Back to Index

SPAIN: The Black Legend in the 18th century

The HTA electronic press has published in electronic form my book in French entitled La Légende Noire au 18e siècle (The Black Legend in the 18th century). See It fits into a long chain of my studies on the attitude of Europe and Anglo-America toward Spain and the Spanish tradition in Spanish America. The conflicting assessments today in the exchange among members of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) are to be explained in part by these conflicting interpretations of history.

Just after World War I, I lived in the then great port city of Southampton, England, where among the motley ships' crews were dark-skinned "dagoes", "Diegos", Spaniards who seemed in every way dark characters. After that I spent many years in Winchester, in whose great cathedral Philip II, the Devil of the South, married Mary Tudor, "Bloody Mary". My account of that marriage was published in the Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society (March, 1937). In those days,the language of civilization was French, and that was my major through the first thirty years of my studies and teaching. Spanish was barely tolerated as a language of commerce; a scholarly minister once said to me "Spain has no literature".

Spanish was not widely taught, but I happened to go to a school which taught it, and that changed my career. At Oxford, the great Salvador de Madariaga awarded me a scholarship to go to Spain in 1931, and it was thus that I saw the fall of the monarchy and the advent of the Republic. During the following years I shuttled between Oxford, Spain, Paris, Italy and North Africa. I spent the fateful period before the outbreak of the Civil War in Madrid, and I was evacuated following the end of the first siege of Madrid. My experiences during the period between 1931 and 1936 are described in Spain, 1931-1936: From Monarchy to Civil War. An Eyewitness Account, also published by the HTA Press: The Foreword to that volume, entitled "A Conflict of Visions and Interpretations" explains my experiences and the judgments I developed. Opinion in other countries was sharply divided. In general it supported the Republic, sometimes with vehemence, although some moderates like Allison Peers took a moderate view. Salvador de Madariaga, once a herald of the Republic, was completely disillusioned.

After a year at Magdalen College, Oxford, I went as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow to the University of California at Berkeley. My experiences in many countries had impressed on me the different interpretations of the world and its history. For example, the Spanish Empire was commonly regarded by the world at large as proof of the evil Spain has done to the world. In Spain, even liberal Spaniards viewed their empire as the greatest that ever was. Moreover, in every country there were a variety of interpretations, usually reflecting political orientation. In order to get a complete picture, it was necessary to study these different interpretations. For each, one representative figure would be analyzed. I found myself reading authors which no one had examined with care.

For the liberal Spanish position, I chose Ramón de Campoamor, famous for his pleasant poetry. No one read his revealing prose works, which I analyzed in Campoamor, Spain and the World (University of Toronto Press, 1940). Next I selected a neo-Catholic woman, Emilia Perdo Bazán, known for one or two novels but generally regarded as unimportant. I read the ninety volumes of her complete works, which no one at the University of California had done, since I had to cut the pages of almost all the volumes. Again, it was a revelation; she was a highly intelligent, well-informed person. I wrote a long and careful analysis, which I submitted to the University of California Press. There was only one Hispanist on the committee; he strongly supported publication, but the others quietly despised Spain, and the idea of devoting a book to a Spanish Catholic woman seemed to them impossible, and they demanded a short monograph. Unwilling to see my baby quartered, I published each of the many chapters as an article in scholarly journals. They had a wide impact, and now in Madrid there is a statue of her. Nevertheless, the careful construction of the book was lost, so now one of my tasks is to put the book together again; the whole is greater than the parts.

The tradition of damning things Spanish was known as "the Black Legend". The focal point of the "Black Legend" was France, once threatened by powerful Spain. French liberals were the most vocal. For an example of the misrepresentation, see "Les Raisons du Momotombo" of Victor Hugo. The most methodical exposition of the French anti-Spanish version of history is to be found in the Histoire de la France of Jules Michelet (1798-1874). I analyzed the 17 volumes and found that the word "Espagne" was used repeatedly as a general term of abuse The analysis is one of my Four Studies in Franco-Spanish Relations (University of Toronto Press.1943). The French tradition of despising Spain and Latin America was continued by Anatole France. (See my "Anatole Francia y la América Latina", Revista Iberoamericana, May, 1941). Maurice Barrès spoke of "the blood, voluptuousness and death" of Spanish life (see my "Maurice Barrès and Spain", Romanic Review, October, 1939).

That takes us to La Légende Noire au 18ème Siècle. It is divided into two parts, the first dealing with France, the second with England, where the attitude toward Spain was much more mixed. The first part has three chapters. The first deals with L'Ábbé Raynal, whose notorious denunciations of Spanish colonization of the Americas was the source of much of the later odious comparisons between the colonization of the Americas by Spain and the other countries, such as Britain. The 18th century was the century of encyclopedias. The model originated in England, but the French Grande Encyclopédie had wider international acceptance, since French was the language of culture. The second chapter is an analysis of what it says about Spain. Forgotten today is the Encyclopédie Méthodique, which is called "methodical" because it is arranged not alphabetically buy by topic. The article on Spain by Masson de Morvilliers caused a crisis between France and Spain. He ended his long account of Spain by asking "What does the world owe to Spain?" The answer clearly is nothing, and the response in Spain was heated. That is the subject of chapter three.

The second part of the book stresses English travelers, who left unequalled accounts of the Peninsula. After Edward Clarke come a writer of Italian origin, Giuseppe Marc'Antonio Baretti. He got into an argument with another Hispanophile, John Bowle. Don Quijote was much appreciated in England, whereas in France Montesquieu damned all of Spanish literature with his remark that it was the only Spanish book which was any good and showed how ridiculous all the others were. The British were the first to show a sympathetic interest in the Spanish natural history: Richard Twiss, William Bowles, Sir John Talbot Dillon. The final chapter deals with the last of the important 18th century English travelers in Spain, Henry Swinburne.

I have repeatedly stressed the importance of the perception of other countries in promoting war. Nowadays this perception is formed by history textbooks and the movies. In the 18th century it was formed by books like those described in this volume. The French thought that they were the great leaders of the Enlightenment and that Spain was an abyss of darkness. The British took a much more tolerant view. Thus when Napoleon invaded Spain and put his brother Joseph on the throne, he thought he was carrying out a mission of enlightening a backward country, and he instituted some reforms. The Spanish had quite a different perception of themselves and of France, and they successfully resisted, with the help of the more friendly British.

Ronald Hilton - 3/25/02