Birth of the “Black Legend”
In 1514, the Spaniard Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), known as the “Apostle of the Indies,” catalogued with Outrage a litany of his countrymen’s atrocities in his Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies).
Through the writings of Las Casas and other witnesses to Spanish colonial history, a “Black Legend” grew up around Spain in the New World. The conquistadors came to the Americas thoroughly grounded in a bloody tradition of racial warfare, having fought the Moors for eight centuries to gain control of the Iberian peninsula. Moreover, colonizers such as Onate financed operations with their personal funds. When Onate failed to turn up the gold he had hoped for, he relentlessly worked the Indians in an effort to make a profit from agricultural enterprise. As it turned out, the people he had subjugated failed to produce enough food even to sustain the colonists, let alone to sell for profit, and, after Onate’s cruelty became obnoxious even to royal officials, he was fined and stripped of all honors.
The Black Legend was also fostered and sustained by the encomienda system, which dominated Spanish colonial government from the 16th through the 18th centuries. By 1503, the crown began granting loyal colonists a type of deed (called an encomendar) to specific tracts of land with the additional proviso that the Indians living on the land could be used as laborers for a specific number of days per year. The majority of encomenderos abused their Indian charges, brutally forcing them to work for nothing more than mere token wages and showing not the least concern “for their health.
The cruelty of the encomienda system was, to some degree, balanced by the beneficent intentions of the Spanish missionaries. It is true that the Indians were given no choice in deciding whether or not they wanted to be “saved” by conversion to Christianity, but the best of the missionaries, beginning with Las Casas, did have an abiding concern for the spiritual as well as physical welfare of their charges. Ironically, such concern may have served to perpetuate the horrors that Onate and others visited upon the Indians. On economic grounds alone, it is not likely that Spain would have continued to support its colonial outposts north of the Rio Grande. Gold was not forthcoming, and agricultural enterprises produced marginal profits at best and, in most cases, ruinous losses. But all during the Spanish experiment in the Southwest, the friars had been creating a population of new Christians, whose now-sanctified souls, they argued, could not simply be abandoned.