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The Black Legend. Spain’s conquest of the New World in memory. “A distinctive feature of legends is that their veracity is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.” 1 1 Charles Gibson, The Black Legend (1969). What is Historical Memory?.

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The Black Legend

Spain’s conquest of the New World in memory


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“A distinctive feature of legends is that their veracity is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”1

1 Charles Gibson, The Black Legend (1969)


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What is Historical Memory? is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • In part, it is how society chooses to remember certain events of the past.


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What effects memory? is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • Self-interest is a powerful motivator in shaping the way humans remember the past.


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How does the past “change?” is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • Indeed, the interpretation of the past can and does change dramatically over time. New societal norms, political objectives, varying cultural or religious perspectives are but a few factors that change the moral assessment given to the events of the past.


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The Black Legend is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • This presentation will look at the contested memory of Spain as both a European power and as a colonial empire.

  • In short, we will examine the “Black Legend.”


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What is the Black Legend? is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • The importance of Las Casas’s Very Brief Relation. (Only work of Las Casas published within 300 years of his lifetime.)


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Other Origins of the “Black Legend” is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • Trends coinciding with Las Casas’s Very Brief Relation (1552)

    • The Inquisition (Spanish)

    • The Protestant Reformation & Religious Wars

      • French Wars (1562-1598)

      • Netherlands Revolt (1567-1593)

      • Sinking of Spanish Armada by England (1588)

      • Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)


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Early Critics is in some way suspect. A legend is a story that someone else believes.”

  • William of Orange (Hero of Protestant Netherlands) Apologia (1580)

    • Accusations of Spanish brutality, sloth, and depravity.

    • Mentions Spain’s atrocities in New World (cites Las Casas)

    • Fighting King Philip II of Spain for independence

    • Coincides with early Dutch translation of Brief Relation.


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Black Legend in the New World: Las Casas is translated into English

  • The first English translation of Las Casas appears in Oliver Cromwell’s England in 1656: The Tears of the Indians: Being an Historical and True Account of the Cruel Massacres and Slaughter of Above Twenty Millions of Innocent People


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Oliver Cromwell English

  • Cromwell’s Speech at the Opening of Parliament (1656) repeats the account of Las Casas, recently translated into English.


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Anti-Spanish Literature in the Enlightenment era. English

  • Baron de Montesquieu, Persian Letters (1721)

  • Voltaire Alzire, 1736

  • Emphasizing, describing reasons for the decline of Spain. Both familiar with Las Casas.


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Modern Critics English

  • Lew Wallace, The Fair God (1873)

  • Continuing in the Protestant tradition of beating up on Spain

  • A time of turmoil in Latin America: Looking for answers.


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More Modern Critics of Spain English

  • Diego Rivera’s political murals depict a modern interpretation of the Black Legend.

On one hand, an idealized Indian past


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Rivera English

  • In Rivera’s murals, the Conquistadors stand in as a metaphor for greed, capitalism, and European brutality. They are the words of Las Casas put into pictures.

I took this picture at the National Palace in Mexico City, Fall 2003


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Rivera’s Perspective English

  • A self-styled champion of the underclass and Indian causes, Rivera also identified with Marxism. His works often celebrated Socialist ideals – the very opposite philosophy, at least on paper, of European imperialism.

Diego Rivera and exiled Russian Revolutionary Leo Trotsky (before Trotsy’s ended up with an icepick in his back!)


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Contemporary Black Legend English

  • The elevation of Las Casas

    • His writings are on almost every course syllabus, often uncritically, in classes that deal with the Spanish conquest

    • Las Casas as a path-breaker. An early champion of human rights struggles. (A predecessor of Ghandi, King, Mandella.)

    • Las Casas’s stories are most useful in this regard, especially if they are true.


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Attacking the Black Legend English

  • Spanish apologists: Julián Juderias, The Black Legend (1914)

  • Coins the term “Black Legend” – in every sense of the word, “legend”

  • Construction of the “White Legend.”

    • Las Casas was a liar.

    • Spain spread greater good in the New World, far in excess of any bad.

    • Las Casas, if true, was an isolated incident


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Food for thought English

  • How different was Spain’s conquest of the New World with that of the Protestant European powers? (Dutch, English)

  • Persistance of Indianismo

  • The Mestizo vs the absent English counterpart: The creation of Latino society.


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Contemporary Conflicts: O Englishñate

In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande, becoming the first European (he was actually a mix of Spanish and Indian – a mestizo, or perhaps more accurately, a Latino) to enter what is today the American Southwest.


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One Hand: Heroic O Englishñate

  • Oñate, by virtue of being the first Latino to cross the Rio Grande has become something of a hero in the US Latino community.

  • Growing politically powerful, these Latino communities want to validate their position through statues of Oñate.

  • He’s become something of a Latin George Washington.


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There’s a rub… English

  • Oñate could be one mean hombre when he wanted to…

    • After an uprising at the Acoma pueblo, he punished 24 of the men by chopping off their right foot, among other grisly things

    • Even King Phillip II of Spain ordered an investigation of his overly zealous behavior when punishing hostile Indians.


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Monumental Controversy English

  • Descendants of the Acoma vs. Conquistador champions: The Oñate monument craze.

  • A barometer of political power and its influence on historical memory.


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Points to ponder English

  • What forces drive historical memory?

  • Is an objective truth possible?

  • In criticizing the “Black Legend” do we fabricate a “White Legend” in its place?

  • How much of an historical narrative is really about the present than the past?


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