Bartolomé de las Casas was not yet a teenager when Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage to the “Indies” with seven native Tainos. “I saw them,” he wrote, “in Seville where they stayed near the arch to St. Nicholas.” His father and uncles joined Columbus’ second voyage, and Bartolomé soon moved to Hispaniola with his father in 1502, becoming a merchant and owner of land and Indian slaves. He was ordained a priest in 1507.
Here the story begins to change. Fr. Bartolomé became increasingly disturbed by his fellow Spaniards’ treatment of the native Tainos—the brutal torture, the massacres. “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”
In 1511 a Dominican priest, Fray Antonio de Montesinos, preached, “Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands?”
Around the same time Fr. Bartolomé read in his Bible, “Tainted are the gifts of one who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods! Mock presents from the lawless do not win God’s favor. The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless, nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sins. Like the man who slays a son in his father’s presence is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor. The bread of charity is life itself for the needy; he who withholds it is a man of blood. He slays his neighbor who deprives him of his living, he sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages,” (Sirach 34:18-22).
The colonists’ treatment of the native peoples, Fr. Bartolomé began to realize, could not be reconciled with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He resolved to give up his slaves and land grant (encomienda), and preached that other colonists should do the same. Against those who claimed that native peoples should be subdued and even converted by force, he argued that the only acceptable way of evangelization was through reasonable appeal. He argued that Europeans had no right to enslave the Indians, and that according to natural law the Indians were entitled to live as free men, under their own rulers and their own laws.
Fr. Bartolomé was by no means perfect, and he made some terrible mistakes in the gradual course of his own conversion. When he first began to seek relief and emancipation for Indian slaves, he proposed that “black slaves” and “slaves both black and white” could be imported to take their place in the mines and sugar industry. He did not yet fully understand that the means by which these people entered servitude was also unjust. But when he learned about the Portuguese slave trade firsthand, his heart was changed again. Again he meditated on Sirach 34:18-22. “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery.” Thereafter Fr. Bartolomé defended the rights of black slaves in the same way he defended Indian slaves, condemning slavery altogether and calling for the repentance of all who participated in the abominable trade.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, writes:
White people must seek new ways of thinking about Whiteness, ways that take them beyond the role of victimizer. In fact, another role does exist. There is a history of Whites who have resisted the role of oppressor and who have been allies to people of color. Unfortunately these Whites are often invisible to us…. the names of White allies are often unknown…. There is a need to know about White allies who spoke up, who worked for social change, who resisted racism and lived to tell about it. How did these White allies break free from the confines of the racist socialization they surely experienced to claim this identity for themselves? These are the voices that many White people… are hungry to hear…. having access to these stories makes a difference to those Whites who are looking for ways to be agents of change…. “allies need allies,” others who will support their efforts to swim against the tide of cultural and institutional racism.
In Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas we find a white anti-racist ally whose life we can celebrate on Columbus Day.
This is not just history. Please get involved.
Lessons of humanism, spirituality and effort to raise man’s dignity, are taught to us by Antonio Montesinos, Córdoba, Bartolomé de las Casas, echoed also in other parts by Juan de Zumárraga, Motolinia, Vasco de Quiroga, José de Anchieta, Toribio de Mogrovejo, Nóbrega and so many others. They are men in whom pulsates concern for the weak, for the defenseless, for the natives; subjects worthy of all respect as persons and as bearers of the image of God, destined for a transcendent vocation.
(Pope John Paul II, homily in Independence Square, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, 1979)