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Let’s take a moment to remember Bartolomé de las Casas to mark National Indigenous History Month

Bartolomé de las Casas
Bartolomé de las Casas is commemorated on the bank of the Guadalquivir River.

By Gurpreet Singh

One of my motivations for going to Seville in the summer of 2023 was to visit the monument built in memory of the author of The Devastation of the Indies. The book is a firsthand account of the repression of Indigenous peoples of the Americas by Spanish conquerors.

Bartolomé de las Casas was born in 1484 to a merchant father, Pedro de las Casas, who had accompanied Christopher Columbus on one of his voyages. Columbus gave a young Indian slave to Pedro, who then gave him away to his son as a companion. But Bartolomé handed him over to the authorities so that he could be returned to the Indies.

Bartolomé thereby showed early signs of his disapproval of the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples whose lands were stolen by the Spanish.

As he grew older, he was ordained a deacon and later became a priest. During his time in the Indies, he not only preached against the abuse of the Natives by the colonists, but liberated his own slaves and began campaigning for their rights. His open denunciation of the slaughter of the Indigenous peoples turned him into an enemy of officials who were part of the exploitative structure. He faced death threats for seeing the whole affair as being against his own Christian values.

He remained steadfast in his resolve until his death in 1566.

A sculpture stands on the bank of the Guadalquivir River in Spain, across from where he was born, according to Anglican priest and church historian Patrick Comerford. Thanks to the information given on his blog, my son and I were able to trace the monument built by Emilio García Ortiz.

Bartolomé was an enlightened priest

Inaugurated in 1984 to mark the fifth centenary of his birth, the sculpture commemorates Bartolomé as a father-figure of human rights. Incidentally, it was the same year when the minority Sikh community suffered the worst human rights violations in India.

While we as Canadians are celebrating June as National Indigenous History Month, we need to remember Bartolomé and his legacy. To start with, people need to read his book, which gives an idea how the Europeans colonized Turtle Island and how problematic was the so-called Doctrine of Discovery. It paved the way for marginalization of Indigenous peoples in North America and their genocide through residential schools and other tools of white supremacy.

Also, we need to recognize and amplify the story of Bartolomé, to see that not every Christian priest was complicit in atrocities or misappropriated the Church to colonize Indigenous peoples for material benefits.

Gurpreet Singh is co-founder of Radical Desi. Follow him on Twitter @gurpreetonair. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.

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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society is grateful to be held on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, that is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge our privilege to be gathered on this land, and commit to work with and be respectful to the Indigenous peoples whose arts and stories inspire us to bring communities together.