Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bartolome' de las Casas and the Beginning of Human Rights by Chris White

Bartolome' de las Casas (1474-1546)

The concept of human rights is something most of us take for granted in western culture today but this idea is a relatively new one in human history and is surprisingly connected with Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonization of the New World through the Catholic bishop Bartolome’ de las Casas.  The story begins King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.  Both of them ardently desired to unify Spain and make it a thoroughly Roman Catholic kingdom.  For years they had been engaged in an effort known as the Reconquista which sought through military, legal, and religious means to take back the parts of Spain that were controlled primarily by Muslims who had fought their way across North Africa and the Strait of Gibraltar to become established there centuries before.  It just so happened that in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella were at last successful in their enterprise and decided to give this Italian explorer that had already approached them several times already another opportunity to make his case for their support of his venture to find a faster western passage to the far east.

Columbus and Ferdinand and Isabella

Columbus was an expert navigator and business man, but he also knew a bit about promotion.  Knowing  Spain had been exhausted financially in its successful re-conquest of its lands from Islam,  Columbus presented his case that Spain could rebuild its wealth if his voyage was successful.  Like Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus was very religious and saw a spiritual dimension to his voyage as well.  Not only would there be an opportunity to share Christianity with any of the new peoples he discovered, but if gold and precious stones could be found perhaps a new crusade could be financed and Jerusalem could one again be taken from Muslim control and be put back under Christian control.  In both of these aspects Columbus thought it possible that they would usher in the return of Jesus Christ.

As we know from the perspective of history, Columbus never made it to Asia but discovered the New World.  He did discover new peoples as well, but his idea of Christianizing them was largely a form of subjugation and mistreatment not directly but through the institutions they imported.  And gold was also discovered and this seemed to blunt the consciences of most people involved in this enterprise.  But it is often surprising who God places with whom.

On Columbus’ second voyage a merchant from Seville named Pedro de las Casas accompanied the explorer and 5 years later returned to Spain a very rich man.  His young son Bartolome’ was a university student at the time and was given a gift from his newly returned father: an Amerindian slave from the New World.  This proved to be the beginning of Bartolome’s calling to serve God.
At age 19, Bartolome’ travels with his father to Santo Domingo, Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic) and is so moved by the plight of the Indians there that he returns to Spain, enters the Dominican order and prepares to return for the purpose of missionary work.  In 1535 he returns to live in Santo Domingo and to enter a career of preaching to the Native population of Hispaniola.  Bartolome’ de las Casas was actually the first Catholic priest to be ordained in the New World and later one of its first Bishops.  As a member of the clergy, las Casas was part of the ruling class in Spanish society and as such was given by the administration of the colonies a land grant or what was known then as an encomienda.

The Encomienda system was basically the old Medieval Feudal system with a special built-in capacity for abuse of those under the lord.  In this system, a Spanish lord (member of the upper class) would be assigned land and a group of native peoples.  The people were to work the land and pay a tribute to their lord.  The lord was responsible for their protection and religious instruction. No doubt Bartolome’ as a priest dedicated to reaching the Amerindians would have been a benevolent lord, but unfortunately in most of the other encomiendas, little effort or consideration was ever given to the well-being of the people, spiritual or otherwise.  There was a lot of taking and very little giving.

Atrocities towards the Natives Changed Everything

There are two stories told about what formed the turning point in Bartolome’s career.  Neither contradict one another and so I will assume they are both true.  The first was his witnessing the cruel treatment of an Amerindian leader who was buried alive for not cooperating with the Spanish authorities.  This was not the only atrocity he witnessed, for Las Casas wrote an entire book about them late in life, but it is a focal event that illustrates what was happening around him.  The second story speaks of Bartolome’ preparing a sermon for Pentecost Sunday.  He reads a verse in the Bible that says to the effect that any offering made to God at the expense of injustice to another is a tainted offering.  Regardless of whether both or only one of them happened, Las Casas decides to renounce his encomienda and devotes the rest of his life advocating for the spiritual welfare and human rights of the Amerindians.

In 1535 and again in 1539 de las Casas returns to Europe and enlists the help of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the very same one that wanted to have Martin Luther killed) and secures orders from him to restrict some of their powers and activities towards the native population.  He returns both to Spain and the New World several times as the newly appointed “Protector of the Indians” informing government officials of the new laws enacted to curb abuses.
las Casas and Charles V

1544 he returns to Seville for his consecration as Bishop and returns with a team of missionaries to the Americas for evangelizing and defending their human rights.  Eventually de las Casas returns to Spain but labors the remainder of his life on behalf of Indian rights until his death in 1566.

So how does this relate to human rights?  In las Casa’s day there was a prevalent view which in part hearkens back to ancient times that conquered peoples are subject to their conquerers.  This primarily meant slavery, but also within the church since the Crusades, there was the idea that since Christianity is the true religion, those conquered who refuse to convert may be subjected to the sword.  A contemporary investigation of this period revealed (although possibly exaggerated) that at least 15 million natives were exterminated during the first 10 years of the Spanish presence in the New World.  This was in part due to atrocities inflicted by the Spaniards but it mustn’t be forgotten that the encounter between Europe and the New World was biologically catastrophic as neither group had the natural antibodies to fight the viruses to which each group was exposed.

But the work of las Casas and others had the effect of creating a crisis of conscience amongst those in academia, the clergy, and the ruling elite.  The old assumptions seemed wrong as did the perpetration of genocide against the Amerindians in Mesoamerica.  This eventually led to the 1550 debates in Valladolid which should probably be considered the first human rights conference in western history.


The principle debaters were Juan Sepulveda and Bartolome’ de las Casas.  Sepulveda took the position that subjugation to slavery was justified in the New World because the natives were less than people.    Coercion to Christianity was justified because they were evil idolaters (which in some cases is hard to argue against as they did practice human sacrifice).  De Las Casas took the position that the natives of the New World were human beings descended as the Europeans were from Adam and Eve.  If this be true, they are not less than human, but rather humans with the capacity to know God and in need of gentle instruction and persuasion but certainly not coercion.  This is what de las Casas called “evangelical conquest” meaning persuasion of the heart by testimony and example, not at the end of a sword.  This debate transformed the laws of Europe to recognize that as they colonized, there was an obligation to recognize people of different cultures and religions are entitled to be treated with dignity and by the golden rule of Christ just because they are fellow human beings.
De Las Casas also changed the notion of barbarian vs. civilized society.  Barbarism, which originally was associated with inferiority (since Roman times), now had the connotation of inhumanity and cruelty.  By this standard both Europeans and Indigenous peoples were capable of being civilized and barbarous.

There is a persistent idea today that most of the atrocities that happened in the New World had behind them Christian missionaries.  It is true that some of them did evil, but most were people of good will.  Modern secularists fail to be nuanced enough in their thinking to separate the process of civilization from Christianization.  The record points squarely in the direction of government and commercial interests exploiting native populations far more than the church ever did.  Oftentimes the church was a force of ameliorating or completely stopping the abuses altogether as this story illustrates.

It seems that Las Casas does get credited (or rather blamed) for the idea of bringing Africans to the Caribbean.  However, his motives and idea have been greatly twisted.  Las Casas was acknowledging a reality that so many Amerindians had died off that there was no real population left to work the lands.  He wanted to do what he could to protect the remaining population from servitude and abuse.  Secondly, he did not look at Africans as racially inferior but rather more better suited for the climate and labors of the region.  Third, Las Casas did not envision the Africans as being slaves but paid employees.
Gentle persuasion not coercion

It is unfortunate that trust had been so broken by the colonizers that many of the Amerindians wanted nothing to do with Christianity.  Still, the witness of the many priests and monks was seen and admired.  Throughout Latin America, de las Casas is considered a saint and national hero and has been called the Apostle to the Indies.


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