The Black Legend (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra) is a style of nonobjective historical writing or propaganda that demonizes the Spanish Empire, its people and its culture in an intentional attempt to damage its reputation. The Black Legend propaganda originated in the 16th century, a time of strong rivalry between European colonial powers. The first to describe and denounce this phenomenon was Julián Juderías in his book The Black Legend and the Historical Truth (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra y la Verdad Histórica), a critique published in 1914 that explains how this type of biased historiography has presented Spanish history in a deeply negative light, purposely ignoring positive achievements or advances. For this anti-Spanish literature, Juderías coined the term black legend. Later writers have supported and developed Juderías' critique. In 1958, Charles Gibson explained that Spain and the Spanish Empire were historically presented as "cruel, bigoted, exploitative and self-righteous in excess of reality."
In his book, Juderías defined the Black Legend 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."— Julián Juderías, La Leyenda Negra
Philip Wayne Powell, in his book Tree of Hate, 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 Powell, Tree 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."— Alfredo Alvar, La Leyenda Negra (1997:5)
Origins of Anti-Spanish sentiment
Anti-Spanish sentiment appeared in many parts of Europe as the power of the Spanish empire grew. With the Habsburg realm, Spain dominated much of Europe including present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and parts of Italy. In 1555 Pope Paul IV described Spaniards as "heretics, schismatics, accursed of God, the Offspring of Jews and Marranos, the very scum of the earth". During the Eighty Years' War English and Dutch propaganda depicted Spaniards as bloodthirsty barbarians, drawing on racial stereotypes that likened them with Arabs. In the following centuries anti-Spanish stereotypes circulated widely, especially in English, Dutch and German-speaking parts of Europe. This propaganda would depict exaggerated versions of the evils of Spanish colonial practices and the Spanish Inquisition.
In the 18th century, philosopher Immanuel Kant (who never went to Spain) stated that "The Spaniard's bad side is that he does not learn from foreigners; that he does not travel in order to get acquainted with other nations; that he is centuries behind in the sciences. He resists any reform; he is proud of not having to work; he is of a romantic quality of spirit, as the bullfight shows; he is cruel, as the former auto-da-fé shows; and he displays in his taste an origin that is partly non-European." Historian Walter Mignolo has argued that the Black Legend was closely tied to ideologies of race, both in the way that it used the Moorish history of Spain to depict Spaniards as racially tainted, and in the way that the treatment of Africans and Native Americans during Spanish colonial projects came to symbolize their moral character.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
The conquest of the Americas
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 officials of the Spanish Empire during the colonization of New Spain, particularly in Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic). A testimony of the time accuses Columbus of brutality against the natives and 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. The writings of Las Casas have been a centre piece in the tradition of Black Legend historiography. They were already used in Flemish anti-Spanish propaganda during the Eighty Years' War. Today the degree to which Las Casas' descriptions of the horrors of Spanish colonization represent a truthful or wildly exaggerated picture is still debated among scholars. For example, American historian Lewis Hanke considered Las Casas to have exaggerated the atrocities in his accounts and thereby contributed to the Black Legend, whereas historian Benjamin Keen, who specialized in colonial labor practices, found them likely to be fairly accurate, and considered Hanke to be promoting a Spanish apologist "white legend".
This 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 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, the Netherlands and others, were guilty of the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples. Colonial powers have been accused of genocide in Canada, the United States, and Australia.
In his book The Aztecs under Spanish Rule, the first comprehensive study of the documentary sources of relations between Indians and Spaniards in new Spain, historian Charles Gibson concludes that "The Black legend provides a gross but essentially accurate interpretation of relations between Spaniards and Indians. The Legend builds upon the record of deliberate sadism. It flourishes in an atmosphere of indignation which removes the issue from the category of objective understanding. It is insufficient in its understanding of institutions of colonial history. But substantive content of the Black Legend asserts that Indians were exploited by the Spaniards, and in empirical fact they were."
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. 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. This sack of Mechelen was the first of the Spanish Furies; several events remembered by that name occurred in the four or five years to come. 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.
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 had their throats cut by the duke's troops, and eminent citizens were executed. 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).
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." 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
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.
The label "White Legend" is used by some historians to describe a historiographic approach that they consider to go too far in trying to counter the Black Legend, and which consequently ends up painting an uncritical or idealized image of Spanish colonial practices. Such an approach has been described as characteristic of Nationalist Spanish historiography during the regime of Francisco Franco, which associated itself with the imperial past couched in positive terms. Some, such as Benjamin Keen, have criticized the works of e.g. John Fiske and Lewis Hanke as going too far towards idealizing Spanish history.
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."
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."
In the view of historian and Hispanist Henry Kamen, the concept of "the black legend" ceased to exist in the English-speaking world many years ago, although it remains an internal Spanish political issue. Kamen's position and his book Empire have been strongly criticized by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and José Antonio Vaca de Osma. The historian Joseph Pérez also believes that the Black Legend is gone, but still finds traces here and there, as prejudices about Spain are indistinguishable from those that exist for other countries.
The Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in his article "Neither Black Legend nor White 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.
- Alhambra Decree
- Atrocity propaganda
- Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition
- Colonial mentality
- Cultural depictions of Philip II of Spain
- Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas
- Historical revisionism
- History of the west coast of North America
- Information warfare
- New Laws
- Spanish colonization of the Americas
- Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire
- Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire
- Spanish conquest of Yucatán
- Valladolid debate
- 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"
- *Immigration and the curse of the Black Legend
- Juderías, Julián, La Leyenda Negra (2003; first Edition of 1914) ISBN 84-9718-225-1
- "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..."
- Powell, Philip Wayne, 1971, "Tree of Hate" (first Ed.) ISBN 9780465087501
- ...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.»
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