De las Casas
Bartolomé de las Casas began as an unlikely hero. In 1502, at the age of 18, he arrived on the island of Hispaniola and quickly reaped the benefits of the encomienda system Columbus had established there: Las Casas became a feudal lord of not only a land grant, but of all the Natives residing there; they were his slaves. In spite of the fact that he became the first priest ordained in the Americas, he opposed the Dominican friars who’d denounced the brutal injustices of encomienda slavery.
However, shortly after participating in the conquest of Cuba (“I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”), Las Casas had an Apostle-Paul-like epiphany. He gave up his land and slaves, and dedicated the rest of his life to ending encomiendas.
Las Casas faced fierce opposition, and so took his case to the King in Spain. At first he suggested substituting African slaves for the Natives, but soon realized “All people of the world are humans,” and argued that slavery of anyone must end. What is more, he proposed replacing encomiendas with self-governing Native towns and small Spanish-peasant farms.
In his crusade, Las Casas’s greatest weapon was the series of publications he wrote documenting Spanish atrocities: “Spaniards still do nothing save tear the Natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly. What we committed in the Indies stands out among the most unpardonable offences ever committed against God and mankind.” Las Casas warned that Spain would face Divine retribution.
Las Casas had some initial success. The king appointed him “Protector of the Indians,” and even briefly abolished encomiendas in the Americas. Pope Paul III decreed that Natives were rational beings and so deserved to be brought into the faith peacefully. And Las Casas was appointed Bishop of San Cristóbal, where he refused absolution to slave owners and threatened to excommunicate anyone who mistreated Natives.
Las Casas fought courageously, tirelessly, but ultimately in vain. As historian Lesley Byrd Simpson explained in his seminal work Many Mexicos, “Every part of [New Spain’s] economic structure depended on the labor of indians…. The conquest of Mexico was in a real sense the capture of Native labor.” Encomiendas in various forms endured for another two centuries, and Native oppression/exploitation continues even today.
In 1848, the city of San Cristóbal was renamed San Cristóbal de las Casas to honor its first bishop; and in 2002, the Catholic Church began the process of making Bartolomé de las Casas a saint.
This is a selection from Ellison’s recently published book, Mexican Streets: Tales of Tragedy and Triumph.
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