Published On: Mon, May 12th, 2014

The Good Christians of Campeche Starve Their Bishop

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The Good Christians of Campeche Starve Their Bishop

By Robert D. Temple

Read Introduction to the Series here

On Monday, January 5, 1545, the most hated man in the Spanish Indies landed at San Francisco de Campeche, Yucatán.  Most hated by the Spanish, that is — among the few Native Americans who knew anything about him, he must have been the most beloved.

The man was Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, newly appointed as the first resident Bishop of Chiapas.  The diocese included Yucatán, so his arrival should have been joyful, even triumphant, the high point of his long career.  Instead, Campeche provided the Bishop with nothing but mistreatment and misery bordering on desperation.  His forced stay of three weeks was probably the low point of an already terrible journey.

At the port of Campeche, a swarm of canoes came out to greet the newcomers, and the forty Dominican priests who accompanied Las Casas from Spain were horrified to see the near-nakedness of the people.  The local priest, Francisco Hernández, accompanied by a few of his baptized parishioners wearing proper trousers and shirts, welcomed the Dominicans and took them ashore.  The town that Las Casas found, established less than five years earlier, consisted of thirteen houses for the Spanish residents, separated from the five hundred houses of the local Maya people.

The buena gente of Campeche had anticipated his arrival.  News about the proclamations from King Carlos — “Laws and Ordinances Newly Made for the Government of the Indies and Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians” — had already reached them.  Their new Bishop wasted no time in explaining how he was going to implement the New Laws.  He announced that anyone within his jurisdiction who owned Indian slaves would be refused absolution in confession and anyone who mistreated Indians would be excommunicated.

The good Christian residents of Campeche responded with derision.  They denied the legitimacy of his credentials as Bishop and refused to recognize his authority.  They declared the New Laws invalid and unenforceable.  They denied him provisions and refused to pay him their tithes.  They refused even to consider releasing their Indian slaves.  Contacts with Mérida, then scarcely more than a raw military camp set amid the brush-grown ruins of a once-great Maya city, produced similar results.  Las Casas and his party remained stranded in hostile Campeche, seeking some desperate way to sustain themselves and travel on to their assigned destination in Ciudad Real de Chiapa.

Las Casas was sixty years old and must not have been in the best of health after a nightmarish journey from Spain.  Short of funds and heavily in debt, he had started from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on July 11, 1544, sailing as part of a large flotilla.  The low-rent ship the friars were able to charter listed badly and was barely seaworthy.  Somehow they made it to Santo Domingo on September 9.  Las Casas found that, because of the New Laws, King Carlos, his regent son Felipe, and he himself were roundly despised in Santo Domingo, as they were throughout the Spanish Empire in the New World.  The citizens greeted him with jeers and threats.  After three months of negotiations, Las Casas finally persuaded Bishop Alonso de Fuenmayor to sign a note so he could charter a vessel to take him on to Yucatán.  Before the Dominicans could leave, authorities seized the ship because of unpaid debts, and Las Casas had to find someone to post a bond.  The ship’s pilot turned out to be incompetent, and after surviving various navigation errors and a terrifying storm, the Bishop and his missionaries had at last arrived off hostile Campeche.

Las Casas was almost single-handedly responsible for the New Laws that required better treatment for Native Americans.  He had come to his convictions haltingly.  After arriving on the island of Hispaniola in 1502 at age eighteen, he became a slave owner and received an encomienda — a tract of land with the right to exploit the inhabitants at will and demand tribute payments from them.  In 1510, a group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo and began condemning the injustices they saw committed against the Indians.  Fray Antonio de Montesinos delivered particularly fiery sermons that must have influenced young Bartolomé.  He became a priest, the first one ordained in America.

He continued to own slaves, though, and participated as a chaplain in military expeditions and in the conquest of Cuba.  The atrocities he witnessed there finally convinced him that the actions of the Spanish in the New World constituted a great injustice.  He gave up his slaves and encomienda and urged other colonists to do the same.  His preaching met with stubborn resistance, and he realized that he would have to go to Spain to win meaningful reforms.  Accompanied by Antonio de Montesinos, he arrived in Seville in 1515.  Las Casas wrote and campaigned forcefully for fair treatment of the Indians, proposing to use peaceful methods — persuasion instead warfare — to bring them into the Spanish realm.  Fair trade and informed, voluntary conversion would create good, tribute-paying citizens, a humane alternative to extracting wealth by conquest and slave labor.

Several attempts to implement his ideas in America failed tragically.  Devastated, he took vows as a Dominican friar in 1523 and retired for some years of study and contemplation.  When he returned to the cause of the Indians, he received permission to try his methods in a particularly warlike, unconquerable region of Guatemala, and there he began having success.  In 1540 Las Casas, back in Spain and pleading for his reforms, got the ear of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V.  He denounced the destruction of the natives in America, providing shocking details.  He charged members of the Council of the Indies with corruption, and he proposed specific reforms.  The Emperor signed the New Laws at Barcelona on November 20, 1542.  Although less than what Las Casas wanted, the rules represented a huge step forward, the supreme achievement of his career.

Making them stick was another matter.  In the New World, riots broke out, the Viceroy of New Spain refused to implement the laws, the Bishop of Guatemala openly defied them, and Las Casas received threats against his life.

His dogged persistence had made Las Casas a nuisance to church and state authorities in Spain, and he reluctantly yielded to entreaties that he accept promotion to a bishopric in America.  Refusing the rich post at Cuzco, he agreed to accept the impoverished new Diocese of Chiapas on the condition that it include Verapaz, the area in Guatemala where he had worked.  With that, Las Casas sailed off into the storms, vowing to enforce the New Laws in his diocese and bring peaceful conversion to its residents.

Stranded in Campeche, the Bishop received a messenger from Ciudad Real de Chiapa bringing word that his diocese was unable to pay his salary and the town treasury had no money for him.  The church in Ciudad Real sent a few coins from their burial fund.  The sympathetic priest in Campeche, Father Hernández, scraped together a little money.  The Dominicans sold some of the religious items and personal effects they had brought with them from Spain.  With this pittance, Las Casas was able to engage a small vessel, and he sent it ahead with eleven friars and most of their goods.

Another disaster.  The craft — in poor condition, overloaded, and badly managed — foundered in a storm near an entrance to the Laguna de Términos.  Nine friars and all the goods were lost.  The sorrowing survivors made their difficult journey in several groups by river canoes and overland, finally reaching Ciudad Real de Chiapa during the first week in March.

Las Casas was so bitter about the treatment he had received in Campeche that he petitioned to have Yucatán removed from his diocese.

His stormy tenure as resident bishop in Ciudad Real lasted little more than a year.  He met blind hatred from landowners, rebellion from citizens, and no support from the Viceroy of New Spain or the Audiencia of Guatemala.  His life threatened and his efforts to enforce the New Laws thwarted at every turn, he went sadly to a gathering of bishops in the City of Mexico.  In the capital, Las Casas learned that Carlos V had revoked the heart of the New Laws, the edict forbidding the inheritance of encomiendas, having given in to threats of civil war in Peru and the need for funds to support his endless wars against the French, German Protestants, and Ottomans.

Faced with opposition from the colonial governments, divided ecclesiastical authorities, and a vacillating monarch, Las Casas set out again for Spain.  His ideas did eventually prevail, but he experienced disappointment and defeat during the rest of his life.  He continued to work and write tirelessly, fighting against the abuse of indigenous people, until his death in 1566.

He was regarded — with some justification — as an extremist and slanderer of Spain, even well into the nineteenth century, and he tarnished his legacy to us by endorsing the importation of African slaves.  Nevertheless, today we remember Bartolomé de las Casas as the revered Apostle of the Indians and an early advocate for their rights.

Bartolomé de las Casas. Artist unknown. 16th Century General Archive of the Indies, Seville, Spain

Bartolomé de las Casas. Artist unknown. 16th Century
General Archive of the Indies, Seville, Spain


Ciudad Real became the capital of the Intendencia of Chiapas, then the State of Chiapas in independent Mexico, with a name change to San Cristóbal.  In 1848, “de las Casas” was added to honor the Apostle of the Indians.

Travelers from Yucatán visit San Cristóbal de las Casas by driving the tortuous mountain road through Ocosingo or more easily by flying to the current state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérez.  The Mexican government named the city a “Pueblo Mágico” in 2003.

Monuments throughout the world commemorate Bartolomé de las Casas.  Given the fraught relationship between Las Casas and Yucatán, perhaps it is not a surprise that no prominent monuments or place names in the peninsula honor its first resident bishop.  However, the great murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco illustrating the struggles of the people of Yucatán include an image of the Apostle of the Indians.  It appears, along with symbols of liberation, on the west wall of the courtyard in the Government Palace on Mérida’s main plaza.

Author photo jpg

Robert D. Temple, PhD, is the author of the award-winning bookEdge Effects and numerous  magazine articles, mostly dealing with matters of local history.  He lives in Yucatán, Ohio, and  Virginia.  Some of these articles appeared in slightly different form, under the title “Tales of the  Mayab,” in an anthology published by the Mérida English Language Library in 2013.

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