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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS, the Apostle of the Indians, was one of the first to protest by speech and pen against the hideous cruelties inflicted upon native West Indians by the invading Spaniards; and he left in his writings the record of a bondage compared with which negro slavery was mild. Bartolomé, the son of Antonio de las Casas, a companion of Columbus on his first voyage of discovery, was born in Seville in 1474. While yet a student at the University of Salamanca he became interested in the natives, through a young Indian whom he owned as slave. He first visited the New World as one of the followers of Columbus in 149–, returning after some years with Nicholas de Ovando, the governor of the Indies. Here his sympathies were fully aroused, as he witnessed the savage treatment of the simple natives and the incessant butcheries and slavery in the mines, which were rapidly depopulating the islands. In 1510 he took holy orders, being probably the first priest ordained in the New World.  1
  Las Casas at first was himself a slave-owner, willing to enrich himself by the toil of the red men, though from the very beginning he sympathized with their sufferings. But a sudden illumination came to him as he was preparing to preach a sermon on the Feast of Pentecost, in 1514, taking for his text the 34th chapter of Ecclesiasticus, verses 18 to 22. He awoke to the iniquity of slavery, set free his own Indians, and for forty years thereafter devoted himself heart and soul to the interests of the red men. It was at times a bitter task and made him many enemies among the invaders, who thought themselves curtailed in their natural rights as the superior race. Happily for his cause, Las Casas had powerful friends in Spain, chief among whom was the Emperor Charles V. The good priest crossed the ocean a dozen times to see that monarch on Indian affairs, following him even into Germany and Austria. Finally in 1547, when past his seventieth year, he settled down in Valladolid, in Spain, but still wrote and talked in behalf of the oppressed race. While on an errand for them to Madrid in 1566, he died at the ripe age of ninety-two, with bodily faculties unimpaired.  2
  The earliest work of Las Casas, ‘A Very Short Account of the Ruin of the Indies,’ written in 1542, first disclosed to Europe the cruelties practiced beyond the sea. It was frequently reprinted, and made a great impression. Other short treatises followed, equally powerful and effective. They were collected in 1552 and translated into several languages. His chief work however is a ‘General History of the Indies,’ from 1492 to 1520, begun by him in 1527, unfinished in 1561. He ordered that no portion should be printed until forty years after his death, but it remained in manuscript for three hundred years, being published at Madrid in 1875. It has been called the corner-stone of the history of the American continent. Las Casas possessed important documents, among them the papers of Columbus, now lost. In his long life, moreover, he knew many of the early discoverers and many statesmen, as Columbus, Cortes, Ximenes, Pizarro, Gattinora, and he was the contemporary of three sovereigns interested in the West Indies,—King Ferdinand the Catholic, the Emperor Charles V., and King Philip II. of Spain.  3
  Las Casas is sometimes taxed with having brought negro slavery into America. In his profound compassion for the Indians he maintained that the negroes were better fitted for slave labor than the more delicate natives. But the Portuguese had imported African slaves into the colonies long before Las Casas suggested it, while he in time renounced his error, and frankly confesses it in his history.  4
  He was a large-hearted, large-brained man, unprejudiced in an age of bigotry; of unwearied industry and remarkable powers of physical endurance that enabled him to live a life of many-sided activities, as priest and missionary, colonist, man of business, and man of letters. As a historian he was a keen observer of men and of nature, and chronicled with great exactness the social and physical conditions of the countries he traversed. His merits are summed up in the following words by John Fiske, in his ‘Discovery of America’:—
          “He was one of the best historians of his time, and wrote a most attractive Spanish style, quaint, pithy, and nervous,—a style which goes straight to the mark and rings like true metal. I do not mean to be understood as calling it a literary style. It is not graceful like that of great masters of expression such as Pascal or Voltaire. It is not seldom cumbrous and awkward, usually through trying to say too much at once. But in spite of this it is far more attractive than many a truly artistic literary style. There is a great charm in reading what comes from a man brimful of knowledge and utterly unselfish and honest. The crisp shrewdness, the gleams of gentle humor and occasional sharp flashes of wit, and the fervid earnestness, in the books of Las Casas, combine to make them very delightful. It was the unfailing sense of humor, which is so often wanting in reformers, that kept Las Casas from developing into a fanatic…. In contemplating such a life as that of Las Casas, all words of eulogy seem weak and frivolous. The historian can only bow in reverent awe before a figure which is in some respects the most beautiful and sublime in the annals of Christianity since the Apostolic age. When now and then in the course of the centuries God’s providence brings such a life into this world, the memory of it must be cherished by mankind as one of its most precious and sacred possessions. For the thoughts, the words, the deeds of such men there is no death; the sphere of their influence goes on widening forever. They bud, they blossom, they bear fruit, from age to age.”
  5
 
 
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