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The Spanish Struggle for Conquest- Part I

  Almost four hundred and fifty years have passed since the July anniversary of Bartolome de las Casas’s death. The historian, Lewis Hanke, argued that though most Americans have not heard of him or studied him, de las Casas was one of the first and greatest to defend the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Thus we can now consider whether de las Casas had valuable insights to offer our Modern World and whether his ideas turned out to be prophetic or foreshadowed modern events. De La Casas has been alternately characterized a “saint, a fanatic, or a sincere fool.”1 Regardless in his book, A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indians (1552),  De las Casas was largely  responsible for opening the world’s eyes to atrocities committed in the New World and to the image of Spanish cruelty to its indigenous peoples.

  He was born in Seville, putatively in 1474, and first went to the New World in 1502. He became a priest, but participated in the conquest of Cuba. He accepted the reward of land and labor as payment, called an encomienda. In 1514 he began to consider the problem of Indians differently and came to believe the Indians had been treated unjustly by the Spanish. He then decided to champion the cause of the native Indians.

Until his death at 92 in 1566 he was known for many accomplishments, such as reformer at the Court of Spain, a colonizer in Venezuela, an opponent of unjust war in Nicarauga, a defender of the rights and the ethical treatment of the Indians,  a leading voice among the clerics or ecclesiastics in Mexico, and as the Bishop of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. He returned from the New World to Spain in 1547 at age 73 and continued his defense of the rights of the Indians until his death. He published some of his most influential and lasting works during this period…

   A Brief Account is his most controversial and important work. In it he described the Spanish cruelty and oppression towards the indigenous peoples in which he reported terrifying statistics about the destruction of the native people.  These included killings and cruelties that shocked many Europeans at the time.

Translations of a Very Brief Account came out in English, French, Dutch, German, Italian and Latin and depicted the Spaniards as a cruel conquerors  of the Indians and one was to infer as  such that they were bad people.  The English used Las Casas translations to gain advantage in their conflicts with Spain.

At the heart of the controversy was De las Casas focus on peaceful and reason based methods for converting the Indians. He insisted that it was wrong to baptize the Indians until they understood the faith. He argued all men could be brought to God. Ironically though de las Casas fought for kindness and understanding towards the Indians his work was controversial and caused a backlash of resentment and anger in Spain.

Historian Lewis Hanke argues as a revisionist that the Spanish Conquest of the New World was unique in human history.  If we are to consider his arguments defending Christianization seriously, he argued only the Spaniards had to deal with so large a number of indigenous Indians, numbering in the millions, over so broad a geographic area, from California to Patagonia.2 In order to avoid hypocrisy, De las Casas turned against the encomienda system which granted land and Indian labor to Spanish colonizers partly because it was killing the natives and because he felt one must practice the gospel of Christ not just have faith in it.

  Because Spain ruled over the remnants of the Maya, the Aztecs and the Inca each with native cultures it required a different method to be devised in ruling them. This involved many competing views and complex laws and grafting colonial policy to meet the circumstances in the conquered lands.  The vast territories in the New World ruled by Spain were unlike the colonial possessions of the British and the French. The Spaniards discovered more land in 75 years than had been discovered in the previous 1000. In Mexico alone the new territory discovered by Cortes in 1514 could contain 30 Iberian peninsulas and was settled by only a few thousand men.3

.4 In ruling this vast domain, Spain relied on its experience in inventing a way of governing millions of Indians.  Based on the Spanish experience of the Reconquista with Moslems and the necessities of governance in the New World the Spanish policy was to Christianize the Indians. Conflicting forms of Imperialism, the encomienda system, and attempts to con

Some historians such have argued that attempts to Christianize and urbanize the Indians were experiments which in the end were fatal for large numbers of the native inhabitants. In this fight over the treatment of the Indians the Dominican order led by de las Casas saw the most important challenge to the Spanish conquerors to be in saving their souls. De las Casas favored peaceful and rational conversion of the Indians. In his settlements in Chiapas and Vasco de Quierga he tried conversion without fear of bloodshed or violence. 

Hanke argued that Spaniards created a model for dealing  with the conquered Indians-they tried to understand their culture with the end being to convert them to Christianity.To the accusation that the Indians were too barbarian of heart to be civilized, de las Casas argued that the Indian culture must be understood, and that they had much in their cultures that compared favorably to the ancients and they had much in their cultures to be admired. De las Casas simply concluded that they were human beings in different stages of development. 5

In contrast, Juan Gines de Sepulveda maintained that Indians were by nature slaves as Aristotle had categorized barbarian tribes and war was justified against these barbarians. Las Casas countered this view by arguing to the Spanish Crown that Indian culture had many superior qualities when compared to most ancient cultures and that they were rational beings who could meet all of Aristotle’s requirements for the “good life” as Aristotle had termed it.

In the Apologetic History, de las Casas argued that Mexican Indians were superior to the ancients in the way they raised, took care of and educated their children, marriage and marital relationships, in ingenuity and in their workmanship and products. They made musical instruments, knives and rubber balls, and they used resources well for example finding  22 useful products from the Maguey tree. They had agriculture and irrigation and dramatic arts. He also found they had religious devotion that would be useful, if they only devoted it to the “only true god”6.

De las Casas insisted that it was wrong to baptize the Indians until they understood the Christian faith. He maintained throughout most of his life that the Indians were capable of understanding Christianity as was all mankind, in general.  Though he fought for kindness and understanding towards the Indians his efforts caused much animosity in Spain towards his efforts. Some revisionist critics later accused de las Casas of either being some kind of early kind of Marxist who wanted to redistribute to the poor, suggesting some belief in class struggle, or of being an overly pious Priest, still others claimed his egalitarian concept of humanity was too dangerous for his time. When all the voices of the critics on both sides have died down, it remains true that that a Very Brief Account remains one of the most important documents on the conquest of the New World. To de las Casas the Indians were not beasts but their culture required sympathetic consideration and respect. Today people who believe that “all peoples of the world are men”7 are in agreement with the general trend of biological science which seems to show that all men are more alike than different. Of course, small changes in genetic information can mean large differences in peoples.

Hanke argued the importance of how the Indians were treated raised questions that are useful to us in the Modern World. The trend in this form of revisionism is to look at certain primitive cultures to try to understand man in his most fundamental nature. Supposedly, to give us insight into the nature of man. It might also help us to understand how people should be treated in a world full of many ethnicities  and cultures. The Spaniard’s  approach to dealing with the conquered native peoples from the ecclesiastical context was to understand them and study their culture. Of course this knowledge could be considered for nefarious purposes to such as control and govern them.To Hanke the conquest of Americas was to be seen as one of the first and greatest experiments that Christian beliefs can be taught and accepted by all people

Part II: Hagiography and Historiography:

O’Gorman, a historian who tried to challenge the growing legacy of de las Casas,  challenged de las Casas as having a scientific interest in the Indians rather than a purely humanitarian one. In defense of las Casas his interest in the Indians was not truly scientific or based on experimental method, but intended to prove the gospel could be taught to all mankind by peaceful methods. When Las Casas was named Bishop of Chiapas to him it was to test his faith in the gospel.

Secondly, O’Gorman challenged de las Casas interest in teaching the Gospel as not being based on the love of all humanity, and on peaceful methods, but based instead on reason. In defense of las Casas he believed the Indians should understand the faith before baptism, but that does not deny his humanitarian purposes, it only shows he respected the Indians enough to try to teach them, and that he believed they would accept it once they understood it. It was more important to de Las Casas that the gospel be taught peacefully and that was the basis of his objection to Spanish cruelty. Conversion by Reason and peaceful means was what de las Casas built his salvation efforts on.  Las Casas did not try to deny or advance the notion that war could be just against the primitives but advanced the notion of peaceful conversion. He wanted peaceful conversion, but conversion nonetheless.

Las Casas writings centered on peaceful conversion and condemned war as against human nature and argued that warlike methods were irrational in establishing the ascendency of Christ because they were not in keeping with the belief in the “ goodness of Christ or the Dignity of Royalty.”8 Having said this, it is to be noted that de las Casas followed St. Augustine in believing that war was sometimes justified.

De las Casas has been attacked by critics like O’Gorman as more Aristotelian than Christian. Yet de las Casas himself once claimed that, “Aristotle was a Gentile” and was “burning in hell.”9 He only argued that some of Aristotle’s ideas could be made use of by the Christian Church

Aristotle had put forth the idea that certain peoples were meant by their inherent nature to be slaves and in argument before the Spanish court. A debate  took place between las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda at Valladoid in 1550-1551, Sepulveda raised four reasons justifying war against the Indians.

  1. For the gravity of the sins which the Indians had committed, especially idolatry.
  2. On account of the rudeness of their natures, which obliged them to serve people of more refined natures.
  3. In order to spread the faith which would be more readily accomplished by the prior subjugation of the natives.
  4. To protect the weak among the natives themselves.10

Las Casas in the wake of these arguments, realizing that he should make a strategic concession, did not deny Aristotle’s view of natural slaves, but argued that the Indians did not fit Aristotle’s definition and more accurately fit the description of people that could live “the good life”. Las Casas held that Indians as well as all mankind, could be taught the Gospel of Christ and that Indians were not an inferior race.

    O’Gorman argued that the views of Sepulveda were as Christian as those held by de las Casas. Sepulveda’s contentions were actually based more on Aristotelian beliefs and beliefs by the ancients in the inherent inequality of human beings and not on the Gospel. De las Casas view can by best summarized by his Apologetica Historia,

            All the peoples of the world are men….all have understanding and volition,….No nation exists today, nor could exist, no matter how barbarous, fierce or depraved its customs may be, which may not be attracted and converted to all political virtues and to all the humanity of domestic, political and rational man.11

     Hanke suggests it might help us to understand de las Casas failings as a scholar within his era of history rather than our own. This is true in the same way that Lincoln or Jefferson should be judged by the emerging thought of their times. Furthermore, he argued there is not enough evidence to suggest that de las Casas was a dishonest scholar.12

Part III: Prophet of the New World

     Bartolome de las Casas bitterly bemoaned the fate of the Indians done by the Spaniards. He felt the Spanish had committed great and mortal sins to acquire wealth from the New World. They had killed and brutalized the natives and most unforgiveable of all turned many of them against the gospel because of their murderous plunder. Credited by many as the principle author of the Black Legend of Spanish brutality towards the natives of the New world and to be a man of an enlightened conscience in Medieval Spain. Simon Bolivar called him a “friend of humanity”13 while still others accredit him as being the father of modern liberation theology. Paul Vickery calls him the “Prophet of the New World”.

    In portraying de las Casas as a self-ordained prophet Vickery points to his conversion in 1514 when “the darkness left his eyes”15 and he dedicated himself to protection of the lives of the Indians, and more importantly to the salvation oftheir souls. He warned in his role as prophet of damnation and punishment from God for those in Spain who did not heed his warnings or understand the moral and biblical calling. Vickery argues that las Casas texts make the point again and again that the Crown and people of Spain would fall under the judgment of God for the barbarities committed against the Indians of the New world. He admonished the Crown to repent and even to remediate the wrongs done by way of restitution.

     Las Casas forced the Monarchy to constrain its practices and the laws that were resulting in the annihilation of the indigenous population. In this sense Vickery argues that de las Casas saw himself as a prophet with the mission of protecting the Indians and spreading the Gospel amongst them. He saw himself as the chosen one for this mission.

     De las Casas compared Spanish colonization of the Indians to murdering the innocent for money or cheating honest laborers. He believed that if the Spanish did not atone for their sins through some form of restitution Spain would be punished or even destroyed. De las Casas saw the encomienda system as being the primary evil at the heart of Spanish wrongdoing to the Indians.

     In order that de las Casas could practice what he preached he gave up his encomienda so that he could talk about the spirit of charity and mercy found in the gospel. De las Casas understood the value of the gospel was not just spiritual, but practical. When he spoke to his congregation he said he “began to expose to them their own blindness, the injustices, the tyrannies, the cruelties they committed against such innocent, and such gentle people.”15  But, most believed that Indians were like the beasts of the field and should be treated likewise. De las Casas chastised them for being more concerned with “getting rich than saving souls.”16

    In a Very Brief Account (1552) de las Casas argued that it was the Spaniards  who had lost their humanity to their own greed and ambition. They killed for wealth and no longer were men in “any meaningful sense of the word”, they were “degenerate and given over to a reprobate mind…”17

  The text of a Very Brief Account catalogued the abuses to the Indians in the areas conquered by Spain. To de las Casas the souls of the Indians had been lost due to Spanish barbarity and for this Spain had to receive God’s punishment.


      The first question I considered was whether the Black Legend of Spanish killing and cruelty was true or really more of a fiction invented by Dominican Friars such as Bartolome de las Casas? Based on the evidence in the articles I reviewed I conclude that evidence for Spanish atrocities is legitimate. De las Casas gives us a primary source and there is not enough evidence that he would falsify his reports. Even Sepulveda did not deny the crimes that de las Casas complained of.

     Secondly, the more important question is was the attempt to convert and Christianize right or wrong? Having considered Aristotle’s views represented by Sepulveda and the more humanitarian arguments of de las Casas I still conclude that it was wrong. Sepulveda supported a brutal colonization effort to extract wealth justified by a civilizing mission to Christianize. De las Casas supported a non-violent mission to Christianize. Either way the mission to Christianize became a justification for colonization.

     Religion is always about faith and not just reason. There are more secrets in Heaven unknown to men than there are drops of water in a wave. The destruction of a culture, religion or race can have terrible consequences because so much about the nature of the ethical world is misunderstood and there are always moral and spiritual secrets that men fail to comprehend due to prejudice, bias and pride and self interest.

    Third, was Vickery right in asserting that de las Casas was a prophet? To this question I answer no. De las Casas did believe in the “ equality of all mankind” but only in its equal right to receive the Gospel of Christ. Still his views towards the natives of the newly discovered Americas were enlightened for Medieval Europe and he did much to create the ideal of universal rights to dignity and human rights by defending the end that all men can be saved and are worthy of the Gospel.


  1.   Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. Revista de Historia de America, No.61/62(Enero-Diciembre DE 1966) pg.5
  2. Ibid., 8.
  3. Ibid.,9.
  4. Ibid.,9
  5. Ibid.,14
  6. Ibid.,16
  7. Lewis Hanke, Bartolome de las Casas, an Essay in Hagiography and Histiriography. The   Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol.33, No.1(Feb. 1953) pg.143




11. Ibid. 145

12.Ibid. 149

13.   Paul S. Vickery, Bartolome  De Las Casas: Prophet of the New World. Mediterranean 

            Studies, Vol.9,(2000)pg.89.

     14. Ibid.,90



      17. Ibid.,99.

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