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Bartolomé de Las Casas

Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Spanish priest, historian and advocate for Native American rights, was born in Seville. As a young man, he practiced law for a short time, but, like so many other enterprising young men of his day, he went to the New World in search of new opportunities. He served as a soldier and public official at various places in the West Indies and was rewarded for his efforts with an encomienda, a royally-granted landed estate with full authority over the native residents. Bartolomé de Las Casas In 1512 or 1513, Las Casas was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, probably the first to receive holy orders in the Western Hemisphere. In 1514, he gave up his encomienda in response to his growing concerns about the treatment of Indians in Spanish America. From 1520 to 1522, Las Casas tried unsuccessfully to establish new settlements where white farmers would live in complete equality with the natives. In 1523, Las Casas joined the Dominican order and withdrew from public events for several years. His consuming task during that period was to write the History of the Indies (published posthumously), a monumental rendition of the Spanish conquest. Part history and part prophecy, Las Casas' chronicle of Spanish misdeeds was intended for future generations to be an explanation of Spain's punishment by God, which he felt certain would happen. Still deeply concerned about the Indians' plight, Las Casas went back to Spain in 1540 where he spearheaded a drive to reform laws that regulated relations between the races. The so-called “New Laws” were adopted in 1542, which mandated the protection of certain Indian rights and the abolition of slavery. In 1544, Las Casas returned to New Spain as the Bishop of Chiapas (then in northern Guatemala, but later part of southern Mexico). His efforts to enforce the New Laws were met with stiff resistance by many colonists. For the final time, Las Casas returned to Spain in 1547. He spent his remaining years in the pursuit of justice for American natives, primarily through publication of pamphlets and presentation of petitions to the Crown. One of Las Casas' most influential writings was the Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians (1542). This recapitulation of the conquistadors' excesses was widely distributed, but was criticized then and in later years by those who thought the author had grossly exaggerated. Las Casas’ writing became popular in England and other nations then struggling with Spain for supremacy in the New World. Greedy Englishmen eagerly cited Spanish brutality as an excuse to seek control of their opponent’s holdings. Las Casas’ writings enjoyed renewed popularity during the 19th century when they were cited by nationalists who sought independence from Spain.

See background of Spain's Entry into the New World.
See also Indian Wars Time Table.