Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Casas, Bartolomé de las

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CASAS, Bartolomé de las (bar-tol-o-may'), missionary, b. in Seville, Spain, in 1474; d. in Madrid in 1566. His father was one of the adventurous spirits that accompanied Columbus on his principal voyages. Bartolomé was a student at the University of Salamanca until he was nineteen years old, and had distinguished himself by his brilliant gifts. He accompanied his father on all but the first of his voyages with Columbus, and, on his return to Spain, became a Dominican, with a view to devoting his life to the conversion of the American Indians. He was ordained at Santo Domingo in 1510, and appointed to a parish in Cuba, where he acquired such notable influence over the natives that he attracted the attention of the governor. In 1516 he went to Spain to obtain safeguards for the natives against their European oppressors. Cardinal Ximenez, then regent, sent out a commission, which proved ineffectual, and Las Casas went again to Spain on the same errand. But his efforts produced no lasting result. After this he essayed an independent colony, receiving a grant of 250 leagues of land from Charles V.; but this too failed, and he retired in despair to a Dominican convent, where his energetic spirit would not long suffer him to remain. He found his true vocation as a missionary preacher, travelling through Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico, and making many alleged converts, and earning the title of “the apostle to the Indians.” Charles V., wishing to reward his zeal, appointed him to the rich bishopric of Cuzco, in Peru, but Las Casas, possessed by the spirit of self-abnegation, refused a life of luxury, and accepted the poverty-stricken see of Chiapa, Mexico. He assumed this charge at the age of seventy, and, by his zeal in behalf of the natives, provoked hostility from court officers and from colonists, to whom he refused the sacrament if they enslaved the Indians. His enemies proved too strong for him, and in 1551 he returned to Spain and retired to a cloister, where he devoted himself to writing accounts of his experiences. As a statistician, Las Casas is untrustworthy. His estimates of the native population of the West Indies, and of the number of lives destroyed by the tyranny of the Spaniards, are evident exaggerations, prompted, as the historian Prescott suggests, by the author's heart rather than by his head. His untrustworthiness seems, however, to be confined mainly to this department of his work. His first book, “Sumario,” descriptive of the West Indies, appeared in 1526. In 1535 he began to publish his “Historia general de las Indias,” continued through a large number of volumes, and never finished. These were published in nearly all the European languages as well as in Latin. In 1552 the series of nine tracts began, usually known as “The Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies” (the title properly belongs only to the first tract). This work, and especially the statistics contained in it, are considered to be apocriphal by Montalvo, Nuix, Beristain, and other authorities. Complete sets of these are very rare and command fabulous prices. The original manuscript of the “Historia” is still preserved in the academy of history at Madrid. See Sir Arthur Help's “Spanish Conquest of America” and “Life of Las Casas,” Hubert Howe Bancroft's “Central America” and “Mexico,” and Winsor's “Narrative and Critical History of America” (Boston, 1884).