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Primary Source Analysis: Bartolome De Las Casas

Bartolome de Las Casas was a monk who worked hard to protect Native American life during the colonial process in North and South America. He was one of the first defenders of native rights and was instrumental in raising this issue in Europe. In this document, we read a small passage of what he wrote and then analyze the text.

“The Dominican friars had already pondered on the sad life and harsh captivity suffered by the natives on the island and had noticed the Spanish lack of concern for their fate except as a business loss which brought about no softening of their oppression. There were two kinds of Spaniards, one very cruel and pitiless, whose goal was to squeeze the last drop of Indian blood in order to get rich, and one less cruel, who must have felt sorry for the Indians; but in each case they placed their own interests above the health and salvation of those poor people.

Of all those who used Indians, I knew only one man… who was pious toward them. The friars, then, weighed these matters as well as the innocence, the inestimable patience and the gentleness of Indians, and deliberated on the following points among themselves. Weren’t these people human beings? Wasn’t justice and charity owed them? Had they no right to their own territory, their own kingdoms? Have they offended us? Aren’t we under obligation to preach to them the Christian religion and work diligently toward their conversion? How is it that in fifteen or sixteen years their number has so decreased, since they tell us how crowded it was when they first came here?”

Starting from the initial arrival of Columbus, Europeans began to develop the notion that the Americans were infested with this wild barbaric people whom they referred to as “Indians.” In 1555, Andre Thevet showed how cruel the Europeans treated their “spoils of war” through inhumane methods. Shocked by such these accounts, perception of Native American savagery and their portrayal as the uncivilized began to move men like Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566) to oppose such wrong views and defend the Native American rights. In his book, the History of the Indies, De Las Casas called for the end of Spanish brutality of the native populations. Thus the most probable author of this passage is Bartolome de Las Casas, written around the 1500s and circulated unofficially throughout Europe in this time period.

Although Casas’s books were intended for the general public of Europe to read and realize the cruelties going on against the Natives, it struck a cord in King Charles I. Thus a debate was arranged between De Las Casas and Sepulveda in 1550 and De Las Casas speech was entitled In Defense of the Indians and circulated as a manuscript in Europe in the 1500s and published in the 20th century. Casas, in light of his Christian views and as a Friar, actively fought against the portrayal of Native Americans as inhuman beings and called for better treatment of them. He also involved the Christian principles of Justice, Salvation and Charity to ask why they were not treated as human beings. He says they are created in God’s image and that they are brothers redeemed by Christ’s blood.

Catholic Church was involved deeply in reaching out to many native peoples and converted them to Christianity and De Las Casas pointed this out as another proof of their humanity. Catholic clergy (like De Las Casas) also sought to protect the Native Americans through legal reforms and codes in the American and such measures included the New Laws of 1542. The Church also established universities and schools in the American colonies to better educate the natives and to teach them the Christian principles. The writings of De Las Casas and others provide us with how the people of conscience opposed the European abuses of local indigenous populations and also set into motion the involvement of the Church in defending the native people and later, even going as far as fighting for their independence (Friar Miguel Hidalgo).

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