The Black Legend: Definition & History

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  • 0:01 The Black Legend
  • 0:28 Cruelty
  • 1:01 Being Exploitative
  • 1:45 Self-Righteousness
  • 2:28 Lesson Summary
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Instructor
Thomas Davis

Thomas has taught high school age students for 34 years, undergraduate 12 years, and graduate courses for the last 8 years. He has a Masters Degree in Curriculum and Instruction from National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

The history of the Spanish Empire during the Age of Exploration is filled with tales of exploitation and enslavement, all done for the glory of the Empire. This is known as the Black Legend.

The Black Legend

The Black Legend is a style of propaganda that criticizes the Spanish Empire, first described by Julian Juderias in his book, The Black Legend and Historical Truth. The legend infers that no good came of the period of exploration except for the gains of the Spanish. In this lesson, we'll examine how the following claims applied to the Spanish Empire and the Black Legend:

  • Cruelty
  • Being exploitative
  • Self-righteousness

Cruelty

The word 'cruelty' may be a little tame when it comes to the Black Legend. In the further exploration of the Western Hemisphere, when initially coming upon a village, the Spanish would issue a requerimiento, a document that was read to the natives, basically telling them that they were to do what they were told to do.

The majority of the natives were also used in the system called the encomienda system, which was essentially a system of forced labor. The Spanish first used this system after conquering the Moors in Spain. Since they were in a need of a cheap labor supply, this system worked. Many people were also enslaved for the good of the Spanish Empire.

Being Exploitative

The Spanish Empire was in perfect position to exploit whosoever they saw fit. Once the Spanish had established their dominance, the conquistadors considered the forced labor of the natives to be tribute. Basically, the natives were enslaved and got nothing for their labor but their lives. The Spanish believed they gave the natives the right to work the land as a way to pay tribute to them. After all, tribute was then paid to the Crown, and the conquistadors and later landowners needed their cut of the profit, too.

The Spanish did allow the natives to work a small portion of the land to feed themselves. However, when first used in the West Indies, this system basically destroyed the native population. Sadly, millions of natives died in the Americas from the labor exploitation and disease brought by the Spanish Empire.

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts for The Black Legend:

Writing Prompt No. 1:

You are a 16th-century Spaniard and a critic of your country's policies dealing with Native Americans. Write a short pamphlet outlining your grievances with the conquistadors actions in the New World. This could be a dangerous undertaking, so be careful of your criticisms. How might you use your religious beliefs (as a Catholic Spaniard) to justify your position and not alienate the church? Knowing the monarch might read your pamphlet, how might you persuade him that violence against Native Americans was wrong and not in the best interest of the Spanish crown?

Writing Prompt No. 2:

Imagine you are a young explorer who has arrived in Spanish America in the early 1500s. Write a letter home to your friends and family that describes your experiences with Native Americans. Back home, they know nothing about how Natives are living under Spanish rule, so be sure to include details on how they live and work.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • What system of forced labor did the Spanish employ among Native inhabitants?
  • In what ways did the Spanish redeploy tactics in the "new world" which they had used against enemies back in Europe?
  • What was the "requerimiento"? Do you think that Natives understood and agreed with its premise?

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