Imagine you are a young boy, watching a parade go through your town. Banners cloud the sky and loud music is playing. Everyone is celebrating. They are celebrating the return of Christopher Columbus from the New World. Watching him go by, you are in complete awe. But what really grabs your attention is the seven Indians who are walking behind him like trophies on display. You’re drawn to their long, black hair and fierce-looking eyes. And their decorations of tiny shells and beads with beaten-gold ornaments also catch your eye. As the crowd presses in, you wonder what the Indians are thinking and feeling. You wish you could speak to them. Deep down inside, your spirit is touched; you’re never quite the same. If you can imagine that scene, then you’re seeing Bartolomé de Las Casas (Bar toll oh MAY day Las CAH sahs): Protector of the Indies.
In 1493, when he was just a boy, Bartolomé de Las Casas really did attend a parade in Spain. And he really did see Indians who were put on display like spoils from a victory. Bartolome would grow up and eventually become known as the “Protector of the Indies” for fighting for the indigenous people of the Americas. The word indigenous means “natural.” It refers to the native people of the New World. We might also use the words natives or Indians when speaking of the indigenous people of America. And Bartolomé de Las Casas cared a great deal for them.
The Encomienda System
Bartolomé grew up in Spain, and was only 18 when he made his first trip to America. He traveled to Hispaniola in the West Indies. For his services, Bartolomé was granted an encomienda (en co mee IN duh). You may not know what that is, but it’s important that you understand. So let me explain.
As the Spanish settled in the Americas, they patterned things after the ways of life in Spain. Spain in the fifteenth century was still under the influence of the old feudal system, similar to that from the Middle Ages. It’s a system in which wealthy landowners lend portions of their land to the poor in exchange for their services. This system provided places for the poor to live and farm. It was a decent system when practiced fairly. Well, in the West Indies, the Spanish took the same idea and applied it to the Indians. They renamed it the encomienda system. As wealthy Spaniards came to the West Indies and took large portions of land, they “hired” the Indians who lived on the land to work for them. The landowners, or Encomenderos (en co men DARE ohs) provided protection and Christian training for work. Unfortunately, the Indians didn’t get much choice and were usually overworked and poorly taught. It was practically slavery. Now, let’s go back to Bartolomé de Las Casas.
A Call To Action
As I mentioned before, Bartolomé was given an encomienda. But he wasn’t like most wealthy Spanish landowners. He saw the Indians as people, and he didn’t want to own them as slaves! He would spend the rest of his life trying to change this system. In 1511, he listened to the preaching of a Dominican priest who based his message on the Bible verse that reads, “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” ’ ” (See John 1:23.). The Dominican priest thought this voice was like that of the Indians who were crying out for help. Bartolomé was moved in his heart and returned his encomienda to the governor!
A year later, in 1512, Bartolomé de Las Casas was ordained a priest in the Roman Church. He was the first to be ordained in the Americas. So, in 1515, Bartolomé decided to fight for the Indians. He got the king to allow him to set up an experimental colony with more rights for the natives. Sadly, the other Encomenderos were hostile to this “Better Way”, and it collapsed. Bartolomé was discouraged at this failure, but he didn’t give up his fight. (Tragically, critics will point out that Las Casas wasn’t a perfect defender of freedom throughout his life. Though he later regretted it, Las Casas at one time suggested the enslavement of Africans to reduce the labor of the Indians!)
The Power of the Pen
When he was 36, Bartolomé de Las Casas joined the Dominicans and turned to the power of the pen. He directed his energy into writing books to expose the terrible treatment of the Indians to all who could read. He wrote of natives being butchered and burned alive. He wrote of seeing thousands die from laboring in the gold mines. Bartolomé saw these crimes firsthand. By 1537, Bartolomé would gain the attention of the pope in the matter. The pope agreed with Bartolomé and declared that the Indians were “rational beings” who should be protected. As normal as that might sound to us now, it was a new view back then.
Responding to a request by Bartolomé, King Charles I of Spain agreed to host a debate at the Council of Valladolid in 1550. Though no official verdict was given, many would say Bartolomé won. Finally, Bartolomé experienced some victory! He convinced Charles I to sign what were called the “New Laws.” They prohibited slavery of natives and limited the encomienda system. In particular, the New Laws limited the employment of slaves to one generation. It was progress.
Two years later, Bartolomé de Las Casas was made a bishop in Guatemala. He was joined by 45 Dominican friars in a large-scale mission to evangelize the Indians. He was there also to oversee that the New Laws were followed. Unfortunately, they weren’t! Native Americans were still being treated cruelly. So many colonists broke the New Laws that they were impossible to enforce. Sadly, the encomienda system stayed in place. But Bartolomé kept writing. (He was amazingly persistent!)
Bartolomé de Las Casas continued to speak at councils and give his voice to the American Indians until he died in 1566. He was 82 years old. Do you think the long fight of Bartolomé de Las Casas matters today? I’d say so. I’m glad that Bartolomé de Las Casas had the courage to address the difficult issues of the fifteenth century, which continue to linger in parts of the world today. His story is inspiring!
Activities for All Ages
Younger Students—The Good Samaritan
Read the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25–37. Act it out with multiple cast members if possible. How was Bartolomé like the Good Samaritan? How can you be like the Good Samaritan?
Middle Students—Feudal System
Research the feudal system. Write a research paper on the various ways it was implemented throughout history. Mention when it worked and when it didn’t. At the end of the paper, give your thoughts on this system.
Older Students—Original Works
Read Las Casas’ work titled Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de Las Indias, or A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Discuss what lessons you’ve learned about the value of all people.