This article accompanies the fable
Those enemies, he argued, were Protestant countries who engaged in their own empire-building – the Dutch, the English, the Germans and the French too - enemies who resented Spain’s successes. He had a point of course, but he argued this when Spain’s empire was already over.
Was colonialism and occupation worse under the Spanish?
The formative period for The Black Legend was in the 1590’s and early 1600’s, following the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands and the threatened invasion of England in 1588. This was a time when the woodcuts of Theodor de Bry (like the one above) appeared and they swayed public opinion. The woodcuts illustrated books by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas and the Italian traveler Girolamo Benzoni, among others, and they were bestsellers. But were they also propaganda?
De Bry, who was born in Liège in 1561 into a Lutheran family, printed engraved illustrations that purported to show life in the Americas (he was based in Frankfurt). But the extremely graphic images of death and dismemberment created an image of Spanish imperialism that would persist for centuries. The term "The White Legend" was invented subsequently, during the Franco era, to present Spain's imperial era in a more positive light.
It has been argued that in fact the Spanish were half-hearted imperialists, compared with the other European powers, and that unlike those others they were subjected to harsh internal criticism early on by Las Casas (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies/Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, 1552). Similarly, it has been argued that with the Spanish Inquisition, procrastination and rationalization were the norm, unlike those other European powers where witch trials and executions were carried out more thoroughly.
But is evil a relative term? It really is impossible to defend the encomienda and repartimiento and hacienda forced labor systems employed throughout the Spanish colonies. Saying that the Spanish crown attempted to mitigate the worst abuses by passing laws, or that these systems resembled indigenous systems like the mit’a in Peru, hardly justifies the slavery and barbarism that resulted.
Similarly with the Inquisition. Seville, for example, witnessed thousands of its citizens killed in autos-da-fé in the Plaza de San Francisco (many of its victims were Jews). In the Americas the Inquisition was active too. One of the most celebrated cases involved the Carabajal family who were executed in Mexico City in the 1590's for "Judaizing."
The image above of a Tribunal of the Inquisition (Tribunal de la Inquisición or Auto de fe de la Inquisición), painted between 1812 and 1819, is by Francisco Goya. It is in the
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid.