Bartolomé de las Casas… and Beyond

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day (or Columbus Day), I link to this comic from The Oatmeal. It includes this great statement:

Bartolomé de las Casas started out a lot like Columbus.

He was a wealthy adventurer who traveled to the New World, where he owned a large plantation with many slaves.

Unlike Columbus, however, de las Casas underwent a radical transformation in his life. After witnessing the violent atrocities committed against the natives, he gave up his land, freed his slaves, became a priest, and spent the rest of his life fighting the brutal colonization of the New World… He is considered to be one of the first advocates for universal human rights.

Matthew Inman, the author of The Oatmeal uses a phrase: radical transformation. But what de las Cases did wasn’t just a transformation. He repented. He admitted that what he had done and how he had lived was wrong and then he lived differently. Inman includes a note on this after the comic, quoting de las Casas: “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.”

And if we’re going to celebrate de las Casas, I think there’s power in the fact that he repented. Let’s not remember de las Casas only for his work fighting for the equality of Native Americans, but for the fact that he admitted he was wrong and changed.

As Inman puts it: “Christopher Columbus left his home and found a new world. Bartolomé de las Casas left his home and discovered his humanity.”

But as important as de las Casas is, I’ll also link to this strong critique:

In suggesting that we should replace “Columbus Day” with a seemingly less problematic “Bartolome Day,” Inman misses the mark even more egregiously. As far as folks associated with the early Spanish Empire go, Bartolome de las Casas is as admirable a figure as they come. He was, after his conversion in 1514, a consistent opponent of European enslavement of Natives and their continued exploitation. The problem of shifting Columbus from the stage and subbing in Las Casas is that it continues to center the memory of the Columbian Exchange on European men. Trading one unsympathetic European for a more sympathetic one continues to obscure the history of the people most impacted by the Columbian Exchange and the “discovery” of America: aboriginal Americans. The post-1492 Americas were certainly a new world for Europeans but it was also a new world for Native Americans who saw their world reshaped by the largest ecological revolution in human history.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that realizing that other people have stories – and taking the time to listen to and understand those stories – might be the first step on the road to repentance.