The Formation of Las Casas’s Juridical Voice: Historical Matrix

For some, a popular refrain is “In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” (Figure 2.1).

So chanted the voices of past generations of school children about Christopher Columbus’s (1451-1506) mythical expedition into the Atlantic.1 However, the scholarly value of this facile mnemonic device about the Genoese mariner’s westward departure from Europe ends there. The poem fails miserably to surface the complexities that followed in the wake of Columbus’s initial contact between “two worlds, both already old”—complexities generated by the consequent mutual encounters of Europeans and different peoples on different lands, and by the subsequent Spanish invasions, conquests, and colonization of this so-called

Landing of Columbus (October 12, 1492). Painting by John Van-derlyn, 1847

Figure 2.1 Landing of Columbus (October 12, 1492). Painting by John Van-derlyn, 1847.

Source: Wikipedia.

“New World.”2 Fifty years after Columbus’s initial encounter with and identification of these people as “Indians,” the voice of Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) thundered forth in his Brevísima relación de la destitución de las Indias to condemn the initial forty-nine years of devastation and depopulation of the Indies—a treatise first written in 1542 and subsequently published in 1552.

Eight years before Columbus’s first contact with the Indigenous inhabitants and their lands, Las Casas was born on November 11 in the Andalusian city of Seville in a Castilian “Spain” ripe for expansion and eager to support the personal ambition of the Genoese mariner to sail westward into the mar Océano.3 Las Casas was raised in a Spain characterized by certain Renaissance intellectual and cultural developments that was also marked during the 1400s and early 1500s by distinctive socio-economic and politico-religious patterns.4

In broad historiographical strokes, this chapter presents the general historical matrix of Spain in order to elucidate the particular character of Las Casas’s native land and, where appropriate, to contextualize his early life experiences, and some of the initial future developments of the Spanish colonial system in the Indies. The first section contextualizes the general historical matrix of Spain by a brief overview of the developments in Renaissance intellectual and cultural history. This intellectual milieu of the European Renaissance—its philosophical, legal, and theological developments—as well as its artistic and linguistic aspects, greatly influenced the development of fifteenth-century Spain. Consequently, the second section addresses the intellectual and cultural continuity and change that characterized Renaissance Spain, and that influenced Las Casas’s early formation. Then, the third section presents a survey of Spain’s social history, namely, two particular demographic characteristics of Spain, the economic development of the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, as well as their relevance to certain aspects of Las Casas’s life and of the future colonization in the Indies. The fourth section focuses on the political power and ideology of Isabel and Ferdinand as they unified and consolidated the Crowns of Castile and Aragon, and it shows how their centralized hierarchical system of governance was replicated in the Indies.5 The fifth section considers the Catholic Monarchs’ strategies for reforming the national ecclesia (church), their methods for converting the patria (country), and their vision for Christianizing the orbis (world). The last section offers a contrast between Columbus’s juridical possession of Indigenous lands and peoples, and Las Casas’s juridical condemnation in the Brevísima relación of the destruction of the Indies.

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