The Dominican priest Bartolome de las Casas (1485-1566) was a prominent chronicler of the early Spanish conquest of the Americas, a noted protector of the American Indians and arguably the most significant figure in the early Spanish Empire after Christopher Columbus. Following an epiphany in 1514, Las Casas fought the Spanish control of the Indies for the rest of his life, writing vividly about the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors. Once a settler and exploiter of the American Indians, he became their defender, breaking ground for the modern human rights movement. Las Casas brought his understanding of Christian scripture to the forefront in his defense of the Indians, challenging the premise that the Indians of the New World were any less civilized or capable of practising Christianity than Europeans. Bartolome de las Casas: A Biography is the first major English-language and scholarly biography of Las Casas' life in a generation.
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Cambridge University Press
May 24, 2012
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Excerpt from Bartolome de Las Casas by Lawrence A. Clayton
"Biography is the only true history" is credited to Thomas Carlyle while "all history is biography" is usually ascribed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Biography is not the only form of history, of course. Modern trends have almost displaced it as notoriously old fashioned, a curious relic from the past for antiquarians and popularizers.
Nonetheless, at the core of the human experience is, quite obviously, the human being. When all the interpretations and analyses are stripped away - as brilliant and penetrating as they often are - one is left looking at the lives of individuals. Most of those have passed through the eons leaving little impression on the world other than that remembered by God. On the other hand, a few have flashed across human history like comets. Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) is one of those few. He not only left a distinguishing mark on the sixteenth century, but as you will read in the Epilog at the end of this book, also has continued to have an impact across the centuries.
There is nothing simple about Las Casas, known principally in the English-speaking world as the author of the Black Legend. This legend pillories the Spanish character for its allegedly unique combination of cruelty and insensitivity that characterized the conquest of the Americas.
In the Spanish-speaking world, and among the scholarly community of English-speakers, he is known as the most famous "protector of American Indians" of his times. He received this title from Cardinal Francisco Jim�nez de Cisneros in 1516 and Las Casas in fact fulfilled the mandate given to him by Cisneros to defend and protect the American Indians (conflated to Amerindian frequently in the narrative that follows) for the rest of his life. In this role Las Casas also turned into the most controversial character in the long history of Spain's conquest of the New World.
He is also known as a great friend of the Columbus family, the man who in his monumental History of the Indies preserved for us the log of Christopher Columbus's first journey in 1492. The original is lost.
Las Casas was among the first, but not the first, who advocated the importation of the African slaves to the Americas to lift the burden off the dying Indians. The rich irony has not escaped his critics. The "protector of American Indians," the passionate advocate of human rights, is an early promoter of one of the most nefarious businesses in the history of the world, the African slave trade.
Who was this man who turned to the priesthood early in his life and eventually became the conscience of the Emperor Charles V, and later his son Philip II? Over the years he has been labeled, not without some justification: historian, proto-anthropologist, theologian, activist, imperialist, traitor, polemicist, self-aggrandizing, paranoid, and suffering from delusions of grandeur.1 And those are just a sample of labels!
In fact Las Casas - conquistador/settler in the early Indies, Dominican friar, defender of the Indians, historian, and the conscience of an era - was the most controversial Spaniard to participate in the conquest of the Americas. The author of A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), Las Casas wrote vividly about the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors, and thus gave Spain's rivals and critics the facts they needed to condemn that great Catholic nation that led in the conquest of the Americas.
Each generation of historians, biographers, and chroniclers recalls and analyzes the past differently, some merely tweaking past interpretations, some employing extraordinarily new approaches. In doing so, the language of history is also sometimes altered to reflect both new and old interests.
The older, more conventional, phrase usually associated with the European approach to the Americas in the fifteenth century after 1492 and throughout the sixteenth century is the "conquest." It is what the Spanish themselves called it and we have employed it often in this book in the aim to be faithful to the documents - especially of course the writings of Las Casas - of the period. Nonetheless, in the past several generations many modern scholars, for a variety of reasons, started to use the "encounter" for this same period in history. It is a less culturally loaded term, one that posits that Amerindian culture and civilization were not inferior to the European one that rode in on the horses and lances of the conquistadors. We have employed the "encounter" as well where it seemed more appropriate in describing the sweep of Europeans across the Americas, and the concomitant resistance of the Amerindians.
American Indian has been contracted to "Amerindian" in the past several generations as well. It reads a bit awkwardly when first seen, but it makes sense. While all peoples of the Americas had their own names, from the Tainos of the Greater Antilles on the island of Espanola to the Incas of Peru in the heart of the continent of South America, we often have to refer to the whole of these peoples, and the contraction Amerindian subsumes them all, just like European or African covers those continents. So you will see American Indian and Amerindian frequently in the text that follows, each meaning the same.
The conquest/encounter has also been labeled the "contact" period in current usage among many scholars. It is a useful term, again draining the "conquest" of much of its meaning - implying the strength, virility, and superiority of the Europeans over the Amerindians - and instead substituting a more value-neutral term implying a contact between two equally endowed cultures and civilizations - the European and the Amerindian - who differed only in the nature rather than quality of their cultures. Las Casas would have approved of this approach, as you will easily note later in the book.
The Americas as a whole were called las Indias, or the Indies, by the Spaniards since they thought Columbus had discovered the islands off the coast of Asia in his first voyage. The term stuck, even after it became clear that the true Indies lay a whole ocean away from the Americas to the west across the vast Pacific. We still refer to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies to distinguish them from the East Indies off southeastern Asia. So, again being consistent with the documents, we have employed "the Indies" often to refer to what in fact are the Americas, a term more recognizable to most readers. Another term that came into currency at the time of Columbus was the "New World" to describe by the end of the fifteenth and very early sixteenth century what was quite apparently not the islands off of Asia, but something quite different, a new world.
Of course, this world was not truly new, but as old as most of the rest of the world geologically. But it was new to the Europeans since it had not existed in European notions of geography or cosmography of the time, nor had it been described or even alluded to with any degree of exactitude in the two great sources of knowledge at the time - Scripture and the ancient Greeks and Romans, especially Aristotle.2 Be that as it may, the term "New World" has been around since at least the very earliest sixteenth century and it has been used occasionally in this book when appropriate and in the context of the times. The "Americas" was basically a term invented by a German map maker early in the sixteenth century who thought the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci was as much responsible as Columbus for finding and framing the "New World," and so he put "America" on his map of 1507 (America being the Latinized word for Amerigo) as a descriptor for the islands and dim outlines of the American continents known to then.3
Finally, a term that came into currency in the second half of the twentieth century to describe the often unheard of voices in history - those cultures without written languages, slaves and women deprived of education and literacy, the "silent" voices of those who did not contribute to the documentary record - has been the "other." Again, it is one Las Casas would have approved of, since he often felt he was giving voice to the Amerindians - the "other" - in the forums of power in Spain.