Commemorating a pioneering humanitarian, five centuries on

Commenting on Roger Casement’s campaigning work on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, the author Joseph Conrad said in a letter to the Scottish politician R B Cunninghame-Graham:

I have always thought that some particle of Las Casas’s soul had found refuge in [Casement’s] indefatigable body.

Casement himself, in his pre-1916 work in South America, makes no mention of Bartolomé de Las Casas in any letters or writings, but it seems hard to believe that he would not have known about the latter’s work and reputation.

Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566)
Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566)

Las Casas, who was born 530 years ago (on this precise date, according to some scholars), was clearly not just another Dominican priest.  He was the first man to bring the violent reality of European imperialism home to a popular audience – indeed, he surely merits the title of the first modern investigative journalist.  His best-known work, the 1552 pamphlet “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”, was intended to illustrate for the Spanish reader – particularly if the reader in question was in a position of authority and influence – the kinds of horrors that had been going on in Spain’s name over the previous half-century.  These examples, taken from the chapter on Hispaniola – where he had spent considerable time as a missionary in the early 16th century – are far from atypical:

‘[The Spaniards] forced their way into native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth…

They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes…

They way they normally dealt with the native leaders and nobles was to tie them to a kind of griddle consisting of sticks resting on pitchforks driven into the ground and then grill them over a slow fire, with the result that they howled in agony and despair as they died a lingering death.

Woodcut by Theodor de Bry, taken from a 1580s printing of Las Casas’s “Short Account”
Woodcut by Theodor de Bry, taken from a 1580s printing of Las Casas’s “Short Account”

It is not, however, for his pioneering journalism that Las Casas is best remembered.  The TV historian Michael Wood has called the priest’s work ‘the first attempt in history to globalise justice and human rights.’  His numerous reports, papers, treatises, and letters to the court in Madrid were aimed at securing, initially, more humane treatment of native Americans, and ultimately at the abolition of their enslavement.

For all his noble ideals, Las Casas’s efforts had very little success.  In 1542 the Spanish government passed the so-called New Laws, aimed at freeing many slaves, and regulating the conditions in which others worked.  The trouble was that most colonial governors and settlers ignored them, and – as there was a civil war going on in Peru at this time – could get away with ignoring them, with the implicit threat that if the government made any more attempts to interfere in colonial matters then the flow of silver and gold to the royal coffers in Madrid would be impeded.

Still, Las Casas persisted with his campaigns, and in 1550 persuaded Emperor Charles V to suspend all further expansion in the Americas while their ethics could be discussed.  The historian Lewis Hanke reckons this was a truly revolutionary moment:

Probably never before or since has a mighty emperor – and in 1550 Charles V was the strongest ruler in Europe with an overseas empire besides – in the full tide of his power ordered his conquests to cease until it could be decided whether they were just.

In the ensuing so-called Valladolid Debate, both Las Casas and his opponent, the theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (arguing for the continual enslavement of indigenous Americans, who to his mind were natural slaves, as prescribed by Aristotle), claimed victory.  However, whoever “won” the debate, the conquests of the Americas resumed, and with them the exploitation of their native inhabitants.  As Wood puts it:

‘[A]s we know from our own time, ethical foreign policy will always run up against the cold reality of politics.

It is often claimed that Las Casas was a conservative type, who never questioned the right of Spain to rule over the conquered colonies in South and Central America.  He certainly did his reputation huge harm (to say the least) in becoming one of the first advocates of bringing over slaves from West Africa to do the work expected of indigenous Americans.  In his later years, though, he renounced this view, and campaigned strongly against the enslavement of all, declaring ‘All the world is human’ – no small declaration, given that most of Europe’s elites of the time clung tightly to the Aristotelian view of some people being more human than others.

Moreover, in his “Short Account” Las Casas seemed even to have abandoned the cause of Empire entirely.  In the chapter on Spanish actions in New Spain, Panuco and Jalisco, he suggests that the native Americans might be justified in rebelling against their oppressors:

The wretched Spaniards, having abandoned all Christian sense of right and wrong and been totally given over to a reprobate mind, are utterly impervious both to the justice of the actions of the local inhabitants and to the rights these people quite properly enjoy under natural, divine, and Roman law to defend themselves by cutting the Spanish forces to pieces and, if only they were sufficient in number and possessed of the necessary weapons, throwing them out of their land once and for all.

As it turned out, there was just one serious indigenous rebellion over the remaining two-and-a-half centuries of Spanish rule in the Americas – the Tupac Amaru uprising of 1780-1 in Peru – so if the above quotation was a genuine call to arms it went largely unheeded.  Not until the 1820s would the peoples of the Americas finally be free of Spanish rule, but the struggle there was down largely to an alliance between native Creole elites (the descendants of the original 16th century colonists) and British and Irish mercenaries.  After independence, of course, the exploitation of the indigenous communities more or less continued – and to some extent is still going on.

Las Casas may ultimately have failed to win justice for the native Americans, but his writings nonetheless succeeded in making a huge amount of trouble for his country.  Many historians believe his “Short Account” to be a key factor in fuelling the so-called “Black Legend” of Spanish history: namely, Spain’s image problem of a uniquely brutal, cruel, and exploitative nation – an image problem that the country really only managed to shake off in the last century.  More insidiously, Las Casas’s journalism was cynically used by some in Europe’s Protestant powers as useful anti-Catholic propaganda.  It is no coincidence that the first two English translations of the “Short Account” came out in 1583, just as the Dutch wars were raging and shortly before England and Spain went to war, and in that even more crucial year of 1689.

530 years after his birth, Bartolomé de Las Casas continues to inspire, with statues, institutions and towns named after him all over the Americas.  Quite apart from being the first international human-rights campaigner and first investigative journalist, he was also, arguably, the first of that irrepressible community: the modern religious political activist.  We can see his influence in figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Carlos Belo, and Edward Daly.  The historian Pelham Box succinctly summed up Las Casas’s legacy thus:

It is not the least of Spain’s glories that she produced Bartolomé de Las Casas and actually listened to him, however ineffectively.