Bartolome de las Casas might be considered one of the first human rights activists in history, when he came across the indigenous people of Central and South America. This occurred during the 16th century when Europeans invaded North and South America. He used his position as a Dominican friar and later Bishop to uphold human rights to the indigenous peoples of the Americas (Curtotti.) This paper will explore las Casas’ efforts to bring attention to the oppression of Native Americans in order to curtail the genocide that he believed that was occurring.
Las Casas tried to inform the Europeans about the atrocities that were being committed against the Indian people. He referred to these crimes as “genocide”, attempting to provide vivid accounts of colonial violence against Native Americans to European royalty in an effort to put an end to these acts. He was an early historian in Spain as well as a missionary for the Dominicans, and besides drawing attention to the oppression of the native people he demanded the abolition of slavery in the Americas (Bartolome de las Casas.) Despite being a prolific writer and later on in his life, a figure with much influence in Spain, he was unable to deter the continual enslavement of the indigenous people living in Latin America.
Initially, las Casas willingly participated in conquering the Caribbean islands, attempting to evangelize the populations of Native Americans and teaching the catechism. He was ordained a priest in 1512 or 1513, taking part in the bloody conquest of Cuba and as a result, received an allotment of Indian serfs (Bartolome De las Casas.) It was there that he witnessed firsthand the treatment of indigenous peoples by the colonists, and was unable to remain apathetic to their plight. In 1514, he gave a sermon in which he announced that he would be returning his Native American serfs to the governor. However, he realized that it was futile to try to protect the Indians at long distance in America, and returned to Spain in 1515 to plead for better treatment of that population (Bartolome de las Casas.) As result, a commission was formed to explore the status of the Native Americans, with las Casas traveling back and forth between America and Spain to establish a plan for peaceful colonization of Latin America. Eventually, Las Casas defended the indigenous people in front of the Spanish Parliament in Barcelona, persuading King Charles I to cooperate with a project to establish towns for free Native Americans. These were to be communities comprised of people from Spain as well as Native Americans who would work together to establish a new American civilization. The site that was chosen for the new colony was located in what is now Venezuela. However, in January, 1522, las Casas’ plan finally failed because he was unable to recruit enough farmers to relocate to Latin America, there was tremendous opposition from military commanders from Santa Domingo, and there was an attack by the Indians themselves (Bartolome de las Casas.)
De las Casas continued to participate in debates about the violent and aggressive abuse of indigenous people by the colonists; his opponents argued that Native Americans were less than humans and actually needed the Spaniards to help them learn to be civilized. He continually made the case that in fact they were human and that it was completely unacceptable as well as morally repugnant to subjugate them. For the last 50 years of his life, the lust Casas actively continue to oppose slavery of Native Americans, trying to convince the Spanish rulers to develop a policy of colonization that was more humane. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the indigenous population become free of colonial domination and abuse, but during his lifetime he was able to accomplish some improvements in the legal status of the Indians. In addition, his attention to the issue caused an increase in the debate and ongoing discussions about the ethical nature of colonization and the way it oppressed indigenous peoples.
- “Bartolome de las Casas.” 4 December 2015. Britannica.com. Web. 28 September 2016.
- Curtotti, Michael. “Bartolome de las Casas: An Early Human Rights Worker.” 13 February 2011. Beyond Foreignness.org. Web. 28 September 2016.