Many men and women have created, or helped to create, vast empires. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Queens Elizabeth, respectively, of Spain and England, and Catherine the Great of Russia are famous examples. But no list exists of individuals who successfully demolished imperial powers. If it did, it would have to include an unlikely name: Father Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566).
Born, educated, and ordained in Seville, Spain, Las Casas settled in Hispaniola in 1502. There he participated in the wars against rebellious natives and became one of the earliest landholders under the encomienda system of pacification established in 1503. After repeated failures, Spanish authorities decided that the only way to convert the Tainos, Caribs and other Native American tribes to Christianity would be by compelling them to live, work and intermarry with Spaniards on land-grant plantations, or encomiendas. By royal degree and church doctrine Native Americans were legally and morally entitled to the same rights as Spaniards, but in practice many were treated like slaves. For a dozen years Las Casas himself profited from this lucrative arrangement.
But he underwent a drastic conversion in 1514. Not only did he condemn the encomiendas as abusive, but also insisted that Spaniards had no right to rule politically over the native peoples and that to do so was a “mortal sin” that would destroy Spain. He became an implacable enemy of Spain and a life-long champion of the Native Americans whom he described as innocent and blameless. He remained committed to converting the aboriginal populations to Christianity, but only by peaceful example. Interestingly, he had no problem with African slavery until the very end of his life.
Experienced clergy and military leaders dismissed his claims, pointing out that the cannibalism of the Caribs and human sacrifices practiced by other tribes, for instance, hardly amounted to childish playfulness.
Unmoved by his critics, in 1520 Las Casas received permission to establish a colony at Cumaná in what is now eastern Venezuela. There he planned to demonstrate his method of peaceful conversion. But his utopian impracticality caused most of his settlers to drift away. Finally, the remaining colonists landed and the Caribs quickly slaughtered them. Las Casas survived only because he had sailed away for provisions.
Las Casas became bishop of Chiapas (1544), but he failed in that position as he had in his Cumaná experiment. It was his book “The Destruction of the Indies” (1541) that conferred lasting fame on him and enduring infamy on Spain. Despite many inaccuracies, the enemies of Spain accepted everything Las Casas claimed, while Spain could never dispel the “black legend” it helped create. Arguably the book was an important factor in the dismantling of the Spanish empire itself. Bolivar, Hidalgo, San Martin, Martí and other liberators of Spanish America were imbued with anti-Spanish attitudes traceable to Las Casas. In Europe, America, and Hollywood these views were generalized to show the moral superiority of the “Noble Savage” over corrupting civilization.