Bartolomé de las Casas: I was wrong (twice)

Old Havana, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
On my first visit to Cuba, a fellow student from Puerto Rico and I stood looking at a portrait of Bartolomé de las Casas in the Roman Catholic Seminary in old Havana. His defense for the 'Indians' had come at a cost, she said. Intent on gaining liberty for the indigenous people of the Caribbean, las Casas went along with the call from landowners for recompense in the shape of slaves sent from Spain; slaves that he believed where the legitimate bounty of previous wars, both white and black slaves. One system of slavery replaced by another.

Standing in the sleepy afternoon light of the seminary, my image of Las Casas began to crack and peel like the cream courtyard walls.

Las Casas is remembered particularly through the efforts of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who dedicated years of his life to writing a brick of a book about the Dominican friar. Gutierrez also helped found a centre for theological research and social action named for his hero. Christmas Eve night, while volunteering there, I gathered with my Peruvian family to give thanks and gifts. Into my lap was placed a copy of En Busca de los Pobres de Jesus Cristo.

Las Casas did not come to the new world as a missionary but a young man eager for adventure. Even after his ordination eight years later, he continued to keep natives to work his farm in Cuba and to wash for gold. Because of this, he was denied confession by the local Dominicans some of whom where already preaching against slavery, notably Antonio de Montesinos who preached a cracker of a sermon from the pulpit of Havana cathedral in 1511:
With what authority have you waged such hateful wars against these people, who lived quietly and peacefully on their lands, lands which you have now taken from them, and in doing so left behind such death and carnage? Are these not human beings? Do they not have the gift of reason? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?


Bartolomé's growing awareness of his sin culminated one day as he prepared to say Mass. The reading for that day was from the Apocrypha:
If one sacrifices ill-gotten goods, the offering is blemished;
the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.
The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly,
nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins.
Like one who kills a son before his father's eyes
is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.
The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a murderer.
To take away a neighbour’s living is to commit murder;
to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. (Sirach 34: 21 –27)


He freed his native slaves and spent the rest of his life campaigning for the rights of the indigenous people. For the cause, he journeyed back and forth across the ocean: lobbying members of the Spanish court; taking part in theological debates (the most famous being at Valladolid in 1550 with Juan Gines de Sepulveda); founding mixed communities of settlers and indigenous - some that worked, some that didn't; researching long histories of the Americas; presenting reports of mistreatment; and briefly acting as Bishiop of Chiapas in Mexico, before his support for the native peoples so angered the colonialists he had to flee.

Gutierrez reports that las Casas asked for slaves to be sent from Spain on four occasions: 1516, 1518, 1531, and 1543. He did not make the connection between his work on behalf of the indigenous peoples and the African slaves who were filling the need for labour across the Caribbean as the native communities were wiped out. But in 1547, his ship home docked at Lisbon, Portugal and he saw at first hand the magnitude of the slave trade and its brutality. Back in the Caribbean, he added a further eleven chapters to his History of the Indies denouncing the slavery of African and Canary Islanders, indeed of any group. Moreover, he recognized his own sin in buying slaves, stopped doing so, and said repeatedly, 'I was wrong.'

How are we converted to justice? Bartolomé learnt from experience, his own and others, and faithful reflection. Eyes wide open, he declared, "I was wrong. And here is what I will do to try to rectify my mistakes."

For that, his courage to say, "I was wrong." I continue to build on his example.

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