The black legend

Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566)
The Spanish colonie, or Briefe chronicle of the acts and gestes of the Spaniardes in the West Indies, called the newe world, for the space of xl. yeeres / written in the Castilian tongue by the reuerend Bishop Bartholomew de las Casas or Casaus, a friar of the order of S. Dominicke. And nowe first translated into english, by M.M.S.
London: [by Thomas Dawson] for William Brome, 1583
Syn.7.58.24(5), title page

The Brief account of the destruction by Bartolomé de las Casas was popularised in Europe by Spain’s political enemies during the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), when many in the Netherlands were in revolt against the Spanish throne. The first Dutch translation appeared in 1578, two years after the killings and looting carried out by Spanish soldiers at Antwerp. Las Casas seemingly testified to the Spaniards’ inveterate cruelty and the right of the Dutch to self-determination. Twenty-five more Dutch editions were printed before the war finally ended. They were widely read and cited by pamphleteers and politicians. The first known English translation was printed at London in 1583; the preface states that it was translated to rouse the inhabitants of the Low Countries to the nature of the enemy whom they faced.

These translations were part of creating what historians in the twentieth century termed the ‘Black Legend’, the persistent characterisation of Spain and its empire as a cruel tyranny. The new title, however, reflected an earlier and more ambiguous description of the Spanish conquests. In 1555, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Richard Eden had translated into English three accounts of the Spanish conquest by the Italian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India. The book, augmented by translations from other writers on the Americas, related how the conquistadores planted ‘colonies’ or settlements after the manner of the Romans ‘in prouinces newely subdued’ (ii. i. f. 252).

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