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The History of the Indies, written over the course of Bartolomé de las Casas’ life as a Dominican, is an incredible work with so many richly detailed narratives that span the fifteenth-century Iberian conquests and the conquest of Mexico in the 1520s. One amazing story that is worth relating comes from Book III, ch. 99, where we find Las Casas, following his failed stint with the Hieronymite friars on Española, back in Spain defending the cause of the Indians to the royal council of the new monarch Carlos V. Under the request of fray Reginald de Montesinos, the brother of the famous Antonio, a junta at Salamanca was summoned by the prior of San Esteban, Juan Hurtado de Mendoza.

Las Casas tells us that thirteen theologians and jurists from the university and convent signed a document that contained four or five conclusions regarding the rational capacity of the Indians and their freedom to receive the Gospel. One can only assume by peaceful means. The conclusions were proposed at the very height of Spanish debates regarding the encomienda institution on the islands across the Atlantic and the doctrine of quasi-natural slavery used to support it. The signatories agreed that anyone who rejected these conclusions should be subject to punishment as a heretic.

Unfortunately, the charter was stolen from Las Casas during one of his journeys after he had received it from Hurtado and translated it. In the words of historian Lawrence Clayton who has written a new biography of Las Casas, the charter, which preceded the papal bull of Paul III by two decades, remains “a major building block in the history of human rights.” I concur. Where is Dr. Jones when you need him?

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