A Dominican friar named Bartolome de Las Casas is a rare voice raised in protest as almost all Europeans in the New World enslave its natives.
The ancient structures in central Mexico are all that remain today of a once mighty civilization called the Aztecs. Nearly five centuries ago the Aztecs came face to face with cruel destiny in the men who would destroy them—the Spanish conquistadors.
These "conquerors" pray faithfully, attend mass and confessing their sins. They are very sincere Christian who also are a thieves and murderers... who thought they were doing that in the service of God. Those natives who do not die from imported European disease succumb to Spanish swords.
It is the beginning of European colonies that convert and enslave the indigenous people and the end of Aztec civilization. The conquerors of this new world establish an institution that will be a fierce battleground in Christianity for centuries to come—slavery.
In the 16th century, slavery, which had dated back to ancient times, is still a common practice in many European countries, particularly in Portugal and Spain. Unknown in the New World, the Spanish conquistadors now make it practically universal.
The situation leaves the friar appalled:
“Everything done to the Indians thus far was unjust and tyrannical.” (Bartolome de Las Casas, 1514)
Below: Depiction of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in the 1552 edition of Las Casas “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies”
De Las Casas was a man who himself had Indians given to him to work for him until he becomes convinced that this was wrong. He let go of his Indians and he spent the rest of life trying to get things changed. De Las Casa proposes an alternative to enslaving the natives. To bring in needed labor, he recommends importing slaves from the continent the Portuguese first explored—Africa.
For the Europeans slaves from Africa do not pose the same moral problem as native slaves in the New World. This, they rationalize, is because Africans have supposedly been captured in defensive or “just” wars between tribes.
The Portuguese fostered a good relationship with the Kingdom of Congo. Civil War within Congo would lead to many of its subjects ending up as enslaved people in Portuguese and other European vessels. Eventually people like Bartolome de Las Casa, say, “Wait a minute, there’s so many of these people could they all be captured in just war?”
African slaves begin to flood into the New World, first in the thousands and then tens of thousands and ultimately, millions.
The churches of Spain, Portugal, France, England and the American colonies look on silently as the traffic in African slaves grows.
Above: Friar Bartolome de las Casas, converts an Aztec family, by Miguel Norena.
Bartolome de Las Casas, who first proposed the idea, lives to regret suggesting importing African slaves, seeing it as a horrible mistake. He now recommits himself to banning all slavery in the New World. Despite remarkable legal success in Spain the laws prove unenforceable across the Atlantic.
With the passage of time, African slaves and natives in the New World absorb the faith of Christianity and give it new forms of expression that resonate throughout the world.
Learn more about Christianity in the award-winning PBS documentary series on the development of religion in America... highly recommended!
I use this series as a resource in the American portion of my History of Christianity class.
God in America a six-hour documentary series which tells the sweeping and dramatic story of religious life in America examining more than 500 years of American religious history from the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the 2008 presidential election.
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