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The Black Legend and Spain in the New World

A Black Legend is a claim that some individual, group, or institution is propagating misinformation in order to demonize another individual, group or institution. Often (maybe usually) grounded in truth (to varying degrees), the "legend" will exaggerate or selectively use information in order to spread its message. It's always branded as such by the "victim" of the legend.

Many Black Legends exist. There is the one that suggests that Germans are endemically evil and anti-Semitic, causing WWII and the Holocaust; there's the legend about Mother Teresa and the consequences of some of her beliefs on the people under her care; then there is the one about the Vatican's participation in WWII and the level of cooperation between it and the Nazis. (I'm not going to comment on the veracity of these, being outside of the scope of this writeup, only giving them as examples.)

Some of the most prolific seem to center around the Catholic church (the crusades, for instance) and, more specifically, Catholic Spain (they even have the term: La leyenda negra). This is in a large part due to their battles with other, mostly Protestant, countries. The Spanish Inquisition was a big part of it (also pointing out another common aspect of the typical legend, the omittance of one's own sins in that regard). But the most common usage of the term refers to the Spanish behavior during the colonization of the New World.

The genesis of the legend (in that context) is largely due to the writing of Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican missionary and historian. Part of the colonization from early on, Las Casas became upset and even horrified by many of the abuses he saw committed on the Indians. He became a crusader of sorts in attempts to improve treatment and to get those who mistreated them punished. One of the key parts of this was writing and getting published the book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias ( A Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians, 1542). In it, he included the things he had heard and witnessed, hoping to get Spain to realize the problems in the New World.

While it did, admittedly (along with other writings by him), have some positive consequences—primarily in the long run—it didn't curb much of the abuse at the time (a less perjorative term than some of the atrocities that were taking place). Unfortunately for him and Spain, its biggest influence was on what became known as the Black Legend. Adversaries, especially the English and the Dutch, made sure it was quickly translated and disseminated throughout Europe for propagandistic purposes. It was used as "evidence" that "proved" that the Spanish (as a people, as an empire, and additionally, as Catholic) were evil, bloodthirsty, unchristian, savages with no care or respect for human life (or the life of Indians, tow things that could often be seen as mutually exclusive). This gave them further justification and support for their ongoing battles with Spain. Also, it helped England ignore its own cruelties in the Caribbean slave trade.

The question comes as to the accuracy of the Legend. The first thing to do is look past the attempt at characterizing the Spanish as somehow uniquely cruel and savage as a people—which is what the promoters of the legend were attempting. Few European nations colonizing the New World (if any) escape the stain of cruelty and atrocity. Portugal was also guilty of mistreatment and slavery, if on a much smaller scale. England led the way in the attempts to exterminate the Indians of North America (up to and including the notorious Lord Jeffrey Amherst smallpox blankets incident) as well a having a thriving slave trade of its own at one point. France, rather than being as actively involved in extermination, tended to play various tribes off against each other, letting them do the work for her. The United States did a masterful job of systematically killing, moving, and dispensing with the "Indian problem."

The point is that there is enough blame to pass around and to place it all at the feet of one culture or religion (let's face it, the people engaged in the actions are almost exclusively Christian) in simply wrong. And while there are antecedents found in the various cultures (not particular to any one) in Europe, as well as its theology, it is too simplisitc to assume as a direct cause-effect relationship. [While not planning to argue that this sort of behavior is somehow inherent to Christianity, it is clear in many cases that in the way it was formulated theologically, practiced, and wedded to the state and ideas of 'the chain of being' led to circumstances where these things were highly probable and in some cases, almost inevitable.] The Spanish are not "uniquely" cruel and prone to horrible brutality. But, on the other hand, does that make the Black Legend entirely a myth as some suggest? Not really.

It is generally thought that Las Casas did a certain degree of exaggeration in the service of his attempt to end the cruelties, but his work cannot be simply dismissed as propaganda in its own right. Despite some probable instances of embellishment, his credibility is fairly intact. If the whole source of the Legend was based solely on his writings (granted, at the time, most of it was), then more skepticism might be in order.

Unfortunately for those wishing it to go away, his work isn't the only source. Many letters and diary entries from other churchmen, colonists, soldiers, even the Conquistadores themselves, show that these things went on. Christopher Columbus, himself, participated in slavery, noted the numerous rapes of female Indians in his journals, even "sanctioned an order issued by his brother to chop off the hands of those who failed to bring in their quotas of gold or cotton" (www.csusm.edu). On Columbus' second voyage (1495), alone, 1600 natives were gathered, of which 550 or so were taken back with to Spain. (Two hundred died in transit and were thrown overboard. Half of those remaining were sick or dying.)

Hernán Cortés' and Francisco Pizarro's duplicity and murder (along with outright battles and later enslavements) in the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas, respectively, are chronicled by their own men and Cortés wrote letters discussing his conquest. These men had no reason to create a stigmatizing Black Legend for the crown (and Church) under which they were employed. The evidence does more than suggest that much or most of the secondary charges of cruelty and atrocity are correct (the primary being the incorrect notion of Spanish uniqueness to that behavior).

Sometimes it is mentioned that overwhelming numbers died due to disease, as if that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) mitigates the actions of the Conquistadores. It is suggested that they were unknowingly infected by European disease. At first, this was true, but the Europeans became well aware of the correlation between disease among the Indians and contact with Europeans (despite having no "germ theory of disease"). That goes for other Europeans, not just the Spainish—various records and writings show that people at the time of the Amherst incident were aware that contact with others who were infected and even contact with objects and environments where those who were infected had contact could lead to catching the disease (in medieval times, it was not unknown for armies to launch plague-ridden bodies into fortresses and towns under siege; a practice that would be pointless without an awareness of the hoped for consequences).

They also knew that the Indians seemed overly susceptible to their sicknesses (which also left the Indian survivors less able to cope with indigenous afflictions). Disease weakened and thinned the numbers so that they had trouble fighting back or escaping. Fewer numbers and weakened condition allowed easier enslavement which also led to more (more than the already large numbers of) deaths due to being overworked in the mines or elsewhere, or while being shipped to another location. It also led to the breakup of families and the destruction of culture, higher mortality and lower birth rates.

A reaction to the Legend is sometimes referred to as "the White Legend" which elaborates on positive things that the Spanish did during the conquest and later colonial period (at the expense of any negative things or seriously downplaying them). Advanced technology, schools, higher literacy, culture, medicine, Christianity, et cetera. Also the abolishment of cannibalism, human sacrifice, and other things. Obviously this is as wrong (perhaps more so) as the "uniqueness" myth (though as a reaction to it, somewhat understandable).

And some of the claims are dubious at best. The culture argument seems to be related to a Eurocentric feeling of self-superiority, rather than a feeling of sharing between civilizations. Medicine, which became important and effective much later in the history, is more than a little ironic, given the millions wiped out in the Americas because of lack of immuno-protection against European diseases. Even religion is questionable when looked at objectively (and the extent of true conversion, rather than as protection or convenience among many of the Indians is as well). It is absurd to believe that had Muslims done the same or other non-Christian cultures, that it would be considered an acceptable "asset" from the point of view of the conquered.

Further, there is some doubt about the actual extent of both cannibalism and human sacrifice among the indigenous peoples. Not that it didn't go on but that the sources for some of the large numbers and the idea of it being particularly widespread that have made it into the pool of "common knowledge" are suspect and often come from those with their own axes to grind or motives to justify: other tribes wishing to demonize their enemies, the Conquistadores, even the people, themselves—as the case of the Aztecs, who would benefit from appearing fierce and bloodthirsty to their enemies. Again, not that they are myths, themselves, but a sort of Indian Black Legend.

That is not to say that some things following the conquest where not positive, but to try to mitigate the means and solely view certain ends through that sort of narrow prism is incorrect and self-serving. Yes, Spain had some lasting and positive accomplishments in the New World (as did other European nations), but was the death, abuse, enslavement, and destruction of much of the pre-Columbian culture justified because of it? Seems the answer should be no.

The Spanish in the New World were, indeed cruel and brutal, at times. But they were hardly alone in that aspect (nor did every single person participate on that level). As "proof" of some sort of "savage uniqueness" of the Spanish people (and by implication Catholicism), it fails and is a myth. But it is grounded in a great deal of truth, as well. Spain can hardly be (nor should it be) singled out for that sort of behavior.

A final note. When looking at things in context, one cannot fall prey to the "noble savage" myth of the indigenous peoples. Wars did occur, as did slavery and other things (not all universally). There is much to suggest that they were probably a great deal less prone to war and the consequent actions of it than the Europeans, but conquest was not unknown there, either.

(Sources: http://muweb.millersville.edu/~columbus/papers/hayes-01.html; www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/REFORM/EMPIRE.HTM; www.britannica.com; www.csusm.edu/schwartz/h44summa.htm; David E. Stannard American Holocaust:Columbus and the conquest of the new world, 1992; Ward Churchill A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, 1997); a few parts borrowed from my Requerimiento writeup)

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