Bartolomé de las Casas
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0169
- LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0169
After Christopher Columbus there is no more prominent figure in the Spanish conquest of the Americas/the Encounter than the Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas (b. 1485–d. 1566). Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him strode over Amerindian peoples, from the islands of the Caribbean to the great complex Aztec (Nahua) and Inca empires of Mexico and Peru, and subordinated them to Spanish sovereignty and dominion in a cruel and barbarous fashion. While not standing alone, Las Casas challenged the conquest with passion and commitment and emerged as the greatest defender of Amerindians in this unique period when two of the world’s greatest civilizations—the European and those of the Americas—clashed and merged following Columbus’s discovery of the “new” world, styled as such because its existence was unknown to Europeans. Modern Western civilization as we know it grew out of this Encounter, and Las Casas engaged kings and emperors, warriors and priests, popes and the grandees of Spain and Europe as he crisscrossed this Atlantic world and fought for the Amerindians in the forums of power across Spain and the Indies. Born in Seville, he traveled early to the New World in 1502 to the island of Española (today Dominican Republic/Haiti). There he witnessed the brutality of the conquistadors exploiting the Tainos of that island with unbridled ruthlessness and later recorded it all in a book that kicked off the Black Legend, the indictment of Spain’s warriors for barbarity and inhuman excesses that eventually caused—along with new European diseases—the virtual extermination of the island’s inhabitants. He became a priest and later a friar in the Dominican order, and he devoted his life to defending the Amerindians from within the principal theological doctrines of Christianity that emphasized love and equality and, in doing so, indicted his fellow countrymen for their callous, sinful behavior. He left an immense body of writing, testifying to his multiple roles of chronicler, historian, theologian, activist, and reformer. He was in fact the conscience of the Conquest, the very antithesis of the conquistador, and, in doing so, Las Casas lay the basis for the modern human rights movement. He stressed such strikingly modern political and theological doctrines as the equality of all people and the right of self-determination. Over the five centuries since his life, students of Las Casas—historians, philosophers, lawyers, political scientists, and theologians—have contributed a voluminous literature exploring his life and contributions. What follows is an examination of the most significant body of that literature, keeping in mind that it is but a small percentage of the whole.
Biographies of Las Casas have appeared with regularity since the late 16th century when a fellow Dominican, Agustín Dávila Padilla, published his Historia de la fundación. . . in 1596. Early in the 17th century, another Dominican, Antonio de Remesal, produced his Historia general de las Indias. . . in 1619. Remesal’s “biography” is a history of the Dominicans in Guatemala and southern Mexico, but he integrated Las Casas’s life thoroughly into this work. Furthermore, Remesal, although not always accurate when measured against modern discoveries, had access to certain documentary sources and chronicles no longer available, making his work immensely valuable. A 19th-century biographer was the Cuban patriot José Martí, whose short biography of Las Casas was published in a series Martí authored on the Golden Age in 1882. Among the “classic” Las Casas biographies in English was MacNutt 1909. Another American, Henry Raup Wagner, in collaboration with Helen Rand Parish, wrote a carefully documented biography Wagner and Parish 1967. In the mid-20th century, studies of Las Casas became almost an academic growth business as students of human rights, the Indians of America, revisionists of the Conquest and others approached 1966, the four hundredth anniversary of his death. In 1960 Manuel Giménez Fernández produced two huge tomes. His vast erudition and total devotion to Las Casas reflected the immensity of his subject. These exhaustive studies of a short span of the man and his times are definitive. His fellow Spaniards have produced the most hagiographic as well as the most critical biographies. Among the most critical biographies was Menéndez Pidal 1963, produced by a distinguished philosopher-historian, which attacked Las Casas as a single-minded fanatical anti-Hispanicist in his lifelong devotion to the American Indians. Among Las Casas’s many admirers at mid-century was the French historian, Marcel Bataillon, who explored many areas of Las Casas’s life in numerous essays brought together in one volume (Bataillon 1966).
Bataillon, Marcel. Ĕtudes sur Bartolomé de las Casas réunies avec la collaboration de Raymond Marcus. Paris: Centre de Recherches de l’Institut de’Ĕtudes Hispaniques, 1966.
One of the most distinguished French students of the Spanish colonial experience, Bataillon, “brings together his illuminating articles on various facets of Las Casas’s life and activity” (Friede and Keen 1971, p. 7, cited under Historian and Chronicler).
Giménez Fernández, Manuel. Bartolomé de las Casas. 2 vols. Sevilla, Spain: Escuela de Estudios Hispano Americanos, 1960.
Giménez Fernández’s two studies are encyclopedic in structure, exploring not only all the nooks and crannies of both Las Casas’s life in these short time periods but also the circumstances and context of Spain and her growing empire; heavily dependent upon archival sources and so even more valuable to the serious student.
MacNutt, Francis Augustus. Bartholomew de Las Casas: His Life, His Apostolate and His Writings. Cleveland, OH: Arthur H. Clark, 1909.
For many years the “standard” biography in English. Well written and presented but dated in some areas and interpretations.
Martí, José. El padre Las Casas. Edición crítica. Investigación, cronología, estudio valorativo y notas por Ana Cairo. La Habana, Cuba: Centro de Estudios Martianos, 2001.
Martí, who led the Cuban struggle for independence that culminated in the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898, romanticized Las Casas as a lonely fighter for freedom. Las Casas has always enjoyed a following among Cubans who view Las Casas as a prototypical revolutionary of sorts. This source first published 1882 in the series La Edad del Oro.
Menéndez Pidal, Ramón. El padre Las Casas: Su doble personalidad. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1963.
This is one of the best examples of the “White Legend,” created to counter the “Black Legend.” Originally published in 1963, this book hits on many, if not all, the major criticisms of Las Casas and his anti-Hispanic, paranoical obsession with defending the Amerindians. See also The Black Legend, Controversies.
Padilla, Agustín Dávila. Historia de la fundación y discurso de la provincia de Santiago de México, de la Orden de Predicadores por las vidas de sus varones insignes y casos notables de Nueva España. Sabin America 1500–1926 Madrid: En Casa de Pedro Madrigal, 1596.
This is one of the first, if not the very first, history of the Dominican order in Mexico and, as such, contains important biographical materials on Las Casas. Padilla was born in New Spain and his study quickly became a classic, cited often by later chroniclers and historians of the Indies.
Remesal, Antonio de. Historia general de las Indias Occidentales y particular de la gobernación de Chipas y Guatemala. Madrid: Atlas, 1964.
This is a general history of the Dominican Order in southern Mexico and Guatemala but with a biography of Las Casas running through it like a thread. It is not always accurate but it contains details and accounts based on the availability to Remesal of original documents long lost. Published in Guatemala, 1932; first published in Madrid, 1619.
Wagner, Henry Raup, and Helen Rand Parish, The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de las Casas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967.
Wagner and Parish were devoted to getting as close to the documentary record as possible and so this study is almost a lesson in writing history based on archival evidence. It is thorough, and Wagner interprets the evidence with an experienced eye; his comments and evaluations are worth a reading by themselves.
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