Bartolomé de Las Casas

Las Casas, Bartolomé de (bärtōlōmāˈ dā läs käˈsäs) [key], 1474–1566, Spanish missionary and historian, called the apostle of the Indies. He went to Hispaniola with his father in 1502, and eight years later he was ordained a priest. In 1514 he began to work for the improvement of conditions among the indigenous population, especially for the abolition of their slavery and of the forced labor of the encomienda. He devoted the rest of his life to that cause, going to Spain to urge the government to action, converting uncivilized tribes, and striving to break the power of Spanish landholders over native laborers. He tried unsuccessfully to establish a model colony for people of indigenous descent (1520–21), went to Peru with a royal cedula prohibiting native enslavement, worked among the native people of Guatemala, and for a brief time (1544–47) was bishop of Chiapa. In his concern to help the indigenous people of South America he endorsed the proposal to import African slaves, but repented his action almost immediately. Chiefly through his agency, humanitarian laws, called the New Laws, were adopted (1542) to protect the indigenous people in Spanish colonies, although later alterations, notably those of Pedro de la Gasca, rendered them almost ineffective. The writings of Las Casas contain good anthropological and historical material. He spent much of his time writing the monumental Historia de las Indias (1875–76); for selections in English translation, see Tears of the Indians (ed. by John Phillips, 1953) and Devastation of the Indies (1974).

See biographies by H. R. Wagner (1967), and J. Friede and B. Keen, ed. (1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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