“Bartolomé de las Casas: Chronicle of a Dream, A Novel” by José Luis Olaizola, Ignatius Press, 2019, 288 pages, $16.95
Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the earliest civil rights advocates. One of the first Spanish settlers in the New World, he became wealthy as a slave-owning plantation owner.
Then he freed his Indian slaves, abandoned his land holdings and began to fight for better treatment of the Americas’ indigenous people. He even went to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, to secure better treatment. Charles officially appointed de la Casa “Protector of the Indians.”
“Bartolomé de las Casas: Chronicle of a Dream, A Novel” by José Luis Olaizola, is a fictionalized retelling of de la Casas’s early life.
The story is told retrospectively, in the form of a memoir written by de la Casa. The novel opens with de la Casa, as an old man, in his 80s, writing an account of his early life at the request of his superiors. In reality, by then, he had retired as Bishop of Chiapas and had withdrawn to a monastic cell at the College of San Gregorio, in Valladolid, Spain.
The fictional de la Casa relates his early life, from childhood to the failure of a colony he attempted to establish in Venezuela. He recounts his childhood in Seville, his journey to the Santo Domingo and his adventures there as a gold prospector, a soldier and a planter.
He also describes the events that led to his change of heart and his transformation from a predator to a protector of the Taino Indians of the Caribbean.
The book, scrupulously accurate in matters of history, offers readers a look at what life in the Americas was like in the early 16th century. Olaizola captures the sense of wonder felt by the first Spaniards who settled there. He also captures the casual cruelty, which turned de la Casa against the encomienda system established in the New World.
The de la Casa of the book recounts his battles with those determined to held on to wealth gained through others’ misery, battles de la Casas eventually loses. Yet, “Chronicle of a Dream” remains an enticing book, one that entertains as it informs.