Black Legend

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For other uses, see Black Legend (disambiguation).
A 1598 engraving by Theodor de Bry depicting a Spaniard feeding Indian children to his dogs. De Bry's works are characteristic of the anti-Spanish propaganda that originated as a result of the Eighty Years' War.

The Black Legend (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra) is a style of historical writing or propaganda that demonizes the Spanish Empire, its people and its culture. The first to describe this phenomenon was Julián Juderías in his book The Black Legend and the Historical Truth (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra y la Verdad Histórica), an influential and controversial critique published in 1914, that explains how modern European historiography has traditionally presented Spanish history in a deeply negative light, ignoring any positive achievements or developments. For this anti-Spanish literature, Juderías coined the term black legend. Later writers have supported and developed Juderías' critique. In 1958, Charles Gibson argued that Spain and the Spanish Empire were historically presented as "cruel, bigoted, exploitative and self-righteous in excess of reality."[1] [2]


The creator of the term, Julián Juderías, described it in 1914 in his book La Leyenda Negra[3] as

"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."[4]

Julián JuderíasLa Leyenda Negra

Philip Wayne Powell, in his book Tree of Hate,[5] also defines the Black Legend:

"An image of Spain circulated through late sixteenth-century Europe, borne by means of political and religious propaganda that blackened the characters of Spaniards and their ruler to such an extent that Spain became the symbol of all forces of repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance, and intellectual and artistic backwardness for the next four centuries. Spaniards … have termed this process and the image that resulted from it as ‘The Black Legend,’ la leyenda negra"

Philip Wayne PowellTree of Hate (1985),

One recent author, Fernández Álvarez, has defined a Black Legend more broadly:

"the careful distortion of the history of a nation, perpetrated by its enemies, in order to better fight it. And a distortion as monstrous as possible, with the goal of achieving a specific aim: the moral disqualification of the nation, whose supremacy must be fought in every way possible."[6]

—Alfredo Alvar, La Leyenda Negra (1997:5)


The historian Sverker Arnoldsson from the University of Gothenburg, in his book The Black Legend. A Study of its Origins, locates the origins of the black legend in medieval Italy, unlike previous authors who locate it in the 16th Century. Arnoldsson cites studies by Benedetto Croce and Arturo Farinelli to affirm that Italy in the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries was extremely hostile to Spain.

Arnoldsson's theories have been disputed by numerous historians. In general, they raise the following objections:[7]

  1. Just because the earliest writings against Spaniards were written in Italy, that is not sufficient reason to describe Italy as the origin of the black legend. It is a normal reaction in any society dominated by a foreign power.
  2. The phrase "black legend" suggests a certain "tradition," which did not exist in Italian writings based primarily on a reaction to the recent presence of Spanish troops.

William S. Maltby further argues that there is no connection between the Italian criticisms of Spain and the later form of the black legend in the Netherlands and England.[8]

16th century[edit]

The Conquest of the Americas[edit]

In the process of European colonization of the Americas that lasted over three centuries, Spain was the only colonial power to pass laws for the protection of native Americans. As early as 1512, the Laws of Burgos regulated the behavior of Europeans in the New World forbidding the ill-treatment of indigenous people and limiting the power of encomenderos or landowners. In 1542 the New Laws expanded and corrected the previous body of laws in order to improve their application. Although these laws were not always followed across all American territories, they reflected the will of the Spanish colonial government of the time to protect the rights of the native population.

Despite the existence of these laws, there was some debate within Spain herself about the treatment and rights of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In 1552, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas published the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies), an account of excesses committed by some officials of the Spanish Empire during the colonization of New Spain, particularly in Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic).[9] In the section regarding Hispaniola, Las Casas compares the indigenous Arawaks to tame ewes and writes that when he arrived in 1508, "there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it." Another testimony of the time accuses Columbus of systematic brutality against the natives and engineering a program of forced labor that reduced their population from millions to thousands in little over a decade. De las Casas, son of the merchant Pedro de las Casas who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, described Columbus' treatment of the natives in his History of the Indies.[10]

Under Columbus and subsequent governors, enslaved Hispaniola natives were forced to toil under brutal conditions in mining and farming camps. According to Las Casas, up to a third of the male slaves died during each six- to eight-month mining operation. The mines were many miles away from the farms, and the enslaved men and the women only saw each other every eight to ten months. This segregation, along with the grueling conditions, took its toll on the native population:

Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides. . . they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation.... In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . . . and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile ... was depopulated.... My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write....".[10]

While some natives perished from diseases previously unknown in the Americas, others died as a direct result of wars of conquest and forced labor. The historical ill-treatment of American natives, common in many European colonies in the Americas, was often used as propaganda in works of competing European powers to create slander and animosity against the Spanish Empire. The work of da Las Casas was first cited in English with the 1583 publication The Spanish Colonie, or Brief Chronicle of the Actes and Gestes of the Spaniards in the West Indies, at a time when England was preparing for war against Spain in the Netherlands. The biased use of such works, including the distortion or exaggeration of their contents, is part of the anti-Spanish historical propaganda known as the Black Legend.

From the perspective of history and the colonization of the Americas, all European powers that colonized the Americas, such as England, Portugal, Netherlands and others were guilty of the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples. Colonial powers have been accused of genocide in Canada, USA, and Australia.

Therefore, more recent views of Columbus, particularly those of Indigenous scholars and peoples, have tended to be much more critical. This is because the native Taino of Hispaniola, where Columbus began a rudimentary tribute system for gold and cotton, disappeared so rapidly after contact with the Spanish, because of overwork and especially, after 1519, when the first pandemic struck Hispaniola, because of European diseases. Some modest estimates indicate fatality rates of 80–90% in Native American populations during smallpox epidemics. The native Taino people of the island were systematically enslaved via the encomienda system,which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe. The pre-Columbian Taino population is estimated to have been perhaps 250,000–300,000 or more. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than five hundred Taino were left on the island.

As such many modern Indigenous peoples view the wars of conquest by Columbus and subsequent Spanish invaders as the "Curse of 1492." Some historians and scholars, especially, in light of the Jewish Holocaust, view the invasion and conquest of the Americas as the "American Holocaust" (See David Stannard, American Holocaust).

The Netherlands[edit]

Spain's war with the United Provinces and in particular the victories of the Duke of Alba contributed to the anti-Spanish propaganda. Sent in August 1567 to counter political unrest in a part of Europe where printing presses were a source of heterodox opinion, especially against the Roman Catholic Church, Alba took control of the book industry and several printers were banished and at least one was executed. Book sellers and printers were prosecuted and arrested for publishing banned books, many of which were added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

After years of unrest in the Low Countries, the summer of 1567 saw renewed violent outbursts of iconoclasm, in which Dutch 'Beeldenstorm' Calvinists defaced statues and decorations of Catholic monasteries and churches. The Battle of Oosterweel in March 1567 was the first Spanish military response to the many riots, and a prelude to or the start of the Eighty Years' War. The 80 Years' War can be seen to have started on 13 March 1567 with the defeat of the rebels at Oosterweel. In October 1572, after the Orange forces captured the city of Mechelen, its lieutenant attempted to surrender when he was informed that a larger Spanish army was approaching. They tried to welcome the Duke's forces by the singing of psalms, but Fadrique Álvarez de Toledo, son of the Governor of the Netherlands, and commander of the Duke's troops, allowed his men three days of pillage of the archbishopric city. Alba reported to his King that "not a nail was left in the wall". A year later, magistrates still attempted to retrieve precious church belongings that Spanish soldiers had sold in other cities.[11][12] This sack of Mechelen was the first of the Spanish Furies;[13][14][15][16] several events remembered by that name occurred in the four or five years to come.[17] In November and December of the same year, with permission by the Duke, Fadrique had the entire populations of Zutphen, bloodily, and of Naarden killed, locked and burnt in their church.[12][18]

In July 1573, after half a year of siege, the city of Haarlem surrendered. Then the garrison's men (except for the German soldiers) were drowned or got their throat cut by the duke's troops, and eminent citizens were executed.[12] During the infamous three-day "Spanish Fury" of 1576, Spanish troops attacked and pillaged Antwerp. The soldiers rampaged through the city, killing and looting; they demanded money from citizens and burned the homes of those who refused to (or could not) pay. Christophe Plantin's printing establishment was threatened with destruction three times, but was saved each time when a ransom was paid. Antwerp was economically devastated by the attack. The propaganda created by the Dutch Revolt during the struggle against the Spanish Crown can also be seen as part of the Black Legend. The depredations against the Indians that De las Casas had described, were compared to the depredations of Alba and his successors in the Netherlands. The Brevissima relacion was reprinted no less than 33 times between 1578 and 1648 in the Netherlands (more than in all other European countries combined).[19]

The Articles and Resolutions of the Spanish Inquisition to Invade and Impede the Netherlands imputed a conspiracy to the Holy Office to starve the Dutch population, and exterminate its leading nobles, "as the Spanish had done in the Indies.[20] " Marnix of Sint-Aldegonde, a prominent propagandist for the cause of the rebels, regularly used references to alleged intentions on the part of Spain to "colonize" the Netherlands, for instance in his 1578 address to the German Diet.


Other critics of Spain included Antonio Pérez, the fallen secretary of King Philip. Pérez fled to France and England, where he published attacks upon the Spanish monarchy under the title Relaciones (1594). Philip, at the time also king of Portugal, was accused of cruelty for his hanging of supporters of António, Prior of Crato, the rival contender for the throne of Portugal, on yardarms on the Azores islands, following the Battle of Ponta Delgada.

Reception in England[edit]

These books were extensively used by the Dutch during their fight for independence from Spanish rule, while the English referred to them to justify their piracy and wars against the Spanish. The two northern nations were not only emerging as Spain's rivals for worldwide colonialism, but were also strongholds of Protestantism while Spain was the most powerful Roman Catholic country of the period.

White Legend[edit]

The so-called "White Legend", as branded by critics of the Black Legend[21] refers to a counter narrative to the Black Legend which depicts Spanish colonial history in a supposedly more benevolent way, taking into account the historical and cultural context of the times including the negative consequences of Spanish colonialism. Most modern historians take this point of view, as well as members of all sides of the Spanish political spectrum. However, it is sometimes interpreted as being related to the regime of Francisco Franco, which associated itself with the imperial past couched in positive terms.[22] This historical narrative includes 19th and 20th century American historians such as John Fiske and Lewis Hanke. Some have criticized their works as going too far towards idealizing Spanish history.[23]

Scholarly analysis[edit]

In recent years a group of historians including Alfredo Alvar, Ricardo Garcia Carcel, Lourdes Mateo Bretos and Carmen Iglesias have argued that the black legend does not currently exist, the black legend instead being merely the Spanish perception of how the world views Spain's legacy. Carmen Iglesias describes the black legend as "the external image of Spain as Spain perceives itself."[24]

Garcia Carcel even directly denies the existence of the black legend in his book The Black Legend, arguing "It is neither a legend, insofar as the negative opinions of Spain have genuine historical foundations, nor is it black, as the tone was never consistent nor uniform. Gray abounds, but the color of these opinions was always viewed in contrast which we have called the white legend." [25]

In the view of historian and Hispanist Henry Kamen, the concept of "black legend" ceased to exist in the English-speaking world for many years, although it remains an internal Spanish political issue.[26] Kamen's position and his book Empire have been strongly criticized by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and José Antonio Vaca de Osma.[27][28] The historian Joseph Pérez also believes that the black legend is gone, but still find traces here and there, as prejudices about Spain are indistinguishable from those that exist for other countries.[29]

The Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in his article "Neither Black nor White Legend Legend" published in the paper El País proposes an overcoming of the "false choice" between two legends, to present an approach that appreciates the positive results of Spanish conquest without denying or ceasing to deplore the atrocities that were perpetrated.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gibson, Charles. 1958. "The Colonial Period in Latin American History" pages 13-14 defines the black legend as "The Accumulated tradition of propaganda and Hispanophobia according to which Spanish imperialism is regarded as cruel, bigoted, exploitative and self-righteous in excess of reality"
  2. ^ *Immigration and the curse of the Black Legend
  3. ^ Juderías, Julián, La Leyenda Negra (2003; first Edition of 1914) ISBN 84-9718-225-1
  4. ^ "el ambiente creado por los relatos fantásticos que acerca de nuestra patria han visto la luz pública en todos los países, las descripciones grotescas que se han hecho siempre del carácter de los españoles como individuos y colectividad, la negación o por lo menos la ignorancia sistemática de cuanto es favorable y hermoso en las diversas manifestaciones de la cultura y del arte, las acusaciones que en todo tiempo se han lanzado sobre España..."
  5. ^ Powell, Philip Wayne, 1971, "Tree of Hate" (first Ed.) ISBN 9780465087501
  6. ^ ...cuidadosa distorsión de la historia de un pueblo, realizada por sus enemigos, para mejor combatirle. Y una distorsión lo más monstruosa posible, a fin de lograr el objetivo marcado: la descalificación moral de ese pueblo, cuya supremacía hay que combatir por todos los mediossine die
  7. ^ Alvar, p.7
  8. ^ Maltby, p.7
  9. ^ "Mirror of the Cruel and Horrible Spanish Tyranny Perpetrated in the Netherlands, by the Tyrant, the Duke of Alba, and Other Commanders of King Philip II". World Digital Library. 1620. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  10. ^ a b Stannard, David E. (1993). American Holocaust:The Conquest of the New World: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-19-508557-0. 
  11. ^ Arnade, Peter J. Beggars, iconoclasts, and civic patriots: the political culture of the Dutch Revolt. Cornell University Press, 2008 (Limited online by Google books). pp. 226–229. ISBN 978-0-8014-7496-5. Retrieved 31 July 2011. 
  12. ^ a b c Elsen, Jean (February 2007). "De nood-en belegeringsmunten van de Nederlandse opstand tegen Filips II - Historisch kader". Collection J.R. Lasser (New York). Nood- en belegeringsmunten, Deel II (in Dutch). Jean Elsen & ses Fils s.a., Brussels, Belgium. p. 15. Retrieved 1 August 2011. 
  13. ^ GDB (7 September 2004). "'Spaanse furie' terug thuis". journal Het Nieuwsblad, Belgium. Retrieved 31 July 2011. 
  14. ^ pagan-live-style (2009–2011). "Catherine church Mechelen 3". deviantArt. Retrieved 3 August 2011. 
  15. ^ "Sold Items provided for Reference and Research Purposes — OHN Bellingham - Assassin, St Petersburg, Russia, 3 December 1806 - ALS". Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd. Retrieved 3 August 2011. 
  16. ^ "History - South-Limburg"., Limburg, Netherlands. Retrieved 3 August 2011. 
  17. ^ Burg, David F. "1567 Revolt of the Netherlands". A World History of Tax Rebellions - An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present. Taylor and Francis, London, UK, 2003, 2005; Routledge, 2004 (Online by BookRags, Inc). ISBN 978-0-203-50089-7. ISBN 978-0-415-92498-6. Retrieved 4 August 2011. "in Madrid, Alba was accused of following his own whims rather than Philip’s wishes. According to Henry Kamen, Medinaceli reported to the king that “Excessive rigour, the misconduct of some officers and soldiers, and the Tenth Penny, are the cause of all the ills, and not heresy or rebellion.” —[...]— One of the governor’s officers reported that in the Netherlands “the name of the house of Alba” was held in abhorrence" 
  18. ^ Lamers, Jaqueline. "Gemeente Naarden – Keverdijk, diverse straten". Municipality of Naarden, Netherlands. Retrieved 31 July 2011. [dead link]
  19. ^ Schmidt, p. 97
  20. ^ Schmidt, p 112
  21. ^ Keen, Benjamin. 1969. "The Black Legend Revisited: Assumptions and realities". The Hispanic American Historical Review. volume 49. no. 4. pp.703-719
  22. ^ Molina Martínez, Miguel. 2012. La Leyenda Negra revisitada: la polémica continúa, Revista Hispanoamericana. Revista Digital de la Real Academia Hispano Americana de Ciencias, Artes y Letras. 2012, nº2 Disponible en: <>. ISSN: 2174-0445
  23. ^ Walsh, Anne L. (2007). Arturo Pérez-Reverte: narrative tricks and narrative strategies. Colección Támesis: Monografías (Volume 246). London: Tamesis Books. p. 117. ISBN 1-85566-150-0. 
  24. ^ Vaca de Osma, p.208
  25. ^ Jail and Matthew Garcia Bretos, The Black Legend (1991) & Matthew Garcia Carcel, Bretos, p.84
  26. ^ "Henry Kamen". El Mundo. 21 August 2001. 
  27. ^ Vaca de Osma (2004)
  28. ^ Arturo Pérez-Reverte (4 September 2005). "History, bleeding and pony". XLSemanal. 
  29. ^ Perez, p.197-199, Reuters (20 November 2009). "The Spanish scholar Joseph Perez assumes overcome the "black legend" of Spain". Google News (in Spanish). Retrieved 1 May. 
  30. ^ Ernesto Sabato (2 January 1991). "Ni leyenda negra ni leyenda blanca". El País (304). 


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