The Indians had a name for Bartolomé de las Casas: "Father to the Indians." It had not always been so. When he first traveled to Spanish America he was twenty-four years old and no priest. To the contrary, he was following in conquistador footsteps. Like many Spanish youth he settled on a plantation where he enjoyed the forced labor of native conscripts.
One day in 1509, a Dominican monk, Father Montesinos spoke from the pulpit, berating Spanish colonists for their cruel treatment of the natives. How could men call themselves Christians and perpetrate the barbarities these butchers daily unleashed against their helpless charges? he asked.
Bartolomé was cut to the quick. While others screamed threats and abuse at the preacher, he went out and freed his slaves. Then he returned to Montesinos for advice as to what he should do next. Montesinos trained him to be a priest. He was the first Spaniard ordained in the new world.
Thereafter, Bartolomé labored for the Indians as few men have before or after. His whole life was devoted to that single cause. He wrote books documenting the cruelty done to the natives. He pleaded with those who ruled the colonies. Five times he crossed the ocean to plead with the king of Spain. The pope had granted Spain its possessions in the New World on the ground that Spain evangelize the Indians, Bartolomé reminded the king. The king agreed. Laws were passed ordering better treatment of the Indians. In the New World these benevolent rules were ignored by men who knew the king was powerless to enforce them. But the Indians knew Bartolomé as their benefactor and revered his name.
As a last resort, Bartolomé prevailed upon church authorities to refuse confession to men who continued their barbarities and did not return stolen loot and free their slaves. Priests who courageously carried out this directive were threatened and had to flee, while wicked priests continued to offer absolution to the brutal men under their charge.
When Bartolomé was old the king offered him the richest ecclesiastical see in gold--wealthy Peru. Bartolomé refused it. Send him to the poorest, he begged, some place where many natives remained unconverted so he would have much work to do for the Lord. He was given a place in impoverished Mexico.
He worked there for three years and then was forced to return to Spain to answer charges his enemies had trumped up against him. He came home fighting. Once again he proved that it was cruelty which had led to the revolts which the colonists tried to blame on his teaching. All the same, he was not allowed to return to his beloved Indians. On this day, July 31, 1566 he died. When the news reached the people he had done so much to help, they lamented in their villages and lighted bonfires in honor of his passing.
- Bandelier, Ad. F. Barolomé de las Casas. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Brion, Marcel. Bartolomé de las Casas; "Father of the Indians. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1929.
- Daniel-Rops, Henri. The Heroes of God. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959.
- "Las Casas, Bartolomé de." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of the Expansion of Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970 edition.
- MacNutt, Francis Augustus. Bartholomew de las Casas; his life, his apostolate, and his writings. Putnam, 1909.
- Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. The Pelican History of the Church #6. Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Pelican Books, 1964.
- Wagner, Henry Raup with Helen Parish. The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de las Casas. Albuquerque, New Mexico: The University of New Mexico Press, 1967.
Last updated April, 2007.