1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Las Casas, Bartolomé de
LAS CASAS, BARTOLOMÉ DE (1474–1566), for some time bishop of Chiapa in Mexico, and known to posterity as “The Apostle of the Indies,” was a native of Seville. His father, one of the companions of Columbus in the voyage which resulted in the discovery of the New World, sent him to Salamanca, where he graduated. In 1498 he accompanied his father in an expedition under Columbus to the West Indies, and in 1502 he went with Nicolás de Ovando, the governor, to Hayti, where in 1510 he was admitted to holy orders, being the first priest ordained in the American colonies. In 1511 he passed over to Cuba to take part in the work of “population and pacification,” and in 1513 or 1514 he witnessed and vainly endeavoured to check the massacre of Indians at Caonao. Soon afterwards there was assigned to him and his friend Renteria a large village in the neighbourhood of Zagua, with a number of Indians attached to it in what was known as repartimiento (allotment); like the rest of his countrymen he made the most of this opportunity for growing rich, but occasionally celebrated mass and preached. Soon, however, having become convinced of the injustice connected with the repartimiento system, he began to preach against it, at the same time giving up his own slaves. With the consent of his partner he resolved to go to Spain on behalf of the oppressed natives, and the result of his representations was that in 1516 Cardinal Jimenes caused a commission to be sent out for the reform of abuses, Las Casas himself, with the title of “protector of the Indians,” being appointed to advise and report on them. This commission had not been long at San Domingo before Las Casas perceived the indifference of his coadjutors to the cause which he himself had at heart, and July 1517 found him again in Spain, where he developed his scheme for the complete liberation of the Indians—a scheme which not only included facilities for emigration from Spain, but was intended to give to each Spanish resident in the colonies the right of importing twelve negro slaves. The emigration movement proved a failure, and Las Casas lived long enough to express his shame for having been so slow to see that Africans were as much entitled to freedom as were the natives of the New World. Overwhelmed with disappointment, he retired to the Dominican monastery in Haiti; he joined the order in 1522 and devoted eight years to study. About 1530 he appears to have revisited the Spanish court, but on what precise errand is not known; the confusion concerning this period of his life extends to the time when, after visits to Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Guatemala, he undertook an expedition in 1537 into Tuzulutlan, the inhabitants of which were, chiefly through his tact, peaceably converted to Christianity, mass being celebrated for the first time amongst them in the newly founded town of Rabinal in 1538. In 1539 Las Casas was sent to Spain to obtain Dominican recruits, and through Loaysa, general of the order, and confessor of Charles V., he was successful in obtaining royal orders and letters favouring his enterprise. During this stay in Europe, which lasted more than four years, he visited Germany to see the emperor; he also (1542) wrote his Veynte Razones, in defence of the liberties of the Indians and the Brevisima Relacion de la Destruycion des las Indias occidentales, the latter of which was published some twelve years later. In 1543 he refused the Mexican bishopric of Cuzco, but was prevailed upon to accept that of Chiapa, for which he sailed in 1544. Thwarted at every point by the officials, and outraged by his countrymen in his attempt to carry out the new laws which his humanity had procured, he returned to Spain and resigned his dignity (1547). In 1550 he met Sepúlveda in public debate on the theses drawn from the recently published Apologia pro libro de justis belli causis, in which the latter had maintained the lawfulness of waging unprovoked war upon the natives of the New World. The course of the discussion may be traced in the account of the Disputa contained in the Obras (1552). In 1565 Las Casas successfully remonstrated with Philip II. against the financial project for selling the reversion of the encomiendas—a project which would have involved the Indians in hopeless bondage. In July of the following year he died at Madrid, whither he had gone to urge (and with success) the necessity of restoring a court of justice which had been suppressed in Guatemala. His Historia de las Indias was not published till 1875–1876.
Sir Arthur Helps’ Life of Las Casas (London, 1868) has not been superseded; but see also F. A. MacNutt, Bartholomew de Las Casas (1909).