Concerned with Native American rights. Las Casas recognized Columbus’s seizure of seven Taino Indians as “the first injustice committed in the Indies” but in the moment, had no time to reflect upon the implications of what was occurring. Las Casas and his writings were the chief source regarding what happened on the island after Columbus. As a young priest, he participated in the conquest of Cuba. For a while he owned slaves, but later gave them up and became a critic of Spanish cruelty. He was to write of his moral blindness in this period, noting that he “went about his concerns like the others, sending his share of Indians to work fields and gold mines, taking advantage of them as much as he could.” He transcribed Columbus’s journals and began to write his own History of the Indies. After becoming a priest, he began to reconsider the slave system as unchristian and began to urge others to give up their slaves. The Spanish government made him “protector of the Indians” and gave him permission to start a peaceful colony on the coast of Venezuela. At one point he thought that Indian slaves should be replaced by African slaves, but after seeing what it did to both the Indians and the Africans, he changed his mind. He wrote of the Indians regarding marriage, religion, trading and all the atrocities placed upon the subjugated. His peaceful colony failed as atrocities in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru began to grow. In 1537 the Pope forbade all further enslavement. This was followed by Emperor Charles V making New Laws of the Indies which gave Native Americans full protection of the courts and outlawed slavery.
Las Casas’s most famous writings was An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies: On the Island Hispaniola (1552). This work details the destruction visited on Native Americans by conquistador and colonizer in pursuit of wealth. In his own time. Las Casas was widely accused of treason and endured charges of heresy. Having the work translated into many languages gave Spain’s enemies ammunition of Spain’s sins against America.
When he arrived in Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it…”
From An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies
On the Island Hispaniola
This was the first land in the New World destroyed and depopulated by the Christians. Subjugation of women and children—taking them away from the men. The Christians always wanted more than the Indians gave; they ate too much. The Indians began to understand that these new people were not good. They began to hide food, family members, or leave the area. The Christians intimidated everyone until they were up to the nobles of the village. One noble Indian’s wife was raped in front of him by a Christian colonizer. It was difficult for the Indians to fight back because their weapons were so basic. Las Casas goes into extremely gory detail regarding what the colonizers did to babies, children, pregnant women and men. If the Indians succeeded in killing a Christian, the colonizers would vow to kill 100 of them in pay-back for the one.
The Spaniards brought two million captives to Hispaniola to work the mines. The rich land began to die along with the people working the mines. On the slave ships the Spanish would only bring enough for the crew to eat while the captives would starve. They would dump any dead bodies over the side. Other ships did not even use maps to travel between islands; they’d just follow the trail of dead Indian bodies to the next island. The captives would arrive on Hispaniola practically dead. The colonizers would get mad about paying for slaves already practically dead.
Pearl workers had to dive all day to scrape oysters from the bottom of the ocean floor. They would be beaten on the surface of the water if they acted tired. The divers are fed terrible food and chained at night so they can’t escape. They are eaten by sharks or die of exhaustion and dissipation.