Bartolomé de las Casas (1484 – 1566 CE) was a Spanish historian who went on to become the first resident Bishop of Chiapas as well as the “Protector of Indians.” The latter was an office within the Spanish colony with the task of looking after the wellbeing of the native population.
De las Casas was a central figure in this office as made it his mission to end the violence and abhorrent behaviors perpetrated against native populations. Although a willing participant in the conquest, De las Casas was not indifferent towards the natives. He returned to Barcelona to make his case for their better treatment which was successful.
His work A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies elucidates the first decades of the Spanish colonization of the West Indies. It is a compendium of harrowing events that he witnessed and discovered were being committed by the “Spanish Christians” as they colonized the islands. These included mutilation, torture, murder, and even the burning alive of natives after they were herded into straw structures that were set alight. In one harrowing tale De las Casas writes that,
“With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it… Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned.”
De las Casas composed other works. His 1537 De único modo (The Only Way) outlines a doctrine of peaceful evangelization of the Indians. Upon returning to Spain, De Las Casas continued writing books and petitions in defense of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He exhibited guilt in his 1527 History of the Indies after failing to see the treatment of black slaves as being equally evil and unjust as Indian slavery, especially in the eyes of God.
His work Apologetic History of the Indies was a defense of natives and indigenous peoples of the Americas whom De Las Casas argued were just as civilized as those in other civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. De Las Casas is fondly remembered for being the first European to perceive and oppose colonial injustices in the control of Latin America.