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Bartolome de Las Casas and the Verapaz Experiment

In north-central Guatemala, there are two departments – sort of like a state or province – named Alta and Baja Verapaz, or Upper and Lower Verapaz. The word Verapaz is a contraction of two Spanish words that means “true peace” and there is an interesting story behind it.

In 1537, the great Defender of the Indies, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, was horrified at the brutality of the Spanish conquest. At the time, the most common justification for the conquest was the somewhat illogical notion that in order to “save” the natives – that is, to bring them to Christianity – it was first necessary to pacify or subdue them with military force. Massacres, mass burnings, and enslavement of entire populations were, according to this logic, in the best interests of the natives (at least in the long run).

Las Casas didn’t buy it. He was determined to show that evangelization of the New World could take place peacefully. He proposed an experiment: if the Spanish crown would grant him a region, he would bring the natives into the fold peacefully. The crown agreed to the experiment (much to the consternation of the conquistadores) and gave Las Casas a region of north-central Guatemala that had been notoriously difficult to subdue: the local K’ekchi people were warlike, defiant, and killed any Spaniards who attempted to enter their territory.

Las Casas hand-picked a team of brave and patient friars and together they slowly began to make peaceful contact with the K’ekchi people. They translated bible verses into k’ekchi and sent gifts to the local rulers, one of whom agreed to let them come in. Within a few years, the region had been Christianized and Las Casas’ experiment was a success.

The story ends badly, however. Once the region was pacified, Spanish fortune hunters, slavers and conquistadores swarmed in, looking for treasure and slaves. The K’ekchi rose in bloody revolt, which was brutally quashed. By the late 1540’s, the Verapaz project was in tatters, a victim of European greed.

The region still has the name, however, and local residents are proud of their unique place in colonial history. Today, one of the towns of Alta Verapaz is named Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas in honor of the brave friar who tried to put an end to the senseless violence of the conquest.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Guatemala: History, History of Antigua, Hermano Pedro, Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company And Guatemala, Tikal History, Gaspar Ilóm, The Verapaces History, History and Politics, Regional History and History of Quetzaltenango.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
22 Apr 2009

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