Bishop de Las Casas (1484-1566) is both labeled the founder of the Spanish transatlantic slave trade, and the initiator of the fight for human rights, a paradoxical and seemingly contradictory position. Yet both are true.
It was unfortunate indeed that de Las Casas suggested that Africans might be slaves.
But he did this misguidedly to help to alleviate the suffering of the indigenous Taino Indians, a strategy he later deeply regretted and realised was completely wrong.
There is much in the work of de Las Casas that is of encouragement to us today.
He was not a dogmatic fundamentalist, he was open to insights from the Indians, and to the achievements of their culture. For example, he wrote (between 1527-61) an eye-witness account, in which he states:
“[the Indians] did not lack anything to live politically and socially [in order to] attain and enjoy civil happiness. And they equaled many nations of this world that are renowned and considered civilized, and they surpassed many others, and to none were they inferior.
Among those they equaled were the Greeks and Romans, and they surpassed them by many good and better customs. They surpassed also the English and the French and some of the people of our own Spain; and they were incomparably superior to countless others, in having good customs and lacking many evil ones.”
This is startling enough by sixteenth century standards. But de Las Casas was not satisfied with a mere academic treatise.
He tried to turn his thinking into practical reality, for which trouble he was accused of treason, and reported to the Inquisition.
This was because, in his Confesionaro, with its twelve rules, his opponents found a denial of the legitimacy of Spanish rule over its colonies. His book was then officially burnt, but de Las Casas responded robustly, by asserting that the only legal claim that Spain had over the Indians was by peaceful proselytizing, and that all warfare was both illegal and unjust.
As if this was not enough, de Las Casas’s Dominican order refused absolution to slave owners, and stated that priests who contravened this were committing mortal sin. This was not a move that made for popularity.
In 1542, Spain abolished native slavery, largely driven by de Las Casas’s Brevisima relacion de la destrucción de las Indias. In 1659, rather belatedly, the book was banned by the Inquisition.
Yet, the force of evidence, and de Las Casas’ own openness caused him to change his attitude, particularly after reading the amazingly powerful passage in Ecclesiasticus (or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach) 34.18-22, which states: “A sacrifice derived from ill-gotten gain is contaminated a lawless mockery that cannot gain approval. The Most High is not pleased with the offering of the godless, nor do endless sacrifices win his forgiveness. To offer a sacrifice from the possessions of the poor is like killing a son before his father’s eyes. Bread is life to the destitute, and it is murder to deprive them of it. To rob your neighbour of his livelihood is to kill him, and the man who cheats a worker of his wages sheds blood.”
Bishop de Las Casas, having started as a slave-owner, ended as a pioneer of human rights.