The deliberate calumnies of Las Casas are the true origin of the Black Legend, beyond the occasional and quite expected disqualifications of Protestants and countries rival to Spain, especially France and England, or annoyed with its hegemony, such as Italy. The reason is that it provided them all with superb propaganda and political ammunition: no other propaganda portrayed the Spanish in such appalling terms, and it came from someone who, after all, was Spanish and had lived in America, so he must have known the score. A minimum of common-sense critical analysis was enough to demolish Las Casas’s enormous accusations, but that, of course, was not in the least interesting in a radical rivalry.
Illustration by Dutchman Theodore De Bry for Bartolome de Las Casas book
It has been said that all empires and countries that have excelled have their black legend as a story centred on the brutal aspects of their use of force, leaving the more positive ones in the background or denying them. This is true, but in the case of Spain, this legend has exerted a far greater historical influence than in any other. To this very day, the picture of Spain as the great bastion of fanaticism, obscurantism and cruelty is present in the attitudes of various Western European countries, particularly the old rivals. And above all, it influences Spain itself, where, after the decadence, the stories of the rancorous and slanderous friar began to be taken up and accepted by some: if other countries that the Spanish had beaten were outstripping Spain in economics, science and political and military power, it had to be because the former Hispanic hegemony had been a mirage or worse, a retarded and obscure force, finally defeated by the “enlightened and progressive” countries.
Quevedo had already had to contend with this spirit, which gained strength in the 18th century, but especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. Freemasonry was a particularly effective channel, because of its hidden nature, for the black legend. This was the ideological content of the independence of Spanish-American countries, to the point of hysteria. Perhaps the most grotesque was the attempt to vindicate the Indians, whose worst enemies were precisely the pro-independence Creoles. Independence had to come one way or another, but it came in one of the worst possible ways, the consequences of which remain to this day.
British Edition of de Las Casas Book, 1656
The independence diatribes were welcomed in Spain itself. When Castelar preached that “Nothing is more dreadful, more abominable, than that Spanish empire which was a shroud stretched over the planet”, he was expressing a widely held opinion among unproductive Spanish liberals. The defeat by the USA in 1898 reinforced these views, which were held as the basis of so-called regenerationism. For Azaña, the country had only created an “empire of beggars and friars, seasoned with misery and superstition”; without going into further detail, Ortega described Spain’s history as “sick” or “abnormal”; Costa spoke of “locking twice the tomb of El Cid”, and so on. In reality, regenerationism did not regenerate anything, and its empty rhetoric was one of the ideological factors that led to an insane republic and civil war.
We also find the Black Legend in the policies and politicians since the transition. The profound basis, within its superficiality, of the policies followed since then by PP and PSOE, is Ortega’s puerile quip “Spain is the problem and Europe is the solution”. The whole objective of both sides was summed up in “entering Europe”, a phrase that already defines a certain stupidity and ignorance. They have never been able to offer any study of Europe of average intellectual quality, while they have produced nothing more than a series of trivial witticisms seasoned with servility and Hispanophobia.
There is no doubt that Las Casas has been one of the most influential figures in the history of Spain and, to a large extent, of Western Europe (to him we can refer, for example, the myth of the “good savage”, which suggested so many absurdities in the 18th century).