Black Legend, The

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Black Legend, The

The Black Legend, a body of traditional literature hostile to Spain, its people, and its culture. The national stereotype derived from this literature portrays the Spanish as uniquely cruel, bigoted, lazy, and ignorant.

The term was apparently coined by Julián Juderías in his book La Leyenda negra y la verdad histórica (1914). The author of revisionist works on a variety of topics, Juderías was convinced that Spain and its culture had been systematically vilified by foreign authors who were inspired by Protestantism or the Enlightenment. His book, which was extremely popular in Spain, is basically a defense of Spanish accomplishments. In 1944 the Argentine scholar Rómulo Carbia applied the concept to the historical treatment of the Spanish conquest of America and linked the Black Legend specifically to the work of Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose Brevísima Relación de la destrucción de las Indias had been widely circulated in translation since the sixteenth century. In Carbia's view, Las Casas had exaggerated the brutality of the Conquest in an effort to secure improved treatment for the Indians, and in so doing he had provided Spain's political and religious enemies with a rich source of propaganda. Like Juderías, Carbia was primarily interested in defending the Spanish record.

The publication of Lewis Hanke's The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (1949) opened a North American debate over the Black Legend and placed Las Casas squarely at its center. Hanke contended that the efforts of Las Casas and the legislation that resulted from them were unique in the history of colonizing powers. Only Spain had attempted to place its conquests on a moral footing. Though the works of Las Casas were misused by Spain's enemies, his career in itself was a partial refutation of the Black Legend. This position was hailed by Ramón Menéndez Pidal in his El Padre Las Casas, su doble personalidad (1963), a curious work that went on, somewhat inconsistently, to accuse Las Casas of paranoia. Opposition to Hanke's views came primarily from Benjamin Keen (1969), who noted that neither the bishop nor his reforms had done the Indians much good, and that the Spanish Conquest was as brutal and unprincipled as Las Casas had claimed. The Black Legend, in other words, was not legend but fact. Francisco López de Gómara, Girolamo Benzoni, and other chroniclers of the Conquest provided independent support for the accusations of Las Casas, and their works, too, had been widely circulated throughout Europe. Keen warned against the promulgation of a White Legend by those sympathetic to Spanish culture.

The Keen-Hanke debates narrowed the Black Legend to the single issue of the Conquest, but the broader accusations of Juderías had not been forgotten. The work of Sverker Arnoldsson (1960), William Maltby (1971), and others showed that anti-Spanish attitudes predated the publication of Las Casas and had multiple roots. Italy, Germany, England, and the Netherlands developed "Black Legends" of their own, in most cases as a reaction to the development of Spain as a world power in the sixteenth century. In a collection of documents published in 1971, Charles Gibson recognized this fact and provided examples of anti-Spanish writing from the sixteenth century to the twentieth that reflect a wide spectrum of political and intellectual hostility. Though generally balanced in his approach, Gibson was more sympathetic to Hanke than to Keen.

These disputes were clouded from the beginning by problems of definition. With few exceptions, contributors to the debate failed to distinguish the Black Legend as a body of anti-Spanish literature from the Black Legend as a component of popular mentality. The process by which propaganda, much of it ephemeral, was absorbed and converted into broadly held stereotypes therefore remained unclear, and the usefulness of the Black Legend as a case history in the development of national consciousness went largely unexplored. Additional confusion arose from Keen's refusal to compare Spanish behavior with that of other nations. As Gibson pointed out, if the term "Black Legend" is to have meaning, it must refer to the assumption that Spanish actions were uniquely evil. This crucial point has not always been acknowledged. No one has claimed that the Spanish were without guilt, but were they in fact worse than their imperial rivals? If they were not, then the Black Legend was by definition false.

Whatever its intellectual limitations, the controversy over the Black Legend eventually resulted in a rough consensus. Most scholars came to agree that there is in fact a body of literature which portrays Spain, its history, and its people in a consistently unfavorable light. This literature achieved a measure of acceptance in the non-Hispanic world and resulted in a widespread perception that the Spanish people were uniquely cruel, lazy, bigoted, and ignorant, and that their culture had contributed little of value to Western civilization.

The origins of this literature and of the perceptions embedded within it were recognized as multiple. Propaganda aimed at resisting Spanish imperial policies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was common to virtually every western European nation. The revolt of the Netherlands alone produced hundreds of pamphlets that were reprinted and translated into other languages until the end of the Thirty Years' War. The work of Las Casas was often appropriated by these propagandists, but given the bishop's polemic intent, his writings would in any case have created a negative impression. Other accounts of the Conquest, though not necessarily intended as polemics, tended to corroborate Las Casas, for Spanish behavior in the Conquest was appalling. It was not, however, unparalleled; and there is merit in Hanke's claim that no other imperial power made equivalent efforts, even in theory, to protect indigenous populations.

The Black Legend was further reinforced by Spain's historic role as a champion of Catholicism. The implacable hostility of Protestant authors, most of them Dutch or English, was echoed during the Enlightenment when Voltaire and others found in Spanish culture a symbol of the superstition and ignorance they sought to combat. The Inquisition, itself the subject of a vast and often sensational literature, was seen as an expression of the Spanish character. The result of these efforts was cumulative because writers tended to repeat the stories of their predecessors, creating episodes in Spanish history that were in the truest sense legendary.

More recently, anti-Spanish propaganda was disseminated in the United States to justify the Spanish-American War, and negative interpretations of Spanish colonial rule were revived in parts of Latin America by the movement known as Indigenismo. The indigenistas sought to promote Indian cultural values as a fundamental component of nationalism, but their effort was in one respect self-defeating. Those outside the Hispanic world have rarely made distinctions among the Spanish-speaking peoples. In North America, where anti-Spanish characterizations were at one time commonin popular literature, films, and school textbooks, the traditional image of the cruel and lazy Spaniard was easily transferred to Latin Americans and Hispanic Americans. By the end of the twentieth century increased sensitivity to racial and ethnic stereotypes had modified the textbooks, but unsympathetic portrayals of Hispanic characters remained common in the movies and on television. Fictional Mexicans, Cubans, and Colombians had come to display the negative traits formerly attributed to Spaniards.

Meanwhile, in scholarship the Black Legend had lost some of its virulence. Since the publication of España defendida (1604) by Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas, Spanish writers and publicists had attacked the Black Legend with varying degrees of skill. Their efforts were often little known outside the Iberian Peninsula, but Keen was right to point out that some Yankees, too, were "more sympathetic than is generally supposed." At least three generations of scholarship have produced a more balanced appreciation of Spanish conduct in both the Old World and the New, while the dismal records of other imperial powers have received a more objective appraisal. If few scholars would now argue that Spain's reputation was beyond reproach, fewer still would claim that it was uniquely reprehensible. Remaining echoes of the Black Legend were heard primarily in the acrimonious debate over the Columbus Quincentenary and in works that deplored the integration of non-European peoples into the world economy. The targets were pervasive Eurocentrism and the mythology of development capitalism rather than Spanish culture, but the parallel with earlier uses of anti-Spanish material was troubling. In the Anglo-Saxon world, where true appreciation of either Spanish or Latin American culture is rare, the death of the Black Legend cannot be taken for granted.

See alsoLas Casas, Bartolomé de .


Julián Juderías y Loyot, La Leyenda negra y la verdad histórica (1914).

Rómulo D. Carbia, Historia de la leyenda negra hispano-americana (1944).

Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (1949) and Bartolomé de Las Casas: Bookman, Scholar and Propagandist (1952).

Sverker Arnoldsson, La Conquista española de América según el juicio de la posteridad: Vestigios de la leyenda negra (1960) and La Leyenda negra: Estudios sobre sus orígenes, translated by Mateo Pastor-López and others, in Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis 66, no. 3 (1960).

Benjamin Keen, "The Black Legend Revisited: Assumptions and Realities," Hispanic American Historical Review 49, no. 4 (1969): 703-719.

Charles Gibson, The Black Legend: Anti-Spanish Attitudes in the Old World and the New (1971).

William S. Maltby, The Black Legend in England: The Development of Anti-Spanish Sentiment, 1558–1660 (1971).

Additional Bibliography

Garcia Càrcel, Ricard. La leyenda negra: Historia y opinión. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1992.

Hillgarth, J.N. The Mirror of Spain, 1500–1700: The Formation of a Myth. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

                                      William S. Maltby