The Shadow of the Black Legend in John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia

Eric Griffin
Millsaps College

With the Virginia Company's meager stores depleted, Captain John Smith found himself forced to turn to the Powhatans and their neighbors for relief. Recalling some years later the urgency that had compelled his 1607 expedition up the Chicahominy ("where hundreds of savages in diverse places stood with their baskets expecting his coming"), Smith wrote in the Generall Historie of Virginia, "The Spaniard never more greedily desired gold than he victual, nor his soldiers more to abandon the country than he to keep it" (Smith 46).

By the time England's first sustainable colony had been established at Jamestown, the meta-narrative now known as "the Black Legend of Spanish Cruelty" had become firmly embedded in European consciousness. So broadly disseminated were the tales of Spain's New World atrocities—especially those describing the extremes to which the conquistadores had been willing to go in order to coerce precious metals from the various Amerindian nations they had encountered—that few readers could have failed to register the gravity of Smith's condition. With the merest allusion to the greed of the Spaniard, Smith could count upon an instant nod of recognition among his English readership. For by the turn of the seventeenth century there existed a no more potent sign of Spain's true intentions than its legendary thirst for gold.

The widely circulated woodcutClick to See a Larger Viewfirst published in Theodor de Bry's America Pars Quarta (1594), is surely the boldest restatement of the topos. In this strikingly graphic representation, probably crafted by the Huguenot artist Jacques Le Moyne de Mourges, vindictive Amerindians lay exemplary punishment upon captured Spanish soldiers, forcing them to drink the molten gold they so shamelessly coveted, literalizing their appetite for the precious metal in such a way as to provide the Iberians their poetical just deserts.

Although a reputation for greed had been circulating with accounts of Spain's New World exploits at least as early as Peter Martyr's De Orve Nobo Decades (1516), during much of the sixteenth century ethical concerns regarding Spanish excesses tended to recede before the magnitude of the American conquest itself. The acknowledged odds against which the Iberians prevailed had provoked extreme means. The stunning successes associated with Spain's imperial mission—most notably, the incredible enlargement of its New World dominions and the seemingly endless quantities of gold and silver that it brought to the European bullion market—were often read as visible signs of the nation's heavenly favor.

Indeed, the success of Iberia's mission to extend the boundaries of Christendom—with Spain adding vast territories in America even as Portugal established new colonies in Africa and Asia—provided a number of visible signs indicating the peninsula's heavenly favor. Alejo Fernañdez's The Virgin of the Navigators (ca. 1535) may be the fullest statement of the approved Spanish ideology, which might be called "the White Legend of Spain's Imperial Election." Here Columbus, Magellan, and the others who so famously embarked under the flag of Aragon and Castile-Leon, gather around an immense figure of the Madonna. Straddling the seas, the Virgin unites the continents. Around the Virgin gather figures of Amerindians who have been brought from pagan darkness to the light of Roman Catholic Christianity by the navigators who have set sail in her name. In the official view, this most glorifies Spain: the enlargement of the corporate body of the Church through the conversion of millions of Indian souls. Gold and riches are but the earthly signs of the heavenly favor gained by Spain's propagation of the Holy Faith (or La Santa Fé), which was seen to offset the loss of so many souls to the Mohammedan antichrist (and later to the Protestant one).

By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the astonishing depopulation of Spain's American kingdoms had inspired a public reassessment of its colonial legacy. Scholastic disputations, like those entered into by Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda at Valladolid in 1550, openly raised questions concerning the morality and the legality of Iberian claims in the New World. The Black Legend began to enter pan-European religio-political discourse with the translation into the northern vernaculars of polemics generating this context, the most important of which was Las Casas' Brevissima Relación de la Destruyción de las Yndias (1552).

Certainly other texts contributed to the dissemination of La leyenda negra; Girolamo Benzoni's History of the New World (1565) and the well-known Discovery and Playne Declaration of the Sundry and Subtill Practices of the Holy Inquisition of Spayne of Gonsalvius Montanus (which had appeared in English translation by 1568) were two other important fonts. But it was the language of Las Casas that would surface again and again in early modern anti-Spanish diatribes.

The appearance of the Brevissima Relación as The Spanish Colonie, or Briefe Chronicle of the Acts and Gestes of the Spaniardes in 1583, a full thirty years after its publication in Spain, marks Click to See a Larger Viewa pivotal moment in one of the most successful propaganda campaigns ever carried out. As the Brevissima Relación is translated, printed, and re-printed in contexts far removed from that of its initial publication, the acts it recorded gave rise to the Hispanophobic typology that David J. Weber in The Spanish Frontier in North America has described as "the inherited . . . view that Spaniards were unusually cruel, avaricious, treacherous, fanatical, superstitious, cowardly, corrupt, decadent, indolent, and authoritarian" (Weber 336). The ensuing cultural stereotype recast Las Casas' critique of the ethics of the conquest as the natural consequence of America's having been devastated by a people of Spanish ethnicity. According to this new ethnic calculus, Spain was the only European country capable of such a holocaust.

As lines of allegiance became more clearly drawn in the religious wars that rocked France, Germany, and the Low Countries, militant Protestants were quick to recognize the educational value of arguments like that made in the Brevissima Relación. The key figure in the conversion of Las Casas' reflexive condemnation of his own nation's "more than Turkish cruelty" into highly effective anti-Spanish propaganda was William I of Orange, the Prince of Nassau. Written during the Orange's dynastic struggle with Philip II (over the Northern kingdoms the latter had inherited through his father, Charles V), the widely circulated Apology [or Defense] Against the Proclamation and Edict Published by the King of Spaine (most of which was probably written by Pierre Loyseleur) made explicit, among other horrors, a connection between Spanish colonizing practices in the New World and the atrocities Orange's own subjects experienced under the Hapsburg yoke.

As significantly, Orange's Apology laid the foundations for a rhetorical strategy that explained the acts of cruelty experienced by his subjects as a function of the ethnicity of the Spanish perpetrators: "I will no more wonder," wrote the Dutch prince, "at that which all the worlde beleeveth, to witte, that the greatest parte of the Spanyardes, and especially those, that coounte themselves Noble men, are of the blood of the Moores and Jews, who also keepe this virtue of their Auncestors, who solde for readie money downe tolde, the life of our Saviour, which thing also, maketh me to take patientlie this injurie layde upon me" (William I Sig. O2r). Nassau's rhetorical slide from the matter of his own "injurie" (Hapsburg rejection of his nation's secession from the empire of the Hapsburgs) into the mire of ethnic essentialism is easily observed: the mixed blood of Iberian culture becomes a sign of both religious and racial corruption. This essentialized view of Spanish ethnicity characterizes the Black Legend in its most fully realized and virulent form.

Although Spain's entanglements in the Low Countries motivated much Black Legend discourse, two additional contexts were also important to its development. Foremost among these (from an English perspective) was the Portuguese succession crisis of the early 1580s. By the final two decades of the sixteenth century, Spanish interventions in the Low Countries and the growth of Spain's New World dominions had become bound up with a more immediate concern. With Philip II's assumption of the Portuguese throne following the death of King Sebastian I in North Africa, the empire of "the Spains," as the united Iberian kingdoms had begun to fashion themselves, suddenly doubled in scale. Europe's two great transoceanic powers had begun to work in concert, becoming the first empire known to history as one upon which the sun never set. It was this Luso-Hispanic incorporation that made the Armada of 1588 feasible; Lisbon became the port at which the combined navies of Spain and Portugal could muster in order to undertake Philip's "Enterprise of England." Once again, a fortuitous turn of events evidenced Spain's heavenly favor. As had the gift of New World dominions, the deliverance of the throne of Portugal to Philip II confirmed Spanish imperial election of the kind rendered in Fernández's The Virgin of the Navigators even as it gave Roman Catholics throughout Europe hope that the revolt of the Protestant north might soon be quelled.

In addition to the Portuguese context, French dynastic and religio-political struggles also factor into the Black Legend's development. Just as the Prince of Nassau had invoked both antichristian typologies and New World atrocities in an effort to solicit the support of Protestants abroad, so too had the Huguenots in France begun to draw attention to Spain's New World tyrannies in order to suggest that outrages committed by the House of Valois and the Catholic League (such as the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre) similarly had been hatched in Spain. Much in the manner of Orange's Apology, many of these polemics were framed in ethnic terms. With their focus on what Las Casas had called "the true nature of these Spaniards (who would attack and rob the Devil himself if he had gold about his person)" the contours of the Black Legend had been fully forged (Las Casas, Pagden, 109).

In the wake of the Armada crisis of the late 1580s, English presses began increasingly to draw upon a range of Continental anti-Spanish discourses in their efforts to turn public opinion against Spain once and for all. The propaganda surge of the 1590s produced the legend that would go on to have an exceedingly long shelf-life in the Anglo-American world. Faced with rumors of a second Armada in the making, continuing Spanish designs for the liberation of Ireland, and threats of a new Spanish alliance with the Catholic faction in Scotland (as well as increasing internal unrest brought on by agricultural famine and the succession crisis that Elizabeth I's advancing age made imminent), English polemicists and propagandists turned out an astonishing number of Hispanophobic titles. In these tracts, the concerns of the pre-Armada years—about Spain's hubristic political ambition, propensity toward matrimonial maneuvering, and its over-enthusiastic Roman Catholic religiosity—had been joined to a new discourse of ethnicity; the root of this collection of evils had been located in the racial character of Iberia. The Spaniard mixed Visigothic, Moorish, and Hebrew ancestry. By this calculation, Spain was less than European.

However irreversibly demonized Spain had become in the popular imagination, attitudes among those who were active in the promotion of English colonial expansion were still deeply ambivalent. As in the writings of Hakluyt and Raleigh, who had continued to marvel at the magnitude of Iberia's colonial achievement even as they sought to undermine it, this ambivalence can be read in the brief anecdote from The Generall Historie quoted at the beginning of this essay. For although Captain Smith had invoked in one breath the well-known Spanish desire for gold in order to figure the profound depths of his own literal hunger, he also implied a Spanish solution to the Virginia Company's difficulties in another.

With the recognition of his soldiers' temptation "to abandon the country" and his own determination to keep it, John Smith seems to have been placing himself on a par with the archetypal conquistador Hernán Cortéz, who had so legendarily mustered the will to found New Spain, not only against all odds but against the judgement of his own less-determined countrymen (who would have preferred the possiblity of a safe return to Cuba over scuttling their fleet at Vera Cruz). In New World matters especially, Spain remained at this early stage of English imperial aspiration not only a measure of colonial excess, but a model for colonial success as well—as indeed it would throughout the period of European global expansion.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Primary Sources

Hakluyt, Richard. The Original Writings and Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts. 2 Vols. Edited by E.G.R. Taylor. London: Hakluyt Society, 1935.

Las Casas, Bartolomé de. The Spanish Colonie, or a Briefe Chronicle of the Acts and Gestes of the Spaniardes. London: 1583.

——. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Edited by Anthony Pagden. Translated by Nigel Griffin. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Loyseleur, Pierre. An Apology or Defense of My Lord the Prince of Orange . . . Against the Proclamation and Edict Published by the King of Spaine. Delft: 1580.

Martyr, Peter. The Decades of the newe worlde or west india, etc. In The First Three English books on America. Edited by Edward Arber. Translated by Richard Eden. Birmingham: 1885.

Smith, John. Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings. Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

——. "The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles." In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631). Edited by Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Secondary Sources

Elliott, J. H. The Old World and the New, 1492-1650. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Gibson, Charles. The Black Legend: Anti-Spanish Attitudes in the Old World and the New. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1971.

Griffin, Eric. "Un-sainting James: Othello and the 'Spanish Spirits' of Shakespeare's Globe," Representations 62 (1998): 58-100.

——. "'But wherefore blot I Bel-Imperia's name?': Ethos, Empire, and the Valiant Acts of Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy." English Literary Renaissance 31 (2001).

Hadfield, Andrew. Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Juderías, Julián. La Leyenda Negra: Estudios Acerca del Concepto de España en el Extranjero. Barcelona: Casa Editorial Araluce, 1929.

Maltby, William. The Black Legend in England: The Development of Anti-Spanish Sentiment, 1558-1660. Durham: Duke University Press, 1971.

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters in the New World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Parmellee, Lisa Ferraro. 'Good Newes from Fraunce': French Anti-League Propaganda in Late Elizabethan England. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1996.

Powell, Philip Wayne. Tree of Hate: Propaganda and Prejudice Affecting United States Relations with the Hispanic World. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

Retamar, Roberto Fernández. "Against the Black Legend." In Caliban and Other Essays. Translated by Edward Baker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Sanchez, Joseph P. The Spanish Black Legend/La Leyenda Negra Española: Origins of Anti- Hispanic Stereotypes/Orígenes de los estereotipos antihispánicos. Albuquerque: National Park Service, 1990.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.