Black and White Legends

Understanding English and Spanish Colonialism

Horrific attacks on Indigenous people in North America belied the English planners’ assertions that England’s colonization would be superior to the Spanish. Spanish conquests in the New World had produced atrocities and massacres that led to the stereotype known as the Black Legend (Leyenda Negra): a historiographical tradition, often under Protestant influences, accusing the Spaniards and the Spanish of cruelty and intolerance, especially in the treatment of Indigenous people, as if cruelty to Indians was part of the Spanish cultural DNA. English planners furthered this Legend and in doing so created one of their own that might be called the White Legend. The White Legend can be defined as the English claim that they would not mimic the Spanish and mistreat Indigenous people, as if humaneness was part of England’s cultural DNA.

The key document for the White Legend was the Discourse on Western Planting. Here is a section of that document:  “The Spaniards govern in the Indies with all pride and tyranny, and like as when people of contrary nature at the sea enter into galleys, where men are tied as slaves, all yell and cry with once voice liberta, liberta, as desirous of liberty or freedom, so no doubt whensoever the Queen of England, a prince of such clemency, shall sit upon that firm of America, and shall be reported throughout all that tract to use the natural people there with all humanity, courtesy, and freedom, they will yield themselves to her government and revolt clean from the Spaniard ….” As other parts of the Discourse show, The English and Spanish viewed colonization as a contest between Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity.

In fact, cultural explanations do not account for the mistreatment of Indians in either case. Rather the social, economic, and religious circumstances and conditions of invasion, conquest, and domination of Indigenous people in North America led to their mistreatment. Since the religious imperative was stronger in New England under the Puritans than in Anglican Virginia, atrocities and massacres of Indians there was quantitatively greater and more widespread.