on the north coast of South America at Cumaná. This colony would have a minimum of force and a maximum of persuasion to allow the Spaniards to live in fruitful peace with the Indians. The project failed because of the greed for slaving in the party assembled. Las Casas saw he had compromised his duty to be protector of the Indians. In the depths of discouragement, he left his work and entered the Dominican Order on the Island of Hispaniola in 1522 at the age of 36.
He spent his initial years studying theology and law, after which he was appointed prior of an out-post on the north coast of Dominican Republic, Puerto de Plata, where he founded a new community. Prevented from returning to Spain by his Dominican superiors, he resumed his fight for the indigenous by preaching thunderously against the abuses of the slave trade. Accused of withholding deathbed viaticum from an encomendero, he was ordered back to Santo Domingo, and officially silenced by government order for two years.
The books of de Las Casas.
During this time he also began gathering materials for his Historia General de las Indias, one of the most valuable sources for the early discovery and colonization period, and from which he later took the Apologética Historia, a landmark in anthropology.
About the year 1530 he began writing a Latin treatise, De Unico Vocationis Modo Omnium Gentium ad Veram Religionem, which became one of the most significant missionary tracts in the history of the Church.
The Papal bull, Sublimis Deus (1537).
After he was made Dominican Vicar of Guatemala, he attended the Mexican Ecclesiastical Conference of 1536 where he worked with Bishop Zummárraga and Bishop Julián Garcés of Tlaxcala to draw up petitions on behalf of the Indians to be forwarded to Pope Paul III.
Out of these innovative ideas came the landmark papal bull, 'Sublimis Deus', often called the 'Magna Carta of Indians rights'. This promulgation of 1537 proclaimed that the Indians were truly human and capable of receiving the faith and that they were not to be deprived of their liberty or property, even though they may be outside of the faith.
That same year, Las Casas travelled from Mexico City to his vicariate of Guatemala to initiate a “peaceful conversion” experiment of his own. He and his friars, accompanied by Indian merchants, penetrated an unconquered region know as Tierra de Guerra by the Spaniards because of this territory’s hostile Indians. Las Casas promptly renamed the area Tierra de Vera Paz. This missionary effort proved very successful and is a model of his evangelization ideas in practice.
The New Laws of 1542.
In 1540 Las Casas returned to Spain and joined other churchmen and laymen to lobby Charles V for protection for the Amerindians. His nearly forty years of experience in the Americas made him an informative and convincing source for the King to trust. As a result of this lobbying effort, the New Laws of 1542 were enacted, a striking combination of political reality and humanitarian idealism, that abolished slavery and the encomienda system.
But even before the New Laws were promulgated, his enemies moved to get him away from court, insisting that it was his duty to accept a Bishopric and help enforce the new ordinances. Las Casas resisted this proposal, especially the wealthiest see of Cuzco, but finally he accepted the impoverished diocese of Chiapa – it contained his own Tierra de Guerra experiment, now called the Tierra de Vera Paz.
Las Casas Bishop, 31 March 1544.
Las Casas was consecrated Bishop in the Church of San Pablo in Seville on March 31, 1544. Even before starting for his distant diocese, Las Casas undertook his first duty as Bishop by securing the liberation of Indians held as slaves in Seville itself. His action aroused much enmity against him, but he was indifferent: the text of the New Laws was explicit, leaving no opening for false implementation.
Las Casas back in the New Word in 1545.
Las Casas was back in the New World in 1545, this time as Bishop of Chiapa and with the largest missionary contingent ever assembled: forty-five Dominican friars, and a lay staff of five.
After attending the meeting of Bishops and church leaders in Mexico City, de Las Casas returned to Spain in 1547. He would never see the New World again and later resigned his Bishopric. By this time in his life, it seems that he understood that his true place was at court, and that there he alone could serve as the much-needed “universal procurator” of his beloved Indians.
The beleaguered Bishop probably did not foresee that he would first have to serve as procurator in his own cause.
Back in Spain in 1547.
Back in Spain in 1547, Las Casas encountered accusations concerning his now public Confesionario. His defence against charges of high treason from his detractors, for his confessors manual, reached its climax when he debated the humanist Juan Ginés Sepúlveda at the Junta de Valladolid of 1550-1551.
As a result of Las Casas’ refutation of his opponent, he was successful not only in stopping the publication of Sepúlveda’s work, but also in making a stronger case than ever for his peaceful and just means of evangelization. Following this time of debate, he rewrote and published the previously confiscated Confesionario along with other missionary tracks and had them distributed in the Americas.
During this final stage of his life; while still very active at court he continued adding to his impressive list of written works, an essential part of his advocacy on behalf of the Indians. He resumed labour on his monumental Historia de las Indias, something he worked on until the end of his life; he also published in 1552 what is perhaps the most widely read and known of his works, the Brevíssma Relación de la Destruición de las Indias.
His dead in July 1566.
Fighting for the indigenous to the very end of his long and fruitful life, he died in Madrid at the Dominican convent of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, at the age of eighty-two, in July of 1566.
Bartolomé de las Casas had outlived his contemporaries; he had enjoyed the confidence and respect of sovereigns: Ferdinand of Aragon, Charles V and Philip II, all of whom received his fearless admonitions. He addressed Bishops, Cardinals and popes, meeting personally with Julius II early in his life, corresponding with others, most notable Paul III, who promulgated the famous Sublimus Deus.
Near the very end of his life, he sent a letter to the new Pope Pius V, begging him to condemn conquest as a means of conversion.
Finally, in his last words, he professed that he had kept faith, during fifty years of untiring labour, with the charge that God had laid upon him to plead for the restoration of the Indians to their original lands, liberty and freedom.
Bartolomé de Las Casas by an anonymous artist.
Angola 2000, Mi 1569, Sc 1150q.
De Las Casas as defender of the Indians.
Colombia 1951, Mi tax 52; Sc RA49.
The same 1953, Mi tax 53; Sc RA52.
De Las Casas as defender of the Indians against the
Cuba 1944, Mi 191, Sc 388.
De Las Casas defender of the Indians
against the Spanish troops.
Dominican Republic 1899, Mi 79, Sc 105.
Portrait of Bishop de Las Casas with the words:
'Our responsibility for the whole word.'
Germany 1992. Postmark Essen 09.10.1992.
Bishop de Las Casas with book and an Indian.
Guatemala 1949, Mi 492, Sc 388.
Bartolomé de Las Casas with the Indians.
Painting by the Mexican artist Leandro Felix Para (1815-1900),
preserved in the cathedral of Mexico-City.
Mexico 1933, Mi 661, Sc 688.
Bartolomé de Las Casas with Bishop's cross after the
engraving, (15,2 x 21,6 cm) by José López Enguidanos of
Valencia (1760-1812) for the collection 'Retratos de los
Espagnoles illustres con un epitome de sus vidas',
Mexico 1966, Mi 1209, Sc 071. >>>>>>>
Vatican City 1992, Mi 1054, Sc 901.
Stamp on occasion of the Day of the Races 1937.
Nicaragua 1937, Mi 845, Sc C217.
The same picture with overprint 'Internacional'.
A small sculpture (ca. 1881) by the Spanish sculptor
Antonio Molto y Lluch (1841-1901).
Spain 1946, Mi 1940, Sc C121.
Portrait of Bartolomé de Las Casas with his books:
Historia General de las Indias (1527-1566).
Summario, perhaps Brevissima relacion de la destruccion de las Indias occidentales (1546).
Dario Compendium (ca. 1530-1540) of the diary of Cristobal Columbus.
Spain 1989. Machine postage stamp. Las Palmas IberioAmerica 1989.
Painting by the Venezuelan artist Tito Salas
Venezuela 1987, Mi 2474, Sc 1395,c.
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