This week The Oatmeal created a cartoon giving some insight into the bloody history of Christopher Columbus and how he captured the Americas and enslaved the inhabitants. It’s all great information that I believe is not taught well enough. In fact, we know (or care) so little about the violent genocide of Indigenous peoples by colonizers that we have a federal holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus veiled as an Italian-American heritage celebration.
The second half of the cartoon suggests that instead of celebrating Columbus Day we celebrate Bartolomé Day.
Bartolomé de las Casas was a Spanish historian and one of the earliest European settlers in the Americas. He owned indigenous peoples and had an encomienda. An encomienda is a system in which European settlers were given indigenous peoples as slaves in return for their “protection” and with the understanding that they would be taught Spanish and immersed into the Catholic faith.
What differentiates Christopher Columbus from Bartolomé de las Casas is that Bartolomé had a change of heart.
After seeing the way in which Amerindians were treated by Spanish colonists he reformed his ways, released his slaves and encomienda, and even went as far as pleading with King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor to pass laws that would protect Native-Americans from brutal colonists.
In 1510 Bartolomé de las Casas was ordained as a Catholic piest, and in 1522 became a friar in the Dominican order. Soon he was known as an advocate for the rights of Amerindians. However, in his early writings he advocated for African slaves to be imported and used for hard labor in lieu of Amerindians. While Christopher Columbus introduced slavery and diseases to the Amerindians, causing their numbers to decrease so sharply colonizers went to West Africa in search of slave labor, it was Bartolomé de las Casas that also grandfathered the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Las Casas also never campaigned for the abolition of slavery. His main objective was to find a way to peacefully convert Amerindians to the Catholic faith, even saying that the Spaniard’s were so brutal in their conquest and treated Amerindians so harshly that they died without being evangelized.
“and so sollicitous they were of their Life and Soul, that the above-mentioned number of People died without understanding the true Faith or Sacraments.” (Excerpt from Devastation of the Indies)
But I will give Las Casas credit where credit is due. He did change his mind after another moral enlightenment, years later. Otherwise, he seemed indifferent to the plight of African slaves.
I will also give Las Casas credit for pushing to pass the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, although said laws were rarely enforced. He also cataloged the atrocities committed by the Spaniards in their zealous pursuit for land and gold.
In 1552 he published his most popular book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The book is still instrumental in bringing to light the atrocities committed by the Spaniards during their conquest.
Excerpts from the book can be found next to the gruesome pictures of the Amerindians being tortured.
I give Bartolomé de las Casas credit for all the good work he did in his lifetime, although I don’t support his mission to evangelize the natives, no matter how peaceful. And, his late coming to the realization that African slaves are also humans puts his morality in a highly questionable position.
And although we can argue that Bartolomé de las Casas was in many ways less of a genocidal megalomaniac compared to Christopher Columbus (among many other conquistadores), I refuse to celebrate “Bartolomé Day” in lieu of “Christopher Columbus” day.
I will not dedicate a holiday to a man that embodies imperialism and colonialism.
Today we should be remembering the indigenous peoples who suffered and continue to suffer needlessly at the hands of imperialists. They deserve praise!
Why does it always have to be about a white savior?
|Fray Bartolomé de las Casas depicted as “Savior of the
Indians” in a painting by Felix Parra (1876)
|Fray Bartolomé de las Casas converting an
Aztec family by Miguel Noreña (1865)
The history and culture of Indigenous people’s has been pillaged, plundered, and erased. And I know, I know, it’s not your fault white people, and I am not suggesting it is, but another white man doesn’t deserve international recognition while real indigenous people’s have fought and died for their rights.
I refuse, yes REFUSE, to celebrate Christopher Columbus or Bartolomé de las Casas.
I will celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in honor of their legacy.