Bartolomé de la Casas (1474-1566)

Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artist's Narrative:
Bartolomé de las Casas arrived as a settler in the Americas ten years after Columbus’ first voyage. He received a plantation and Native American slaves in return for his help in quelling a native rebellion. Ten years later he became the first Catholic priest ordained in the Americas.

Even as a priest he saw nothing wrong with enslaving the native population until he had to preach on a passage from Ecclesiasticus: "The sacrifice of an offering unjustly acquired is a mockery..." Meditating on this passage was a turning point in his life. He freed his slaves and spent the next 50 years fighting for the freedom of all Native Americans. He has been described as a combination of ancient Jewish prophet and modern lawyer. His first trip back to Spain on behalf of Native Americans was in 1514. Altogether he crossed the Atlantic ten times. He devised a utopian scheme to replace the current policy of slavery and received permission from the crown to put it in practice. He also took back with him an official committee to investigate abuses of native rights. Raids by Spanish slavers foiled his attempts to establish his utopian communities and the official committee yielded to pressures from wealthy colonists by upholding the system of slavery. Totally discouraged, Las Casas entered the Dominican Order and withdrew from the world for eleven years.

When he returned to public life, he launched a missionary campaign in northeastern Guatemala. Back in the Spanish court, he was instrumental in the passage of the New Laws in 1542, which abolished Native American slavery. Appointed bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, he struggled to enforce the New Laws, opposed even by his clergy.

In 1550 he won his famous debate with Sepulveda, over the question of whether Native Americans were human beings with civil rights. He resigned as bishop and spent the last thirteen years of his life in Spain, following the court from place to place, demanding justice for Native Americans -- despite the fact that he was in his 80's and early 90’s. He died on July 17, 1566, begging for Dominican brothers to continue his work. He is the first of many in the Americas who have spent their lives fighting for human freedom and dignity.


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