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In 1542, after years of witnessing Indian suffering and slavery - and the failure of his own attempts to create a humane settlement - Las Casas wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. A work of great passion and documentary vividness, it embodies his belief that the early evangelizing vision of Christopher Columbus was corrupted by later conquistadores into a genocidal colonization. Like a distant forefather of the Enlightenment, he argues that the Indians should be regarded as human, and entitled to the basic rights of mankind. This makes compelling reading and carries all the urgency of a petition written at a moment in history when it still seemed possible to reverse the tide.
Bartolomé de Las Casas was the first and fiercest critic of Spanish colonialism in the New World. An early traveller to the Americas who sailed on one of Columbus's voyages, Las Casas was so horrified by the wholesale massacre he witnessed that he dedicated his life to protecting the Indian community. He wrote A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies in 1542, a shocking catalogue of mass slaughter, torture and slavery, which showed that the evangelizing vision of Columbus had descended under later conquistadors into genocide. Dedicated to Philip II to alert the Castilian Crown to these atrocities and demand that the Indians be entitled to the basic rights of humankind, this passionate work of documentary vividness outraged Europe and contributed to the idea of the Spanish 'Black Legend' that would last for centuries.
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Bartolome de las Casas was born in Seville around 1484. At the age of eighteen he left for the New World, where he participated in the conquest of Cuba and witnessed the first full-scale massacre of an Indian community. He became a priest and entered the Dominican order. He dedicated himself to the protection and defence of the Indians.
Anthony Pagden teaches in the Department of History at John Hopkins University, Baltimore. He is the author of The Fall of Natural Man and Spanish Imperialism and the Political Imagination.
Nigel Griffin read modern languages at Oxford and was a Fellow of New College in the 1970s. He now concentrates on writing and translating and has worked for both the UN and the World Bank.