Monday, October 14, 2013

No, I Will Not Celebrate "Bartolomé Day"

This week The Oatmeal created a cartoon giving some insight into the bloody history of Christopher Columbus and how he captured the Americas and enslaved the inhabitants. It's all great information that I believe is not taught well enough. In fact, we know (or care) so little about the violent genocide of Indigenous peoples by colonizers that we have a federal holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus veiled as an Italian-American heritage celebration.

The second half of the cartoon suggests that instead of celebrating Columbus Day we celebrate Bartolomé Day.

Bartolomé de las Casas was a Spanish historian and one of the earliest European settlers in the Americas. He owned indigenous peoples and had an encomienda. An encomienda is a system in which European settlers were given indigenous peoples as slaves in return for their "protection" and with the understanding that they would be taught Spanish and immersed into the Catholic faith.

What differentiates Christopher Columbus from Bartolomé de las Casas is that Bartolomé had a change of heart.

After seeing the way in which Amerindians were treated by Spanish colonists he reformed his ways, released his slaves and encomienda, and even went as far as pleading with King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor to pass laws that would protect Native-Americans from brutal colonists.

In 1510 Bartolomé de las Casas was ordained as a Catholic piest, and in 1522 became a friar in the Dominican order. Soon he was known as an advocate for the rights of Amerindians. However, in his early writings he advocated for African slaves to be imported and used for hard labor in lieu of Amerindians. While Christopher Columbus introduced slavery and diseases to the Amerindians, causing their numbers to decrease so sharply colonizers went to West Africa in search of slave labor, it was Bartolomé de las Casas that also grandfathered the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Las Casas also never campaigned for the abolition of slavery. His main objective was to find a way to peacefully convert Amerindians to the Catholic faith, even saying that the Spaniard's were so brutal in their conquest and treated Amerindians so harshly that they died without being evangelized.
"and so sollicitous they were of their Life and Soul, that the above-mentioned number of People died without understanding the true Faith or Sacraments." (Excerpt from Devastation of the Indies)
But I will give Las Casas credit where credit is due. He did change his mind after another moral enlightenment, years later. Otherwise, he seemed indifferent to the plight of African slaves.

I will also give Las Casas credit for pushing to pass the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, although said laws were rarely enforced. He also cataloged the atrocities committed by the Spaniards in their zealous pursuit for land and gold.

In 1552 he published his most popular book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The book is still instrumental in bringing to light the atrocities committed by the Spaniards during their conquest.

Excerpts from the book can be found next to the gruesome pictures of the Amerindians being tortured. 


I give Bartolomé de las Casas credit for all the good work he did in his lifetime, although I don't support his mission to evangelize the natives, no matter how peaceful. And, his late coming to the realization that African slaves are also humans puts his morality in a highly questionable position.

And although we can argue that Bartolomé de las Casas was in many ways less of a genocidal megalomaniac compared to Christopher Columbus (among many other conquistadores),  I refuse to celebrate "Bartolomé Day" in lieu of "Christopher Columbus" day.

I will not dedicate a holiday to a man that embodies imperialism and colonialism.

Today we should be remembering the indigenous peoples who suffered and continue to suffer needlessly at the hands of imperialists. They deserve praise!

Why does it always have to be about a white savior?

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas depicted as "Savior of the
 Indians" in a painting by Felix Parra (1876)

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas converting an
Aztec family by Miguel Noreña (1865)

The history and culture of Indigenous people's has been pillaged, plundered, and erased. And I know, I know, it's not your fault white people, and I am not suggesting it is, but another white man doesn't deserve international recognition while real indigenous people's have fought and died for their rights.

I refuse, yes REFUSE, to celebrate Christopher Columbus or Bartolomé de las Casas.

I will celebrate Indigenous People's Day in honor of their legacy.

I dedicate today to EnriquilloAnacaona, Lemba, the cimarrónesand so many others that I have yet to learn about.


  1. While I agree with your sentiments and reasoning, there remains a reason to honor a person who opposed the cruelty and avarice of his own countrymen, sovereign, people and "race" at great personal expense. That he was imperfect to a nearly tragic degree must be acknowledged, but he remains useful as an example of someone WITHIN a culture exposing its hypocrisy and immorality. It is easier for apologists when the opposition comes from the outside because it can be argued that the voice is self-serving, that it originates from an alien culture lacking in a sufficiently similar world-view, and lastly, as being a voice that certainly would have been dismissed out of hand by the then-powers that be if for no other reason than its foreign origins. And however unfortunate his missionary work may seem to us, it was Bartolome's deep [Christian] religious convictions that inspired him to advocate for the natives, yes, as potential souls to save, but also as beings undeserving of cruelty by virtue of their fundamental humanity.

    Like the shortcomings (by our contemporary standards) of early male feminists, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Bartolome's work still stands as pivotal and laudable. I can't confidently say what should qualify one for public celebration, so perhaps Bart shouldn't make the cut, but he is clearly a superior candidate for praise than Cristobal Colon. Bart highlights both the brutality and compassion of Europeans, saving the tragedy of the Columbian Exchange from simplistic caricature.

    I embrace your notion of celebrating the many indigenous and enslaved resistors. Their existence is downplayed and their historical significance is undervalued and inadequately taught. They deserve more consideration than what they have been given. (One of my favorites is the story of Seminole and runaway slave collaboration and the very existence of Negro Fort). But, like the contributions of white supporters in America's civil rights movement (and I'm not simply talking about from 1954 onward), I appreciate Bart's efforts and would like to include his name on the roster of those brave enough to stand against tyranny, evil and indifference.

    And insofar as the identity of an author provides a useful context for evaluating their statements, I speak as an agnostic African-American history teacher who has studied the colonial Americas more than a little. Celebrate as you will. Personally, I will continue to shift praise from Cristobal Colon towards Bartolome at every opportunity, while working to shine more light on the complex, tragic and inspiring stories of indigenous and enslaved people. Thanks for the great post.

    1. Wow. Ghani Raines, that was brilliant. Thank you.

  2. Everything about this post is spot on.

  3. Well said. What we call this holiday (or any holiday) matters - it's not a footnote, and it's not a "whatever". It's another white man getting his story told, and while his story may be slightly more nuanced, what stories are being overlooked to share it?

  4. Initially, Bartolomé de las Casas advocated the use of African slaves instead of native labor. In the first few years after he renounced his land and title, his initial cause was to end the suffering of the natives, rather than seeking an end to the institution of slavery itself, and so this became his deplorable rationale for the endorsement of African slavery.

    Bartolomé de las Casas eventually retracted those views, and came to see ALL forms of slavery as being equally wrong.

    In The History of the Indies published in 1527, he wrote the following:
    "I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery... and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God."

    Bartolomé turned over a new leaf and should be commended for growing as a human being; Columbus turned over an entire culture in the name of money and greed. I am a black, white and Native American woman. I'm a Bartolomé Day supporter!!

  5. Your critique of Las Casas is strong, and he was not perfect. Yet he is part of a trajectory that has led to greater rights for all despite his own failings. We can critique civil rights leaders for their attitudes towards gays and lesbians (and we should criticize them), yet we miss out on how much we owe to their giant prophetic witness in the face of oppression. Rather than critique our spiritual ancestors for not being mirror images of ourselves we should praise their contributions, recognize their weaknesses, and continue on towards the future.