As early as 1537, Pope Paul III, who hoped to see Indians become devout subjects of Catholic monarchs, outlawed their enslavement (an edict never extended to apply to Africans). His decree declared Indians to be “truly men,” who must not be “treated as dumb beasts.” Fifteen years later, the Dominican priest Bartolome de Las Casas published an account of the decimation of the Indian population with the compelling title A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Las Casas’s father had sailed on Columbus’s second voyage, and he himself had participated in the conquest of Cuba. But in 1514 Las Casas freed his own Indian slaves and began to preach against the injustices of Spanish rule.

Las Casas’s writings denounced Spain for causing the death of millions of innocent people. “It has been Spain’s practice,” he reported, “in every land they have discovered to stage a massacre” in order to make the inhabitants “tremble with fear.” He narrated in shocking detail the “strange cruelties” carried out by “the Christians,” including the burning alive of men, women, and children and the imposition of forced labor. The Indians, he wrote, had been “totally deprived of their freedom and were put in the harshest, fiercest, most terrible servitude and captivity.” Long before the idea was common, Las Casas insisted that Indians were rational beings, not barbarians, and that Spain had no grounds on which to deprive them of their lands and liberty. “The entire human race is one,” he proclaimed, and while he continued to believe that Spain had a right to rule in America, largely on religious grounds, he called for Indians to enjoy “all guarantees of liberty and justice” from the moment they became subjects of Spain. “Nothing is certainly more precious in human affairs, nothing more esteemed,” he wrote, “than freedom.” Yet Las Casas also suggested that importing slaves from Africa would help to protect the Indians from exploitation.

Spanish conquistadores murdering Indians at Cuzco, in modern-day Peru. The Dutch-born engraver Theodor de Bry and his sons illustrated ten volumes about New World exploration published between 1590 and 1618. A Protestant, de Bry created vivid images that helped to spread the Black Legend of Spain as a uniquely cruel colonizer.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!