Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish historian and Dominican missionary, was the first to expose the oppression of native peoples by Europeans in the Americas and to call for the abolition of slavery.
In 1502 he left for the West Indies, with the governor, Nicolas de Ovando. During his first years in America, Las Casas was a willing participant in the conquest of the Caribbean. As a reward for his participation in various expeditions, he was given an encomienda (a royal land grant including Indian inhabitants), and he soon began to convert the native population. In 1513 he took part in the bloody conquest of Cuba and, as priest-encomendero (land grantee), received an allotment of Indian serfs.
Las Casa became a defender of the indigenous peoples. In a famous sermon in 1514, he announced he was returning his Indian serfs to the governor. He returned to Spain in 1515 to plead for their better treatment. He was appointed to investigate the status of the Indians.
Las Casas began to work out a plan for a peaceful colonization by recruiting farmers as colonists. Las Casas’ idea was founding “towns of free Indians” of both Spaniards and Indians who would jointly create a new civilization in America. The failure to recruit a sufficient number of farmers, the opposition of the encomenderos, and an attack by the Indians themselves all were factors that brought disaster to the experiment 1522.
Upon his return to Santo Domingo, the unsuccessful priest and political reformer abandoned his reforming activities to take refuge in religious life. He wrote his masterpiece, the Historia de las Indias, highlighting what happened in the Indies. He wanted to expose the “sin” of domination, oppression, and injustice that the Europeans were inflicting upon the newly discovered native peoples. It was Las Casas’ intention to reveal to Spain the reason for the misfortune that would befall it when it became the object of God’s punishment.
Las Casas later accused persons and institutions of the sin of oppressing the Indian, particularly through the encomienda system. After spending time in Central America, where his ideas on the treatment of the native population invariably brought him into conflict with the Spanish authorities, he set forth the doctrine of peaceful evangelization of the Indian.
Las Casas’s work finally seemed to be crowned with success when King Charles signed New Laws. According to these laws, the slave owners had to set free their Indian serfs after the span of a single generation.
Source: Bartolomé de Las Casas
©2017 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.