In chapter four (“Across the Dark Water”) of The Story of America, early twentieth century young readers learned the following about the Spanish (or is it “Spaniards”? I’ve never bothered to figure out which…):
- Las Casas, the great defender of the Indians, brought “negro slavery” to America by suggesting that residents of Hispanolia bring African slaves, rather than enslave Indians.
- Ponce de Leon was a “gay and courteous cavalier”–but mostly just crazy. Same thing goes for Balboa, De Soto, and the rest.
- “The white man gave the Indian lessons in treachery, which he was not slow to profit by. A party of gentle St. Dominican Brothers, who had come to America to make a ‘conquest of peace’ among the savages, were captured, upon their landing, and brutally murdered. It was too late for kindness to be understood–too late for the word of the white man to be believed.”
And so we see the endurance of the “Black Legend,” the story that pins on the Spanish much of the blame for Very Bad Things in Early American History. Even the good guy, Las Casas, is at fault, and for one of the greatest evils of American history! It is true, it turns out, that Las Casas suggested the importation of Africans for slavery (and later regretted it). But Peattie’s implying that the Spanish are to blame for the development of slavery throughout the Americas, including what would become the United States; same thing goes with white-on-Indian violence and the foolishness of gold-inspired tours of exploration, discovery, and conquest. The basic idea advanced: the Spanish did it first and did it worst. Those who came after–especially the English–were better people and better Christians, and if they made mistakes, they (a) weren’t as bad as the Spanish and (b) can’t be fully blamed, because, after all, the Spanish started it. In short, the Black Legend lets the English (and, by virtue of heritage, the American colonies, the United States, and you and me) off the hook for what happened to non-whites.* At least, that’s what Peattie’s readers might have been picking up on by chapter four. We’ll see what happens in future chapters.
*For more on the Black Legend, see Weber’s The Spanish Frontier in North America.