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

2. Exploring

•  Unit Overview
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•  Authors
- Gloria
- Bartolomé
de las Casas
- Bernal Díaz
del Castillo
- Samuel
de Champlain
- Christopher
- Adriaen
Van der Donck
- Americo
- John Smith
- Álvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca
- Garcilaso
de la Vega
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Authors: Bartolomé de las Casas (c. 1474-1566)

Illustration from The Tears of the Indians
[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.

Bartolomé de las Casas Activities
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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.

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