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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Bartolomé de las Casas (c. 1474-1566)

[2832] Bartolomé de las Casas (John Phillips, trans.), Illustration The Tears of the Indians (1656), courtesy of the Robert Dechert Collection, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

Sometimes celebrated as the “conscience” of Spanish colonization, Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the first Europeans to recognize and protest the cruel treatment of Native Americans at the hands of their conquerors. By drawing on his considerable political, legal, and ecclesiastical connections, he became a powerful and eloquent –if ultimately unsuccessful–force in agitating for Indian rights.

While growing up and studying in the Spanish city of Seville, Casas closely followed news of the conquistadors and their exploits in the New World. His father and uncle joined Columbus’s second expedition to the Indies in 1498, and his father returned with an Arawak Indian slave who must have provided the young Casas with details about the Caribbean world. In 1502, Casas joined Nicolas de Ovando’s expedition to Hispaniola, where he participated in the brutal conquest of the Indians and received land and slave labor in return for his services under the encomienda, or slave system. After over a decade of overseeing Indian slaves, Casas experienced a dramatic change of heart, perhaps precipitated by his decision to join the Dominican Order of Catholic priests. He became convinced that the Spanish encomienda, or slave system, was unjust and unChristian, and he soon devoted himself to working toward its abolishment. While his commitment to Indian rights made him unpopular with many Spanish colonists and leaders, Casas never again wavered in his conviction that Native Americans deserved to be treated with respect and humanity. While he at one point advocated using African slaves to replace Indian labor, he later realized the hypocrisy of his proposal and renounced the idea, instead opting to oppose the enslavement of any peoples.

In 1515, Casas took his case to the Spanish court and was formally appointed “protector of the Indians.” He also attained a commission to found an experimental colony on the coast of Venezuela based on principles of peace. The colony soon floundered, and Casas returned to Hispaniola, where he served as a friar in a monastery. By the 1530s he was again drawing on his political connections to legislate for protection of Native Americans, eventually persuading Pope Paul III to denounce the enslavement of Indians and convincing Charles V of Spain to make the practice illegal in Spanish colonies. Appointed bishop to the church of Chiapas, Mexico, in 1544, Casas encountered widespread, bitter, and violent resistance to his reform efforts. When Charles V retracted the ban on Indian slavery in the Americas in 1547, Casas returned to Spain. Until his death at the age of ninety-two, he continued his crusade by serving as attorney-at-large for the Indians in the Spanish courts and by publishing moving accounts of their tragic plight.

Casas’s monumental History of the Indies and The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies are among his most important writings. In these works, Casas offered a devastatingly vivid exposé of the brutality of the Spanish slave system. He also drew on his intimate knowledge of Indian culture to combat the popular argument that the natives were so docile, submissive, and mentally inferior as to be “natural slaves.” The Brief Relation was widely translated and republished throughout Europe in Casas’s lifetime, and its impassioned denunciation of the cruelty of the Spanish colonizers contributed to the perception (popular in Protestant countries) that the Spanish were especially violent and barbaric in their treatment of natives. Although he intended his work to spur reform, Casas’s participation in the creation of the so-called Black Legend of Spanish colonial atrocities served mainly to make him extremely unpopular in Spain and may have fueled the equally problematic imperial pretensions of Protestant countries such as England and the Netherlands. Colonizers from these nations self-righteously justified their own repression and exploitation of Native Americans by arguing that their methods were more humane than those of the Spanish.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your class examine the painting from the 1531 Huejotzingo Codex featured in the archive. This codex served as evidence in a legal action brought by the Huejotzingo of Central Mexico to protest the heavy taxation they faced from their Spanish conquerors. This pictorial representation records the commodities and resources the Huejotzingo had already contributed to support Spanish expeditions: the eight small figures beneath the colored picture of the Madonna and child represent the slaves the tribe had sold in order to pay for the gold that went into making a banner for the Spanish expedition, while the rows of abstract shapes represent other commodities contributed to the campaign. After you have analyzed and interpreted the Huejotzingo Codex with your class, ask them to think about how the Spanish court might have responded to this document as a piece of legal evidence. Though it is an extremely sophisticated example of Native American record keeping and pictorial expression, it seems unlikely that Spanish judges would have appreciated its logic or understood its import without the explanation written in Spanish that accompanied it. Have students compare these paintings to the representation of slavery and the conquest given in Casas’s writings. What is the significance of his commitment to giving written expression to the injustices perpetrated against the Indians?
  • Students are sometimes startled by the graphic nature of Casas’s accounts of Spanish atrocities. Gleefully drowning children, dismembering pregnant women, and torturing captives over smoldering fires, the Spanish conquerors in Casas’s narrative engage in shocking brutality. Ask your students to consider why Casas might have chosen to represent so vividly the horror of the Spanish Conquest from the Indian point of view. How does his description reverse common European stereotypes about the “savagery” of American Indians? What kind of audience does he assume will read his work? Why might he think these accounts of violence will persuade them? Why does he consistently refer to the torture and murder of women and children? How effective is his strategy? You might have your students examine the graphic images of brutality that accompanied the English translation of Casas’s work, entitled “Tears of the Indians,” as they consider these questions.

Author Questions

  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?

Selected Archive Items

[2831] Bartolomé de las Casas, Frontispiece to The Tears of the Indians (las Casas): Being an Historical and True Account of the Cruel Massacres and Slaughters of above Twenty Millions of Innocent People; Committed by the Spaniards (1656),
courtesy of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. 
The English authorities used this 1656 translation to legitimize their conquest of Spanish Jamaica. Oliver Cromwell’s nephew translated this volume.

[2832] Bartolomé de las Casas (John Phillips, trans.), Illustration from The Tears of the Indians (1656), 
courtesy of the Robert Dechert Collection, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. 
This illustration details some of the atrocities committed by Spanish colonizers. Despite his intentions, Casas’s work ultimately helped Protestant colonizers justify their own mistreatment of native peoples; they reasoned that their actions were not as reprehensible as those of the Spanish.

[7368] Anonymous, Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex [1 of 8] (1531), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. 
In 1531, the people of Huejotzingo asked conqueror Hernán Cortés to initiate a lawsuit against the high court of New Spain concerning the unjust use of indigenous labor and tribute. As part of this petition, eight pages of drawings were made on amatl (fig bark); these drawings are known today as the Huejotzingo Codex.

[7372] Anonymous, Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex [6 of 8] (1531),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
In 1531, the people of Huejotzingo asked conqueror Hernán Cortés to initiate a lawsuit against the high court of New Spain concerning the unjust use of indigenous labor and tribute. As part of this petition, eight pages of drawings were made on amatl (fig bark); these drawings are known today as the Huejotzingo Codex.

[7681] Anonymous, Image of Bartolomé de las Casas (1886),
courtesy of Narrative and Critical History of America, Volume II (c. 1884-89), ed. Justin Winsor, published by Boston and New York Houghton Mifflin and Company, 
The Riverside Press, Cambridge. Engraving of a young and determined-looking Casas writing at his desk, with a cross around his neck.

[9042] Laura Arnold, The Great Chain of Being (2003),
courtesy of Laura Arnold.
From the beginning of the Middle Ages through the early nineteenth century, “educated Europeans” conceived of the universe in terms of a hierarchical Great Chain of Being with God at its apex. In many ways, this hierarchy, still pervasive in Western theology and thought, stands in opposition to Native American and other belief systems that view the human and spirit worlds as co-existing on a horizontal plane.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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