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Las Casas Day

David Wallace Croft

A sermon presented to the
Humanist Church of North Texas
Dallas, Texas, USA
2004 Sep 18 Sat

The title of this sermon is “Las Casas Day” as I propose a new holiday celebrating the life of Barolome de las Casas, a 16th century humanitarian hero. Through my participation in the Metroplex Atheists Reading Group (MARG), I recently read the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" by James W. Loewen. I highly recommend this book. The author shows a sharp contrast between the ethics of Christopher Columbus and Bartolome de las Casas. It was after reading this book that it came to me that we should be celebrating Las Casas Day instead of Columbus Day.

To make this point, let me quote from Christopher Columbus himself from 1500 CE:

I should be judged as a captain who went from Spain to the Indies to conquer a people numerous and warlike, whose manners and religion are very different from ours [...] [Bartlett 17th Ed.].

Columbus initiated the slave trade in the Americas. On his first voyage, he captured Indians and had them shipped back to Spain as slaves. Over his lifetime, he directly enslaved about 5000 Indians, probably more than any other individual at that time [Loewen, Ch. 2]. Should we honor such an individual with a holy day?

From an educational website, I read that "Las Casas came to the Indies early, he knew Columbus and was the editor of the Admiral's journal."

This gave Las Casas the opportunity to observe and document the inhumanity initiated by Columbus. In the article "Goodbye, Columbus Day", Norman Solomon states:

History tells a different story. The most important document of the era is the multi-volume "History of the Indies" by Bartolome de las Casas -- a Spanish priest involved in the conquest of Cuba who owned a plantation employing Indian slaves. But Las Casas had a change of heart, and began recording what he'd witnessed.

He described a cooperative Indian society in a bountiful land, a generally peaceful culture that occasionally went to war with other tribes. Yet there'd been no subjugation like that brought by Columbus. Writing in the early 1500s, Las Casas detailed how a whole people was basically worked to death – depopulated -- in utter brutality: men in gold mines, women in the fields.

Las Casas witnessed Spaniards -- driven by "insatiable greed" -- "killing, terrorizing, afflicting, and torturing the native peoples" with "the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty." The systematic violence was aimed at preventing "Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings.”

Again we see evidence of the general rule that dehumanization is necessary to commit genocide. Again quoting from Solomon:

The Spaniards "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades", wrote Las Casas. "My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write."
["Goodbye, Columbus Day”, Norman Solomon,]

Las Casas lived during the Renaissance, a period defined by the dictionary Merriam-Webster Online as

the transitional movement in Europe between medieval and modern times beginning in the 14th century in Italy, lasting into the 17th century, and marked by a humanistic revival of classical influence expressed in a flowering of the arts and literature and by the beginnings of modern science
[Merriam-Webster Online,].

Las Casas was born in 1474 CE, 18 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He died in 1566 at the age of 92, 22 more years than the allotted three score and ten. Renaissance contemporaries of Las Casas included:

  • Christopher Columbus the Conqueror who lived from 1451 to 1506;
  • Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 to 1519;
  • Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469 to 1527;
  • Nicholas Copernicus, 1473 to 1543;
  • Michelangelo, 1475 to 1564;
  • Martin Luther, 1483 to 1546; and
  • Hernan Cortes, 1485 to 1547.

Quoting from Hernan Cortes the Conquistador in 1522:

[The Aztecs] said that by no means would they give themselves up, for as long as one of them was left he would die fighting, and that we would get nothing of theirs because they would burn everything or throw it in the water. [Bartlett 17th Ed.]

A similar story about the Indians is recorded by Las Casas as quoted Loewen's book:
[read from Loewen, p63]

We all know that "In 14 hundred and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue...". Columbus was in search of the East Indies, also known as Southeast Asia which includes India, Indochina, Malaya, & Malay Archipelago. Instead Columbus discovered what are now known as the West Indies: the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. The island of Hispaniola is divided between the countries Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This is why we call the people he discovered "Indians" today.

As emphasized in Loewen's book, to understand the present, you must know the past. In 1496, 4 years after Columbus discovered the Americas, there were 1.1 to 3 million Arawak Indians on the island of Hispaniola. Within 50 years, they were all wiped out [Loewen p55]. How did this happen? We read that

Spanish convicts, given a second chance in Haiti, could “go anywhere, take any woman or girl, take anything, and have the Indians carry him on their backs as if they were mules” [Loewen p57]

After the Arawak Indians of Hispaniola were wiped out by the Spanish, Africans were imported as slaves. Since then, Haiti has had a succession of slave revolts and American intervention. America intervened to prevent the slave revolts in Haiti from spreading to slave states [Loewen pp142-3]. Over the years, intervention continued for other reasons. The Secretary of Navy complained that what President Woodrow Wilson "forced [me] to do in Haiti was a bitter pill for me" [Loewen p15].

When I first wrote the first draft of this sermon in June of 2004, U.S. Marines were in Haiti and Haitian protesters were accusing our President of kidnapping their President.
[ ?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20040618/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/haiti_march_1]

Three months later, I now read that there is a 3,000 member United Nations peace keeping force on the island and that rebels refuse to disarm and surrender control to the U.S. backed government.
[ ?slug=Haiti+rebels+refuse+to+disarm&id=60532]

To understand the present, you must know the past.

The following is from a website about the personal history of Las Casas:

Las Casas was born at Seville in 1474. His father, of humble origin, could accurately be described as a nouveau riche. A common soldier under Columbus in his first voyage to the New World, he acquired enough wealth in the Indies to send his son to the prestigious University of Salamanca. For one who attained such prominence as a cleric, Bartolome was rather tardy in taking religious orders. Though he studied both divinity and law, he took only a law degree when he completed his studies in 1498. In 1502 he accompanied the conquistador Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo to the New World in what was then the greatest armada ever sent out from Spain.

In 1510, at age 36, Las Casas finally entered the priesthood. Ordained at Santo Domingo, capital of Hispaniola, he was the first priest ever to be consecrated in the colonies. The following year he accompanied the expedition that set forth from Hispaniola to occupy Cuba.

It was there that Las Casas first began to gain his reputation as a protector of the Indians. Leading opposition forces against the Spanish invasion was a chief named Hatuey. Captured, he was sentenced by the governor, Diego Velazquez, to be burned alive. Though Las Casas intervened in Hatuey's behalf, he was overruled by the governor. But he had one consolation: Hatuey's death gave him vivid material for his expose of Spanish cruelty toward the Indians. In his “Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies”, Las Casas relates that Hatuey was given a chance to embrace christianity before being burned so that his soul might go to heaven. The condemned chief asked if he would find the white man there. Told he would, he made this poignant reply: "Then I will not be a Christian, for I would not again go to a place where I must find men so cruel!"

This experience launched Las Casas on his lifelong crusade against mistreatment of Indians, [...]

From another website, we read that

Bartolome de Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, in 1474. In 1502 he went to Cuba, and for his military services there was given an Encomienda, an estate that included the services of the Indians living on it. In about 1513 he was ordained priest (probably the first ordination in the Americas), and in 1514 he renounced all claim on his Indian serfs. During the following seven years he made several voyages to Spain to find support for a series of new towns in which Spaniard and Indian would live together in peace and equality. In 1523 he became a Dominican friar and disappeared for a time from public controversy. In 1540 he returned to Spain and was a force behind the passage in 1542 of laws prohibiting Indian slavery and safeguarding the rights of the Indians. He was made Bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala, and returned to the Americas in 1544 to implement the new laws, but he met considerable resistance, and in 1547 he returned to Spain, where he devoted the rest of his life to speaking and writing on behalf of the Indians.

From another website:

Turning down the bishopric of Cuzco, Peru, Las Casas came to Chiapas in 1544, at age 70. William Prescott, leading 19th century historian of the conquest of Mexico, writes as follows:

The colonists looked on his coming with apprehension... everywhere he was received with coldness... yet he showed no disposition to conciliate his opponents... (he) outraged the plantees'' and "incurred the disapprobation of his own brethren in the Church.”

Finally, fearing for his life, the 73-year-old bishop returned to Spain in 1547. He never returned to the New World. But he had ready access to court, living in Madrid and using his favor in royal circles to act as a gadfly. He never abandoned his single-minded crusade to help the Indians and in 1550 organized a meeting of high civil and ecclesiastical authorities to consider the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas. He died in 1566, at the convent of Santa Maria de Atocha in Madrid.

In his book, Loewen states that

Las Casas opposed the slavery, land grabbing, and forced labor that Columbus introduced on Haiti. Las Casas began as an adventurer and became a plantation owner. Then he switched sides, freed his Indians, and became a priest who fought desperately for humane treatment of the Indians. When Columbus and other Europeans argued that Indians were inferior, Las Casas pointed out that Indians were sentient human beings, just like anyone else. When other historians tried to overlook or defend the Indian slave trade, begun by Columbus, Las Casas denounced it as "among the most unpardonable offenses ever committed against God and mankind." He helped prompt Spain to enact laws against Indian slavery. Although these laws came too late to help the Arawaks and were often disregarded, they did help some Indians survive [Loewen, pp64-65].

From a government website, I read that

Since 1971 Columbus Day, designated as the second Monday in October, has been celebrated as a federal holiday"

Knowing that Columbus was responsible for the enslavement and genocide of the Indians, we may choose not to participate. Let us instead reserve the second Monday of October to remember Bartolome de las Casas, humanitarian hero.

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© 2004 David Wallace Croft
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