Reaching the Ears of Kings
The Importance of Network for Bartolomé de Las Casas
Amidst this turmoil Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484) grew up. He was the son of a failing merchant in Sevilla of minor nobility and his uncles had connections with the Columbus family. When Las Casas was eight years old Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World. Four months later, Las Casas’ father and uncles would join Columbus on his second expedition to the Americas and in 1502 Bartolomé himself would make that journey for the first time. The young Las Casas went to the New World as a soldier and clergyman and was part of a punitive expedition on the island of Hispaniola. A year later, in 1503, he was witness to and possibly took part in a massacre of the natives of Xaragua. Around 1505 Las Casas was initiated into the priesthood and in 1506 he received a piece of land from Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher. On this land the native population was exploited by the Spanish, and Las Casas, in the encomienda system. This was the abusive system of forced labour against which Las Casas would fight later in his life. In 1514 Las Casas struggle for the rights of the Native Americans began. That year he had a radical change of heart, which resulted in him giving up his encomienda and starting to preach his newfound ideals.
In November 1542 the Leyes nuevas, the New Laws came into effect. They were designed to protect the rights of the Indians and battle corruption in the Americas, and were strongly influenced by Las Casas. Later that year he wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies as part of his personal correspondance with Emperor Charles V and Prince Philip, intentended to convince them to improve those New Laws. In 1514 Las Casas had been a landless priest of minor importance and in 1542 he had direct contact with and influence over Charles V, one of the mightiest men in the world. An extraordinary rise to prominence, that raises the question how he achieved it and how important his network was in the process.
When Las Casas was a boy, his father gifted him a young Indian slave from Hispaniola. The slave, who was baptized and named Juanico, would spent the majority of his life accompanying Las Casas. This relationship was one of the first long-term relationships between a European and a native of the Americas. According to some, this relationship was one of the influences that led Las Casas to his struggle for the rights of the natives. Surprising then is that Las Casas hardly ever worked with the Native Americans in his struggle for their rights. In all his years in the Americas Las Casas didn't even show interest in learning their languages, relying on translaters instead.
‘Therefore let those who, under the pretext of spreading the faith, invade, steal, and keep the possessions of others by force of arms – let them fear God, who punishes perverse endeavors.’ - Bartolomé de Las Casas
Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies is one of the first written accounts of the mistreatments of the Native Americans by the Spaniards. It was part of the personal correspondence of Las Casas with Emperor Charles V and Prince Philip II, written in the second half of 1542, according to legend in one night. The first printed version too was not meant for a large audience, but for Charles and Philip. In the Account Las Casas gives a systematic geographical overview of the atrocities committed by the Spanish against the natives in the New World and he states his hope that Charles V would act to put a stop to them. The Account has been reprinted in many languages, often to be used as anti-Spanish propaganda. Nowadays Las Casas is often criticized for describing the Indians too much as the perfect human specimen and exaggerating the number of Native American victims. It has to be kept in mind that the Account was first and foremost a political tool, not an accurate history.