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Bartolomé de las Casas

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Bartolomé de las Casas has been called the first human rights activist. Las Casas is a complicated historical figure who went from missionary among the conquistadors to advocate for the indigenous people of New Spain during the 16th century. Who was he? What made him change so drastically? Let's take a deeper look into the life and main focus of Bartolomé de las Casas.

It was a grant from the Spanish government allowing one subject f the Spanish Crown in America to claim a group of Native Americans as their own and force that group to work the land. At the same time, he received the benefits of their labor. The encomendero would become their protector and baptize them as Catholics in exchange.
Spanish conquerors from the 15th to 17th centuries.
Old World
Reference to Europe but sometimes Africa and Asia as well

Bartolomé de las Casas Biography

Bartolomé de las Casas was born in Spain in 1484. In 1502, he left for Hispaniola, serving the Spanish crown. Casas fought for the crown and assisted in conquering and enslaving the Caribbean islands. For his efforts, Casas was awarded an encomienda. Around 1512, Casas was ordained as a friar though he continued to profit from the encomienda.

Around 1511, missionaries arrived in Hispaniola and preached about the encomienda as a mortal sin. These sermons stuck with Casas, and in 1515 he returned his encomienda to the governor and began to preach against them. He soon returned to Spain.

Bartolome de las Casas, Portrait of Bartolome de las Casas, StudySmarter

Fig 1: Bartolomé de las Casas

Bartolomé de las Casas and African Slavery

From 1515 to 1516, Casas wrote the Memorial Remedies for the Indies, a critique of the encomienda system and a proposal to correct it. Casas recommended replacing enslaved indigenous with African ones. This declaration is a point that he would later regret.

Las Casas wrote that Africans would work three times as hard as indigenous ones. He also believed that they were more resilient. This was because Africans had been introduced to Old World diseases and had built up immunities, unlike indigenous people, whose population had been decimated by the European exchange.

Bartolome de las Casas, missionaries and indigenous people portrayed as slaves, StudySmarter

Fig 2: Bartolomé de las Casas

Bartolomé de las Casas Advisor of the Emperor

In 1520, Casas was sent to the Americas to start colonies alongside indigenous people settlements. These colonies were failures because Casas met resistance from colonists and the original settlers.

He returned to Spain in 1522, and the following year Las Casas joined the Dominican Order. Abetted by his past impressions, he wrote Apologetic History and History of the Indies. Both books would not be released until after he died per his request.

Bartolome de las Casas, Portrait of Charles V, StudySmarter

fig 3: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

Casas would recount the horrors he had seen in Hispaniola to the newly established Council of the Indies. Eventually, he influenced the council to pass a law banning the encomienda system. When the encomienda holder died, the indigenous people would be freed.

This policy was met with revolts and refusal to follow the law. Eventually, the Holy Roman Emperor did away with the ban and allowed the encomienda to be passed down to the holder's heirs. The system would eventually die out as the indigenous population drastically declined–more than 90% of the population died in the first one hundred years.

Casas became an advisor to Charles V on indigenous issues. He pushed for indigenous people's ability to govern themselves. If an indigenous person had to be represented in court, they would have a protector there to act as a sort of lawyer for them.

If an indigenous person had an issue with another indigenous person, their government could solve it, but if the case involved the Spanish, it had to go through Spanish courts.

Bartolomé de las Casas and the Vallodid Debates

In 1550, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned jurists and philosophers to Valladolid, Spain. He wanted them to settle the debate. Was it ok the way the Spanish were treating the indigenous people in the Americas? Arguing for indigenous people was Bartolomé de las Casas and arguing against was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.

Bartolome de las Casas, Portrait of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, StudySmarterFig 4:Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda

Las Casas
Indigenous people had "full souls".
Indigenous people were inferior.
A gentle conversion was the best way.
Slavery was a good conversion tool.
Indigenous people could be converted.
Indigenous people offended God with idolatry.

Sepúlveda used Aristotle's theory of "natural slavery" to say that the indigenous were meant to be enslaved. As for his counterargument, Las Casas called on St Augustine and "international law" to say that the indigenous people didn't meet the standard set by Aristotle. Sepúlveda argued that slavery was a good conversion tool, while Las Casas disagreed. The Dominican held that gentle missionaries would be better for conversion.

Both men would later claim to win the debate, but the jury said that it was a tie. While Las Casas's influence would affect laws and legislation regarding the New World, the Spanish didn't always follow the rules. In the Americas, they often ignored laws that did not suit their goals, and better treatment of indigenous people might hurt their profits. In a way, while neither man won, the colonies would continue to be governed in accordance with Sepúlveda while the laws were affected by Las Casas.

Bartolomé de las Casas and the Black Legend

The Black Legend is a criticism of 16th century Spain regarding the treatment of the indigenous people. The critique states that the Spaniards were unnecessarily abusive and cruel. With the spreading of sickness, the encomienda system, heartless policies, and unusual punishments, the Spanish looked more sinister colonizers than ever.

Las Casas denounced Christopher Columbus, the first European to set foot in Hispaniola, because of his cruelties to the indigenous people there. He denounced conquistadors in their quest for gold, glory, and God. To Las Casas, the conquistadors were not spreading Christianity but damning their souls. Lastly, Las Casas condemned the encomienda system and the slavery of indigenous and African people.

Bartolome de las Casas, Engraving of Spaniards and indigenous people, StudySmarterFig 5: Casas engraving of Spaniards and indigenous people

The twelve years that Casas spent in Hispaniola taught him of the cruelties of the Spanish. He wrote them down and told them to the Catholic church back in Spain. His book A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies was popular amongst those who perpetuated the Black Legend.

He related the Spaniards cutting open the bellies of innocent indigenous people just because they could and even worse acts of savagery. The Spaniards thought they were less than human–and non-Christian lesser souls–to them, murdering these innocent people meant nothing, not even a sin, because they weren't baptized. Las Casas would never forget the images of those who were murdered in front of him. For this, his testimony is now a valuable piece of historiography.

Bartolomé de las Casas' Main Focus

Bartolomé de las Casas was the "Protector of the Indians" and one of the first human rights activists. When he died in 1566, he said that his only regret was that he could not do more for the indigenous. The friar dedicated his entire life to advocating for the indigenous people.

While he is often overshadowed by the brutality of Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and other explorers, Las Casas tried to have indigenous people recognized as having the same rights as Spanish citizens. He influenced the end of the encomienda system and helped create many laws to protect indigenous people.

Bartolomé de las Casas - Key takeaways

  • Las Casas was an advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on indigenous issues.
  • He denounced the encomienda system and tried to end it.
  • He influenced laws to protect indigenous people.
  • He debated Sepúlveda at Vallodid.
  • He is considered the "Protector of the Indians."

Frequently Asked Questions about Bartolomé de las Casas

Bartolomé de las Casas first wanted to replace indigenous enslaved labor with Africans during the Spanish colonization of America in the sixteenth century. He later retracted, realizing that that was wrong as well. 

Bartolomé de las Casas was a priest who advocated for the rights of indigenous people during the Spanish colonization of America in the sixteenth century. 

Bartolomé de las Casas is best known for advocating for the rights of indigenous people during the Spanish colonization of America in the sixteenth century.

Bartolome de las Casas spoke out against the practice of the encomienda and the slave trade during the Spanish colonization of America in the sixteenth century.

During the Spanish colonization of America in the sixteenth century, Bartolome de las Casas advocated for African enslaved labor to replace indigenous people because he believed they worked harder and lived longer.

Final Bartolomé de las Casas Quiz

Bartolomé de las Casas Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


How did Bartolomé de las Casas make money when he first went to Hispaniola?

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He had an encomienda 

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What was a grant from the Spanish government that allowed someone in America to claim a group of Native Americans as their own and force that group to pay them?

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Show question


In Memorial Remedies for the Indies, Bartolomé de las Casas proposes to replace indigenous slave labor with _________.

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Enslaved Africans

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The colony that Bartolomé de las Casas started in 1520 was a failure.

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Which two books written by Bartolomé de las Casas would not be released until his death?

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Apologetic History and History of the Indies 

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What role was created for Spaniards to represent indigenous people in court?

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Who did Bartolomé de las Casas debate at Vallodid?

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Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda 

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Which of these was not one of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda's Vallodid arguments? 

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Indigenous people were inferior

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What was the concept that the Spaniards were bad for the Americas and only wanted gold and fame?

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Black Legend

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Which emperor did Bartolomé de las Casas advice on the Indies?

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Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

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