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Bartolomé de las Casas, (1484–1566), was a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest, writer and the first resident Bishop of Chiapas. As a settler in the New World he witnessed, and was driven to oppose, the torture and genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists and pushed for rights of the natives appealing to the imperial court of Charles V. His stance for African slaves' rights was later than the one for native slavery.
There are two sides to every story and the fact that De Las Casas takes the side of the indigenous people as opposed to his native Spain is especially poignant. The writing style is repititive, old world and filled with the horrors of war but De Las Casas does this to especially hammer home his point. He gives examples, over and over, of the injustices carried out by Cortez and Pizarro throughout the Americas from Mexico to Peru, under the auspices of the flag and cross, all in the name of God and country. It is a first hand report on the atrocities that greed and glory created. It was a plea for his King to understand how his represenatives abroad and the encomienda had drifted far from the ideals originally intended and persued. The woodcuts reproduced from a 17th century version are especially telling of the cruelties imposed with graphic examples. There are groups of people being strung up and burned alive with their feet barely dangling above the flames. The violence was inhumane to the point where women hung themselves with their children attached and hung to their bodies rather than be a meal to the hungry dogs that assisted the Spaniards and had to be fed. The genocidal colonization became a perverted vision of evangelization that was nothing short of hell for the Indians. It is important to see the other side of colonization, as written by the "The Defender and Apostle of the Indians" to understand both sides of the story. Our education system is full of European versions of the conquest, this is the anti-European version by someone who lived the experience. Recommended for students of history that want a different perspective from the one we are most familiar with that glitters from behind a golden cross.
The debate below, I think, could have been lifted right from the sixteenth century. You might take a look at it before reading my review, which is intended as a corrective. Bartolomé de Las Casas, born in 1474, came to Cuba with Diego Velázquez's expedition in 1511 as a soldier. In Cuba, he became an "encomendero", receiving Indian labor parcelled out to the conquistadors. The horrors of the conquest of the Caribbean sparked a religious conversion in him and he became a Dominican friar in 1515. Soon, he made his way to the Central American mainland, where he started missionary work among the Maya in Guatemala. Dubbed later "The Apostle to the Indians" for his work on their behalf, he was eventually appointed Bishop of Chiapas. An intimate friend of the Indians, fluent in their languages, Las Casas witnessed Spanish cruelties perpetrated against them between the very year of his arrival and some years before his death in Spain in 1566. In 1552, Las Casas published his empassioned "Short Account" (actually written 13 years earlier), in which he laid bare Spanish cruelties in America. Though generally condemned as slander in Spain, the book rapidly became popular in the rest of Europe, where it served to fuel anti-Spanish hate. Spain's enemies used it to depict Spaniards as evil tyrants and to rationalize carving out their own empires in the Americas. New editions appeared repeatedly, even as late as 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Few credible historians take the "Account" for gospel truth. Much of what Las Casas says is certainly true. And while the rest is exaggerated, it is not "propaganda".Read more ›
"A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" is a powerful written protest against the Spanish treatment of the American Indians. Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican friar, witnessed first-hand the colonization of the Americas by the Spaniards, and felt it his duty to document the atrocities. He dedicated "short account" to King Philip II, in the hope that once he was aware of the atrocities, he would put a stop to them, as any good kings would. Casas documents the "destruction of the indies" in what is today Haiti and the Domican Republic, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. Among other things, Casas reports that the Spaniards, upon coming to the Indian villages, either tortured and killed them for the gold that they might be hiding, or forced them into slavery in gold mines. The "blackguards," as he calls them, would even kill pregnant women, the elderly, and children by either burning them alive, running them through with lances, or setting vicious dogs on them. Supposedly, the Indians welcomed the Spaniards and offered to serve them, and were rewarded with torture, murder, and slavery. Casas' account has a sense of urgency that things matters might still be reversed. Further, "Short Account" is arguably the first human rights report.
That's not to say that Casas was perfect, at least by modern standards. In his view, one of the worst aspects of the wholesale slaughter of the Indians was that they would go straight to Hell, since they never heard the gospel or received the sacraments. Moreover, he never questioned the right of the Spanish to be there, or of Pope Alexander VI to grant sovereignty of the Americas to Spain and Portugal.Read more ›