Margaret R. Greer, Walter D. Mignolo, Maureen Quilligan. Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 448 S. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-30721-3; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-30722-0.
Reviewed by Allison Blakely
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (September, 2009)
M. Greer u.a. (Hrsg.): Rereading the Black Legend
This collection of fourteen comparative essays, mainly by professors of modern languages and history, challenges the so-called “Black Legend,” a term that entered journalistic literature a century ago to describe a negative interpretation of Spain’s conquest of the Americas in comparison with the conduct of the other major European imperial powers in their respective exploits. The volume seeks to do this through reexamination of Spain’s conquests both in Iberia and the Americas; and for a global comparative perspective offers accounts of practices in the Ottoman, Mughal, and Chinese empires in Asia; and the later Dutch and British global empires. The book’s four parts are titled “Two Empires of the East,” “Spain: Conquista and Reconquista,” “Dutch Designs,” and “Belated England.” Their constitutive essays highlight pertinent themes such as religion and evolution of the concepts of caste, class, and race. While focused on the Renaissance and early modern periods, the volume also intends to inform the discourse on the interaction between world regions and cultures all the way to the present. The editors contribute an Introduction and Afterword that succeed to some extent in providing coherence to the volume’s vast thematic, chronological and geographical range.
The essays collectively deny that Spain’s conquest in the Americas was exceptional in its brutality, nor that Spain led in establishing color-based racism, a related aspect of the Legend. They admit that Spanish Christians did contribute to the evolution of the modern concept of race by beginning to apply to humans terminology earlier used to classify horses, relating these at first to Moors and Jews, and implying hierarchy among human groups. Some of the authors also acknowledge that this polemic about Spanish character did echo an internal debate within Spain about racial purity, stemming from the Spanish awareness of a Moorish influence on their society. The authors assert however that the Black Legend per se was a contrivance of Spain’s colonial rivals, especially England, to divert attention from the character of British imperialism that would eventually be cloaked under such concepts as the free market and free trade. In this view, the English began to denigrate the Spaniards just as the latter had Moors, Jews, Indians and Blacks. Consequently the demonizing of the Moors in Europe and stigmatization of blackness in Western societies tarnished the historical image of Spain. The authors point to Immanuel Kant’s influential national and racial classifications in his essay “On the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime” as another important contributor to the Black Legend. Kant asserted there that Spaniards were partly non-European, at the very time the emerging European imperialist powers began to distinguish themselves from the Moslems in North Africa and the Turks to the East, thus rendering Spain a racial and religious “other.” The authors also cite the equally renowned German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel for a clearer articulation of this geopolitical and racial formulation of the imperial discourse, in the Introduction to his Philosophy of History. There he posits central Europe (principally Germany, France, and England) as the heart of Europe, defined as such by their having no direct contact with Africa or Asia.
The main question Walter Mignolo, one of the editors, takes up in his Afterword is the relevance of the Black Legend to concepts of race. He notes that only the Europeans among the empires considered in the volume tied race to skin color, and concludes that ultimately the ascendancy of this concept owes most to capitalism and new forms of economic organization involving massive appropriation of land and exploitation of labor. Concluding that the racial discourse arose to justify this, he adds that this outlook is also manifest today in “keeping Iranian and Chinese expansion at bay and criminalizing immigration in the United States and Europe.” (p. 314) In his view the European Union continues to reflect this vision. While all of the essays in this volume are quite scholarly and well written, and an economic interpretation is consistent with naming England as the chief author of the Black Legend, some of the sweeping generalizations in the Afterword, encompassing centuries of complex history and issues not treated in this volume, seem to undervalue the importance of historical context. Surely the competition for land and political domination in the expansion of the United States have had more bearing on the predominant attitudes toward “Latins” there than the centuries old Black Legend based on a close proximity to Africa and annihilation of indigenous peoples in America. After all the United States bears a burden of shame of its own on the latter score, in addition to being the only modern Western society to practice full blown slavery at home.
This volume’s focus on debunking the so-called Black Legend is at the same time a quest to affirm Spain’s identity as European and distance its historical image from the traditional negative ones Western societies have held of Africa. An unintended possible consequence of this is that while these essays succeed in pointing out fallacies in The Black Legend, some readers looking at these matters from the perspective of the non-Western cultures implicated in Spain’s Black Legend may therefore be left with an impression that the denial of the Black Legend rests on uncritical acceptance of its assumption that African and Asian peoples and cultures are inferior to those in Europe. Such assumptions could actually weaken the arguments against the Black Legend since African population in Iberia was not limited to the Moorish period: some 150,000 laborers were brought in during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The seeming concentration on affirming Spain’s character as truly European is offset by some content in the essays that attempts to correct common misconceptions about the Spanish conquests. An example is the essay by Silver Moon and Michael Ennis, “The View of the Empire from the Altepetl: Nahua Historical and global Imagination” (pp. 150-66), that asserts that the conventional view that the Spaniards totally annihilated the indigenous peoples is an exaggeration, despite the very real atrocities committed. Is there not more evidence that could salvage Spain’s reputation without impugning those of other cultures? In this regard, there is surprisingly no mention in the book of the Frank Tannenbaum thesis that occupied a generation of scholars in the mid-twentieth century, and is still contested in recent work.  This argued essentially that the Iberian model of Latin American slavery was more humane than Anglo-American slavery. More of this type of discussion might have mitigated the appearance of emphasis on distancing Spain from Africa, which may easily be exaggerated given the fact that in terms of cultural exchange even the Mediterranean Sea has historically served more as a connection between all of Europe and Africa than as a boundary.
1. See, for example, Daniel Littlefield’s 2001 review of: Jane Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida, Chicago 1999, in: William and Mary Quarterly, Volume LVIII (2001) 1, pp. 272-75.
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Allison Blakely. Review of Greer, Margaret R.; Mignolo, Walter D.; Quilligan, Maureen, Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires.
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