History16 Apr 2010 09:24 am
In 1914, Spanish historian Julián Juderías coined the term “Black Legend” in his book La Leyenda Negra to describe the unfavorable image of Spain and Spaniards as cruel and intolerant that was promulgated by many non-Spanish and especially Protestant historians during the 16th century. Juderías defined this phenomenon and its repercussions thusly:
“[The “Black Legend”] is the environment created by the fantastic stories about our homeland that have seen the light of publicity in all countries, the grotesque descriptions that have always been made of the character of Spaniards as individuals and collectively, the denial or at least the systematic ignorance of all that is favorable and beautiful in the various manifestations of culture and art, the accusations that in every era have been flung against Spain.”
Ironically, the origins of the “Black Legend” drew upon criticisms first voiced by the Spanish themselves. Bartolomé de Las Casas, the former Bishop of Chiapas, sowed the first seeds of the “Black Legend” when in 1552 he published a scathing and enduring indictment of Spanish behavior toward Indian populations in the New World. As admirable as his concern for the beleaguered Indian population was, his proposed solution was significantly worse than the problem he was trying to solve: use slaves from Africa instead!
Casas reasoned that, given the drastic decline of the Indian population and the reluctance of Europeans to perform heavy agricultural labor, that African slaves would be the ideal alternative labor force. Thus, the Spanish could have their cake and eat it too: African slaves would maintain Spanish prosperity, free of charge, thus giving the depleted Indian populations the chance to replenish their strength and numbers. Suffice it to say, his astonishingly tin-eared suggestion helped to kick-start the horrors of the slave trade. To his credit, Las Casas came to regret his role in encouraging the slave trade. Although he rejected the idea that slavery itself was a crime or sin, he did begin to see African slavery as practiced as a source of great evil. Unfortunately, Las Casas’ apology was not published for more than 300 years.
During the sixteenth century, when the House of Habsburg presided over an empire that included Spain, Austria, Italy, Holland, and much of the New World, Spain’s enemies created an enduring set of ideas known as the “Black Legend,” which drew heavily from Las Casas seminal work. What gave the “Black Legend” its strength and resiliency was not Las Casas himself, but the printing press. By the third quarter of the 16th century, Las Casas’ writings had been translated into French, Dutch, and English. Propagandists from England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands jumped on this opportunity to churn out works which portrayed the Spanish as a corrupt and cruel people who subjugated and exploited the New World Indians, stole their gold and silver, infected them with disease, and killed them in numbers without precedent.
In 1580, William I, Prince of Orange (1533-1584), who led Dutch Protestants in rebellion against Spanish rule, declared that Spain “committed such horrible excesses that all the barbarities, cruelties and tyrannies ever perpetrated before are only games in comparison to what happened to the poor Indians.” Thus, the “Black Legend” provided a powerful ideological justification for English involvement in the New World. By seizing treasure from Spanish ships, staging raids on Spanish ports and cities in the Americas, and enlisting runaway slaves known as Cimarons to prey on the Spanish, Protestant England would strike a blow against Spain’s aggressive Catholicism and rescue the Indians from Spanish slavery. But it is a pointed historical irony that the very English seamen, like Drake and Hawkins, who promised to rescue the Indians from Spanish bondage, also bought and enslaved Africans along the West African coast and transported them to Spanish America, where they sold them to Spanish colonists.
To be clear, the “Black Legend” was not an inaccurate portrayal of Spanish rule in the New World. Rather, it was used as a self-serving cudgel but those who really just wanted to benefit from the spoils of exploiting native populations the exact same way that Spain had. Thus, the “Black Legend” is more notable for the blatant hypocrisy of its proponents than it is for unfairly slandering Spain.
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