Bartolome overtaken by passionate concern for justice
Bartolome de las Casas came to Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) as a youth, soon after Columbus' discovery in 1492. Though he had been a bit of an idealist hitherto, once gold fever struck him he dedicated himself to getting rich quickly. And soon he was an encomedero (holder of mining and land concessions) like his compatriots, engaging in wars of pacification and the enslavement of those Indians they hadn't already slaughtered.
He was among the first Spaniards to go to Cuba, where they practised the same devastation.
Meanwhile, he'd been ordained a priest, consoling himself by recognizing that his mistreatment of the Indians was not as bad as that of the other encomenderos.
But he underwent his own Road to Damascus and, like Paul, was converted. Now a passion for justice took hold of him and would not let him rest.
De las Casas returned to Spain, caught the ear of King Ferdinand who promised redress for the Indians, then promptly died, and de las Casas was back at square one.
The new king, Charles V, dawdled in the Low Countries, haggling over minor territorial disputes. Meanwhile, de las Casas discovered that the real reason the viceroys, the generals and encomenderos in the Caribbean could exploit and enslave with impunity was no less than a bishop, the power behind the throne.
Bishop Fonseca (Bishop of Burgos, though he seldom showed up there) made it his business to extract wealth from these new lands for the crown, plus a great deal for himself. This meant supporting his minions in the Caribbean and he didn't care what happened to the Indians as long as one got a lot of labour out of them.
After years of frustrated lobbying de las Casa did get the ear of the new king and, like Ferdinand, Charles was sympathetic, though much distracted securing his new position as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Charles did give de las Casas the authority to recruit a few hundred good, hard-working farmers to go with him as proper settlers in a stretch of the continent we know as the Yucatan Peninsula. De las Casas had great hopes for his colony. It would prosper in these marvellous new lands and be a good Christian example for the mainland Indians.
Alas, a new war of pacification was already underway on the mainland when they arrived in Santo Domingo. As so often before, de las Casas cried out, "I am ashamed to call myself a Christian."
Even his rock-solid farmer colonists betrayed his hopes. Lusting after gold, most of them eventually abandoned de las Casas' project in order to join Ponce de Leon's expedition to Florida.
In 1522 de las Casas joined the Dominican order. He was 38 and had another 44 years ahead of him. In 1529 he began writing his History of the Indies. He travelled in Mexico, in Guatemala, Panama and the islands of the Caribbean, and crossed the Atlantic many times to seek royal help in the defence of the Indians.
His greatest success was to wring the so-called New Indian Laws out of Charles V in 1542, which did give the remaining Indians some protection. Whenever the authorities wanted to make him a bishop, de las Casas fled in horror. But eventually Charles V did get him appointed Bishop of Chiapas, a post held with honour by the recently retired Bishop Ruiz.
Spain lusted after gold, found lots of it and neglected to develop the land where true riches could be found. England's American colonies, with no gold to speak of, tilled the land and the land rewarded them.
De las Casas could see the folly of Spanish policies, in addition to the injustices committed against the Indians. Readers may wish to rent the film The Mission, the story of the Jesuit Reductions in Paraguay. It shows the success of de las Casas' ideas, when applied, and the destruction created by enslavers acting with impunity. It's a film worth viewing, and visually rewarding with much footage of Iguacu Falls.
And de las Casas: Will he ever be canonized?