Like many other Spaniards, the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas denounced the violence of some conquistadores who refused to accept that, in the eyes of the Crown, the indigenous people of America were free vassals who could not be enslaved.

Bartolomé de Las Casas is not the bad guy in the movie, although he is not the good guy either. To defend a just cause, he used false or inaccurate data, which later was used by foreign propaganda with the purpose of raising the Black Legend against Spain. In fact, some conquerors took advantage of the “encomiendas”[1] to abuse the indigenous people against the recommendations of the Spanish Crown, but the figures were purposely exaggerated so that the voices of the critics would be heard. 20 million deaths caused by the violence and abuse of the conquerors? Foreigners accepted that figure until the French encyclopedists themselves questioned its verisimilitude. The damage, however, had already been done.

Born in Seville at the end of the 15th century, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas was the son of one of the men who accompanied Christopher Columbus on one of his trips and, himself, traveled to the New World in 1502. During this first stay in America, the Sevillian became an “encomendero” himself, which was a form of covert slavery.

“Encomiendas”, a silent slavery

This institution served to channel the ambition of the conquistadores of a feudal system in America, given the inability of the royal forces to assert their authority. As the book “The company of America: the men who conquered empires and created nations” (EDAF) explains, the process consisted of “entrusting” a group of indigenous people to a conquistador, an encomendero, as if it were vassalage but without cession of land.

All indigenous men between 18 and 50 years of age were considered taxpayers, which meant that they were obliged to pay a tribute to the King as a “free vassal” of the Castilian Crown or, failing that, to the encomendero who exercised this right on behalf of the Monarch. The encomiendas, not in vain, were a cession of the Catholic Monarchs in exchange for the conquerors bearing the expenses of evangelization, since they had to pay, among other costs, the lodging of the doctrinal priest.

In 1510, Bartomomé de Las Casas was ordained as a priest and in the following years, he served as a military chaplain. When did this concern for the indigenous people ignite in his mind? Traditionally, their concerns are placed on the slaughter of Indians in Caonao and the torture of chief Hatuey, in Cuba. However, it would not be until 1523 when he joined the Dominican Order and began his campaign in defense of the indigenous population and against the encomiendas. Its key text was “The Brief Account”, dedicated to Prince Felipe with the intention that the future King of Spain would know the injustices that the Spanish were committing in America.

William of Orange attacks Spain

The book was dedicated to Prince Felipe, but the one who got the most out of it, in the long run, was William of Orange, the man who led the rebellion against the Spanish Empire in the Netherlands. Orange sought a way to weaken Spain through propaganda and used the exaggerated figures of the Dominican to criticize the conquest of America and paint the Spanish as cruel slaveholders. Coinciding with the negotiations between the new governor of the Netherlands, Alejandro Farnesio, and the leaders of the more Catholic provinces of Flanders to return to obey the Spanish King, called as the Union of Arras, the first French edition of “La Brevisima” was released in Antwerp.

The Flemish Protestant who translated the text gave it a long but very deliberate title: “Tyrannies et cruautés des Espagnols perpétrées ès Indes occidental, qu’on dit le Nouveau Monde, brièvement décrites par l’évêque don frère Barthélemy de Las Casas ou Casaus, de l’ordre de saint Dominique, translated by Jacques de Migrode to serve as exemple and in the seventeenth country provinces”. Orange’s strategy was to warn Catholics that joining the Spanish would be to do so with the oppressors of nations, as they had shown in the Indies, which would soon do the same in the Netherlands.

The translations of the “Brevísima” multiplied across Europe and reached more than 62 editions. And in case there was any doubt in the title about the wickedness of the Spaniards, the translator replaced all the mentions of Christians with the word Spanish, which completely misrepresents the original text of the friar. As the Hispanist Josep Pérez points out in his book “The Black Legend” (Gadir), the intention of Bartolomé de Las Casas was “to show the contradiction between the end, the evangelization of the Indians, and the means used: war, slavery, forced labor, mistreatment; because that is not how the Christians behaved but the Mohammedans. The fact that they were Spanish was secondary.” In other words, the criticism was not focused against the Spanish, but against the bad Christians.

But beyond this propaganda use, Las Casas’ work sought to end abuses and is included within the bad reputation that the conquistadores dragged, even in the eyes of the Crown. The Dominican order, the majority of theologians and the most eminent professors, among them Francisco de Vitoria, relentlessly charged against the actions of some conquistadores, whom they portrayed as violent, rude, and lacking in perspective. The Spanish friar was very influential in the Castilian court and managed to materialize his protests in 1542, with the New Laws for the Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, which suddenly put an end to the prevailing legal uncertainty in America.

These laws considered the kingdoms of the Indies in the same terms as many others within the Spanish Empire – such as Aragon, Navarra, Sicily, etc. – and definitively classified the Indians as full subjects of the Crown, which prevented that they were enslaved under no circumstances. Specifically, article 35 directly prohibited Encomiendas and article 31 stated that the Indians were subjected to encomiendas. But, it is already known, from the word to the facts there is a long way.

18th-century French question the numbers

Many other laws to stop abuses were dictated from Madrid – and the riots by the encomendadores – caused the indignation of a King, Felipe II, used to his orders being carried out to the millimeter, but who he saw in the distance with America an insurmountable barrier: “I have been informed that the crimes that the Spaniards commit against the Indians are not punished with the rigor that those of some Spaniards are made against others (…) I, therefore, command you that from now on punish Spaniards who insult, offend, or mistreat Indians more rigorously than if the same crimes were committed against Spaniards.”

The good intentions of Las Casas and his political success overlapped something obvious: his figures did not add up, and this was denounced by a handful of Spanish authors with little impact. Abroad, the Black Legend took the friar’s words for certain and it was not until the 18th century that they began to be questioned. In “The Essay on Customs” (1756), Voltaire acknowledged that Las Casas deliberately exaggerated the death toll and idealized the Indians to draw attention to what he considered an injustice.

“It is known that the will of Isabel, Fernando, Cardinal Cisneros, Carlos V, was constantly to treat the Indians with consideration”, the French writer Jean-François Marmontel stated in 1777 in a work, “Les Incas”, which is otherwise full of reproaches against the attitude of the conquistadores. Even so, the French Revolution and the emancipation of the colonies in America elevated de Las Casas to the category of the benefactor of Humanity and made Voltaire’s work forgotten again. Likewise, the emancipation of the territories triggered the publication of new copies of  “La Brevísima”.

In her book “Imperiophobia and Black Legend” (Siruela), Elvira Roca Barea directly questions that de Las Casas knew enough America to write something like that since he did not bother to know the Indians or their language. “His longest stay was when he was appointed bishop of Chiapas (1544-1550), but he was only there for a few months and at that time, as his contemporaries say”. Most of his remaining life was spent at Court defending his texts.

In this sense, María Elvira Roca Barea maintains that “its mere reading is enough to discredit [the Very Brief Account] as a reliable document and it is not necessary to develop any type of reasoning. It produces stupor and pity in equal measure. Nobody with a bit of intellectual serenity or common sense defends a cause, no matter how noble, as the Dominican did.”

[1] The encomienda was an institution implemented by the Spanish conquerors during the conquest of America, to take advantage of indigenous work. It consisted of the delivery of a group of Indians to a Spaniard so that he could protect, educate and evangelize them.

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