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The Black Legend Previous
Digital History ID 3571


Late in the eighteenth century, around the time of the three hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage of discovery, the Abbé Raynal (1713-1796), a French philosopher, offered a prize for the best answer to the question: "Has the discovery of America been beneficial or harmful to the human race?"

Eight responses to the question survive. Of these, four argued that Columbus's voyage had harmed human happiness. The European discovery of the New World had a devastating impact on the Indian peoples of the Americas. Oppressive labor, disruption of the Indian food supply, deliberate campaigns of extermination, and especially disease decimated the Indian population. Isolated from such diseases as smallpox, influenza, and measles, the indigenous population proved to be extraordinarily susceptible. Within a century of contact, the Indian population in the Caribbean and Mexico had shrunk by over 90 percent.

During the sixteenth century, when the House of Habsburg presided over an empire that included Spain, Austria, Italy, Holland, and much of the New World, Spain's enemies created an enduring set of ideas known as the "Black Legend." Propagandists from England, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands vilified the Spanish as a corrupt and cruel people who subjugated and exploited the New World Indians, stole their gold and silver, infected them with disease, and killed them in numbers without precedent. In 1580, William I, Prince of Orange (1533-1584), who led Dutch Protestants in rebellion against Spanish rule, declared that Spain "committed such horrible excesses that all the barbarities, cruelties and tyrannies ever perpetrated before are only games in comparison to what happened to the poor Indians."

Ironically, the Black Legend drew upon criticisms first voiced by the Spanish themselves. During the sixteenth century, observers like Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566), the bishop of Chiapas, condemned maltreatment of the Indians. As a way to protect Indians from utter destruction, las Casas proposed an alternative labor force: slaves from Africa. Given the drastic decline of the Indian population and the reluctance of Europeans to perform heavy agricultural labor, African slaves would raise the staple crops that provided the basis for New World prosperity: sugar, coffee, rice, and indigo.

Las Casas would come to regret his role in encouraging the slave trade. Although he rejected the idea that slavery itself was a crime or sin, he did begin to see African slavery as a source of evil. Unfortunately, las Casas's apology was not published for more than 300 years.

The Black Legend provided powerful ideological sanction for English involvement in the New World. By seizing treasure from Spanish ships, staging raids on Spanish ports and cities in the Americas, and enlisting runaway slaves known as Cimarons to prey on the Spanish, Protestant England would strike a blow against Spain's aggressive Catholicism and rescue the Indians from Spanish slavery. But it is a pointed historical irony that the very English seamen, like Drake and Hawkins, who promised to rescue the Indians from Spanish bondage, also bought and enslaved Africans along the West African coast and transported them to Spanish America, where they sold them to Spanish colonists.



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