Black Legend

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A 1598 engraving by Theodor de Bry depicting a Spaniard supposedly feeding Indian children to his dogs. De Bry's works are characteristic of the anti-Spanish propaganda that originated as a result of the Eighty Years' War.

The Black Legend (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra) is a style of tendentious, nonobjective historical writing or propaganda that demonizes Spain, its people and its culture in an intentional attempt to damage its reputation. The Black Legend propaganda originated in the 16th century, a time of strong rivalry between European colonial powers. Though the term black legend for describing this anti-Spanish mythology was coined by Emilia Pardo Bazán in a conference, Paris, April 18, 1899,[1] Julián Juderías was among the first to describe and denounce this phenomenon. His book The Black Legend and the Historical Truth (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra y la Verdad Histórica), a critique published in 1914, explains how this type of biased historiography has presented Spanish history in a deeply negative light, purposely ignoring positive achievements or advances. Later writers have supported and developed Juderías' critique. In 1958, Charles Gibson explained that Spain and the Spanish Empire were historically presented as "cruel, bigoted, exploitative and self-righteous in excess of reality."[2][3]


In his book,[4] Juderías defines the Black Legend as

"The environment created by the fantastic stories about our homeland that have seen the light of publicity in all countries, the grotesque descriptions that have always been made of the character of Spaniards as individuals and collectively, the denial or at least the systematic ignorance of all that is favorable and beautiful in the various manifestations of culture and art, the accusations that in every era have been flung against Spain."[5]

— Julián Juderías, La Leyenda Negra

Historian Philip Wayne Powell in Tree of Hate,[6] gives this definition of the Black Legend:

"An image of Spain circulated through late sixteenth-century Europe, borne by means of political and religious propaganda that blackened the characters of Spaniards and their ruler to such an extent that Spain became the symbol of all forces of repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance, and intellectual and artistic backwardness for the next four centuries. Spaniards … have termed this process and the image that resulted from it as ‘The Black Legend,’ la leyenda negra."

— Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate (1985),

One recent author, Fernández Álvarez, has defined a Black Legend more broadly:

"The careful distortion of the history of a nation, perpetrated by its enemies, in order to better fight it. And a distortion as monstrous as possible, with the goal of achieving a specific aim: the moral disqualification of the nation, whose supremacy must be fought in every way possible."[7]

— Alfredo Alvar, La Leyenda Negra (1997:5)

Origins of Anti-Spanish sentiment

Anti-Spanish sentiment appeared in many parts of Europe as the power of the Spanish empire grew. With the Habsburg realm, Spain dominated much of Europe including present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and parts of Italy. In 1555 Pope Paul IV described Spaniards as "heretics, schismatics, accursed of God, the Offspring of Jews and Marranos, the very scum of the earth".[8] During the Eighty Years' War English and Dutch propaganda depicted Spaniards as bloodthirsty barbarians, drawing on racial stereotypes that likened them to Arabs. In the following centuries anti-Spanish stereotypes circulated widely, especially in English, Dutch and German-speaking parts of Europe. This propaganda would depict exaggerated versions of the evils of Spanish colonial practices and the Spanish Inquisition.

In the 18th century, despite the fact that he never visited Spain, philosopher Immanuel Kant stated that "The Spaniard's bad side is that he does not learn from foreigners; that he does not travel in order to get acquainted with other nations; that he is centuries behind in the sciences. He resists any reform; he is proud of not having to work; he is of a romantic quality of spirit, as the bullfight shows; he is cruel, as the former auto-da-fé shows; and he displays in his taste an origin that is partly non-European."[9] Historian Walter Mignolo has argued that the Black Legend was closely tied to ideologies of race, both in the way that it used the Moorish history of Spain to depict Spaniards as racially tainted, and in the way that the treatment of Africans and Native Americans during Spanish colonial projects came to symbolize their moral character.

The historian Sverker Arnoldsson from the University of Gothenburg, in his book The Black Legend. A Study of its Origins, locates the origins of the Black Legend in medieval Italy, unlike previous authors who locate it in the 16th century. Arnoldsson cites studies by Benedetto Croce and Arturo Farinelli to affirm that Italy in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries was extremely hostile to Spain.

Arnoldsson's theories have been disputed by numerous historians. In general, they raise the following objections:[10]

  1. Just because the earliest writings against Spaniards were written in Italy, that is not sufficient reason to describe Italy as the origin of the Black Legend. It is a normal reaction in any society dominated by a foreign power.
  2. The phrase "black legend" suggests a certain "tradition", which did not exist in Italian writings based primarily on a reaction to the recent presence of Spanish troops.

William S. Maltby further argues that there is no connection between the Italian criticisms of Spain and the later form of the black legend in the Netherlands and England.[11]

16th century

The conquest of the Americas

In the process of European colonization of the Americas that lasted over three centuries, Spain did pass some laws for the protection of Native Americans. As early as 1512, the Laws of Burgos regulated the behavior of Europeans in the New World forbidding the ill-treatment of indigenous people and limiting the power of encomenderos -- those who received royal grants of authority to impose forced labor on specific groups of natives. In 1542 the New Laws expanded and corrected the previous body of laws in order to improve their application. Although these laws were not always followed across all American territories, they reflected the will of the Spanish colonial government of the time to protect the rights of the native population.

The colonization led to debate within Spain itself about the treatment and rights of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In 1552, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas published the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies), an account of excesses committed by landowners and some officials during the early period of colonization of New Spain, particularly in Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic).[12] A testimony of the time accuses Columbus of brutality against the natives and forced labor. Las Casas, son of the merchant Pedro de las Casas who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, described Columbus's treatment of the natives in his History of the Indies.[13] The writings of Las Casas are seen by some historians as exaggerated and biased. Their anti-Spanish sentiment was used by writers of Spain's rivals as a convenient basis for the Black Legend historiography. They were already used in Flemish anti-Spanish propaganda during the Eighty Years' War. Today the degree to which Las Casas's descriptions of Spanish colonization represent a reasonable or wildly exaggerated picture is still debated among some scholars. For example, historian Lewis Hanke considers Las Casas to have exaggerated the atrocities in his accounts and thereby contributed to the Black Legend propaganda.[14] Historian Benjamin Keen on the other hand found them likely to be more or less accurate.[15] In Charles Gibson's 1964 monograph The Aztecs under Spanish Rule, the first comprehensive study of the documentary sources of relations between Indians and Spaniards in New Spain (colonial Mexico), he concludes that the Black Legend builds upon the record of deliberate sadism. It flourishes in an atmosphere of indignation which removes the issue from the category of objective understanding. It is insufficient in its understanding of institutions of colonial history."[16]

This historical ill-treatment of Amerindians, common in many European colonies in the Americas, was used as propaganda in works of competing European powers to create slander and animosity against the Spanish Empire. The work of Las Casas was first cited in English with the 1583 publication The Spanish Colonie, or Brief Chronicle of the Actes and Gestes of the Spaniards in the West Indies, at a time when England was preparing for war against Spain in the Netherlands. The biased use of such works, including the distortion or exaggeration of their contents, is part of the anti-Spanish historical propaganda or Black Legend.

From the perspective of history and the colonization of the Americas, all European powers that colonized the Americas, such as England, Portugal, the Netherlands and others, were guilty of the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples. Colonial powers have been accused of genocide in Canada[dubious ], the United States, and Australia.

The Netherlands

Spain's war with the United Provinces and in particular the victories and atrocities of the Duke of Alba contributed to the anti-Spanish propaganda. Sent in August 1567 to counter political unrest in a part of Europe where printing presses were a source of heterodox opinion, especially against the Roman Catholic Church, Alba took control of the book industry. Several printers were banished and at least one was executed. Book sellers and printers were prosecuted and arrested for publishing banned books, many of which were added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

After years of unrest in the Low Countries, the summer of 1567 saw renewed violent outbursts of iconoclasm, in which Dutch 'Beeldenstorm' Calvinists defaced statues and decorations of Catholic monasteries and churches. The Battle of Oosterweel in March 1567 was the first Spanish military response to the many riots, and a prelude to or the start of the Eighty Years' War. The 80 Years' War can be seen to have started on 13 March 1567 with the defeat of the rebels at Oosterweel. In October 1572, after the Orange forces captured the city of Mechelen, its lieutenant attempted to surrender when he was informed that a larger Spanish army was approaching. They tried to welcome the Duke's forces by the singing of psalms, but Fadrique Álvarez de Toledo, son of the Governor of the Netherlands, and commander of the Duke's troops, allowed his men three days of pillage of the archbishopric city. Alba reported to his King that "not a nail was left in the wall". A year later, magistrates still attempted to retrieve precious church belongings that Spanish soldiers had sold in other cities.[17][18] This sack of Mechelen was the first of the Spanish Furies;[19][20][21][22] several events remembered by that name occurred in the four or five years to come.[23] In November and December of the same year, with permission by the Duke, Fadrique had many people of Zutphen and of Naarden locked and burnt in their church.[18][24]

In July 1573, after half a year of siege, the city of Haarlem surrendered. Then the garrison's men (except for the German soldiers) were drowned or had their throats cut by the duke's troops, and eminent citizens were executed.[18] During the infamous three-day "Spanish Fury" of 1576, Spanish troops attacked and pillaged Antwerp. The soldiers rampaged through the city, killing and looting; they demanded money from citizens and burned the homes of those who refused to (or could not) pay. Christophe Plantin's printing establishment was threatened with destruction three times, but was saved each time when a ransom was paid. Antwerp was economically devastated by the attack.

The propaganda created by the Dutch Revolt during the struggle against the Spanish Crown can also be seen as part of the Black Legend. The depredations against the Indians that De las Casas had described, were compared to the depredations of Alba and his successors in the Netherlands. The Brevissima relacion was reprinted no less than 33 times between 1578 and 1648 in the Netherlands (more than in all other European countries combined).[25]

The Articles and Resolutions of the Spanish Inquisition to Invade and Impede the Netherlands imputed a conspiracy to the Holy Office to starve the Dutch population and exterminate its leading nobles, "as the Spanish had done in the Indies."[26] Marnix of Sint-Aldegonde, a prominent propagandist for the cause of the rebels, regularly used references to alleged intentions on the part of Spain to "colonize" the Netherlands, for instance in his 1578 address to the German Diet.


King Philip, at the time also king of Portugal, was accused of cruelty for his hanging of supporters of António, Prior of Crato, the rival contender for the throne of Portugal, on yardarms on the Azores islands, following the Battle of Ponta Delgada.

Reception in England

Other critics of Spain included Antonio Pérez, the fallen secretary of King Philip, who fled to France and England, where he published attacks on the Spanish monarchy under the title Relaciones (1594). The English referred to these books to justify their piracy and wars against the Spanish.[citation needed]

White Legend

The label "White Legend" is used by some historians to describe a historiographic approach that they consider to go too far in trying to counter the Black Legend, and which consequently ends up painting an uncritical or idealized image of Spanish colonial practices.[27] Such an approach has been described as characteristic of Nationalist Spanish historiography during the regime of Francisco Franco, which associated itself with the imperial past couched in positive terms.[28] Some, such as Benjamin Keen, have criticized the works of e.g. John Fiske and Lewis Hanke as going too far towards idealizing Spanish history.[29]


In recent years a group of historians including Alfredo Alvar and Lourdes Mateo Bretos have argued that the Black Legend does not currently exist, the Black Legend instead being merely the Spanish perception of how the world views Spain's legacy.[citation needed]

Carmen Iglesias has argued that the black legend would consist in those negative traits —that would be objectively the most repeated ones— that the Spanish consciousness sees in itself. Nonetheless she admits that the black legend also responds to highly manipulated propaganda driven by political interests.[30]

Ricardo Garcia Carcel even directly denies the existence of the Black Legend in his book The Black Legend (1991), arguing "It is neither a legend, insofar as the negative opinions of Spain have genuine historical foundations, nor is it black, as the tone was never consistent nor uniform. Gray abounds, but the color of these opinions was always viewed in contrast [to what] we have called the white legend."[31]

See also


  1. "Emilia Pardo Bazán, La España de ayer y la de hoy (La muerte de una leyenda), 18 de Abril de 1899". Retrieved 2016-07-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Gibson, Charles. 1958. "The Colonial Period in Latin American History" pages 13-14 defines the black legend as "The Accumulated tradition of propaganda and Hispanophobia according to which Spanish imperialism is regarded as cruel, bigoted, exploitative and self-righteous in excess of reality"
  3. *Immigration and the curse of the Black Legend
  4. Juderías, Julián, La Leyenda Negra (2003; first Edition of 1914) ISBN 84-9718-225-1
  5. "el ambiente creado por los relatos fantásticos que acerca de nuestra patria han visto la luz pública en todos los países, las descripciones grotescas que se han hecho siempre del carácter de los españoles como individuos y colectividad, la negación o por lo menos la ignorancia sistemática de cuanto es favorable y hermoso en las diversas manifestaciones de la cultura y del arte, las acusaciones que en todo tiempo se han lanzado sobre España..."
  6. Powell, Philip Wayne, 1971, "Tree of Hate" (first Ed.) ISBN 9780465087501
  7. ...cuidadosa distorsión de la historia de un pueblo, realizada por sus enemigos, para mejor combatirle. Y una distorsión lo más monstruosa posible, a fin de lograr el objetivo marcado: la descalificación moral de ese pueblo, cuya supremacía hay que combatir por todos los mediossine die
  8. Swart, K. W. (1975). "The Black Legend During the Eighty Years War." In Britain and the Netherlands (pp. 36-57). Springer Netherlands.
  9. Mignolo, W. D. (2007). "What does the Black Legend Have to do with Race?" Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires, 312-24.
  10. Alvar, p.7
  11. Maltby, p.7
  12. "Mirror of the Cruel and Horrible Spanish Tyranny Perpetrated in the Netherlands, by the Tyrant, the Duke of Alba, and Other Commanders of King Philip II". World Digital Library. 1620. Retrieved 2013-08-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Stannard, David E. (1993). American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-19-508557-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Hanke, Lewis, "A Modest Proposal for a Moratorium on Grand Generalizations: Some Thoughts on the Black Legend", The Hispanic American Historical Review 51, No. 1 (Feb., 1971), pp. 112-127
  15. Benjamin Keen. 1969. "The Black Legend Revisited: Assumptions and realities". The Hispanic American Historical Review. volume 49. no. 4. pp.703-719
  16. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519-1810. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964. p. 403
  17. Arnade, Peter J. Beggars, iconoclasts, and civic patriots: the political culture of the Dutch Revolt. Cornell University Press, 2008 (Limited online by Google books). pp. 226–229. ISBN 978-0-8014-7496-5. Retrieved 31 July 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Elsen, Jean (February 2007). "De nood-en belegeringsmunten van de Nederlandse opstand tegen Filips II - Historisch kader" (PDF). Collection J.R. Lasser (New York). Nood- en belegeringsmunten, Deel II (in Dutch). Jean Elsen & ses Fils s.a., Brussels, Belgium. p. 4; 15. Retrieved 1 August 2011. External link in |publisher= (help) <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. GDB (7 September 2004). "'Spaanse furie' terug thuis". journal Het Nieuwsblad, Belgium. Retrieved 31 July 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. pagan-live-style (2009–2011). "Catherine church Mechelen 3". deviantArt. Retrieved 3 August 2011. External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Sold Items provided for Reference and Research Purposes — OHN Bellingham - Assassin, St Petersburg, Russia, 3 December 1806 - ALS". Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd. Retrieved 3 August 2011. External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "History - South-Limburg"., Limburg, Netherlands. Retrieved 3 August 2011. External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Burg, David F. "1567 Revolt of the Netherlands". A World History of Tax Rebellions - An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present. Taylor and Francis, London, UK, 2003, 2005; Routledge, 2004 (Online by BookRags, Inc). ISBN 978-0-203-50089-7. ISBN 978-0-415-92498-6. Retrieved 4 August 2011. in Madrid, Alba was accused of following his own whims rather than Philip’s wishes. According to Henry Kamen, Medinaceli reported to the king that “Excessive rigour, the misconduct of some officers and soldiers, and the Tenth Penny, are the cause of all the ills, and not heresy or rebellion.” —[...]— One of the governor’s officers reported that in the Netherlands “the name of the house of Alba” was held in abhorrence External link in |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Lamers, Jaqueline. "Gemeente Naarden – Keverdijk, diverse straten". Municipality of Naarden, Netherlands. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Schmidt, p. 97
  26. Schmidt, p 112
  27. Keen, Benjamin. 1969. "The Black Legend Revisited: Assumptions and realities". The Hispanic American Historical Review. volume 49. no. 4. pp.703-719
  28. Molina Martínez, Miguel. 2012. "La Leyenda Negra revisitada: la polémica continúa", Revista Hispanoamericana. Revista Digital de la Real Academia Hispano Americana de Ciencias, Artes y Letras. 2012, nº2 Disponible en: <>. ISSN 2174-0445
  29. Walsh, Anne L. (2007). Arturo Pérez-Reverte: narrative tricks and narrative strategies. Colección Támesis: Monografías (Volume 246). London: Tamesis Books. p. 117. ISBN 1-85566-150-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Vaca de Osma, p.208
  31. Jail and Matthew Garcia Bretos, The Black Legend (1991) & Matthew Garcia Carcel, Bretos, p.84


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