BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS. LIFE, WORK AND HISTORY
(Summary of the conference)
Now that we reach the 500th anniversary of his conversion to become the first cleric preaching a mass in the New World, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) is still a figure of today. Beyond his religious dimension; he was highlighted in the communication media frontline in 1992 due to the Colombian celebrations, and later in 2000 with the beginning of his beatification process; his biography has been of interest to historians, philosophers, literary figures, or artists, which has produced many opinions not only discrepant, but totally opposed. There are really few historical figures which have been object of so extreme judgements. He who described himself as "christian, friar, bishop, spaniard and servant of the Spanish Crown", is considered by many the intelectual father of the black legend that haunted the Spanish Empire fame. Reviewing his biographic itinerary allows us to understand many of these ambiguous views. It is quite difficult to differentiate the man of incorruptible moral principles from the political actor who learned to skillfully move within the circles of power of his time, also a very different profile from the cleric carrying a prophetic and millenaristic message. Due to his historical background and family origins he participated in the first expeditions to the Caribbean and was in charge of aborigines. A number of conscience crisis led him towards the ecclesiastic career and an urge to defend the Indigenous Peoples of the New World. His peak of activity occurred while working in Chiapas (Mexico), but his evangelization proposals always faced the opposition of the Spanish settlers. He returned definitively to Spain in 1597 and never went back to the Indies. Three years later he resigned of the bishopric of Chiapas, but continued denouncing the exploitation of the American Indian communities. His discourse became much more drastic by demanding the restitution of all those lands and wealths illegitimately taken from them. On the verge of his death, around his eighties, the valorization of his life was fabulous. Considering the abdication speech of Charles V (Brussels, 1555) where he made solemn and famous account of his trips and stays along 40 years of his life: 6.400 leagues, 3.700 of them by land on horse, Bartolomé de Las Casas proves to be a colosal traveler by comparison. In half a century he covered more than 22.400 leagues, 15.400 of them by sea and around 7.000 leagues by land, of which 4.000 were done on foot.
But as much as we can consider the Dominican friar a man of action, he was also a man of word. A writen word he took care of saving in more than 9.000 pages that make up all of his work, to which we can add the countless and diverse testimonies from his contemporaries. Fray Bartolomé is again a very versatile character in regards to his intelectual trajectory. His work was perfect as a chronicler of the Indies, with a great use if rhetoric and humanist historiographic style. His texts are a great source of ethnographic, botanical, zoological and geological data from the New World in the 16th century. But his manuscripts around more or less circumstantial controversies, are mixed with works of great theological erudition, to the point that they give shape to a documentary corpus so vast that would trigger the criticism from the Franciscan fryar Toribio Motolinía who disapproved father Las Casas in 1539 for making 30 indians accompany him to transport the enormous amount of paper documentation ("witchcraft of nothing" the Franciscan said). With these huge orders of magnitude, the first key question when addressing the intelectual trajectory of de Las Casas is to make balance of his main doctrinal contributions, but never neglecting the underlying purposes of all the texts: the wish to leave a testimony of the life experiences and persons involved in the Indies issues, convinced that whoever won the war with the pen, would end up wining the war of the historical opinion.