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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Author Activities

Bartolomé de las Casas - Author Questions

Back Back to Bartolomé de las Casas Activities
  1. Comprehension: What is the "Black Legend"?

  2. Comprehension: What motivated the Spanish to act with such cruelty toward the Indians, according to Casas?

  3. Comprehension: On what grounds does Casas attack Indian slavery? Why do you think he might have initially felt that replacing Indian slaves with African slaves was an acceptable alternative?

  4. Context: Examine the frontispiece and illustration from the 1656 Protestant English translation of Casas's Brief Relation featured in the archive. How do the English publishers retitle Casas's Brief Relation? What does the frontispiece's description of the contents of the book emphasize? What is the significance of the verse from Deuteronomy printed at the base of the page? How might the illustrations change or intensify a reader's reaction to Casas's narrative?

  5. Context: According to a common European belief first coined by Aristotle and later adopted by Christian philosophers, the universe was structured according to immutable hierarchies. These hierarchies existed along the so-called Great Chain of Being, spanning from the dimensions of "non-being" (rocks and minerals) and extending through plants, animals, and man, all the way to God, as the representative of the highest form of "being." Within the category of "man," important hierarchies existed that separated more primitive peoples from more "cultured" or "advanced" societies. The following diagram shows the hierarchies of man as conceptualized in the Great Chain of Being:
    Corporeal Man -- Man of Instinct -- Man of Feeling -- Thinking Man
    How do you think Casas and his critics might have been influenced by the concept of the Great Chain of Being? Where do you think most Europeans felt Indians belonged on the chain? Where would Casas place them?

  6. Context: In his Brief Relation, Casas challenges the popular notion that the Indians regarded European conquerors as divine gods: "[The Christians] committed other acts of force and violence and oppression which made the Indians realize that these men had not come from Heaven." How does Casas's insistence that the Indians do not revere or worship their conquerors compare to the opposite claims made by writers like Columbus, Cabeza de Vaca, and John Smith? What assumptions and justifications underwrite European accounts of Indians hailing them as powerful supernatural beings? How does this issue relate to European ideas about the "Great Chain of Being"?

  7. Exploration: How do Casas's efforts to persuade readers of the evils of Indian enslavement compare to nineteenth-century abolitionists' efforts to convince Americans of the evils of African enslavement? How do Casas's narrative strategies compare to those adopted by writers like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Harriet Jacobs?

  8. Exploration: In his tract "The Bloody Tenet of Persecution," Puritan Roger Williams (Unit 3) invokes many of the arguments employed by Casas in order to refute the claims of minister John Cotton that the Algonquians living in New England should not enjoy the same privileges as the British. What view of the Narragansett Indians is embedded in Roger Williams's A Key Into the Language of America? What place does Williams give them in Puritan hierarchies? On what grounds does Williams make these claims?

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