The BLACK LEGEND and AMERICAN HISTORY
Some Americans are not interested in the study of History. Many people say “It’s a waste of time!” and are aware mostly of people or places lauded in the popular culture, which generally winds up focusing on “celebrities.” This holds true for Hispanic Americans as well as everybody else.
Popular culture is a fact of life and nothing is going to change it. By the same token, either you study your past history, Hispanic and otherwise, or you will never understand your present role in American culture. It’s no simple feat, to discover what part you play in American society. Most people will never be movie stars, professional athletes, rock stars, television personalities, etc. But we can study History to understand what Hispanic people have accomplished in the Americas, especially in the USA. Those who refuse to study will ever be like a feather in the wind, pushed this way and that, at the mercies of whatever forces happen to be in power at the time.
The study of History is especially crucial for the Hispanic groups in the USA. These groups are generally referred to as belonging to a “minority,” even when they’re (we’re) in the “majority.” To understand all this we must go back into European history, especially the histories of England and Spain. The “Black Legend” is a part of your life and that of your family, whether or not we are aware of it.
In order to properly understand the so-called Black Legend it is necessary to delve into European history. The “Spanish Inquisition” came into Spain from France but wasn’t made official in Castile until 1477 and 1484 in Aragón. It was to become interpreted as one of the foundations of Spain’s “Black Legend” of “cruelty and depravity” in most European literatures. But it was really more hype than history. Havelock Ellis writes in THE SOUL OF SPAIN: “In an age when torture was recognized as an integral part of judicial procedure almost everywhere, its use by the Inquisition in Spain can call for special comment only if it can be shown that Spanish Inquisitors went beyond their judicial contemporaries in its application. This is the reverse of the fact.” The well known Irving A. Leonard has also written: “To the Inquisition’s eternal credit, it kept records—which is more, apparently than was done in the Tower of London.” Despite the works of knowledgeable investigators like Salvador de Madariaga (THE RISE OF THE SPANISH AMERICAN EMPIRE) or William Thomas Walsh (CHARACTERS OF THE INQUISITION), the “Spanish Inquisition” has been portrayed as “the dark institution of mankind, bent on denying the human spirit…” While doing so, the more nefarious aspects of European history, especially those of England, are either ignored or whitewashed. For example, Henry VII of England (1485-1509) established the “Court of Star Chamber” in order to destroy the power of the English nobles. The Star Chamber “court” didn’t utilize juries but condoned extreme physical tortures in order to extract “confessions.” [See WESTERN CIVILIZATION, Vol. 1: To 1715, by Jackson J. Spielvogel. Another introductory source is A HISTORY OF WESTERN SOCIETY, Vol. I: FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT by John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill, John Buckler.] Henry VII thus strengthened the English Crown at the expense of the nobility.
The year of 1492 is known in Spanish history as the “Great Year.” In 1492 Spain finally conquered Granada, the last remaining Muslim section of Spain, thus becoming the first European area to unify into one nation. (Contrast this with the situation in Italy or in Germany, neither of which unified into one nation until 1870.) The first Spanish grammar of was published in 1492, the first of any European language. Then there was the discovery of the Americas by Columbus in 1492, changing the course of world history for all time. Hispanic people, Spanish and Portuguese, were now heirs to become explorers and conquerors in the New World. The Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel encouraged their Christian citizens to go to the Americas in the name of the Crown. This history of exploration and conquest has few parallels in the world. Because of precious mineral discoveries, Spain became rich through New World gold and silver. Unlike later expeditions from most other countries, the missionary went alongside the conquistador because the Monarchs considered it their duty to introduce Christianity to the people of the Americas.
In 1520 a priest named Martin Luther published some pamphlets that urged German kings to denounce the religious leadership of the Pope in Rome. Among other things, Luther maintained that Scripture alone was supreme in matters of religion, not the Pope. Among other things, he demanded the right to marry (though a married priesthood wasn’t supported in Scripture.) Luther was excommunicated in 1521 but German kings followed his lead and expropriated rich Church properties for themselves. [Later during the Peasant’s War (1524-1525) Luther was asked to substantiate serfdom in Scripture. When he could not he maintained that Scripture had to do with religion, not secular life, that domination by the nobles and peasant serfdom must continue and he called upon the nobles to “stab, smite, and slay…the stupid peasantry…” See also CHURCH HISTORY IN PLAIN LANGUAGE by Bruce L. Shelley.]
The Church of England came into existence because Henry VIII (1509-1547; described by Charles Dickens as “a most intolerable ruffian and a blot of blood and grease on the history of England”) wanted a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragón, so he could marry lady-in-waiting “dark-eyed Anne Boleyn.” The Pope wouldn't allow it. So Henry sent Catherine packing, married Anne Boleyn and lived with her until he had her beheaded for “treason,” and created the Church of England to show that Roman authority wasn’t necessary. Following the example from Germany, Henry appropriated Church lands for the English Crown, thus further enriching himself. Henry VIII bludgeoned his new church into the English people, executing some 70,000 individuals, political prisoners and those who objected to his new Church of England. He used the Court of Star Chamber to mask his activities and the Tower of London became a killing field. (In one instance a bishop in France criticized Henry’s new church. Henry learned the bishop’s mother was in England so he had her brought to the Tower of London and beheaded.)
The Roman Catholic world, with Spain in the role of “Defender of the Faith,” believed German Lutherans and English Anglicans to be heretics. The “heretics” believed they were “reformed” and therefore superior to “superstitious” Catholics. Wars were fought to obtain political ends as well as because of religious belief. Spain was especially targeted by England and the German states because it was the most powerful country to remain Roman Catholic.
One of the best known personalities in the history of Spain and the Americas is Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566). Las Casas, educated in the Law at Salamanca, came to Santo Domingo as a “gentleman soldier of fortune” in 1502. He made money by exploiting Indian labor and in 1510, at the age of 36, was ordained into the priesthood. He continued exploiting Indian labor but in 1514 a great change came over him: he gave up all his lands and Indians because he felt the system was unchristian and therefore iniquitous. For the remaining fifty-two years of his life he was the herculean champion of the American Indian. [See A HISTORY OF LATIN AMERICA FROM THE BEGINNINGS TO THE PRESENT by Hubert Herring.]
In 1516 Bartolomé went to Spain and presented his case to Regent Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros. The Cardinal Regent knew that Christian Spain had no right to enslave the Indians to death so he named Las Casas as “Protector of the Indians.” He proved himself an indefatigable knight, championing the Indians at every opportunity. He was hated by his countrymen who maintained they had risked their lives to conquer the land only to be told they were evil if they survived to enjoy what they had conquered. Back in Spain by 1547, Las Casas published his famous treatise VERY BRIEF RECITAL OF THE DESTRUCTION OF THE INDIES in 1552. His intent was to reform the system so he grossly exaggerated for effect. For example, he wrote that some fifteen to twenty million Indians had been killed by Spaniards when in actuality that was how many Indians existed in all Spanish lands at the time. But this aroused Spanish humanitarians as well as colonists to the New World who hated him and fought to defeat the influence of this “meddlesome priest.”
The “Brief Recital” was a best-seller throughout Europe and became basic anti-Hispanic propaganda, especially powerful because it was written by “one of their own,” for attacks on Spain, its people, and their Catholic religion. This “Black Legend” of Spanish “cruelty, superstition, and depravity” fueled the Spanish hating writers of England, Holland, Germany, and later, the USA. [See TREE OF HATE: Propaganda and Prejudices Affecting United States Relations with the Hispanic World by Philip W. Powell. See also THE BLACK LEGEND: Anti-Spanish attitudes in the Old World and the New by Charles Gibson.]
Though Columbus landed on American shores in 1492, no other European country made much of an appearance in the New World for around a century. But other European countries, especially England, were envious of Spain and her new-found riches. Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) of England hired one of her most talented captains, Francis Drake, to raid Spanish settlements in the Americas and steal as much of their gold and silver as possible in 1586. Drake proved extremely successful in his thieveries because, Spain and England and not being at war, his attacks were not expected. When Drake returned to England with his ship full of Spanish gold and silver, Queen Elizabeth was so overjoyed with her cut that she made Drake a “Knight of the Realm.” The loot from Drake’s thieveries provided initial finances for the Bank of England and the East India Company. He was considered a “Hero” by Queen Elizabeth and other investors but his activities couldn’t really be publicized because England and Spain hadn’t been at war during his murderous attacks.
As far as History is concerned, “Sir” Francis Drake and the many other English pirates of the day were undoubtedly the Osama Bin Laden terrorists of the 16th century. Drake’s unprovoked attacks in the Caribbean were the equivalent of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But English history portrays Drake and other English pirates as a “swashbuckling heroes.” Why? Because English thieveries were perpetrated against Spain, Spain the rich, Spain the Catholic, Spain the “Defender of the Faith” against Islam and against “heresies” like Lutheranism and the Church of England.
Another basic component to understanding the Black Legend is the Englishman Richard Hakluyt (?-1616). Hakluyt became the first of England’s master propagandists who distorted 16th century history in order to glorify English “accomplishments” to the point where the achievements of Spain and Portugal were subordinated to the idea of an “Age of European Discovery” with the English nation in the vanguard. [See MAJESTIC JOURNEY by Stewart Udall.] What has been distorted by propagandists like Hakluyt? To begin with, the popular mind is seldom aware that Spain had a settlement in the Americas as of 1494 while the English didn’t settle in Virginia until 1607. Yet it is of English settlements that one hears about, not those of Spain beginning to settle the New World in the 15th century or the Portuguese discovering Brazil in 1500.
If we are to understand the Black Legend and its implications in the present day it is important to be aware of the Spanish Inquisition, Martin Luther and German rulers, the English Star Chamber and the Tudor dynasty of English rulers, the Spanish discovery of wealth in the New World and its European and American role as “Defender of the Faith,” Bartolomé de las Casas and his role as “Protector of the Indians,” the thieveries of “Sir” Francis Drake, and the propaganda genius of English language writers like Richard Hakluyt.
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