The New Black Legend of Bartolomé de Las Casas

One of the earliest questions to arise among Spaniards from their initial encounters with the indigenous peoples of the New World was whether they were to regard and treat them as fully human. Many parties had a significant stake in the answer. If the indigenous were not fully human, they could be enslaved and treated as beasts of burden, helping the Spaniards secure the wealth that had drawn them to the New World. Further, Spain would be justified in conquering the Indians militarily, which would allow the Spaniards to spread the gospel by force and, therefore, more effectively and efficiently. If the indigenous were fully human, however, even if they practiced human sacrifice and idolatry, Spanish warfare against them could not be justified. The preaching of the gospel would have to be carried out peacefully and by example, as Christ had done. Their enslavement and brutal treatment might then be morally censurable. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar and the bishop of Chiapas, stood at the center of this controversy. 

The accusations and denunciations Las Casas leveled at the Spaniards over their treatment of the New World natives gave rise to what came to be known as the black legend of Spain. The accusations leveled at him in turn led to what might be called the black legend of Las Casas. As recent scholarship has shown, the argument continues even today, generally arising under the heading of race and concerning the appropriate relations among races and cultures. Las Casas held consistently that the peoples indigenous to the Americas, “the natives of the New World, whom we commonly call Indians,” fulfilled all the conditions for being regarded and treated as fully human, that is, as “men.” Thus, in Kantian terms, they were beings whose value was dignity, not worth. Las Casas adopted and developed his position with respect to the native peoples of the New World in part to combat the claims of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and others that they were, according to Aristotle’s classification, barbarians who were slaves by nature, whose status as humans not in a state of tutelage was a matter of debate.

To articulate his view, Las Casas relied on Scholastic doctrines concerning men and natural law promulgated by the School of Salamanca under the leadership of Francisco de Vitoria. The fundamental issue at stake for Las Casas and his intellectual and political allies and Sepúlveda and his allies concerned the inherent or inalienable rights of the Indians. The issues under debate, involving the religious, political, and property rights of the native peoples of the New World, were substantial and concerned matters that had not been previously explored, or had been explored only in analogical ways. The two distinguishable but ultimately inseparable core issues were whether these peoples could rightfully be subjugated to the wills of others and, concomitantly, how they were properly to be evangelized. Las Casas’s defense of the view that the natives of the New World were men underlay his doctrines as to how properly to evangelize them.

We have mentioned Las Casas and Kant in the same breath because they share a number of characteristics other than their high regard for the property of humanity in each human person. Most important among these is the intense scholarly attention each has received in his respective literature from his own lifetime to the present, and one has no reason to think that attention to their lives, work, and thought will soon diminish. Both have been and will continue to be focal points of hagiographic veneration and searing criticism. Both kinds of commentary point to their targets’ importance, for, as it is said, no thump without a pat. Scholars, historians, and philosophers tend to point approvingly or disapprovingly to Las Casas and Kant as authorities precisely because their presence is so great and so grave that appealing to either as holding the view for which one is arguing assures its importance. Some scholars have commented on both in the most excruciating detail—Hans Vaihinger wrote a two-volume, nine-hundred-page treatise on the first four pages of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and numerous persons have devoted their entire careers to unraveling Las Casas—while others have simply set them up as straw men for the illusions and calumnies they have loosed on the world. Each, finally, has proven too important to remain the exclusive property of scholars.

Lewis Hanke, one of the most important Las Casas scholars, has famously said that Las Casas was too great to be left to the Las Casas scholars. Although we make no pretensions to being Las Casas scholars, we do bring to this study backgrounds that allow us to approach Las Casas as outsiders with a broadly based interest in the history of ideas. We seek to place Las Casas and the scholarship that has grown up around his ideas in that broader philosophical and historiographic perspective, so as to shed light on his stance on the nature and standing of the peoples of the New World whom Europeans, in particular, the Spanish, had encountered less than a decade before Las Casas came to the Americas and less than thirty years before he began writing about them to the Spanish crown and his coreligionists.

As Anthony Pagden has convincingly argued, Las Casas bears distinctive witness to the peoples of the New World, one that emerges from his commitment to them as a Christian evangelizer. His relation to them by that fact alone required that the Spanish regard and treat them as individuals with a full set of rights that properly pertain to being human. In other words, because Las Casas lacked conceptual schemes that would allow him to classify the New World peoples in terms of genus and species or some other such construction, his only strategy, as a Christian and a product of Scholastic thought, was to argue that those peoples were fit subjects of evangelization, that is, potential proper members of the Body of Christ, and thus bearers of dignity who must be treated with respect.

In the course of his argument, Las Casas makes claims about Spanish treatment of the New World peoples that created hostility and resentment among his contemporaries, especially those who were pressing their own economic interests, that is, their need for labor, at the cheapest possible rates, in their New World enterprises and who, in order to accomplish this, argued that the New World populations ought not to be regarded as fully human and thus could not be evangelized as Las Casas would have them be. In this context of charge and countercharge what came to be known as “the black legend” of Spain arose, and we have now had under the guise of this rubric a multicentury controversy about Las Casas’s views of both the New World native peoples and the Spanish. We address this complex issue that serves both as halo and shroud to the man and his work, taking up both a relatively contemporary defense and restatement of Las Casas’s views and a new version of the black legend, the one that Daniel Castro formulates in his book, Another Face of Empire, which charges Las Casas with a kind of bad faith in his defense of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

What we refer to as the black legend did not originate with Bartolomé de Las Casas, but within one hundred years of its first formulation writers came to identify his name with it. The person credited with the first formulation of the “legend,” Francesco Guicciardini, intended it as a criticism of Spain’s policies and what he perceived as the Spaniards’ laziness and hypocrisy. The legend arose as a set of observational criticisms of the Spanish character that had their origin among Italians who interacted with Spaniards, criticisms that persons of other nationalities soon began to repeat and amplify primarily as an attempt to curb Spanish political power and influence. Thus Francesco Guicciardini writes in his Report from Spain:

The people are of a saturnine and sullen aspect, dark skinned, small in stature, and haughty by nature. In their own estimation there is no other nation to be compared with them. In speech they extol their own affairs and find clever ways to dissemble as much as they can. They are more inclined to arms than any other Christian nation. . . . There is great poverty in Spain. . . . They are not given to letters. . . . Dissimulation is natural to this nation, and it is an art that is very thoroughly developed among people of all classes.

In Latin America proper, the black legend of Spain came into its own with José Victorino Lastarria, who in his “Investigations Regarding the Social Influence of the Conquest and the Spanish Colonial System in Chile” cataloged the sins of Spain as a colonial power. A corresponding “white legend” of Spain, which had arisen in Europe, emerged in the New World with Andres Bello’s response to Lastarria, in which he pointed out that Spain was not worse than any other imperial power and, in fact, was better in many ways than, for instance, France, a country widely admired.

Las Casas enters “black legend” history with his Brevíssima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, which he wrote in 1542–43 and which Charles Gibson identifies as “the most frequently published single item in all of black legend history.” The Brevíssima’s main qualities are worth rehearsing briefly to establish the foundation. This small book is an episodic account of the brutalities that Spanish conquistadors, encomenderos, and other settlers both systematically and randomly perpetrated on the various indigenous peoples they encountered in the Americas. The kinds and degrees of brutality of which Las Casas accuses the Spaniards differ as a function of the situation. Thus, for instance, among the conquistadors, Cortés, who established the pattern, Pedro de Alvarado, and Francisco Pizarro come in for especially severe censure, Las Casas claiming that each successive conquest was more brutal than the last. Among the encomenderos, Las Casas rarely identifies a specific target, but he invariably cites acts of cruelty driven by Spanish greed and lack of fellow feeling for the indigenous.

For the contemporary reader, the main impression one has from reading the Brevíssima is that its characterizations of both the New World peoples and the Spaniards are so exaggerated as not to be credible. Las Casas claims that the book recounts persons and events he has witnessed with his own eyes, yet not only are the descriptions extreme, but they are also often of events and individuals of which Las Casas could have known only at second hand. He gives the following account of the nature of the native peoples:

All these universal and infinite peoples a toto genere God created to be a simple people, altogether without subtility, malice, or duplicity, excellent in obedience, most loyal to their native lords and to the Christians whom they serve; . . . They are also the most impoverished of nations, those who possess and desire to possess the fewest temporal goods, and thus they are never proud, never ambitious, never covetous. 

Las Casas’s portraits of the New World native peoples are consistent throughout the Brevíssima, and in their laudatory language—notice in the foregoing he portrays them as altogether abiding by the Ten Commandments—they paint pictures either of saints or of romantically idealized individuals and societies, to the extent that one can hardly regard them as real people. In similar fashion, Las Casas demonizes the Spaniards, both the conquistadors and the hacendados, as the following passages illustrate.

They would enter into the villages and spare not children, or old people, or pregnant women, or women with suckling babes, but would open the woman’s belly and hack the babe to pieces, as though they were butchering lambs shut up in their pen (Account, 9).

The diabolical commendero, they say, sent for an hundred Indians to come before him; and they came like lambs; and when they had come, he ordered that thirty or forty of them have their heads cut off, and says to the others: “I shall do the same to you all, if you do not serve me well or if you leave without my licence” (Account, 84).

One can only believe that Las Casas wrote the work with the intent of arousing as complete sympathy for the Indians and as firm moral and religious condemnation of the Spaniards as he could. The work is clearly polemical, intended to arouse emotions on behalf of the native peoples and against the Europeans, with the goal of moving the Spanish crown and the Council of the Indies to action. It appeals to the heart, not the head, and as Las Casas’s best-known and most widely read work, it casts him and his views in a certain light as well. The most unfortunate feature of appeals to the emotions is that once they are cast into the arena, all are free to respond to them as their emotions, interests, and loyalties dispose them, which is precisely what occurred with the Brevíssima and its author. Both became focal points for unreflective veneration or castigation, and Las Casas, the Spanish friar whose words were used to create the black legend of the Spanish presence in the Americas, became himself, for those Spaniards with proprietary interests in the New World, the object of a black legend. Those with proprietary interests included the full panoply of powers, including the crown, conquistadors, hacendados, and encomenderos, as well as the religious. In the end, the Brevíssima portrays the Spaniards and the New World natives as polar opposites of the human family, those who are depraved and those who are all but without moral stain. The important point, however, is that they are the polar extremes of humanity.

That the New World peoples were, in Las Casas’s own words, “in toto genere” “men” is a position to which he had come during the years prior to the publication of the Brevíssima. In two works whose manuscripts he wrote over a number of years, In Defense of the Indians and The Only Way, Las Casas, using the intellectual resources and methods available to him, that is, the Scholasticism and the doctrine of natural law as practiced by the School of Salamanca, develops and defends his views on the humanity of the Indians. One sees in Las Casas’s intellectual development with respect to this issue a repetition of his own personal conversion from encomendero as a young man to “Defender of the Indians,” first responding emotionally to Antonio de Montesinos’s sermon castigating the encomenderos for their treatment of their allotted Indians, then, sometime later, a full, Pauline-like conversion on their behalf as he was writing his own sermon on the Spanish treatment of the Indians. This second conversion was the beginning of his unstinting polemical and intellectual defense of the New World natives’ full humanity. His full-throated defense of the Indians’ humanity begins, as so often happens, in a moment of recognition, a moment in which, in his own words, he felt “an instinctive compassion, a grief I felt at seeing a people suffer.”

One finds the core of Las Casas’s argument regarding the humanity of the Indians in his doctrine of evangelization. From the fact that the Indians are fit subjects for evangelization and from Las Casas’s views as to how they are to be evangelized, it follows that the Indians must be regarded as fully human. These are the positions he develops in The Only Way and in his refutation of Sepúlveda’s position, which occurs in In Defense of the Indians. Sepúlveda never visited the New World; he built his position that the New World peoples were slaves by nature on the reports of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a royal officer and official historian for Spain, who wrote the Historia general y natural de las Indias (1535) and who reported to the Council of the Indies that, among other things, the natives of the New World were “naturally lazy and vicious, melancholic, cowardly, and in general a lying, shiftless people. Their marriages are not a sacrament but a sacrilege. They are idolatrous, libidinous, and commit sodomy.” Such descriptions as these became the basis for Sepúlveda’s and the Council’s view that not only was it morally acceptable to place the native peoples in servitude, denying them all normal rights afforded human beings, but it was also appropriate to convert them to Christianity by whatever means possible, assuming them to have the potential for accepting the gospel.

Las Casas could not allow the matter of the Indians’ personhood, their dignity, to remain a simple matter of conflicting eyewitness accounts. Of necessity, he had to ground his defense in the argument strategies and conceptual framework of the time. For this reason, he mounts his defense of the Indians by refuting the claim that they fell under the Aristotelian category of barbarians who were slaves by nature. Of course, this refutation rests on his observations of their behaviors and cultures, but they are observations he systematically organizes and presents so as to speak to the specific characteristics by virtue of which peoples were at the time regarded as barbarian slaves by nature. The New World peoples could not be so regarded because they were

not ignorant, inhuman or bestial. Rather, . . . they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, and custom. They cultivated friendship and, bound together in common fellowship, lived in populous cities in which they wisely administered the affairs of both peace and war justly and equitably, . . . and could have won the admiration of the sages of Athens (Defense, 43).

Las Casas’s characterization of the Indians speaks to the very specific criteria first Aristotle and then, in Las Casas’s time, Sepúlveda and his allies used to identify barbarians who were nonetheless fully human and whom one was obligated to respect as such and against whom one might rightfully conduct only just wars. That is, Las Casas’s position is that the Spanish have neither legal nor moral justification for treating the Indians differently from the way they would treat European and other peoples and nations they recognized as civilized, even if they practiced different customs, organized themselves according to different legal systems, and confessed different faiths. Based on this characterization, Las Casas concludes the Defense by asserting, “They should be ashamed who think to spread the gospel by the mailed fist. Men want to be taught, not forced” (Defense, 225). He opens his great work on evangelization with the following words: “It was the will and work of Christ . . . that God’s chosen should be called . . . from every race, every tribe, every language, every corner of the world. . . . The reason is, they are all human beings” (Defense, 63). These are the words, finally, by which Las Casas defines his position with respect to the Indians and positions himself for his fellow countrymen’s and coreligionists’ attacks. If the peoples of the New World are humans, not justly subject to any form of oppression or coercion, then those who do coerce and oppress are subject to moral condemnation, and, thus, in Las Casas’s eyes stood the vast majority of the Spaniards. Hence the two forms of the black legend, the one with which Las Casas is credited and the one of which he became the subject.

Although the sense of the black legend arose in earlier times, the actual term black legend has a rather contemporary origin, having been coined by Julián Juderías in the early twentieth century, but in a relatively short time, less than fifty years, the term seems to have become widely understood and well accepted. It was Rómulo Carbia in his Historia de la leyenda negra hispano-americana who seems to have made Las Casas the focal point of the term black legend. Carbia calls Las Casas’s reports of Spanish abuses of the indigenous peoples of the Americas into question by citing testimonies from other early European settlers. He proceeds, then, to accuse Las Casas not only of bias but also of bad faith in his accounts of Spanish activity in the Americas.

In the mid-twentieth century, a renewed focus on Las Casas’s ideas arose because scholars saw his views as relevant to issues that ranged from various kinds of tyranny to genocide to liberation movements. Further, a sympathy for the American Indian had begun to surface. With the resumption of scholarly life in Europe, Latin America, and the United States immediately after World War II, discussions of the black legend began specifically to organize themselves around Las Casas, his reports from the Americas, and his various defenses of the “Indians,” including his doctrines about the proper scope and limits of the evangelization of indigenous peoples. Las Casas became the focus because of his clear sympathy for and defense of those who stood outside of what he regarded as received culture and institutions, that is, of those who by all accounts were “other.” Inevitably, with approving citations of Las Casas, there also arose new criticism of his work in the Americas.

The confrontation between Las Casas’s supporters and detractors continues today. Looking at the supporters and detractors historiographically, one sees, not surprisingly, that they tend to reflect the intellectual concerns of their day and their position. In his 1953 article in the Hispanic American Historical Review, Lewis Hanke noted the tremendous differences of interpretation among Las Casas scholars, as did Benjamin Keen in his 1971 introduction to Juan Friede’s and his Bartolomé de Las Casas in History; and since that time, in our own day, we find similar divergent opinions. For purposes of this discussion, we have chosen two paradigmatic examples, Gustavo Gutiérrez and Daniel Castro. Both are Peruvians, both deeply identify with the cause of the indigenous, and they write within a decade and a half of each other. But in their views of Las Casas, they could not be more opposed.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, Dominican priest and theologian, founder of the modern liberation theology movement, saw in the thought of Las Casas the ideas of a man ahead of his time, ideas in defense of native peoples that have meaning as much today as they did in the sixteenth century. “Today,” Gutiérrez writes in his 1992 study of Las Casas, “the native peoples, like the extensive black population of this continent, continue to see their lifestyles, their values, their customs, their right to life and liberty, trodden under foot. We must undertake once more, in our age, the colossal endeavor of Bartolomé de Las Casas if we would forge a liberating evangelization of Latin America.”

Further, seeing in Las Casas a fellow traveler in liberation theology, albeit anachronistically, Gutiérrez writes, “Despite the obvious distance between historical contexts, Bartolomé’s commitment constitutes a challenge for us today. In our times, too, the rights of the poor and oppressed must be defended according to the guidelines of the Medellín Conference” (456). Gutiérrez also experiences the voice of Las Casas as a link between the beliefs of the early church and the church reforms of Vatican Council II in the mid-1960s (454). The earliest Christian thinkers accepted the religious values that existed, he says, as did Las Casas. Las Casas’s unyielding insistence that the indigenous people’s rights as free rational beings be respected, that they not be coerced into accepting a religion that posits beliefs contrary to their own, not only echoed the ideas of the early Christians but also foreshadowed the reforming messages of Vatican II. Quoting from Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Gutiérrez makes the point that this language merely states what Las Casas defended in his own time, the right of every human person to choose his own religion:

The Vatican Synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. . . . The Synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person (187).

Finally Gutiérrez notes, “In the first centuries, the church maintained both the truth of the Christian message and the urgency of respecting free access to that message without interference on the part of civil authority. Las Casas, in his era, and in terms of the problems of the Indies, intuitively adopts these early ideas—as, in its own language, Vatican II will do” (188). By contrast, and not surprisingly, Gutiérrez sees Ginés de Sepúlveda, Las Casas’s great adversary in the Valladolid debates over the humanity of the indigenous, as solidly entrenched in the medieval tradition of thought: “There is nothing theologically new . . . in Sepúlveda’s position [on the salvation of the heathen]. He is only rehearsing medieval theology” (248).

The specific messages in the writings of Las Casas that resonate so strongly with Gutiérrez in the era of liberation theology focus on three things: concern for the poor and marginalized and belief in the equality of all persons; freedom of religious choice and its corollary nonviolence as an approach to evangelization; and the gospel as the root and foundation of evangelization.

First let us discuss the poor, the marginalized. The concern both Las Casas and Gutiérrez have for the poor and others relegated to society’s refuse is paramount. Gutiérrez speaks of Las Casas as seeing “in the Indian, in this ‘other,’ this one-different-from-the-Western, the poor one of the gospel, and ultimately Christ himself” (56). Las Casas continually reminds his readers and listeners that God loved all persons, especially those most rejected by society. As he states in his Apología, “The Indians are our siblings, and Christ has given his life for them. Why do we persecute them with such inhuman cruelty when they do not deserve such treatment?” (Apología, 252–53). He also reminds us that God requires us to love our neighbor. Gutiérrez says of Las Casas that it is his “deep conviction not only that God has created all human beings equal, but that God wills them actually to be treated as such, in all regions of the earth” (Gutiérrez, 217).

Second, nonviolence. Gutiérrez, responding as he was to an age and place where violence was the common way of forcing people to accept beliefs they could not truly own, would almost of necessity have responded positively to Las Casas’s peaceful approach to evangelization. Las Casas’s treatise, The Only Way, whose central thesis is that one can evangelize in only one way, the peaceful way, by persuasion and dialogue, resonates with Gutiérrez. One of Las Casas’s main tenets is that evangelization by force was not the evangelization of Jesus Christ. “What does the Gospel have to do with guns?” he asks in the Apología. “What do preachers of the Gospel have in common with armed thieves?” (117). Gutiérrez, with Las Casas, believes that the indigenous peoples must make their acceptance of the faith in total freedom, that forcing them to accept the faith before their understanding is fully mature is wrong. The intellectual jousting between Sepúlveda and Las Casas over human sacrifice was especially significant with respect to the use of force to suppress indigenous religious beliefs. Sepúlveda, seeing idolatry and human sacrifice as sins against natural law, argues that they are therefore offensive to God and should be punished; hence the war would be just. Arguing back through his Apología, Las Casas says:

When unbelievers are discovered to be committing a crime of this kind, they are not always to be attacked by war, although it may be the business of the Church to try to prevent it. But there must be lengthy consideration beforehand, so that in trying to prevent the death of a few innocent persons, we should not move against an immense multitude of persons including the innocent, and destroy whole kingdoms, and implant a hatred for the Christian religion in their souls, so that they will never want to hear the name or teaching of Christ for all eternity (Quoted in Gutiérrez, 190),

Third and finally, the Gospels. Core to both Las Casas and Gutiérrez are ideas and action firmly rooted in the Gospels. Las Casas regarded evangelization as the primary justification for the presence of the Spaniards in the New World. It was “the end, or final cause, for which these [Indies] have been granted by the Church to the Sovereigns of Castile and León, who until now have had no stake in them” (quoted in Gutiérrez, 194). But the political imperative for evangelization paled before the religious imperative. “Las Casas’s inspiration in the gospel and experience in the Indies converge and fuse,” Gutiérrez writes, “accentuating the role of deeds in any Christian testimonial to the God who is love” (161). But then Gutierrez, who faced the challenge of applying the gospel to his own difficult situation, points out that conditions in the New World presented a challenge to Las Casas with respect to the gospel, stirring him to a “rereading that will lead him to interesting theological intuitions, and distance him from the Western, and ultimately comfortable, theology of salvation dominant in his time” (193–94). So, for instance, Las Casas quotes John (10:10) in his argument against violence in matters of religion: “I came that they might have life and have it to the full.” And, as Gutiérrez points out, Las Casas constantly uses one specific text from the Gospel of Matthew to call for justice toward the Indians: “None of those who cry out, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” As Gutierrez sums it up, Las Casas “allows the light of the gospel to fall on [what is happening, sorrowfully and daily, to the dwellers of the Indies] in order to understand what it is that he must do as a Christian” (270).

We come now to Daniel Castro. He is an interesting and important entrant into the debate on the nature and sincerity of Las Casas’s effort on behalf of indigenous peoples because Castro is himself of indigenous American descent, a Peruvian born in the high Andes who came to the United States for undergraduate and graduate education and is now a successful university professor with a distinctive voice, a voice to which, if only because of its provenance, one must pay heed. Castro does not see in Las Casas the blessed figure that Gutiérrez described fifteen years earlier. The core point for which Castro argues is that, however tempted we might be to set Las Casas up as a model of a liberal defense and action on behalf of downtrodden and otherwise disenfranchised peoples, we must not so regard him. In fact, whatever his words and actions might suggest, he was at best ineffective, at worst insincere, more a moral bungler than a successful defender of the rights of indigenous peoples. Hence the new black legend of Bartolomé de Las Casas, not that he condemned Spanish mistreatment of the peoples of the Americas, not that he besmirched the virility and moral uprightness of the Spanish people, but that he, Las Casas, is not in fact an individual to be held up as a defender of the dispossessed. Rather, he manifests all the uncaring and arrogance of one who is a member of a dominant culture and who thereby has special access to the truth. Castro presses his indictment in a number of ways.

First, “what is often overlooked in the exaltation of Las Casas is his overriding concern to convert the inhabitants of the Americas to Christianity[,] . . . [which] is an act of ecclesiastical imperialism” (Castro, 6). “The only explanation for such behavior must be found in his overriding conviction of the innate superiority of his religious beliefs over those of the Native Americans he so wanted to protect” (9). Second, “his most effective praxis was carried out in the context of the Spanish court, not in American Territory. It was at court where he uninhibitedly played out his complex roles as the ‘universal protector of all the Indians of America.’ . . . Despite all impressions to the contrary, his contact with the objects of his affection, the American Indians, was minimal. . . . This divorce from the indigenous people and their culture is partially evident in his apparent lack of interest in learning native languages” (10–11). Third, “while he appears to have been aware of the demographic disaster that befell the natives and the extent of the human genocide obtaining in this emerging world, he either could not see or chose to ignore the cultural genocide” (11). Fourth, “from this perspective, Las Casas’s work develops not with the oppressed, the indigenous people, but within the context of the society of Spanish letrados, the imperial hegemonic culture, working to maintain the oppressive edifice represented by the occupiers” (14). Castro’s summation of his indictment against Las Casas reads as follows:

The main difference between Las Casas and the other colonists was his deeply seated belief that the implementation of imperialism—political, economic, and ecclesiastical—could be accomplished through nonviolent means, a departure in form but not in essence from the basic beliefs of his contemporaries. Ultimately, the friar like many modern intellectuals, failed to address the natives’ alienation and socio-cultural dislocation implicit in the forced process of conversion to an alien faith and an alien way of life (179).


In our days, the bishop of Chiapas has become the patrimony of the intellectual members of white and mestizo society in Indoamérica more than of the Indian masses (183).

When one places Castro’s and Gutiérrez’s accounts of Las Casas side by side, one can hardly believe they are discussing the same individual, and if one had come to think well of Las Casas given Gutiérrez’s portrait of his work, one has an equally difficult time holding him in esteem in the face of any of the counts in Castro’s indictment. What binds these two portraits is their presentation of Las Casas’s focus on the indigenous peoples of Latin America. This double view of Las Casas leads us directly to the subject of this volume, forging peoples, race, ethnicity, and nationality in Latin American and Latino thought. From the moment of independence when the new intellectual and political leaders of Latin America were attempting to create nations, the indigenous population was among the issues they felt called to address. How do we constitute our nations, and what role do the various groups who will make up their citizenries, including the indigenous peoples, play in the life of those civil polities? In modern times, under the influence of the intellectual and emotional currents of liberation theology, Gutiérrez and other theologians faced much the same issue, focusing on justice for the poor, the marginalized, the refuse of society, who deserved a place within the structure.

In Castro we see yet another example of Bartolomé de Las Casas as the touchstone for an argument involving indigenous persons still struggling for their place in society. Las Casas is clearly a man with more than a symbolic significance for many ages, many issues. As with Kant, to whom we turn for both negative and positive stimulation when we take up issues of knowledge, rights, or aesthetic judgment, among other issues, Las Casas continues to speak to people on an issue of great importance to him and to us. Whether he exaggerated his accounts or spent too much time at court and too little time with the Indians, what the balance was between his activism and his theological writing—these are all relatively unimportant matters in the face of the staying power of his words and the inspiration he seems to have provided for legends, both black and white. It is our hope that this preliminary ordering and analysis of Lascasian scholarship might help uncover the core of this enigmatic friar. Gutiérrez threw down the challenge:

Only historical honesty can deliver us from the prejudices, narrow interpretations, paralyzing ignorance, and the deceptions foisted on us by private interests, which lay our history on us like a permanent mortgage instead of transforming it into a thrust to creativity. The recovery of our memory will inspire us to fling to the trash heap as inadequate and consequently useless, the so-called white legend and black legend of what occurred in the sixteenth century. A concealment of the complexity of what occurred in those years for fear of the truth, in order to defend current privileges, or—at the other extreme—a frivolous, irresponsible use of offensive expressions, condemns us to historical sterility (457).

In 1953 Lewis Hanke wrote:

Students of the Spanish conquest of America in the future may find it strange that so much controversy existed today—four hundred years after his first treatises were printed in Sevilla—on the true doctrine of Las Casas. They may conclude that all of us who are now attempting to grasp his significance have sought to relate him and his ideas too closely and too arbitrarily to the present world. Standing today on the top of a mountain of controversial writings about Las Casas through the centuries, perhaps we are all inclined to forget that he lived in the sixteenth century and must be judged ultimately as a man of his time.

In closing, using Kantian contexts, we want briefly to take up two issues, one that bears directly on the interpretation of Las Casas in one of his more controversial opinions, namely, how the indigenous of the Americas are to be evangelized and why; and one that deals more with the general problem of coming to grips not just with Las Casas but also with the Americas and its peoples, namely, the very historiographic problematic with which the clash of cultures confronts us. The first issue, evangelization, is the one with respect to which Gutiérrez and Castro are most at loggerheads. For the moment, we do not want to address Castro’s claim that Christian evangelization is ecclesiastical imperialism, for in some sense it surely is. The very foundation on which Las Casas’s doctrine of evangelization rests is the view that the peoples of the Americas are, in fact, men, that is, persons. He states this clearly in two ways:

We find that for the most part men are intelligent, far sighted, diligent, and talented. . . . [I]t would be impossible to find one race, nation, region or country anywhere in the world . . . not having for the most part sufficient natural knowledge and ability to rule and govern itself (Defense, 31).

The truths of mission all agree that the way of teaching, of drawing people best to God and the knowledge of the truth has to win the mind with reasons and win the will with motives that are compelling and attractive (The Only Way, 113–14).

The first passage establishes incontrovertibly that Las Casas regards the peoples of the Americas as men capable of self-determination; the second, in saying that one must appeal to the Indians with respect to both their intellects and their wills, suggests that he regards them as free rational beings, that is, in Kantian terms, autonomous agents, persons, bearers of dignity, who must be respected as ends in themselves, never as mere means to the ends of an other. Of course, the further consequence of this view is that they are precisely the kinds of beings fit to be and become citizens, an opinion that, had it been attended to, would by itself have included them in the activity of nation-building that Spanish-speaking Latin America undertook in the nineteenth century.

So why were they left out? How did they become so marginalized that their voice was and could not be heard. The reasons are many, but we can find one of them in this melancholy footnote from Kant’s little essay, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent.” He writes:

Only an educated public, which has existed from its outset down to our own time, can authenticate ancient history. Beyond it, everything is terra incognita; and the history of those peoples living outside it can begin only at the time at which they entered it. This happened with the Jewish people through the Greek translation of the Bible at the time of the Ptolemies, without which their isolated reports would receive little credence. From there (once this beginning has been properly fixed) one can follow their narratives back. And so it is with all other peoples. The first page of Thucydides (says Hume) is the only beginning of all true history.

This Kantian reflection both clarifies and sets out the challenge to which we have become acutely sensitive, and it is the challenge that Castro clearly points to in the case of Las Casas and the indigenous people, that inevitably in the encounter and clash of cultures, with its misunderstandings, failures to communicate, much less understand and sympathize, we end up in these situations in which one culture comes to dominate and force itself on to another culture. The outcomes almost never have anything to do with right but only with power. And while we can grant Castro’s point that Las Casas’s doctrine of evangelization is imperialistic, Las Casas’s specific expression of his doctrine of evangelization protects him from the harshest versions of that accusation. The greatest service we can perform in trying to get to historical truth with respect to Las Casas is to evaluate him, as well as Gutiérrez and Castro, as thinkers whose analyses flow from the social conditions and intellectual currents of their own time. But relative to Gutiérrez and Castro, we can see that with respect to issues of forging peoples, Bartolomé de Las Casas serves as an indispensable point of reference and icon.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Forging People Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in Hispanic American and Latino/a Thought. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image:  Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Medallón de la Plaza de España de Sevilla, Andalucía, España taken by CarlosVdeHabsburgo; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey

Janet Burke is Lincoln Center Affiliated Faculty at the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University.

Ted Humphrey is an Emeritus Professor at Arizona State University.

Read more by Janet Burke and Ted Humphrey