The Historical Impact of the “Black Legend”

864 words | 3 page(s)

The Anglo-Spanish imperial rivalry during the 16th and 17th centuries were defined by the need for power, the desire for land, and the conquest of the New Land through whatever means were deemed necessary. As the original thirteen colonies began to desire more of the land that was claimed by the indigenous people and the Spaniards, separating the two of them became a key strategy in their pursuit of conquest. Though neither the English settlers nor the Spanish conquistadors were overly concerned with the resulting outcome for the indigenous people, the Spanish enacted laws that made the native Americans perceive the possibility that they were safer at the hands of the Spaniards. Realizing that this could unite the two and be devastating the plan of gaining additional land, the English people decided to show the Spaniards in a negative light. Later described as the “Black Legend,” this stereotyping of the Spaniards created a fear of their tactics, animosity between the whites and the Spaniards, and a lasting impact on the view of the Spaniards.

The fear that was instilled in an effort to break up any possibility of unity between the Native Americans and the Spaniards was based in the concept of racism and the belief that people have that individual acts represent the entirety of the race. The British empire was aware of the power of this fear and “was picking up the pieces of the decline of Spanish power, (in part by posing as a humane alternative to the widely-believed (and largely true) “black legend” of Spanish cruelty)” (Goldner). Tony Horwitz explains the details of the Black Legend as:

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The legend first arose amid the religious strife and imperial rivalries of 16th-century Europe. Northern Europeans, who loathed Catholic Spain and envied its American empire, published books and gory engravings that depicted Spanish colonization as uniquely barbarous: an orgy of greed, slaughter and papist depravity, the Inquisition writ large. (Horwitz).

Although both sides of the rivalry intended to take the land away from the Native Americans and committed horrendous acts in order to do so, the prior establishment of this legend played on the superstitions of the indigenous people and they were quick to believe that the American settlers were the lesser of the two evils.

Keeping in mind that the Native Americans held the original claim to the land that is North America, the idealized claims between the Spaniards and the British became that of entitlement. Though there were others who had confirmed landings just outside of America, the first confirmed landing in the country itself was by a Spaniard, Juan Ponce de León, who landed in 1513 at a lush shore he christened La Florida (Horwitz). By that notion, the Spaniards should have been able to lay claim to their findings. Realizing the tactics that were being used to not only take away their claim but also to defame their character, the resulting rivalry became one of extreme violence. By depicting the Spaniards in such a negative light and utilizing the existing Black Legend, the Anglo-Americans were able to push the Spaniards out and become a great force despite the fact that “in the waning phase of more than 200 years of Anglo-American dominance of world capitalism, it is easy to forget that England was a relative latecomer in the 500 years of Western hegemony” (Goldner).

Once the Anglo-Americans had successfully pushed the Spaniards out of the New Land, the utilization of the Black Legend did not stop. Although one can see “representations of Spain in the development of British political thought” (Sanchez 4). There was still more to prove for the Anglo-Americans and it was assumed that the best way to do that would be the same way that they had conquered the New World. The use of the Black Legend as a means to continuously sabotage the Spaniards allowed the negative stereotyping to be passed through generations. This system of handing down legends and stereotypes was the same manner by which the legend had reached the Americas. The added stories of the legend took it way beyond the initial truth that “Juan de Oñate, the conquistador who colonized New Mexico, punished Pueblo Indians by cutting off their hands and feet and then enslaving the (Horwitz). Though this act shows cruelty, it should not have constituted a continued stereotyping of Spaniards.

The purpose of a legend constitutes the re-telling of stories. However, when the story creates a negativity of an entire race, the legend becomes a tool for power. Although the Anglo-Americans did not create the legend or the true portions of the story, they certainly embellished how far the legend represented the entirety of the race. By doing so, the Anglo-Americans were able to put the focus on the acts of the Spaniards while they were quietly doing the same thing that their rivals were doing. The impact of the Black Legend caused the Spaniards to fight back for both the land and their reputation. As history has shown, both of those battles were lost as the New World fell to the hands of the Anglo-Americans and the stereotypes that are entailed in the Black Legend are still in existence today.

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