Bartolome ́ de las Casas and
the African Slave Trade
University of Alabama
July 6, 2009
A revisionist view of Bartolome ́ de las Casas as the 'author' of the introduction of African slaves to the Indies/Americas in the early 16th century. The article details Las Casas' thinking and actions and concludes that while Las Casas did-among other contemporaries-suggest the importation of African slaves to lift the burden of oppression off the Amerindians, his perspective and view was altered radically in the last third of his life. The article explores the meaning of African slavery in the context of the place and time where Las Casas grew up-Andalucia in southern Spain-where slavery was quite different from the way it developed on the plantations of the Americas. And the article relates how Las Casas' theoretical and practical defense of Amerindians eventually was extended by Las Casas' into a defense of liberty for all men, including African slaves.
In 1516, to preserve the rapidly dwindling Taino population of the island of Espanola, Bartolome ́ de las Casas (1485-1566) suggested importing some black and white slaves from Castile. He has been pilloried ever since for hypocritically advocating the initiation of the African slave trade in defense of American Indians.
What did Las Casas really advocate? Was he the first to do so as so many have claimed? Did he sustain and defend his advocacy of the slave trade over the years? And, perhaps most important, how have scholars finally determined where Las Casas fits into the origins and nature of the African slave trade?
To understand the world in which Las Casas grew to manhood in Seville, we have to first turn to the Portuguese. In their maritime expansion down the coast of Africa they eventually arrived in the area of Senegal and captured some Africans brought back to Portugal and sold into slavery. We know that the Portuguese slave trade simply took advantage of a slave system already well developed in West Africa. As John Thornton wrote in his path breaking book, 'slavery was widespread and indigenous in African society, as was, naturally enough, a commerce in slaves.' Research in the last several generations, as exemplified by work done by John Thornton, Herbert Klein, David Eltis, and others, piggybacking sometimes on the work of earlier scholars, has pointed out clearly that African slavery was very much in existence and flourishing in such precolonial Afri- can empires as Dahomey and Ashanti (modern Benin and Ghana). And furthermore, the growth and development of this widespread slavery in Africa were 'largely independent of the Atlantic trade' which was pioneered by the Portuguese.
Thornton summarized a whole generation of new research that very much corrected popular misconceptions of the African slave trade. 'Thus,' he wrote, ''...the slave trade (and the Atlantic trade in general) should not be seen as an 'impact' brought in from outside and functioning as some sort of autonomous factor in African history. Instead, it grew out of and was rationalized by the African societies who participated in it and had complete control over it until the slaves were loaded onto European ships for transfer to Atlantic societies.''
This modern view gives credence to the Portuguese position that they were simply trafficking in people already in bondage, thus making the slave trade a 'just' trade and legal within the accepted norms of the age. By the time the young Las Casas reached the Indies for the first time in 1502 the Portuguese had been importing African slaves into Iberia for half a century. Many of these slaves were carried to southern Spain where most were employed in domestic service in urban centers such as Seville where Las Casas was born and grew up.
The slaves in southern Iberia were rarely used in agriculture or plantation slavery as would develop in the Americas. Rather they fit into society much like the Moorish slaves who preceded them, eventually being absorbed into the local society, becoming members of Christian brotherhoods, developing a significant free colored population, and, as Klein noted, these 'African slaves readily adopted the culture, language, and religion of their masters.'
The plantation slavery that evolved in the Americas was not pioneered in the warm, southern regions of Iberia, but rather on the Atlantic islands, especially the Madeiras, the Canaries, and Saˆo Tome ́ in the Gulf of Guinea. By 1550, Saˆo Tome ́had over 60 sugar mills and between 5,000 and 6,000 plantation slaves.
How conscious was the boy Las Casas of African slaves in his hometown of Seville as he grew to manhood at the end of the 15th century? They may have numbered at least 10% of the population by the early 16th century. Notarial records from 1501 to 1525 indicate 5,271 slaves in Seville, and of these almost 4,000 were listed as blacks or mulattoes. They were certainly visible and accepted as a part of the local scene, working in urban industries, going to Church, forming part of the general population, not particularly deprived, oppressed, or stripped of much of their humanity as would occur in the plantations of the Americas by the 18th century. They were well acculturated into early modern Hispanic society and there was even a small but significant element of free blacks in the population, manumitted by either owners or having bought their way to freedom through Spain's slave codes. Numbers of Africans and their descendants in southern Spain worked in the maritime industries as well, some as sailors in the Atlantic commerce. It was this form of slavery that Las Casas was acquainted with when he suggested importing more slaves to the islands of the Caribbean in 1516.
Between 1502 and 1510 on the other hand he witnessed the brutal subjugation of the Tainos on the island of Espan ̃ola by Spanish settlers. Driven largely by an unbridled greed, they exploited the Tainos through outright slavery or by applying the encomienda to extract their labor. It is Las Casas' testimony as an eye witness we are interested in.
For about 10 years, or until 1511 when Las Casas accompanied an armed band of con- quistadors to Cuba in the 'pacification' of that island, he witnessed the cruelty of the Spanish which he eventually recorded in his History of the Indies. He extracted the most egregious examples of his fellow countrymen's behavior at mid-century and in 1552 published a short tract entitled 'A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies'. The Brief History achieved an almost instant notoriety among Spanish readers and it was soon translated into other European languages. Within a few years the Black Legend was well underway, based in large part on the Brief History
Fig. 1. An imagined scene of Bartolome ́ de las Casas and an American Indian. The Indian represents Las Casas' life-long devotion as protector of American Indians, while the pose with pen and quill certainly catches Las Casas' incredibly prodigious career as chronicler, historian, and polemicist of the Indies. Painted in 1876 by Constantino Brumidi for the Capitol, Washington, DC. Credit: Architect of the Capitol.
In the conquest of Cuba, Las Casas crossed the thin line dividing Las Casas the settler from Father Las Casas the Christian priest. A particular brutal and senseless massacre at Caonao in 1514 drove him into the camp of the Dominican reformers he had met earlier in 1510 on Espan ̃ola. An encomendero himself since his early days on Espan ̃ola, he gave away his encomienda Indians and started to preach against the settlers and their encomiendas which he viewed as the principle instrument of oppression destroying the Indians. Unable to convince the conquistadors to come to their senses and follow his leadership, Las Casas came upon an idea that eventually haunted him the rest of his life.
Some settlers complained to him that the Dominicans would not confess and absolve them if they did not set the Indians free. Las Casas listened, although agreeing totally with his friends the Dominicans.
'If we could each get licenses to bring a few dozen Negro slaves from Spain or Africa,' they suggested, 'it would go better with the Indians.' There were already a few Africans on the island-some slave and some free, and the sugar industry was underway, sugar cane having been imported as early as Columbus's voyages at the end of the 15th century. It was a natural fit, especially as the Indians were dying off in disastrous numbers and sugar fetched a good price in Europe.
Las Casas would do anything to lift the burden of oppression and death off the Indians. Typically tunnel-visioned, he picked up on the idea, and in 1517-1519 he suggested to young King Charles's counselors that a license be issued to import Negro slaves directly from Spain or Africa to the islands. Later on he reflected on this.
'This suggestion to issue a license to bring Negro slaves to the Indies was made first by the cleric Casas [he frequently wrote of himself in the third person], not seeing how unjust the Portuguese were in taking slaves [on the coast of Africa]. Later on he realized how unjustly and tyrannically Africans were taken slaves, in the same fashion as Indians.'
Two sides of Las Casas' character emerge: one, Las Casas was quite honest in his admission of shortsightedness; and two, he was totally devoted to the Indians, so much so that he failed initially to see the implications of advocating licenses to import African slaves.
The young King Charles and his largely Flemish advisers took a liking to this passionate priest from Seville with his reports of life in the Indies. They followed up on his suggestion to import African slaves to reduce the devastating impact of the Europeans on the Indians and so the call went down to Seville to kick off this trade. It was thought that 4,000 slaves would do for the four islands of Espan ̃ola, San Juan [Puerto Rico], Cuba, and Jamaica.
Las Casas later was sorry for all of this. The Indians he meant to save remained 'in captivity until there were none left to kill,' and black slavery spread like a stain across the New World.What is interesting is that historiographically, with a few notable exceptions, historians, polemicists, and apologists have clung to the old canard that Las Casas was the first to advocate African slavery to the Americas, and, secondly, that it was basically a thoughtless, cruel, unexamined and hypocritical act.
One, he was not the first to advocate or import African slaves to the Americas, and, two, he later deeply repented for having contributed to this trade and its devastating consequences for Africans in New World plantations.
Exactly when the first African slaves were introduced into the Caribbean islands is not known. We know there were Africans-slave and free-on Espan ̃ola from even before the end of the 15th century. They accompanied Columbus and other early explorers.
When Las Casas suggested importing more African slaves he was probably thinking of African slavery as he knew it from his childhood in Seville and its environs. It was not the degrading form of plantation slavery later developed by the Portuguese, English, and French for example in other parts of the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was an urban form of slavery already described above, with Africans well integrated into the local society of Andalucia, with their religious brotherhoods, acculturated to Spanish, practicing crafts and skills in the community, some, in fact, becoming freedmen.
Slavery was part of life in the 16th century, an accepted form of servitude since ancient times, and unquestioned by anyone-theologians, philosophers, statesmen, anyone who spoke with authority in the community. For Las Casas to be held accountable for the future of the slave trade as it evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries is akin to pilloring Columbus for all the sins of Europeans in the wake of the discovery. Las Casas was no more prescient than any other of his contemporaries. Yet, curiously enough, different from most of his contemporaries, he did turn on the slave trade later in life, long before the morality of the slave trade was challenged by abolitionists almost 200 years later (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. This map shows the immense spread of the African slave trade, and its impact, on the Atlantic world. It began with the relatively thoughtless suggestion by Las Casas to alleviate the cycle of work and death which had been imposed by the Spanish on the Amerindians of the Greater Antilles, especially of Espan ̃ola and Cuba. Las Casas later turned against the slave trade and slavery itself, but by then the infamous African slave trade, driven by the plantation economics of the New World, was well underway. Credit: PBS and NYLife documentary (http://www.slaveryinamerica.org).
At mid-century, Las Casas restudied the documents of the early period of discovery, poring over the reports of voyages by merchants and navigators in the service of Portugal and Spain - such as Christopher Columbus himself - to Guinea, to the Congo, to the Canary Islands. He began to perceive the nature of African slavery in its true dimensions and denounced it in his History as he worked in the Dominican monastery of San Pablo in Seville in the early 1550s.
'The Portuguese,' Las Casas wrote, 'had made a career in much of the past of raiding Guinea and enslaving blacks, absolutely unjustly [emphasis added]. When they saw we [the Spanish sugar planters and sugar mill operators on the islands] had such a need of blacks and they sold for high prices, the Portuguese speeded up their slave raiding... They took slaves in every evil and wicked way they could. And blacks, when they saw the Portuguese so eager on the hunt for slaves, they themselves used unjust wars and other lawless means to steal and sell to the Portuguese.'
'And we,' Las Casas reflected, 'are the cause of all the sins the one and the other commit, in addition to what we commit in buying them.'
Slavery, of course, had been in existence since antiquity and Christians and the Church accepted slavery as legal.But the Atlantic slave trade was new and Las Casas was persuaded to denounce this trade from his experience as an eye witness in the Indies, and from the documentary record preserved by Portuguese chroniclers.
Las Casas recorded one of the first Portuguese slaving expeditions to Africa in 1444 in his History by using the chronicle written by the Portuguese Go ́mez Eanes de Zurara.It is a story filled with cruelty and sadness. The Eanes de Zurara accounts provoked great ire, disappointment, and chastisement as Las Casas contemplated the scenes. They included the division of families, children stripped from parents, mothers clinging to their toddlers, husbands divided from wives. As Eanes recalled in a callous phrase, 'the partition took a lot of trouble.'
Eanes attempted to excuse this pitiful scene by emphasizing that, at least, the Africans were brought to Christianity in subsequent years. 'He seems,' Las Casas weighed in, ''little less foolish than the Infante [Prince Henry the Navigator], unable to see that neither the Infante's good intentions [Henry refused to take possessions of his slaves, but allowed them to be taken by others, to preserve 'his good conscience'], nor the good results that later followed [conversion], excused the sins of violence, the deaths, the damnation of those who perished without faith or sacrament, the enslavement of the survivors.''
Las Casas continued, 'nor did [good] intention or results make up for the monumental injustice. What love, affection, esteem, reverence, would they have, could they have for the faith, for Christian religion, so as to covert to it, those who wept as they did, who grieved, who raised their eyes, their hands to heaven, who saw themselves, against of the law of nature, against all human reason, stripped of their liberty, of their wives and children, of their homeland, of their peace?' Las Casas saw no mitigating circumstance that could assuage the monstrosity of the slave trade.
As noted, the legitimacy of slavery as an institution was hardly questioned during Las Casas' lifetime. What divided some scholars and philosophers was the question of a just war. If declared 'just,' then the enslavement of prisoners and captives was acceptable. If the war was not just, as Las Casas claimed in attacking all violence done on the Indians, then the taking of captives and enslaving them was illegal.
Some - such as the Dominican scholar Francisco de Vitoria - did question the Portuguese enslavement of Africans. Were they captured in just wars? What indeed was a just war? Concurrently, could Christians engage in just wars since all wars were wrapped in violence, and Jesus Christ, at the very core of Christianity, did not condone violence?
Secondarily, but no less important, was whether one could use force to evangelize. Suffice it to say that there were some who agreed with, and some who denied such a position. Returning to Las Casas and the African coast, it became increasingly clear to Las Casas that neither rationalization - just war or the use of force - could be invoked to take and sell slaves. The question was, of course, complicated by taking place along the coasts and interior of West and Central Africa, at a far remove from the common experiences of Europeans.
Were the slaves sold to the Portuguese already slaves in their own societies, and thus could be purchased with no damage to one's moral and spiritual scruples, as the Portu- guese claimed? Francisco de Vitoria waffled a bit on this question. Vitoria declared that if deception had been used to capture Africans, then it ''must have been a bit of an exception. If the king of Portugal...has authorized this traffic, he must have reasonable motives for doing so, as it is not likely that he would 'permit such inhumanity, nor that no one would point it out to him.'' This was a bit disingenuous on the part of the famous Salamancan scholar, trying to explain away the possibly illegal acts of a Christian prince such as the King of Portugal as an oversight.
The argument that enslavement was a natural step to Christianity was dismissed con- temptuously by Las Casas and other of his like-thinking contemporaries.Furthermore, it not was until late in the 17th century, more than a full hundred years after Las Casas' death, that slavery began to be seriously questioned. In a text that Gustavo Gutie ́rrez labeled 'the most extensive and spirited abolitionist call of the time,' a Capuchin friar named Francisco Jose ́ Jaca de Arago ́n denounced slavery in 1681.
But, as Gutie ́rrez pointed out, generally speaking, the documents - our voices from these years - 'only protest abuses, call for decent treatment, forbid the enslavement of Christian converts, and recall the exigencies of being brothers and sisters in Christ.'The great jurists and political thinkers of the 17th century, such as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke for example, 'not only do not question, but actually seem to justify black slavery as integral to social harmony, and the logic of power.'
With the above background, let us return to Las Casas and the 16th century. There were Africans - as slaves and free men - in the Indies as early as 1502, for in that year a group came over with Nicolas de Ovando, the new governor of Espan ̃ola. In 1516, Las Casas asked that 'in place of the Indians which are needed in those communities, Your Highness should provide 20 negroes or other slaves for the mines, with necessary food, and this will be of a greater service and more profit for Your Highness because much more gold will be collected than is now being collected by Indians now bent over in that labor.'
Las Casas did not suggest enslaving people in Africa who were not already slaves, nor did he attach any ethnic or racial label to the slaves of Castile, black, or white. He simply wanted to lift the burden off the backs of the Indians, and since slavery was accepted throughout the Western world, why not import slaves?
Las Casas has often been excoriated for this suggestion. He was not, however, an isolated example of a Spaniard who wished to bring slaves to the Indies. As early as 1510, a member of the cabildo (or town council) in Santo Domingo, Cristo ́bal de Tapia, petitioned the Crown to allow the importation of black slaves. Sometime in this time period, Gil Gonza ́lez Da ́vila, the comptroller of Espan ̃ola, made the same suggestion, while the Hieronymite friars sent to govern the island in 1517 came up with a similar strategy. In a letter written in 1516 or 1517 by the Dominicans on Espan ̃ola - including the prior Pedro de Co ́rdoba - they asked that the Indians be taken away from the Spaniards and 'as temporary compensation to the Christians and to their farms... His Highness grant them license to import slaves.'
Gutie ́rrez rightly comes to the conclusion: 'As we see, Bartolome ́ was not alone in his request.' Las Casas continued to advocate the importation of African slaves over the next several decades. Various petitions and letters, dating from 1518, 1531, and lastly in 1543, all suggested or requested that slaves be shipped to the Indies. Until mid-century, when a dramatic about face took place in his attitude toward slavery and the slave trade, Las Casas merely mirrored the prevailing philosophical and social currents of his age. But then something happened, as Gutie ́rrez records: 'After his last involvement in the matter (1543), things began to change. There cannot be the least doubt of a reversal in his thinking. We have forthright, painful documents expressing his repentance for the blindness in which he had lived up to the middle of the 16th century.'
In 1547, on his return from the Indies to Castile, Las Casas stopped in at Lisbon. It was probably during this visit that he learned of Portuguese chronicles describing exploration and exploits down the African coast. As he delved deeper and deeper into the slave trade, and slavery itself, he found himself being changed by the very same process that had so radically altered him from settler encomendero to protector of Indians. He could not reconcile the Jesus Christ he knew from Scripture with the cruel reality of the growing slave trade (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3. This original painting of Las Casas is one of the few authentic portraits, done sometime between 1548 and 1556, or about the time he had recanted from his earlier endorsement of the African slave trade and instead con- demned it, and African slavery in general, at the end of his life.
Credit: The Congreso de Historiadores Dominicos
(Congress of Dominican Historians), jpeg by the author.
On advocating the importation of a slaves back in 1516, Las Casas wrote 'the cleric [he often wrote in the third person], many years later, regretted the advice he gave the king on this matter - he judged himself culpable through inadvertence - when he saw proven that the enslavement of blacks was every bit as unjust as that of the Indians. It was not, in any case, a good solution he had proposed, that blacks be brought in so Indians could be freed. And this even (though) he thought that the blacks had been justly enslaved. He was not certain that his ignorance and his good intentions would excuse him before the judgment of God.'
* Short Biography
Lawrence Clayton's research in the past 10 years has focused on the life of the Domini- can Bartolome ́ de las Casas (1485-1566). A short book, Bartolome ́ de las Casas and the Conquest of the Indies is in preparation for an undergraduate series published by Wiley Blackwell while a much longer biography is now under review by several university presses. His earlier books include a textbook co-authored with Michael Conniff, A His- tory of Modern Latin America (2003), Peru and the United States: the Condor and the Eagle (1998), and The De Soto Chronicles (1985) which he co-edited. He received his under- graduate degree from Duke and his PhD from Tulane where he studied with Richard Greenleaf. In between Duke and Tulane he spent two years in the Navy as an officer on an amphibious warfare ship with numerous cruises in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. He has been on the faculty at the University of Alabama since 1972 in the Department of History and also directs the Latin American Studies Program.