BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS (1474-1566) was the first European resident in the Americas, and was appointed as the "Protector of the Indians". His writings deeply influenced the end of the mistreatment or atrocities committed by the Spanish colonizers against the Indian natives. Although there are strong claims against the Casas, the Casas is regarded an important figure and a true "Protector of the Indians", because of his “conscience” of the Spanish colonization and his commitment to stop brutality on the Indianencomienda and slaves. Compared with the Cabeza de Vaca, who deeply sympathized with the indigenous people and got involved in the life of tribes during his travelling, the Casas’s depiction is more realistic with a strong criticism against the Spanish colonization. The real-life facts from the Indies exposed lots of injustice and oppression of the Spanish colonization along with the European colonization on the newly discovered colonial natives - the Indianslaves.
Casas was the “conscience” of the Spanish colonization, and the first advocate on human rights . It took more than 50 years of his life for the Casas to convince the Spanish colonization to stop violent abuse on slavery. The Casas was the first settlers from Europe in the Americas, who can be said to have started social reforms there. Initially, he committed the atrocities with the Spanish colonization against the Indian slaves. However, as the “conscience” of Spanish colonization, he realized that such violent abuse on slavery was wrong. Therefore, he eventually opposed his initial actions. In 1515, he even gave up the Indianencomienda and slaves, and fought for the rights of the natives.
The extensive writings from the Casas showed the “conscience” of Spanish colonization. Both masterpieces A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias focus on the savage act from the Spanish colonization that took place on the island of Hispaniola. At that time, such publication shall be regarded as the strong opposition towards the Spanish colonization. As the first settlers from Europe in the Americas, the Casas shall have the ownership of encomiendaand Indian slaves. However, he gave them up, and even wrote articles to oppose the mistreatment of the indigenous people. These deeds truly reflected the “conscience” of the Spanish colonization from the Casas.
Another masterpiece from the Casas Memorial de Remedios para las Indias was written in 1516. The motive to write this publication was stated clearly at the purpose section, “The remedies that seem necessary in order that the evil and harm that exists in the Indies cease, and that God and our Lord the Prince may draw greater benefits than hitherto, and that the republic may be better preserved and consoled” . Since the Casas was afraid of the increase in exploitation, he believed that immediate action is necessary to stop the annihilation. The first remedy the Casas took was to completely stop using Indian slaves, until new regulations are implemented. Such an approach helps to reconstitute the Indian population and to give time for the Indians to endure. The second remedy introduced by the Casas was to eliminate the right, which said that only the colonist could own specific Indians. Therefore, no person has the right to own such a labor .
The Casas actively challenged on the popular notion that the Indians regarded European conquerors as divine gods. In 1510, the Dominican friar’s team arrived in Santo Domingo. They were surprised by the injustices of the slave-owners against the Indianslaves. Based on this reason, the Dominican friars’ team, including the Casas, denied the confession right from the slave owners (Wagner and Parish 46-55). In 1511, Father Fray Antonio de Montesinos preached, “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority has you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day". Casas argued actively against the justice of the colonists and encomienda, and even raised a complaint against the Dominicans to the King (Wagner and Parish 25-32).
In addition, the Casas challenged on the popular notion, saying the Indians regarded European conquerors as divine gods in many other ways, too. For example, in 1522, he even tried to launch the new peaceful colonialism at the Venezuela coast. However, such a venture completely failed. The Casas was not defeated by the failure. After returning to Spain, he started to recruit missionaries in order to lobby the abolishment on encomienda. From the above discussion, it is clear that his approach to challenge on the popular notion that the Indians regarded the European conquerors is at a high level, even at the government level. Spanish had an opinion that Indians were less human and, therefore, acutely needed the Spanish colonists to become civilized.
The depiction of the Indians from the Casas, as not worshiping their conquerors, was realistic with explanation. In his masterpiece A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, he described the cruel ill-treatment against the Indian people that happened during a long period of time. The natives of Americas were brutally turned into a mass of brainless slaves and mistreated from the Spanish conquerors. Severe murders and tortures were exercised daily, and they got vividly illustrated in the account.
The major claims against the Casas’s depiction were pronounced by the Cabeza de Vaca. As one of the big explorers from Spain, he travelled across the Southwest of the U.S. in eight years. Before the reconnection with the Spanish colonization, he traveled many paths of his life and experienced a lot as a trader and even a slave in the New World. He returned to Spain in the 16th century and published La Relación. The Account described the journey of Cabeza de Vaca, from 1528-1536, which served as the chronicle about the Spanish colonization in North America. Cabeza de Vaca included lots of first descriptions of the inhabitants and lands, and the extraordinary effort to explore the New World. He dutifully looked at the lives of American Indians. Unfortunately, the depiction of the Indians was rude, and it required Spain to supervise or monitor them. Compared with the Cabeza de Vaca, the Casas’s depiction is more realistic with a strong criticism against the Spanish colonization. Although the description from the Cabeza de Vaca was true, the Account never mentioned why Spain has got the right to mistreat the indigenous peoples of the Indian natives’ in back colonial times. On the other hand, the Casas stated clearly the rationale why he was against such a mistreatment. He also proposed remedy actions against the mistreatment.
The Casas is a true "Protector of the Indians", because of his “conscience” of the Spanish colonization. He gave up his encomienda and Indian slaves, which were the “rights”, inherited from other European settlers in the Americas. He even opposed the Spanish colonization by writing publications. The Casas biggest commitment was to stop the mistreatments. Although, he was afraid of being severely punished from Spain, he still insisted to publish the masterpiece A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The writing describes the record of events on atrocities committed by the Spanish colonization against the Indian slaves. Compared with the major claims from his opposites, the Casas was willing to criticize the mistreatment and he even proposed remedy actions against the exploitation of the colonial natives.
Baptiste, Victor N. Bartolomé de las Casas and Thomas More's Utopia:Connections and similarities. Labyrinthos, 1990.
Beuchot, Mauricio. Los fundamentos de los derechos humanos en Bartolomé de las Casas (in Spanish). Anthropos Editorial, 1994.
Casas, Bartolome de Las. Witness: Writing of Bartolome de Las casas. ed and trans by George Sanderlin . Orbis books, 1993.
Wagner, Henry Raup and Helen Rand Parish. The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas. University of New Mexico Press, 1967.
—. The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas. University of New Mexico Press, 1967.