The politicised rewriting of Spain’s colonial history

Engraving by Thierry de Bry, 1590 (British Library)

An article was published in The Guardian earlier this year which reports on Spain’s newly-created Fundación Civilización Hispánica , an historical organisation founded by a select all-male group of businessmen, politicians, writers, journalists and academics.

The organisation has simultaneously emerged alongside a new book by Borja Cardelús, once Spain’s environmental secretary, also entitled La Civilización Hispánica; a tome that, in the same vein as its organisational namesake, implicitly works to deny the atrocities of Spanish colonialism and must be critiqued on both academic and moral grounds.*

The very name of the organisation immediately raises questions of historical, political and moral viability. Insisting upon the existence of a “civilización hispánica”, rather than an empire, entirely strips Spain’s colonial invasion and conquest of the Americas and the Caribbean of its violence. It simultaneously disempowers and denies the self-determination of the citizens living in Spain’s former colonies in the present day.**

Most troubling is the attempt to reframe centuries of colonial violence, warfare and the systematic and hegemonic suppression and destruction of indigenous cultures under the guise of the far less offensive idea of a “civilisation”. While the term “civilisation” is highly contentious and fluid in almost every context (in fact I’d probably avoid it altogether), its common usage usually refers to long-standing historical precedents (for example, the Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Mesopotamian and, perhaps most insultingly, Incan and Aztec civilisations) which did not undertake mass-scale colonial projects encompassing large and as yet unknown parts of the globe resulting in both the marginalisation and destruction of indigenous cultures, as Spain did from the late fifteenth century.

Its briefly-sketched aims are couched in pseudo-academic language yet are entirely politicised:

  • “Difundir la Civilización Hispánica; sus valores, contenidos y episodios, en cuanto riquísimo patrimonio cultural, en buena medida desconocido por el público.”[Diffuse the idea of the Hispanic civilisation; its values, contents and history, in terms of its rich cultural heritage which is largely unknown by the general public]
  • “Combatir la Leyenda Negra. Dar a conocer la inmensa obra civilizadora de España y los países iberoamericanos, y su contribución a la Humanidad, tanto en los aspectos geográficos como en los materiales y culturales.” [Combat the Black Legend.  Bring to light the immense civilising work of Spain and Latin American countries, and their contribution to humanity – in geographical as well as material and cultural aspects.]
  • “Atender, de forma especial, a la población hispana de los Estados Unidos, que a pesar de orígenes diversos poseen las raíces comunes de la Civilización Hispánica, reforzando estas como patrimonio de todos ellos.” [Pay particular attention to the Hispanic population of the USA, which – despite diverse origins – possess common roots in the Hispanic Civilisation which reinforces the idea of a common heritage.]
  • “Movilizar a personas, empresas e instituciones relevantes de la órbita hispánica para estos fines. Los cuales pertenecen a los cuatros ámbitos hispánicos esenciales: España, Países de Iberoamérica, Estados Unidos y Filipinas.” [Mobilise relevant people, businesses and institutions in the Hispanic world towards these aims who belong to the four essential Hispanic regions: Spain, Latin America, the USA and the Phillippines].

While it’s not wholly abhorrent, as stated in the fourth aim, to seek to unify all those with a common Hispanic heritage across the globe and make known their shared history, what matters is that the history offered by the Foundation is ultimately revisionist and biased. In sum, their aims betray a clear desire to propagate an exclusionary, neocolonial and retrospectively violent rewriting of Spanish colonialism in the Early Modern period.

I have emboldened the most problematic aspects of their ethos above, the first of which is the peculiar and ephemeral desire to spread the ‘values’ of the so-called Hispanic ‘civilisation’, positively recasting the process of enforced acculturation by the colonists. The second aim evokes the entirely backward, retrospectively racist and neocolonial idea of the “civilising mission”, the unethical, oppressive and acculturating nature of which has been tirelessly interrogated and undermined by scores of Latin America-focused postcolonial scholars, such as Moraña, Bolanos & Verdesio, Ginzberg, Williams and Thurner & Guerrero. Outside of the Latin American context, examples include the work of Fanon,  Wunder & Hu-DeHart,  SpivakAcheraiouBhabha and Memmi (a reading list that essentially constitutes postcolonialism 101). It moreover wholeheartedly ignores the damage wrought by Spanish colonialism that persists into the modern era.

The foundation’s website also lists a number of forthcoming book projects, examples of which include a book that aims to uncover the “huella cultural” [cultural footprint] left by Spanish invaders to what is now the USA:

“Desde la llegada de Ponce de León los exploradores y navegantes españoles recorrieron la costa y el territorio de los Estados Unidos, dejando, desde Florida a California, una relevante huella cultural que permanece.”

[Since the arrival of Ponce de León, the Spanish explorers and navigators travelled around the coast and the territory of the USA, leaving a relevant cultural footprint that remains from Florida to California.]

Aside from the obviously erroneous and anachronistic application of “los Estados Unidos” to the colonial territories of North America, it is entirely misleading to refer to colonisers as “explorers and navigators”, thereby romanticising the violence committed towards native North and Central American peoples upon their arrival. The verb “recorrer” meanwhile trivialises the colonisers’ warmongering expeditions into what seems like an explorative holiday!

A second book will give an overview of “La Civilización Hispánica”, revelling in how:

“El encuentro de España con las gentes del Nuevo Mundo produjo un fruto cultural, material e inmaterial, de gran contenido y valores, que engloba a 600 millones de personas en todo el mundo y que constituye uno de los grandes ámbitos culturales de la humanidad.”

[The encounter of Spain with the people of the New World produced a cultural gem, both material and immaterial, of exceptional content and value, which encompasses 600 million people across the world and which constitutes one of the largest cultural spheres of humanity.]

Once again, carefully-chosen language is used to erase both colonial violence and suppressed indigenous cultures from history, the latter of which were forcibly stifled as a result of Catholic evangelism. Instead the Foundation insists upon it having been a neutral and culturally beneficial “encounter”. The aims of the organisation are thus thoroughly un-academic: in ignoring the historical violence, both physical and cultural, of Spanish conquests it propagates a biased, politicised vision of history, and moreover recasts acculturation as a positive, rather than oppressive, process.

And how has the news of the foundation’s inauguration been greeted in Spain?

The Spanish press has given the initiative ample journalistic space. Cardelús gave an interview to El País back in January in which the organisation’s desired trajectory is expanded upon: his connections have led to support being granted by both the government and RTVE, and the Foundation even plans to develop films and TV series to propagate their ideology (whether or not these would also be aimed at foreign audiences is not mentioned). El País does, to its credit, give voice to one of Cardelús’ detractors, historian  José Álvarez Junco. Junco’s scepticism rightly identifies the nationalistic impetus of the project, as:

“un intento más de reforzar el nacionalismo español en estos tiempos en que con la crisis catalana parece que hay un resurgimiento del españolismo sin complejos.”

[more of an attempt to reinforce Spanish nationalism in the present context in which the Catalan crisis has given rise to an uncomplicated version of “españolismo”.]

Yet Junco does not address the fundamental inaccuracies that come from selective historiography, as I have outlined above. ABC has by contrast completely avoided giving a balanced evaluation of the initiative and instead has granted Cardelús himself a column to expound his views. La Vanguardia, meanwhile, reports unobjectionably on the foundation’s inauguration.

Finally, the online news site Actuall hosts a video interview with Cardelús in which he pleads for the importance of raising Spain’s self esteem as a nation. Ironically, in the course of the interview Cardelús quite clearly points to the internal contradictions of “la leyenda negra” [the black legend]: the source of this so-called propaganda was in fact  Spanish resident of the colonies and Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, whose work was later latched onto by Spain’s European ‘enemies’ in the sixteenth century (motivated, according to Cardelús, by a desire to eradicate Catholicism from Europe). While it can be argued that some aspects of the ‘black legend’ propagated in Early Modern Europe were factually incorrect or exaggerated, it categorically does not mean Spain did not colonise, oppress and thereby work to destroy the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

Cardelús accuses Casas of creating the legend – yet a closer look at his seminal work, translated into English as “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” (c. 1552), reveals it to be a first-hand account of colonial atrocities and the religious, Catholic arguments against the enslavement and murder of indigenous Americans. Nowhere in the Foundation’s work thus far is a systematic analysis and refutation of Casas’ work, and without any evidence to the contrary we cannot take Cardelús’ opinion of it at face value.


 

The project’s work is progressing as 2018 draws to a close: it has somehow been granted centre stage at the European level as of last month, as the Spanish press reports neutrally on the unveiling of an exhibition entitled ‘The Hispanic world: a common heritage’, housed in the headquarters of the European Parliament in Strasburg.

The size and scope of this initiative means it is urgent that historians and academics of Spanish history and culture work to demystify and debate what the Foundation is proposing. There is no doubt that their message has already been and will continue to be disseminated, given the political sway of the organisation’s founders.

The Fundación Civilización Hispánica is, ultimately, utterly out of place in 2018, and constitutes an apologia for colonialism.*** Not only does it seek to spread biased, factually incorrect and selective historical narratives, it moreover works against its own perceived aim to bolster Spain’s international reputation by conversely propagating conservatively-politicised academic thought. Politicised history can never be true history: recasting a nation’s past for political aims is by definition subjective, fictional, and, ultimately, oppressive.

 

*Disclaimer #1: in critiquing the revisionist history of the Fundación Civilización Hispánica I am in no way denying the right of Hispanic historians to question and interrogate the falsities that were indeed propagated by La leyenda negra. As I state above, the ‘Black Legend’ propagated in Northern Europe was indeed inaccurate in places, but the work of first-hand observers of Hispanic colonialism, such as Bartolome de las Casas, must equally be taken seriously as evidence of colonial violence.

**Disclaimer #2: in critiquing the revisionist history of the Fundación Civilización Hispánica I am in no way suggesting that theirs is a view held by Hispanic peoples in general. I confine my critique to this particular organisation only, and its selective brand of history.

***Disclaimer #3: in critiquing the revisionist history of the Fundación Civilización Hispánica I am in no way suggesting that Hispanic colonialism was in some way worse than Northern European colonialism. Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and many other European nations perpetrated horrific acts of colonial violence across the globe. Their attempts to suppress or revise their colonial history must be similarly interrogated, and I aim to do so in the course of this blog.