Bartholomew de Las Casas was born in Seville, Spain. He studied law at the University of Salamanca, where the Dominicans were wrestling with moral issues raised by the conquest of the New World. Ambivalent about these moral issues, in 1502, de Las Casas ventured to the island Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and secured a plantation and number of Native American slaves for himself. Eight years later the Dominican Order of Preachers arrived in Hispaniola, decrying the entire system of slavery as tyrannical and evil. This preaching affected de Las Casas deeply. After a time of prayerful reflection he became a priest and was the first priest to celebrate his first mass in Hispaniola.
He was assigned to be the chaplain for the Spanish Armies during their invasion of Cuba. He witnessed first hand a horrible massacre of the native people. De Las Casas sailed for Spain the next year to present his case for proscribing these atrocities against the native people to the Council of the Indies and King Ferdinand. Wishing to avoid the entire situation, the King granted de Las Casas the title “Protector of the Indians” and passed a great many laws that were ostensibly intended to rectify the situation. However, after less than a year and another trip back to Spain, de Las Casas realized that the King had no intention of forcing the colonialist to obey the newly promulgated laws. Determined to continue his quest for freedom for Native Americans, de Las Casas returned to Hispaniola, freed his own slaves, and joined the Dominican Order in 1522. He devoted the next eight years of his life to prayer, reflection, and writing. By 1544, de Las Casas was appointed bishop of the Mexican province of Chiapas. However, the local landholders so opposed de Las Casas’ message of liberty that he renounced his bishopship and returned to Spain in 1547. He lived at the convent of Our Lady of Athocha in Madrid until his death in 1566, during which time he rarely spoke to anyone, concentrating primarily on writing. At the age of ninety he wrote his last defense for the liberty of Native Americans based on his understanding of personal property rights.
Undaunted by almost universal opposition throughout his life, the intrepid liberator crossed the Atlantic fourteen times to try to persuade the Spanish Monarchy to enact and enforce humanitarian laws that would effect the peaceful civilization and conversion of the Native Americans. Even so, he never saw the fruit of his labor become fully ripe. He died before Native Americans were finally granted their independence through a bona fide legal mandate.
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons PD-1923