The first Catholic priest ordained in the New World (1512), Bartolome de las Casas is considered by many, along with Antonio de Montesinos and Juan Quevado, to be among the first Indian rights activists. His The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, first published in 1552, chronicles Spanish depredations and was translated almost immediately following its publication into every major European language. Though its original audience was intended to be Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and Charles I of Spain, to whom de las Casas appealed to end these atrocities, it was later used by other European powers in attempts to discredit Spain's colonial claims. It caused a major public outcry, both against the conquistadors and soldiers as well as against de las Casas himself for exposing them.
Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, in 1484, the son of merchant Pedro de las Casas who had made enough money to finance his son's study of Latin. Pedro and three of his brothers were on Columbus's second voyage. Of their time there, scholars only know that Pedro was given an Indian youth as a slave, whom he subsequently bestowed on his son. Bartolome gave the boy back to Spanish authorities so that he might return home. In 1502, at the age of eighteen, de las Casas himself journeyed to the Indies with Nicolas de Ovando's twenty-five hundred soldiers. After returning to Europe to be ordained as a deacon in Rome, he returned, meeting such figures as Hernán Cortéz and Pedro de Alvarado, some of the most notorious leaders of the invasion. De las Casas went with Diego de Velasquez and Panfilo de Narvaz as a chaplain during the invasion and genocide in Cuba, where soldiers engaged in horrific slaughter while Columbus lay ill. De las Casas was rewarded, along with the others, with Indians and land for his service as a priest just as the soldiers were for their "work." In 1514, de las Casas shocked his parish by preaching against Spanish behavior toward the Indians.
Thus, Las Casas began a crusade that would gradually grow until he was granted an audience with the king in 1520, both to testify regarding his views and to defend himself in regard to the charges pressed against him by other Spanish colonists. Charles ruled in de las Casas's favor, agreeing that the time for military conquest was over and that Natives could be converted and saved according to peaceful means along with a nonviolent agricultural colonization. However, this did not change the actual conditions. De las Casas returned to the New World later that year to start a missionary community in Venezuela that he planned to be self-sustaining, but it failed due to the propagandizing of his enemies, which caused an Indian uprising. He became a Dominican monk, writing his plan for peaceful conversion in his The Only Method of Attracting Everyone to the True Religion. He also began in the monastery Apology for the History of the Indies and The History of the Indies.
Finally, in 1537, Pope Paul III issued a bull according human status to American Indians; as humans, they had the right to have their lives and property protected under church law. King Charles also backed an enterprise by de las Casas and the Dominican order to put the plan proposed in The Only Method to work in missions in Guatemala. The king issued his New Laws in 1542, making Indian slavery illegal and outlawing the inheritance of land and slaves (known as encomiendas) given in the earlier years of colonization. In Spain at the time, de las Casas had contributed to the passage of the New Laws, reading part of his Devastation to the court.
The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account is a plea for human rights. The Spaniards, arriving on slow wooden ships, distant from home and king, were free to do anything they pleased in violation of morality and law. Their actions, in part, stem from Spain's similar experiences under Moorish dominance for centuries. Papal bulls had also given permission to invade the lands and enslave the people "in the name of Christ" and justified war with resisting populations. De las Casas, as a Christian Spaniard, cannot tolerate the evils being perpetuated by his fellow Spaniards in the name of his God. De las Casas testifies to the poverty, humility, and peacefulness of the inhabitants of Hispaniola, which was shortly reduced from his estimate of 3 million to 200 in less than fifty years at the hands of the Spaniards. He adds that Cuba, San Juan, and Jamaica, along with numerous other small islands, had been almost entirely depopulated and devastated.
De las Casas recounts horrors that may even exceed those of the German Holocaust of the Jews. Part of the legacy of the Spanish is a program of genocide in the Americas that killed an estimated 100 million over the last 500 years (Stannard, 1992, 150–151). Certainly, even with 6 million Jews killed during World War II, the holocaust in the Americas has outdone it in numbers and scope. The Spaniards killed not only Indians in combat, but also the elderly and the children, pregnant women and those in childbirth, not just "stabbing and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house" (de las Casas, 1992, 33). The Spaniards wagered over who could cut an Indian in two with one pass of the sword, cut off an Indian's head most efficiently, or empty his belly of bowels the quickest. De las Casas reports infants being taken from their mothers, thrown off cliffs or into rivers, smashing their heads against the rocks. He indicates that other Indians were put to death by hanging them from gallows with their toes dangling above the ground, a blaze lit beneath them to honor "the memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles" (de las Casas, 1992, 34), their tongues depressed with sticks to suppress their screams as they slowly cooked to death.
He also reports on the practice of "dogging," that is, of hunting, typically Indian children, but also adults, for sport and amusement and for the purpose of feeding the Spaniards' war dogs. He reports the rape of Indian women for the purpose of increasing her sale value as a pregnant slave and for the purpose of degrading the men. Michele de Cuneo, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage:
While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun. But seeing that . . . I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots (Quoted in Stannard, 1992, 84).
De las Casas also relates the horrors experienced by the survivors in Spanish slavery, many of whom died in transport being brought from other areas of the New World once the population of the earliest contact was devastated. Throughout the area of the Americas invaded by the Spanish, de las Casas cites the deaths of numerous others, many of them children, through malnutrition and starvation, abuse, overwork, disease, and suicide. Some Spaniards practiced cannibalism by choice and forced the Indians they enslaved to engage in it as well. Children were sometimes killed to save them from the slow, tortuous death of enslavement that often began before the age of three. De las Casas details Spanish atrocities against the Aztecs brought by Cortes and throughout the Americas, all in the name of gold more than God, also indicting Germans for similar behavior, though they were in the Americas in fewer numbers. De las Casas died in July 1556 and was buried in the chapel of the convent of Our Lady of Atocha in Madrid, regretting he had not been able to do more.
Champagne, Duane, ed. 1994. The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.; de las Casas, Bartolome. 1992. The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. Translated by Herma Briffault. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Donovan, Bill. 1992. "Introduction." In The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. By Bartolome de las Casas. Translated by Herma Briffault, 1–25. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Hoxie, Frederick E., ed. 1996. Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.; Stannard, David E. 1992. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.