Rolena Adorno proposes that Bartólome de las Casas (b.1484) occupies a central position in colonial “polemics of possession” because of the positions he took regarding Spanish colonialism and the influence of his writings on Spanish policy (Polemics of Possession 98). De las Casas takes issue with the claim of the Spanish to the people and lands of the Indies. He agrees that the Pope Alexander VI gave the Spanish crown sovereignty over the discovered lands, but does not take that to mean that the crown has property rights over the lands or people. He insists that these remain theirs “by natural right” and the natural rights of the Indians could not be overlooked simply because their culture did not match up to the Spanish understandings of “civilization.” De las Casas supports the original mission of evangelization spearheaded by Columbus, but argues that the Spanish settlers transformed the Spanish project into genocidal colonization (Introduction, xv). De las Casas’ life project and the stances that he took on colonization of the Indies over the course of his life reveal his ongoing reflection on the ethics of the Spanish project of colonization. He used his writings such as the Brevísima relación to influence the policies of the Spanish monarchs in the Americas in order to improve the treatment of the Indians in the Spanish colonies.
As a young man in the colonies, Bartolome de las Casas participated in the encomienda system whereby the Spanish crown agreed to provide Christian instruction, to protect, and to provide a small wage to the Indians in exchange for their work for the encomenderos that were in charge of them. Over time, Bartolome de las Casas began to see the encomienda system as an evil system that enslaved the Indians. He eventually released the Indians in his own encomienda. He advocated bringing black slaves to the Americas in order to preserve and protect indigenous communities from the encomienda system. His justification for black slavery was based in his understanding that the black slaves had been acquired in a “just war” in Northern Africa. He recanted when he realized that this was not always the case. In contrast to slaves taken in “just war,” he argued that the Indians were not a threat to the Spanish and they had done nothing to merit the punishment of the Spanish. Since they were not slaves acquired in “just war” and they were not “civil slaves” (naturally inferior), the Indians were not appropriate slaves for the Spanish.
There were several formative moments in De las Casas’s life that influenced his life project in the Indies. In 1511 when he was 27 years old, Dominican Antonio Montesinos came to Santo Domingo and gave a sermon that castigated the encomenderos and the system of veritable slavery in which they participated. De las Casas’ reaction to Montesinos in 1511 was unremarkable; he was not yet a firm proponent of rejecting the encomienda system. Still, this event certainly made an impression on him and probably opened the door to his reflection on the ethics of Spanish colonization. In 1514 he witnessed an unprovoked massacre of Taíno Indians in Cuba and this, by his own account, became a moment of conversion for De las Casas.
He began a dialogue with the Spanish crown shortly after this in 1515 in which he petitioned for an audience to denounce the evils of the Spanish settlers. The King handed De las Casas off to the Council of the Indies under the Bishop of Burgos who would become one of De las Casas’ most hated enemies. When De las Casas told him about the killings of seven thousand Taíno children in three months in the Caribbean, the Bishop of Burgos responded frigidly that it did not concern him. Still, Bartólome de las Casas was persistent and in 1526 the Laws of Burgos were passed that enacted some modest safeguards for Indian laborers.
In 1542, Bartólome de las Casas pushed through the Nuevas Ordenanzas which were new laws that seriously undermined the encomienda system and the authority of the Spanish settlers. There was such a backlash against these new laws that they were repealed in 1545. Bartólome de las Casas was infuriated and circumvented the authority of the monarch by writing twelve rules for confessors that prohibited confession to anyone that did not perform restitution to the Indians. He based this on his evaluation of the conquest as fundamentally illegal. There was a backlash against these twelve rules and Gines de Sepúlveda reported Bartólome de las Casas to the Inquisition for circumventing the authority of the crown.
In 1550 the Valladolid debate took place between Gines de Sepúlveda, the official chronicler of Charles V, and Bartólome de las Casas. It was a debate organized in a very academic format in which both debaters read their views. Gines de Sepúlveda’s views are described in his Treatise on the Just Causes of War, but essentially he did not see the Indians as fully human because they were not civilized in the way that he understood it. He felt that they were “natural slaves” in the way that Aristotle proposed the concept as a naturally inferior people intended by God to be slaves. In the end, most theologians dismissed Sepúlvedas ideas and the crown did not publish his Treatise because Spanish authorities thought that it would fan the flames of unrest in the colonies.
Brevísima relación was written the year after the Valladolid debate and is widely considered to be a propagandistic work written with the rhetorical intent of persuading Phillip II to change policy in the Americas. Brevísima relación was an urgent petition of protest that is based largely on De las Casas’ first hand eye-witness accounts of what he saw in Cuba and Venezuela, but also on the accounts of other chroniclers and witnesses. He wanted to break what he perceived as a conspiracy of silence about the mistreatment of the indigenous population. He read a version of the text to the Council of the Indies. While much of what he relays is true there is also a lot of embellishment. There is the influence of classical antecedents in some of the stories that aid in his rhetorical purpose. He also relates what happens in places that he had never been to such as Peru where he tells the story of how the Spanish treated Atahualpa that he did not witness. De las Casas’ writings are seen as having contributed greatly to the Black Legend of Spain that greatly damaged the reputation of Spain throughout the world.
Loose ends: the requerimiento was a discourse read in warning to the Indians about what would happen to them if they did not accept Spanish colonial authority. Often this was not read in a language that was understandable to them and sometimes it was read to a village at night when no one was listening. This was more about the performance of justice than anything else.