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Fray Bartolome de Las Casas

Composed by Sharon Sneddon

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Painting by Felix Parra entitled "Fray Bartolome de Las Casas"

Fray Bartolome de Las Casas was a sixteenth century Spanish Priest but wasn’t ordained until his arrival into the “New World” or, the Americas. He also became bishop of a region of Mexico known as Chiapas. He was initially sent to the New World as a colonist with skills as a historian and scholar.

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Born in 1484 to Pedro de Las Casas of Seville, he was sent off to Latin school as a young boy. In 1502 he left Spain for the West Indies with governor Nicolas de Ovando. He aids in evangelizing the Indians, and is greatly praised by the Spanish government for his excellent work. While in the Indies, Las Casas witnessed the torture and virtual elimination and wipeout of the native culture, a “cleansing” he was participating in. Spain was invading and evangelizing the entire continent of South America as well as parts of Mexico and Central America. Although witnessing extreme violence and noticing his growing uneasiness, Las Casas reported to King Phillip II of Spain that he supported the acts of barbarism.  He returned to Spain to become a Deacon, and his feelings were validated during his attendance to a Sunday service in 1511. At this particular sermon, the Dominican Priest Father Antonio de Montesinos spoke about the text “I am a voice crying in the wildnerness”, which was basically denouncing the treatment of the Native Americans by the Spanish. Many feel this was the turning point in Las Casas’ life, the point where he decided to fight against the atrocities he had witnessed. He felt that the barbaric acts taking place in the New World would lead to the downfall of Spain, in the form of divine retribuition. The Natives, rather than being killed, should just be converted, that way, Spain wouldn’t be guilty of any crime. He even proposed that Africans be used as slaves rather than Native Americans, but later changed this theory when he witnessed the horrible effects of slavery on Africans. His first major breakthrough was getting a temporary repeal of the encomienda, a Spanish law imposed in the New World that allowed conquistadors take over and towns they invaded and enslave any natives they came across. It was also at this time, in 1542, that Las Casas wrote his most famous work, A Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians, which shocked the courts. In 1544 he is named bishop of Chiapas and sets out make sure the new laws and restrictions are being enforces in Guatemala. Upon his arrival he meets immediate opposition from the colonists. It was because of extreme pressure from the colonists, and Spain’s fear that it would lose land in the New World, that it restored the encomienda. Las Casas continued his resistance the rest of his life, appearing in court and writing essays. In A Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians, Las Casas reports, “Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons. The island of Cuba is nearly as long as the distance between Valladolid and Rome; it is now almost completely depopulated.”

            I chose to write on Fray de Las Casas, when I came across the phrase, “The Father of Anti-Racism”. Attention grabbing as this phrase was, Las Casas was one of the earliest known and outspoken advocates against racism, possibly because of the position of power he started out with in the Spanish government. His brief essay on the destruction of the Indies is a very interesting account of the invasion of the New World, and quite the polar opposite of what I remember learning as a child in school. The following three websites are excellent starting points to understanding the life of Las Casas:

http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/las_casas.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolome_de_las_Casas

http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/delascasas.html

 

The first website is found by following links from the Oregon State homepage. Oregon State is a well trusted educational institution and thus the information is probably accurate and plausible. The second website is found at wikipedia. I used this website more to compare and contrast facts found at the Oregon state website. Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone that has access to the internet, and thus one must be a bit more careful in gathering information from these sites, although I usually find it to match other qualified sources, like encyclopedia Britannica, very closely. The final website contains the actual text from Las Casas most famous essay, A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies, and has not been altered in any way.

 

Interesting Facts:

1) Las Casas was the editor of Christopher Columbus’ published journal.

2) Las Casas is considered by many to be the Father of Anti-Racism.

3) He wrote the monumental, Historia de las Indias.

 

Overall Idea:

Fray de Las Casas triggered a humanitarian movement, that wouldn’t gain mass popularity until later, even though he was a well educated and publicly respected figure.

 

 

             Philosopher Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of Oppression criticizes “banking education”, the process by which teachers claim too much authority over students. The teacher feeds or “banks” the information into the student rather than respecting and debating with the student, as an equal. The conquistadors, including Las Casas, even after his days as a conquistador, were all guilty of banking education to an extreme. Besides the fact that they were slaying countless individuals, they were supposably invading this New World in the name of God, and the main goal was to indoctrinate Christianity into the Natives. Even after Las Casas’ change of view on the barbarism of conquering, he still wanted to change the beliefs of the natives, although more of his fight was motivated to protecting the lives and sanity of the natives first, thus leaving them as receptive humans, capable of taking in the word of God.

 

 

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Signature of Las Casas