Father Luis Cancer and Father Ladrada
were both with Las Casas in Spain. One of the
first things Las Casas did, with the approval of the
Prince, was to organize a missionary expedition to
Florida, with Father Luis Cancer at the head of it.
There this faithful friend and devoted missionary
soon after met his death at the hands of the Indians.
While in Chiapa the Bishop had
written a little book of instructions to his clergy.
Formal objection to its teachings was laid before the
Council of the Indies, and its author was summoned
to come before that body and explain himself.
This he did to their entire satisfaction, though not
to that of his enemies, who engaged the most famous
theologian and lawyer in Spain, Juan Gines Sepulveda,
to dispute the position of Las Casas and answer his
arguments. Sepulveda had written a treatise upholding
the conquest of the New World by war. The Council
of the Indies would not allow this book to be published,
but Las Casas had asked them to allow it to be submitted
to the universities of Salamanca and Alcala for their
opinion. This opinion proved to be against it.
Las Casas now undertook to answer
Sepulveda’s arguments and defend the freedom
of his Indians. The war of words waxed fast and
furious, and the controversy attracted so much attention
that the Emperor ordered the India Council to assemble
at Valladolid, to decide whether a war of conquest
might justly be carried on against the Indians.
The Emperor himself presided, and Las Casas and Sepulveda
argued the question before them all. It appears
to have been a drawn battle; but at length the Council
decided in favor of Sepulveda. The Emperor and
the officials of the government, however, must have
been of another opinion, for Sepulveda’s book
was suppressed. At the time of this controversy
Las Casas was seventy-six years old.
Soon after this Las Casas resigned
his bishopric and the Emperor granted him a pension.
He made his home in the Dominican college of St. Gregory,
at Valladolid, where his old friend Father Ladrada
was with him.
And now, after having labored for
the Indians for so many years, crossing and recrossing
the ocean, traveling over hundreds of miles of wild
country on foot, like St. Paul, “in perils of
waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by his own
countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in
the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in
the sea,” he might be seen, day after day and
night after night, sitting at his desk, writing letters,
memorials, and pamphlets in defense of his beloved
Indians. He kept up a constant correspondence
with all parts of the New World, and when he heard
of any new outrage on the part of the Spaniards against
the natives, he at once brought it to the attention
of Prince Philip, now regent of the kingdom.
At the end of the year 1551 a number
of Dominicans and Franciscans having been induced
through his appeals to go out to the Indies, Las Casas
went to Seville to see them off. For some reason
they were delayed there for ten months, and during
that time he was kept busy editing a number of his
works, keeping two printing-presses going all the time.
Las Casas must have had a wonderful
constitution. His hard life in a tropical country
had neither weakened his body nor impaired his mind.
All his time from the day of his return to Spain to
the time of his death was spent in defense of the
Indians; and through his untiring efforts their condition
was much improved in Mexico and elsewhere.
Laws had already been passed which
allowed the encomiendas, as the grants of land
and Indians in Spanish America were called, to be held
in a family only during two lifetimes. They then
reverted to the crown. Thus the Indians were
being gradually emancipated. There were also
officers appointed to protect the interests of the
crown in the reversion, so that it was no longer possible
to repeat the horrors of Hispaniola.
When Las Casas heard that the proposal
had been made to allow the holders of encomiendas
to get possession of them in perpetuity, he went at
once to the King and succeeded in preventing it.
As Fiske says:
“It is worth remembering
that pretty much the only praiseworthy
thing Philip ever did
was done under Las Casas’ influence.”
The activity of Las Casas was marvelous.
His longest work was his “History of the Indies.”
At the age of ninety he wrote a “Memorial on
Peru,” said to be one of his best, and two years
later, in 1566, he went to Madrid to speak in person
for the Indians of Guatemala. He had heard through
the Dominicans that that province had been deprived
of its governing body, so that the Indians had no
chance of justice, having to go to Mexico if they
wished to make any appeal. He was successful in
this mission, and the Audiencia was restored
This was the last work of Las Casas.
In July of that year, while still in Madrid, he was
taken ill and died after a short illness, at the age
As he lay dying, his brethren, the
Dominicans, kneeling about the bed and reciting the
prayers for the dying, he begged them to persevere
in their defense of the Indians, and asked them to
join him in prayer that he might be forgiven any remissness
on his part in the fulfillment of his mission.
He was beginning to tell them how he came to enter
upon this work when his spirit departed.
Thousands of people attended the funeral
of Las Casas. He was buried in Madrid, in the
convent chapel of “Our Lady of Atocha.”
In early American history there is
no one who stands on a level with this remarkable
man. Many bitter enemies he had, it is true; such
a man, fearless, outspoken, able, never
to be silenced when he was convinced of the righteousness
of his cause, was bound to have. Never
during the many years of his long life, did the Indians
lack a friend to plead in their behalf. Amid
the cupidity, cruelty, and injustice of the Spaniards
in the New World his character shines like a star in
the darkness of night. We can’t do better
in closing than to quote the words in which Fiske
speaks of him:
“In contemplating such a life
as that of Las Casas, all words of eulogy seem
weak and frivolous. The historian can only bow
in reverent awe before a figure which is, in
some respects, the most beautiful and sublime
in the annals of Christianity since the Apostolic
age. When now and then in the course of the centuries
God’s providence brings such a life into
the world, the memory of it must be cherished
by mankind as one of its most precious and sacred
possessions. For the thoughts, the words, the
deeds, of such a man there is no death.
The sphere of their influence goes on widening
forever. They bud, they blossom, they bear fruit,
from age to age.”