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.

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  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    It was very cruel what empires done to the natives in any land they invaded all in the name of a King or Queen-it was the King or Queen who sent their subjects out to conquer other peoples and land so to build bigger empires that they could control -a gold crown was on the head of control freaks-

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Cruelty and control freakery, Michael-Henry, are hardly a preserve of any one system of social organisation, but something that may develop in any system and in any heart. While I hold no brief for the “House of Windsor” its important to remember that neither Stalin nor Hitler wore crowns, and the faceless men articulating neo-liberal economics in the train of the Thatcher/Regen led Globalist revolution may do more brutal damage long term to individual lives than even either of them did.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    I agree with you SeaanUiNeill- But Stalin could not have got to power if the Russian Royal family had of been more people orientated and worked more for people’s rights instead of Crown rights ( Russia also had a disastrous World War One )- likewise if the German Royal family had of still been in charge in the 20s 30s Hitler would not have seen the light of day in power-( Germany had a disastrous outcome to the First World War )-

    All through history there was good and bad royals and good and bad Democracy and good or bad dictators-( all depending on ones views )-

  • Tacapall

    Michael maybe you should delve a little deeper, try reading up on Edward Smigly-Rydz

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    I touched on his history on the lap-top- Tacapall-thanks for that-

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As the apostle of “everything comes back to people not just institutions”, I’d not argue with what you are saying! And in agreemant with your first point I can easily see that Tony Blair plus crown is going to be a rather more dangerious proposition than Tony simply balding…..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I have a weakness for his more interesting master, Marshal Piłsudski, who was one of the few people to give Hitler nightmares!

  • Tacapall

    Ah yes Seaan, Pilsudski, the man who espoused peaceful terms with Germany appointed the man, a cowardly lunatic who would start the Second World war, his delusions to re establish the old polish empire a move his UK, France and American backers turned a blind eye to but in the end the British and her imperial allies did as they’ve always did, reneged on a promise to counter attack when Germany was forced to invade Poland to re liberate Danzig. Giving the same warmongers, who are still plying there trade today the UK, USA, France the excuse they needed to begin another banker inspired war with Germany. As we all know Smigly bolted from Warsaw and left the door opened for Loseb Jugashvili and the soviet hordes and the rest is history but while all this was going on the real instigators of all wars, the bankers, the Bank of international settlements continued to operate and finance all sides in the war especially Germany and whose members included, the Federal reserve, Bank of England, France, Italy, Japan and the Reichsbank (who had most seats on the board) with its president being American Thomas H Mc Kitterick, who funny enough doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry and a search of his name on search engines is fruitless unless accompanied with the words (bank of international settlement). Its not countries that go to war, its not even the populations of countries, its bankers and their puppets on strings the politicians and those men or women who’s thirst for power and money is insatiable who are usually the ones to roll the snowballs for the cannon fodder to throw.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, Tacapall, Wikipedia has these gaps. You can register and create new pages if you are interested. The ability of anyone to comment modified by a serious academic “peer review” element usually helps to pull it out of the “one man’s opinion” category, but still some wrinkles develop. But I highly recommend it, as anyone seriously wanting information to get out there, who can back it with sources, gets a pretty clean run. The more information about these faceless men of Neo-Liberalist economics that gets out there the better!

    Slightly confused about “Pilsudski, the man who espoused peaceful terms with Germany”! After all, the marshall was the man who first seriously tried to hammer into everyones head the realisation that Adolf was very, very bad news! And Adolf was seriously scared of the marshall, although with him gone, the Fuhrer’s fear of Poland soon went away.

  • Tacapall

    Hi Seaan yes Pilsudski did not trust Germany but he wanted a modus vivendi with Germany he hated Russians even more he believed throughout his adult life that Russia was the arch enemy of Poland . In 1934, shortly before he died, he dismissed the opinion of his advisors that after Hitler’s rise to power the major danger to Poland came from Germany. This view of Pilsudski’s was shared by his successors. In 1935 Beek declared there was no reason for changing the line of Polands foreign policy. Throughout the 1930’s Poland’s defense was planned in anticipation of an attack from the east rather than the west. The plan to defend Poland’s western borders was drawn hastily only late in 1938 and early in 1939. Even when the danger to Poland from Nazi Germany became imminent, the Pilsudskiites were still reluctant to seek support from the Soviet Union. “With the Germans,” declared Marshal Smigly-Rydz on the eve of World-war II, “we will lose our freedom; with the Russians we will lose our soul.”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah, Tacapall, my first wife was an exiled Pole, and her family staunch Piłsudskists, so I was on the inside track there, so to speak! He tried to get a strong European alliance against Hitler going early, something his successors failed to see the central importance of. This is not only from family recollections, but from the fact that when Hitler first made moves at Gdansk in 1933, he carried out a preventative military action at Westerplatte. The non-agression pact of October with Germany was a recognition that Poland itself needed years of preparation if it was to fight Germany, and the Marshall was under few illusions about the fact that he would be having to fight both Hitler and Stalin at some point with little or no help from the West. He quite correctly believed that France and Britain would prove fickle allies. And just before his death in 1935, when Germany began serious re-armament, he demanded that this was carefully monitored by Polish spies in Germany. The Marshall was nothing if not flexible, unlike his second rate successors, and Hitler was on record as actually fearing him, a restraint that went with the Marshall’s own death.

    And when I look at the ability Piłsudski had across a long career to endlessly surprise his opponents, combined with a rock hard integrity (something that our own post-revolutionary GFA politicians could do with) and, thinking of Nietzsche’s description of Poland as the Ireland of Eastern Europe, I can only grieve that we did not have someone with his abilities in 1922! (Mick Collins?) He is seen as anti-Democratic, but in the 1920s he was watching Poland being endlessly weakened by a gang of banker led politicians with a similar level of low political skill to those we are watching play endless self interest games in Stormont! In such a situation “Democracy” by such representatives simply becomes just another form of social abuse!

  • AH

    I never learned about Roger Cassament, but I do think that the figures who had less European views despite their upbringings in that culture are some of the most interesting. Las Casas stood out among the other figures in history because of his unique ideas. It is pretty astonishing how few people emerged with beliefs like these considering the massive change going on in the world at the time.