In This Article Bartolomé de las Casas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Colonial and 19th-Century Biographies
  • Contemporary Biographies
  • Research and Teaching Resources
  • Las Casas’s World
  • History and Narration
  • Christian Humanism and Utopian Thought
  • Ethics, Morality, and the Law
  • Race and Amerindian Ethnology
  • African Slavery
  • The Black Legend
  • Legacy

Renaissance and Reformation Bartolomé de las Casas
by
Santa Arias, Vanina María Teglia
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0362

Introduction

Five centuries of scholarship on the Spanish Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas (b. 1484–d. 1566) validates his crucial contribution to early modern intellectual, cultural, and political history. Born in Seville in 1484, Las Casas witnessed as a child the convoluted expulsion of the Moors and Jews from Spain after the final military campaign of the Reconquista. But soon enough that immediate world of chaos seems to have been transformed with news of the outcomes of the Columbian enterprise—and for Las Casas with the dazzling firsthand stories of the “Indies” he heard from his father and uncle, who participated in Columbus’s quest. In 1506 Las Casas traveled with his father to Hispaniola, where he came in contact with the first Dominicans to publicly denounce the atrocities of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. His initial exchanges with the friars, and subsequent entrance into the Dominican Order, represents a turning point that led to his active engagement in colonial affairs and provided the grist for his polemical interventions. Las Casas’s writings on Amerindian rights built his reputation as a critical theologian, skilled advisor, and prolific narrator of the early years of conquest and colonization of the Americas. In the context of the tense history of 16th-century Spanish church-state relations, early modern and colonial studies scholarship positions Las Casas as one of the most controversial figures, and as the most significant, in the history of Spanish colonialism. His writings reverberate in the history of polemics and enduring concerns such as war, slavery, and the struggles for human rights, equality, and justice. Scholarship on Las Casas began with his first Dominican biographers, who by collecting the exemplary lives of missionaries also contributed to pioneering the genre of ecclesiastic chronicles of the Indies. Las Casas, deeply imbued with the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, found inspiration in ancient historians and humanist models of civic history that legitimized and shaped political action. His model for history-making with an Aristotelian-Thomistic influence sustained his modern rationality. His claims hinged on theorizations on war, human nature, and natural and civil laws. Deeply concerned about the human condition and fate of Spain, Las Casas’s keen sense of observation enabled him to articulate a comprehensive vision on Spanish colonialism and natural history. Discourses on geography, ethnography, and nature served well his claims on the pervasive destruction of the Americas. This theme ran through all of his work and continued scholarship on his challenge to the imperial mentality that rationalized the unjust treatment of Amerindian societies and conquest of the Americas.

General Overviews

General overviews on Las Casas trace his role as historical actor in the struggle for colonial reforms and Amerindian rights during his era. Essays in the classic collection Bartolomé de las Casas in History (Friede and Keen 1971) place Las Casas in history and shed light on the meaning of his writings in a politically convoluted Spanish imperial-colonial, yet intellectually fertile, world. En el quinto centenario de Bartolomé de las Casas (Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana 1986) is another key volume that, at the moment of its publication, advanced scholarship on Las Casas’s views on the indigenous population, the influence of lettered circles, and his legacy to Spain’s juridical thinking. Several standard overviews (Bataillon 1965, Hanke 2002, and Mahn-Lot 1982) examine how the reformist climate in Spain and the rest of Europe influenced the development of Las Casas’s political thinking. There is no doubt that the persuasive rhetoric and combative force that distinguish Las Casas’s works have led to a close scrutiny of his writings, sources, and philosophical underpinnings. In this vein, Rivera Pagán 1992 examines Las Casas’s 16th-century contextual milieu, while Neto Alves 2003, with an emphasis on Las Casas’s literary influences, focuses on his reweaving of the Aristotelian-Thomistic intellectual tradition. A major task at hand, often neglected in overviews, is setting the record straight on Las Casas’s biography and understanding the social and political contexts that prompted his controversial ideas on missionization and Spanish coloniality. Adorno 1992 does this by addressing the many distortions and errors on Las Casas’s life and writings that still appear in textbooks and scholarship.

  • Adorno, Rolena. “The Intellectual Life of Bartolomé de las Casas.” The Andrew W. Mellon Lecture. New Orleans: Tulane University, 1992.

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    A superb introductory essay that rectifies major misunderstandings on Las Casas’s biography and ideas. Available online from the Royal Danish Library, Guaman Poma Project.

  • Bataillon, Marcel. Etudes sur Bartolomé de las Casas. Paris: Centre de Recherches de l’Institut d’Études Hispaniques, 1965.

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    This compilation of essays refutes extreme biographies on Las Casas by detractors or others who framed his life as a hagiography. Instead, Bataillon reconstitutes Las Casas’s biography with archival materials to provide new insight into his theoretical foray into evangelization. He traces Las Casas’s humanism and connects his ideas to More and Erasmus.

  • Friede, Juan, and Benjamin Keen, eds. Bartolomé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and his Work. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.

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    The most comprehensive collection of classic studies, representing a broad range of Lascasian scholarship.

  • Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2002.

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    Originally published in 1949, this pioneering study reconsiders Las Casas as a historical actor from a perspective unfettered by religious or political biases. Among other topics, Hanke examines Las Casas’s utopian projects as alternatives to military conquest. His ideas (and book organization) were harshly criticized by Mexican scholar Edmundo O’Gorman in the essay “Lewis Hanke on the Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America,” published in the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1949.

  • Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana, ed. En el quinto centenario de Bartolomé de las Casas. Ediciones Cultura Hispánica. Madrid: Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana, 1986.

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    A collection of essays by renowned Lascasian scholars who participated in the fifth-centenary celebration of Bartolomé de las Casas’s birth in 1985. Essays underscore Las Casas’s past and present legacy, and his influence on international law.

  • Mahn-Lot, Marianne. De Las Casas et le Droit des Indiens. Paris: Payot, 1982.

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    Mahn-Lot has greatly advanced scholarship on Las Casas in the French-speaking world. The volume analyzes the historical and cultural context of the friar in order to highlight his defense of and proposals for a nonviolent colonization. This work traces Las Casas’s activities and writing chronologically.

  • Neto Alves, José de Freitas. Bartolomé de las Casas: A narrativa trágica, o amor cristão e a memoria americana. São Paulo, Brazil: Annablume, 2003.

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    A classic study of Las Casas’s major literary influences: The Bible, and Christian and secular authors who contributed to his interpretation of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, in particular of natural law.

  • Rivera Pagán, Luis N. A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992.

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    A critical interpretation of debates and a wide range of primary sources that shaped juridical and theological thinking on colonial practices and policies on Amerindians.

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