Black Legend

Age of Exploration

The Black Legend is a term used to describe the negative portrayal of the exploration and colonization carried out by Spain and Portugal during the Age of Exploration.

Bartolome de Las Casas, Painting

Bartolomé de Las Casas. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Black Legend Facts

When the Spanish conquered much of the Western Hemisphere, some believed they used excessive force and cruel measures to control the people they found living in the Caribbean and the Americas. Conquistadors like Hernán Cortés faced criticism from both indigenous and Spanish observers.

Hernan Cortes, Portrait
Conquistador Hernán Cortés. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Bartolomé de Las Casas Criticizes the Conquistadors

Bartolomé de Las Casas criticized the Conquistadors in his reports on Spanish actions in the West Indies and the mainland. In 1552, he published “Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies” and portrayed Conquistadors as plunderers who enslaved and killed indigenous people. 

Las Casas and the Spread of Christianity in the New World

Las Casas did not advocate Spanish withdrawal from the Americas but hoped his writings would encourage the Spanish Crown to regulate military actions. 

He also believed it was important for the Spanish to remain in the Americas so the indigenous people could be exposed to and converted to Catholicism. This was critical to the Catholic Church, which was faced with the spread of Protestantism in northern Europe during the 16th century. 

Las Casas believed exposing the actions of the Conquistadors would help change the behavior and actions of the Conquistadors and improve conditions in the New World.

The Printing Press Spreads the News of Atrocities in the New World

In the 16th century, the introduction of the printing press allowed publishers across Europe to easily print and spread any text they acquired. 

As a result, Las Casas’s book, originally aimed at influencing Spanish policy, quickly spread, including into Protestant nations like England, through translations. Another book that was critical of the Conquistadors, Girolamo Benzoni’s 1656 “History of the New World,” was also printed throughout Europe.

The Black Legend Begins

In 1583, the first English translation of Las Casas’s book was published in London under the title “The Spanish Colonie.” 

This happened just before Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions to found a colony on Roanoke Island started, which was supported by Queen Elizabeth I.

Supporters of English colonization, including Richard Hakluyt the Younger and Samuel Purchas, used the book to promote the idea that they needed to spread Protestantism in the Americas.

For Protestant readers, including the English, Dutch, and Huguenots in northern France, the book validated their concerns about the Spanish. They saw this as concrete evidence of the true nature of the Spanish actions, which was to convert as many people in the Americas to Catholicism as possible and exterminate anyone who refused.

Over time, Spanish historians have disputed these arguments, which they refer to as “la leyenda negra” — the Black Legend. Even after the English had established colonies in North America, they continued to adhere to the belief in the Black Legend — despite their treatment of Irish Catholics and Native American Indians.

Engravings of Theodor de Bry

In the late 16th century, a Flemish engraver, Theodor de Bry, created illustrations to accompany translations of Las Casas’s writings. These illustrations depicted the horrible mistreatment of the people in the Americas but were also exaggerated. Just like the words that inspired them, the illustrations were used to perpetuate the Black Legend.

English Colonies Along the East Coast of America

By the early 1630s, England had established several colonies in the New World, including Virginia (1607), Massachusetts (1629), and Maryland (1634). There were also settlements in what would become New Hampshire. Virginia had already suffered through the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614) and the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632).

Tears of the Indians Extends the Black Legend

In 1636, a new translation of Las Casas’s book was published with the title “The Tears of the Indians.” 20 years later, another edition of the book was published, with the subtitle:

“cruel massacres and slaughters of over twenty million innocent people, carried out by the Spaniards in the islands of Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, &c. As also, in the continent of Mexico, Peru, & other places of the West-Indies, to the total destruction of those countries.”

Black Legend Significance

Las Casas had originally presented his account of the brutalities committed by Spanish Conquistadors as a way to change their behavior toward the people in the Americas. However, it was the translation and sensationalization of this book by Protestants that created the Black Legend and kept it alive well into the 17th century.

Black Legend APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study the Age of Exploration and the Spanish Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Black Legend APUSH Definition

The term Black Legend is used to describe the negative portrayal of Spanish and Portuguese colonization and conquest in the New World in European literature and popular culture. The Black Legend depicted Spanish and Portuguese colonizers as cruel, brutal, and greedy, and portrayed their treatment of indigenous peoples as barbaric and inhumane. The Black Legend was often used to justify the actions of other European powers in the New World and played a significant role in shaping European perceptions of the colonial period.

Black Legend APUSH Video

This video from CrashCourse discusses the Black Legend, Native Americans, and Spaniards.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Black Legend
  • Date Age of Exploration
  • Author
  • Keywords Black Legend, Black Legend APUSH, Black Legend Described
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 7, 2024

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