Las Casas’ discovery: what the ‘Protector of the Indians’ found in America

By Robert Ellsberg, 26 July 2021
"Fray Bartolomé de las Casas" by Felix Parra (1845-1919). Image: Alejandro Linares Garcia/Wikimedia Commons


Who is my neighbour? That question emerges as one of the critical questions of the Gospels. After all, as Jesus confirms to an inquiring scribe, our eternal life rests on loving God and our neighbour as ourselves. And so the scribe’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” could not be more pertinent. Jesus answers by way of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In so doing, he cuts through any easy notion that our “neighbour” is simply the person who lives next door or who lives in the same “neighbourhood,” who looks like us or shares our values.

The story of Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), a Dominican friar and one of the first Europeans to set foot in this hemisphere, offers another answer to the question. His story raises the further question: Who are those in our world who “don’t count,” whose humanity does not measure up, whose aspirations and needs are not our concern? How would we respond, how would we organise our lives if we believed our salvation rested on the answer to that question?

The arrival of three small Spanish ships on the blue shores of the Bahamas in 1492 marked the beginning of an unprecedented collision of cultures. For the Spanish explorers and their royal patrons, the “discovery” of “the new world” was like the opening of a treasure chest. But for the indigenous peoples, whom Columbus called Indians, it marked the onset of oblivion. For most of the invaders, this was not a serious consideration. In their view, the Indians were a primitive, lesser breed; as Aristotle taught, some people were born to be slaves and others to be masters. While the church endorsed the conquest as an opportunity to extend the Gospel, there were few theologians of the time prepared to see the Indians as fully human and equal in the eyes of God. One who did was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who was so affected by what he had seen during the early decades of the conquest that he devoted his long life to raising an outcry and bearing witness before an indifferent world.

In the face of today’s injustice and violence, in the face of all the threats to human survival, do Christians stand on the side of the victims or with those who profit from their suffering? The Jesuit philosopher and theologian Ignacio Ellacuría of El Salvador, who along with Romero would later join the company of martyrs, spoke of the “crucified peoples of history.” Like las Casas with his talk of the “scourged Christ of the Indies,” Ellacuría compared the poor with Yahweh’s Suffering Servant. In their disfigured features he discovered the ongoing presence and passion of Christ—suffering because of the sins of the world. In this light, he said, the task of the Christian was not simply to worship the cross or to contemplate the mystery of suffering, but “to take the crucified down from the cross”—to join them in compassion and effective solidarity.

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Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of several books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. This essay will appear in the book, Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013). 

With thanks to America Magazine and Robert Ellsberg, where this article originally appeared.


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