Definition of black legend
According to the Real Academia de la Lengua Española a legend is a “Narration of fantastic events that is transmitted by tradition” and going a little further a black legend is an “Unfavorable and generally unfounded story about someone or something”. In the case we are dealing with that “something” is Spain, or rather the history of Spain and its performance along it both in its own peninsular territory and in Europe as well as in Spanish America.
In all wars or struggles between peoples, countries, empires, etc., it is inevitable that the battle of information or disinformation between the contenders explodes. Texts, ideas, news, any kind of information are taken and negative aspects of the enemy are exaggerated or directly invented with the aim of underestimating and disqualifying him among his own people in order to justify the actions against him or to insufflate more value. This is a way of convincing people that truth and justice are on their side against the evil and barbaric enemy, who must be defeated and eliminated. With such stories he is fully justified. This may be all very well in times of war when, as we say, the first victim is information and, with the distortion of it, the truth, but when these legends and inventions are left out of the unhappy times of war and continue to be hammered out, or even bring out new lies in times of peace or normality, then we are faced with a far more worrying case. More so when even many countries, supposedly allies, continue to feed and spread it.
The anti-Spanish black legend has been purring in the ears of the Spanish people themselves and spreading internationally in a constant and stubborn way. But not only among those considered historical enemies of Spain, who seek to discredit and tarnish the image of Spain, but also within its own borders since the Spanish War of Independence in the early nineteenth century with the confrontation of the liberals with the supporters of the Old Regime and, at present, with the secessionists who justify their intention to separate and distinguish themselves from the rest of the Spanish people by inventing and exaggerating alleged Hispanic evils. For more inri in these last years the legendary arguments have also been appropriated by the national and international political left justifying in this way riots, violent acts and insults of the most varied kind for something that happened several centuries ago. Absolutely delirious.
But we should not be mistaken, many of the accusations against Spain’s work are pure legend, pure lies, but there are also truths and half-truths. That is the ability of those who create the black legend: to introduce true elements to give an idea of seriousness and correctness but then exaggerate the negative aspects to their own taste and how not? also plays an important role hiding merits and positive facts carried out by the Spanish, because there is not only an active black legend that shows only the negative but also the opposite, the one that hides merits and positive aspects.
The anti-Spanish black legend basically comes to say that Spain was and is an ignorant, fanatical, inquisitorial, murderous nation, enemy of progress and modernity… almost nothing. And on many occasions it is not only attacked as a nation but also individual Spanish elements, as in the case of Philip II and the alleged murder of his son, or the Duke of Alba in the repression in Flanders. Both facts are denied by historical research. The Hispanic racial character is also attacked with famous phrases such as “Africa begins in the Pyrenees” or also the cultural capacities of the Spanish people, calling them fanatics and uneducated.
Nor can we forget another type of legend that resides in many Spaniards and Hispanic Americans and that is that what is outside is always better than what is inside, foreigners are smarter, more tolerant and much more efficient at work than Spaniards and other things that many believe. This “transparent legend”, which makes the Hispanic thing invisible and shows it as inferior to the great foreigner, can do even more damage than the black legend itself and is something associated with an unfounded feeling and manipulated by false legends.
Origin of the black legend
The black legend as a historical concept exists since the beginning of the 20th century when Julián Juderías first spoke about it in his work La leyenda negra y la verdad histórica, although some prefer to situate its origin in a conference given by Doña Emilia Pardo Bazán in 1899 in Paris. These could be the origins of the concept itself, but actually that image and negative publicity has been around since the late Middle Ages. The Aragonese hegemony in the Mediterranean and in Italy caused misgivings among Italian cities and kingdoms. When Alexander VI, from Valencia, was appointed Pope, the internal rivalries within the Vatican led to the emergence of legends of all kinds against the Spanish. They were accused of being a mixture of Jews and Moors, that is, racially inferior and untrustworthy people. Similarly, the wars in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century led to the creation of a black legend against the Borgia family, accusing them of being vicious, corrupt and wasteful…
But it was in the middle of the 16th century when the confrontations between Spain, England and Holland gained strength and the appearance of the printing press helped to spread the news coming from America with unusual speed with the publication of the first edition of Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brief account of the destruction of the Indies. Whose exaggerations impacted the entire continent and helped to spread the black legend. The fire had started and all that remained was to feed it with more and more negative facts to stain the name of Spain.
The black legend by places
We will now explain a little about the anti-Spanish black legend according to where it originated or manifested:
- Italy: as we said before, the Aragonese expansion in the Mediterranean Sea was a commercial threat to the Italian city states, as well as the rise of the Borgia family, from Valencia, which ended up conquering nothing less than the papacy of Rome, with Alexander VI and Calixtus III, and the military and political domination over Naples led to the creation of legends such as that the Spanish were a mixture of Jews and Marranos and barbarians incapable of governing fairly. The lie that the sacking of Rome was carried out only by Spaniards, when they participated in much larger numbers of German Protestants, also spread. And the attribution of news of mass murder and rape as if it were a unique Spanish feature and not that of the other invading nations.
- Germany: The incipient German nationalism fuelled by the religious wars of the 16th century portrayed the Spaniards as collaborators with the Jews and the Muslims, short and dark (racism) and staunch defenders of the Pope, making them especially dangerous to the Protestant freedom of the German princes by expressing it in popular songs and paschings that demonized Charles V as the embodiment of evil and his soldiers as angry devils. Germany was also the destination of numerous Dutch expellees from Flanders and Jews from the peninsula who evidently actively collaborated in the propagation of the black legend.
- France: From the end of the 15th century, wars between Spain and France were constant during the reigns of Charles I and Francis I. This included the wars in Italy and the confrontations between Philip II and Henry II in the last decades of the 16th century. The French attacked above all the Inquisition, the Hispanic repressions in Flanders and the kings in a personal way, labeling them as tyrants, cruel, greedy and violent. The best known work is “Antiespañol”, by Antoine Arnauld, published in 1590. Later, with the arrival of the Enlightenment, the enlightened associated the name of Spain with the fanatical and intolerant, especially again because of the Inquisition, and with the mismanagement of the public, with the unproductive and ancient, associating it with the monarchy. Thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau attacked backward, clerical Spain, as a reflection of the struggle between the liberals and the Old Regime.
- Holland: the historically Levantine Dutch nobility, who were accustomed to doing as they pleased within their own feudal system, clashed head-on with Philip II and his attempt to establish a modern state in the Netherlands. This would mean going against their political and economic interests. The rebellion soon broke out and was suppressed by the 3rd Duke of Alba by setting up the Court of Tumults which ordered the execution of some 500 rebel leaders. The rebel propaganda said that the dead were about 200,000. The religious clashes between Catholics and Protestants were also used by the propaganda of William of Orange, the main instigator of the black legend in his work Apology, in which he accuses King Philip II of being an adulterer, an incestuous bigamist and of murdering his wife Isabel de Valois and his son Don Carlos. He also attacks the Spaniards as fanatical, vengeful and arrogant beings. But the legend in Holland was also about fiscal matters. To annoy the people, the nobles spread the word that the taxes that were collected, which were not excessive, were going to the Dutch to maintain the empire. Philip II proved that this was not only a lie but that Flanders was costing Castile money. Something like the “Castilla ens roba” we already know. Obviously, the Inquisition, although it was not established in Flanders, was told in the propaganda leaflets that it would act against the Dutch by carrying out a general confiscation of goods. All lies.
- England: The confrontation between Castile and England did not begin in a serious way until the middle of the 16th century with the arrival to power of Henry VIII who confronted the Vatican proclaiming himself head of his own church, the Anglican one. In order to reaffirm his actions, he began a campaign to discredit everything Spanish and Catholic, considering it to be villainous, false and bloodthirsty, as opposed to the English, which is noble, authentic and benign. This would justify the barbarities committed in England against Catholics and also the piracy at sea against Spanish ships and coastal cities both in Spain and in the Indies. The attack by the Great and Felicious Armada (misunderstood as the Invincible Armada) sent by Philip II against England in 1588 confirmed the intrinsic evil of Spain and that God was with the English for sending the elements against the invaders. And exaggerating the importance of the action of the English ships, which really had no major relevance in the defeat.
- Hispanic America: the black legend made its way among the inhabitants of Hispanic America in two ways: the first with the so-called “liberators”, the creole leaders of the wars of independence who learned well all the lies of Bartolomé de Las Casas and other authors about the brutality of the conquest and colonization, the theft of natural resources and the indigenous genocide. All of this was done with the aim of attracting the sympathy and support of the enemy powers of Spain, as was the case with Great Britain, which actively participated in the confrontations through the Masonic lodges to which most of these rebels belonged. And those criollos who used it are now being turned against this black legend by the radical indigenism, with a Marxist tendency, which is currently dedicated to throwing down statues of Christopher Columbus and other characters from the time of the conquest, using it as a weapon against the Creoles who hold power and against the foreign multinationals who exploit natural resources, accusing them of being the heirs of a supposed initial capitalism that introduced the conquest in America and has been mercilessly exploiting them for 500 years.
- United States: after its independence in 1776, the new state became a territorial rival of Spain. In the Spanish-American wars of independence, the USA helped the rebels because they were mainly of a liberal ideology and because they managed to get rid of an uncomfortable rival in the continent. It would be easier to handle small republics. In 1998 with the Spanish-American war, which originated from the war in Cuba, the American yellow press headed by Hearst and Pulitzer used concepts from the black legend to discredit the Spanish and thus justify the Yankee aggression against the island of Cuba.
- Spain: and as it could not be otherwise the black legend also had and has its clientele in Spain. Already in the 19th century, with the appearance of the Enlightenment, associated with liberalism in its confrontation with the Old Regime, numerous works were published in which they criticised the Spain of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, lamenting its backwardness and decadence. At the end of this century, regional nationalisms appeared as a way of differentiating themselves from Spain and creating a new national identity. At present, as in Latin America, movements with a Marxist tendency are incorporating the legendary ideology into their ideology and policy in order to attack the Catholic Church and the capitalist system of which they say, as I mentioned earlier, that the conquest and colonization of America is the heir.
Works that create the black legend
- William I of Orange’s Apology: in which he speaks of the Spanish governors as cruel and takes the words of Las Casas, he publishes that of Philip II with his son.
- Letters by Antonio Perez.
- Reginaldo González Montano: Spanish Protestant exiled in London, attacks the Spanish Inquisition in his work Exposición de algunas mañas de la Santa Inquisición Española (1567).
- Bartolomé de las Casas: Breve relación de la destrucción de las Indias that was illustrated in Europe with the illustrations of Theodore de Bry that achieved great diffusion.
Works detracting and denying the black legend
A little bibliography on the most important works that criticize the black legend:
- España defendida y los tiempos de ahora, de las calumnias de los noveleros sediciosos, 1612, by Francisco de Quevedo.
- La Leyenda Negra y la verdad histórica, 1914, by Julián de Juderías.
- Los orígenes de la leyenda negra española, 1947, by Sverker Arnoldsson.
- Defensa de la nación española contra la Carta Persiana LXXVIII de Montesquieu, 1768, by José de Cadalso.
- Exploradores españoles en América, 1893, by Charles F. Lumnis.
- La leyenda negra, 2012, by Joseph Pérez.
- Imperiofobia y leyenda negra, 2015, by María Elvira Roca Barea.
- En defensa de España: desmontando mitos y leyendas negras, 2017, by Stanley G. Payne.
- España. Un relato de grandeza y odio, 2019, by José Varela Ortega.
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