In 1542, Bartolomé de Las Casas published his most famous work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, reportedly in order to convey to King Philip II of Spain some knowledge of the atrocities that were happening in his colonies. For three hundred years thereafter that little book about Spanish mayhem in the Americas remained—at least in countries that were its political rivals in Europe—the dominant portrayal of the Spanish years of colonization. It gave rise to what some writers in defense of Spain called the “Black Legend.”
Now “Black Legend” doesn’t work for me, really. For one thing, black used as a synonym for evil is unnecessary—and wonderfully inappropriate—cultural propaganda. It was not black that was evil in the trans-Atlantic enterprise which Columbus launched.
For another, “legend” implies that Las Casas wrote untruly, which is incorrect. There are enough personal records from other on-the-ground Spanish sources to confirm the genocide which Las Casas depicts.
However, the “Legend” is a legend in at least one sense. There is no reason to blame Spain exclusively for the atrocities of colonization. All the powers which have indulged in that game have had their own share of brutality.
Nor were even the original Spanish invasions exclusively a Spanish affair. Columbus was a Genoan. His initial voyage was backed not only by Ferdinand and Isabella of “Spain” (the actual country of Spain did not exist in 1492) but by Genoan and Florentine bankers. Genoan financiers would play a major role in the colonization of the West Indies, including Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and later the mainland. They brought sugar mills to the Americas with profound implications for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. German bankers financed a slave-state colony in Venezuela, under agreement with Charles V of Spain. Charles V, who ruled Spain after Ferdinand and Isabella was himself born in Ghent and raised in the Netherlands, both of which were part of a national entity known as Burgundy, which—just as with Spain, Austria, parts of Hungary, Naples and Sicily—Charles had inherited the right to rule. He was King of Spain, but under separate auspices he was the Holy Roman Emperor and the inheritor of various kingdoms which were in no way Spanish.
And pointing the fingers at Spain ignores Portuguese slave trading on the African coast and slave plantations in Brazil, ignores the murderous colonial relationships on the east coast of North America, ignores the English involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ignores, in later centuries, the extinction of the Beothuks of Newfoundland and the Tasmanians in the 19th century, ignores the millions of Africans slaughtered and enslaved by the exploitation of the rubber trade by King Leopold of Belgium, ignores the rape of Africa, ignores the opium trade in China, ignores George Armstrong Custer whose innovation of war was bringing it to women, children and the elderly, ignores the colonial logic, which—brought to its logical conclusion in the mind of a maniac—arguably led to the Holocaust. (Read Svend Lindqvist’s “Exterminate All the Brutes” for a full discussion of this point.)
In fact the propaganda machine was aimed at Spain in what was essentially a fit of colony-envy by other European states who wanted a piece of the colonial pie themselves. Very few of them spent even a moment in shocked piety given a chance themselves to steal a slice of colonial glory. But they didn’t like Spain getting an unfair (papally-sanctioned) monopoly on all the fun.
The logic of their attacks was that if Spain didn’t deserve them (Spaniards being so evil) then all those ill-defended territories in the Americas were open for nations of better morals to ravage, rape, and rule…er, settle.
In that sense, the so-called “Black Legend” was a bad rap for Spain. If you were going to hang the Spaniards for their colonial atrocities, why, then you’d have to hang the lot of them.
Yet Spain had one thing to boast that the others did not. Spain had a conscience in Bartolomé de Las Casas. The Short Account was unique in the history of colonialism. No other nation, during the era of European conqueror states, produced as passionate a voice on the terrorism inherent in colonialism. Only Spain could claim Las Casas.
See Sven Linqvist, “Exterminate All the Brutes.” New York Press, NY, 1992.
Henry Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power 1492-1763. Perennial, 2004 .
Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1542. Penguin Classics, 1992.