Myth and Reality:

The Legacy of Spain in America

By: Jesus J. Chao


This essay is a simple gathering of the historical research made by several prestigious scholars who dedicated their efforts to find the truth behind the records of Spain’s discovery, conquest, colonization, and evangelization of America. The history of this transcendental historical period was hidden under a thick layer of soot, the infamous “Black Legend”. For the last 500 years, envy, ignorance, resentment, and religious and racial bigotry, have concealed from the public eye the achievements of this monumental enterprise. In this essay I have tried to shed some light on the historical truth by analyzing the five milestones that gave a unique humanistic seal to the Spanish colonization that distinguished it from similar enterprises throughout the history of mankind:

1)The attitude of the Crown of Spain towards the slavery and the human rights of the Indians.

2)The universal and egalitarian education found throughout the Spanish’ dominions.

3)The commitment to the evangelization, and social and medical welfare of the Indians.

4)The slavery of the Blacks and their treatment under the Crown of Spain.

5)The Church and its pursuit in the education and human rights in America.

The historians quoted in this essay are scholars well kwon for their serious research. Their only aim was not to compromise the truth in favor of special interests or prejudices. I would feel extremely satisfied if this essay contributes to the awakening of public interest to further knowledge of this matter.

This essay was presented on February 12, 1992 at the Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston as part of the Commemoration of the 500 Anniversary of the Encounter of Two Worlds. This work can be freely reproduced in total or in part.

Myth and Reality:

“The Legacy of Spain in America”

There is a deep discrepancy and polarization regarding the evaluation of the historical legacy of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America; an event which is probably one of the most important in the history of mankind. On the 500th Anniversary of the encounter of the Old and the New Worlds we must distinguish between what is myth and what is reality. Historical events as complex as the discovery and conquest of America must not be judged through the ethical and moral standards of our times, but rather they should be analyzed in accordance with the prevailing norms of the times in which they occurred. These events should be approached with an auto-critical attitude, leaving preconceived ideas behind.

For almost 500 years there has been a campaign of defamation against the legacy of Spain in America. It is sad to find that this lack of historical perspective, along with an entrenched Hispanophobia, has been going on for centuries in the Anglo-Saxon countries and consequently has brought about a subconscious, almost automatic, rejection of Hispanic values. According to historian Dr. Powell: “Jaundiced views of the Hispanic world are taught very early in our schools and they are thoroughly inculcated by the time we enter college and university...The standard simplistic version of Spanish rule in America as a slavocracy, filled with tyranny, looting, bleeding taxation, and suffocating obscurantism, does not conform to the facts.” (1) (*) This attitude, based upon prejudices and ignorance, is damaging the image of the Hispanics in this country. Sometimes the Hispanics themselves, either by action or omission or simply because they were not aware of the truth of their history, have contributed to demean their own heritage.

Dr. Philip Wayne Powell, Emeritus Professor of history at the University of California, in his research on the "Black Legend" titled the “Tree of Hate” , (a book that every Hispanist should read) asserts that the study of 16th century Europe clearly reveals the universal pattern of cruelty, intolerance, and inhumanity which characterized the social, religious, and economic life throughout the continent...Examples of this were the reigns of Elizabeth I of England and her successor James I which were known for their most barbarous cruelty. However, Dr. Powell affirms "that the Spain of the conquest period was a deeply civilized nation by all discernible European standards of that day, ...In jurisprudence, diplomacy, monarchical, religious and imperial concepts, and total culture, Spain was a European leader throughout the sixteen century and in much of the next.” (2) (*)

It is a well-known fact that throughout history great civilizations have flourished and later disappeared. American civilizations such as the Olmecs, Nascas and Mayas disappeared long before the arrival of Columbus. The Iberian peninsula is nothing more than a melting pot of different civilizations that have disappeared leaving behind a mosaic of new and rich cultures. Hispanic Americans, consequently, need to gain a better understanding and knowledge of their own European, African and Indian heritage in order to assert their cultures and multi-ethnic identity with justified pride.

Immediately following the arrival of the first Spaniards in America, the Spanish Crown questioned itself about the moral, ethical and religious implications of such an extraordinary enterprise. The Crown based its behavior upon a document that began by proclaiming all men brothers since they were all descendants of Adam and Eve. Consequently, there was always a deep feeling of justice rooted in the laws proclaimed by Spain to protect the American Indians. This is a transcendental fact that brought about a radical change in the European juridical system and would place the Spanish Crown at a much higher level than the other nations of the time.

Queen Isabella the Catholic took the Indians under her protection considering them as subjects of the Spanish Crown.

In 1494, shortly after the discovery of America, Queen Isabella named a committee of jurists and theologians in order to resolve the moral dilemma of whether the Indians should be subjected to slavery. The committee declared that the Indians had the right to be free. Later, at the request of King Ferdinand, the chief crown jurist, Palacios Rubio, examined the rights of Spaniards in the Indies, and he restated that the Indians were free by natural law and therefore the Spaniards did not have the right to take away their freedom or their properties. (3)

As a matter of fact, upon his return to Spain after his second trip to America, Columbus offered the Spanish Monarchs a group of Indian slaves, against the explicit prohibition from the Queen in regard to their enslavement. Queen Isabella, showing great displeasure, ordered their freedom and their return to Hispaniola admonishing Columbus by saying: "Who gave you the authority to make slaves of my subjects?" It is only fair to acknowledge that the first voice raised in the world against the slavery of Indians, was to the glory of Spain that of Queen Isabella the Catholic. The Queen had such an interest in the well being of the Indians that in "the codicil or appendix to her last will and testament, drawn shortly before her death, she earnestly asked her husband King Ferdinand, her daughter Juana and her son- in- law not to consent in, nor to permit that the Indians, residents of said Indies, whether already conquered or still to be conquered, be aggrieved at all, whether in their persons or their property, but rather that they be well and fairly treated and that, if wronged, you set right any such wrongs...” (4) (*)

Many Spanish voices were raised in defense of the Indians. In 1510 the first Dominican friar, Fray Pedro de Cordoba, vicar of the Order, and Fray Antonio de Montesinos, arrived in Hispaniola. They immediately began their struggle for the well being of the Indians. On the Sunday before Christmas 1511, Fray Montesinos gave a homily that became the first proclamation of human rights of the Indians in America. In 1502 Bartolomé de Las Casas arrived in Hispaniola and there, in 1510, he became the first priest ordained in the New World. In 1513 he traveled to Cuba and was given some lands and a group of Indians in encomienda near the town of Cienfuegos in partnership with another very kind man, Pedro Rentería. Shortly after, seeing the ruthless exploitation of the Indians, Las Casas' conscience began to bother him. Consequently, the preaching of Montesinos and Cordoba along with the burning at the stake of the Indian chief Hatuey and the slaughter of Indians by Pánfilo de Narváez in Caonao, brought about in Las Casas a profound spiritual change.

Father Bartolome de Las Casas, "The Protector of the Indians" and first prophet for the human rights in America.

In the words of the American historian Lewis Hanke: "...It was on Cuban soil that Las Casas underwent his great spiritual renaissance in 1514...It was there that he decided to work for the cause of Indian freedom." (5) The homily given by Las Casas in the presence of governor Diego Velázquez on the 15th of August 1514 in the city of Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, became a milestone in the history of human rights, that homily condemned the "encomiendas" and he proceeded to give freedom to the Indians that had been under his guardianship. This was the beginning of a life totally dedicated to the struggle for the human rights of the natives. Las Casas thus became "The Protector of the Indians" and first prophet for the human rights in America.

Pope Paul III declared that the Indians should not be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though when they were outside the faith of Jesus Christ

Las Casas was made bishop of Chiapas and found the backing of another two great bishops of the Kingdom of New Spain, (Mexico) Juan de Zumárraga and Julián Garcés. Zumárraga and Garcés decided to send the Dominican friar Bernardino de Minaya to Rome so that he could intercede with the Pope for the cause of freedom for the Indians. These activities resulted in the famous bull Sublimis Deus, published in June 1537, by Pope Paul III, in which the Pontiff condemned all those who asserted that the Indians were bereft of the intelligence necessary to embrace the faith. The Pope also solemnly declared that “the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ.” (6) (*)

In 1571 another very important figure arrived in Peru, the Jesuit missionary José de Acosta. He was a scientist, cosmographer and a government specialist and became a professor at the University of Lima. He lived in Peru for a period of 15 years and for 2 years in Mexico and the Caribbean islands; acquiring tremendous knowledge of the indigenous cultures. Acosta also denounced the abuse, exploitation, wantonness and greed of the conquistadors. He searched for and proposed solutions to the critical situation basing his stand upon the humanistic teachings of Father Vitoria. Thus he became one of the first sources of Iberian American thought and one of the principal precursors of its democratic ideals. According to him, human will, social tolerance and political freedom were fundamental values of the human being without distinction of origin or race. There were many missionaries who dedicated their lives to the betterment of the Indians, sacrificing themselves even to the extreme of reaching martyrdom, like father Montesinos, in order to accomplish their labor of love in America.

The University of Salamanca and the College of San Gregorio of Valladolid, recognized the Indian’s rights to keep their own laws and territories.

In Spain, well-respected people like Cardinal Cisneros, and a group of professors of the University of Salamanca also fought for the rights of the Indians, among them was the famous theologian Melchor Cano. Another group of professors from "Colegio de San Gregorio" in Valladolid also played and important role in this struggle. However, in the history of the human rights the works of the Dominican priest, Francisco Vitoria, are paramount. Considered the founder of modern international law, Vitoria published in 1532 his famous treatise De Indis in which he “established the right of the Indians to their territories and laws and denied to the Spaniards any right to be in the Indies at all, other than that of every man peacefully to go and trade everywhere and the duty of every Christian to convert the heathen.” (7) (*) This document would have transcendental repercussions not only in America but also throughout the whole European jurisprudence.

Spain showed the world a humanistic vision unequaled at that point in time. American historian Lewis Hanke corroborates this when he attests that: “ ...The clash of arms was not the only struggle during the conquest. The clash of ideas that accompanied the discovery of America and the establishment of Spanish rule there is a story that must be told as an integral part of the conquest, and endows it with a unique character worthy of note... The widespread criticism permitted, and even stimulated, by the crown really constitutes one of the glories of Spanish civilization... It is to Spain's everlasting credit that she allowed men to insist that all her actions in America be just...” (8) (*)

Emperor Charles V reaffirmed the prohibition of the Indian’s slavery.

Emperor Carlos V, grandson of Queen Isabel, who had the same commitment toward the ethics of the conquest of America, took the matter in dead earnest and called together a Congregation of jurists and theologians in Valladolid to decide whether it was legitimate for the Spaniards to wage wars known as conquest against the Indians without their having committed fresh guilty acts other than those of their infidelity. (9) The congregation decided in favor of the freedom of the Indians and this became the “New Laws for the good treatment and preservation of the Indians.” The law was adamant: the Indians were free. A Cédula (Royal Order) passed in 1542 proclaims: "We order and command that henceforth, for no reason of war or any other, not even rebellion, or purchase, no Indian whatever is to be made slave. And we wish and command that they be treated as our vassals of the Crown of Castile, for so they are...since being our vassals they are free, they possess a presumption of freedom in their favor.” (10) (*)

There was a saying in the colonies that asserted “the laws are observed but not fulfilled.” In order to make the people obey the laws, Carlos V proclaimed as aforementioned the New Laws of the Indies. Therefore it was a shameful violation of the law the use of Indian slaves in the mines. To put an end to this situation, “the Viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, issued an order in 1551 calling for the liberation of all the slaves. When the mine owners complained, he answered: 'that the liberty of the Indians was more important than all the mines in the world, and that the revenues which the Crown might receive from them was not of such a nature as to require the violation of laws, both human and divine.' One hundred and fifty thousand slaves were liberated, not counting their women and children.” (11) (*) That ended once and for all the slavery of the Indians fulfilling at last, the will of Queen Isabel who had declared it illegal from the very beginning of the conquest.

It is no wonder that by the end of the 18th century Humboldt declared: “The work of the mines” -he pointed out- “is absolutely free in the whole kingdom of New Spain; no Indian, no Mestizo, can be forced to work in the mines. It is absolutely untrue that the Court of Madrid sent convicts to America to make them work in the gold and silver mines...This policy was in striking contrast with that of England in her North American colonies. The transportation of English felons to America was also a practice of the British Government... in some instances felons were not the only involuntary emigrants from England whose labor was appropriated. Towards the end of the 18th century it became common practice for captains of English and Dutch vessels to entice ignorant peasants from England, Ireland and Germany, by flattering promises of wealth, to accompany them to America, where they had no sooner arrived than they were sold as bondsmen to defray the cost of their passage and entertainment.” (12)

At the beginning of the 19th century, the great German scholar and naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, after traveling throughout the American Continent wrote a four volume treatise titled Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain published in London in 1811. “In this work he attested to the riches of the Indians which they preserved throughout the 300 years of Spanish rule.” (13) “In the Kingdom of New Spain,” affirmed Humboldt, “at any rate for the last thirty years work in the mines is free. Nowhere are the people allowed to enjoy more completely the fruit of their labors than in the mines of Mexico; no law can force the Indian to choose this kind of work or to prefer this or that mine; if he is displeased with the owner of the mine, the Indian forsakes it to offer his work to another one who pays him more regularly or in cash. These facts are correct and comforting and should be known in Europe...the Mexican miners are the best paid of all the miners. He receives six to seven times more for his labor that a Saxon miner. A carpenter in New Andalucía is paid per day more than a Saxon miner per week.” (14)

Contrast between the Spanish and the English colonization.

In Hispanic America there was a great degree of equality among men which unfortunately was not the case in the English, Dutch and French colonies, although their colonial period occurred during a century when the ethical and moral standards were supposedly much higher. It is therefore an incontrovertible fact that during the European colonization of the 17th throughout the 20th centuries we can not find a body of laws to protect the human rights of the natives that encompasses and is as generous as those found in the Spanish dominions from the very beginning of the colonization in the XVI century. While on the other hand, attested Dr. Powell: “the English government and people, and their New World progeny, exhibited for the most part, a supreme unconcern for the protection and welfare of the American Indian.” (15) It is reprehensible that “Settlers in South Carolina put a price on Indian prisoners caught alive and made handsome profits by selling them as slaves to the West Indies.” The contempt towards the human dignity was such that: “ Bristol businessmen throve in kidnapped English labour which they mercilessly shipped to the West Indies.” (16)

On December 29th, 1593, King Felipe II signed a Royal Order urging the Audiencia of Lima “henceforth to punish the Spaniards who insult, offend or ill-treat the Indians, with more severity than if the same offences were committed against the Spaniards.” Gabriel de Paniagua, knight of the Order de Calatrava, when he was Governor of the city of Cuzco, in Peru, “ordered a Spaniard's hand to be cut off because in his presence and without sufficient cause, the Spaniard gave a slap in the face to a cacique.” (17) It is important to point out that there was a law enacted by Felipe II "limiting the day's work to eight hours, Sunday free, for those workers engaged by or for military engineers, for fortresses, ports and other defense constructions. In case of accident, the workers while in the hospital (which, of course, was free) were paid half their wages.” (18) This protection was not given to the North American workers, or to most of the world, until the 20th century.

Unfortunately the sad truth is that, although the laws were the same for everyone throughout their overseas colonies, they were applied very differently among the private enterprises. The Indian mine workers in Peru were cruelly exploited under the work system called the “mita”. This was an Inca tradition under which all subjects would work for a time in public works under conditions that were close to slavery. This system was used by the Spaniards in the silver mines of Potosí even though a royal decree in 1601 asked them to abandon such forced labor in favor of better treatment and salary in order to attract free Indians to do such work. (19)

The way Indians were treated varied according to the place, but generally they were treated better in the Kingdom of New Spain than in Peru. With great vision, Hernán Cortés, who had studied law at the University de Salamanca, tried to save the Indian monuments and with his own money paid for the construction of schools and hospitals providing for them in his will. On the other hand, Francisco Pizarro, an illiterate adventurer without an education, was not as capable handling the extraordinary enterprise that had been provided by his fate. According to Lesley Byrd Simpson, renown North American scholar in Latin America: “It seems to me that the average stature of the viceroys of New Spain was so great that no country to my knowledge was ever more fortunate in its rulers...(Mexico) enjoyed a long life (three hundred years!) of relative peace, stability, and prosperity, in marked contrast to the squabbling nations of Europe. Some of the men who made this possible are worth our knowing.” (20) (*)

Under the Spanish rule, the Indian peasants fared better than the Russians or the German peasants

According to Humboldt, “the Indian farmer was poor but he was free. His state was far preferable to that of the peasants in a great part of northern Europe. The number of slaves was practically zero.” Humboldt "was very emphatic about the superiority of the standard of living of the Indians under the Spaniards compared to that of many European peasants, specially those in Russia and a great part of Northern Germany.” Humboldt published parallel tables of bread and meat consumption. Mexico City consumed 189 pounds of meat per person per year, compared to 163 in Paris and almost as much bread as any other city in Europe, 363 pounds of bread per person per year, as compared to 377 for Paris. Caracas consumed 7 times more meat per person than Paris. According to Mexican writer Esquivel Obregón in his book The Influence of Spain and United States over Mexico, published in 1918, the purchasing power of the Mexican worker in 1792, during colonial times, compared with the years 1891 and 1908 (after the Mexican independence) sharply declined and he follows “our wage earner in colonial days could purchase as much wheat as the French earner of 1918...” in other words, affirms Obregón, “we have gone backwards on the road of progress.” (21)

According to historian Francis C. Kelly: “It is only justice to say that the Spanish Crown did all it could under difficult circumstances to favor and assist the solid growth and development of its American territories.” (22) The Spaniards tried to develop the production of wheat, olive, sugar cane, citrus and fruit trees and many other forms of land cultivation. The breeding of animals was introduced and developed, the cow, horse, pig, sheep, goat, and poultry enriched the food supply of the American inhabitants. Silk and cotton production and weaving as well as metal industries were also introduced. “Arts and crafts were taught to the natives. Together with catechism, morals and good behavior, and by way of enjoyment, play and pastime, gardening and farming were taught to Indian children” (23)

We all know that among the different Indian cultures there was a great disparity regarding the development and degree of civilization, while some were still in the stone age, others like the Inca and Aztec empires had reached great splendor and development. The Incas had a highly efficient system of social organization. However, in both Inca and Aztec empires there were a great deal of internal squabbling, despotic regimes and bloody religious rites which made many of the downtrodden tribes turn to the Spaniards in hope of deliverance. Cannibalism and human sacrifices were common practice among most of the Indian tribes. Besides that, we find that slavery was prevalent in America before Columbus' arrival, just as it was the case throughout most of Europe, Africa and Asia from ancient times, although with the arrival of Christianity, slavery had begun to disappear in Europe. Prisoners of war among Christians could not be enslaved. Spain extended this principle to the Indians even for those who would not accept Christianity; however, there were a few exceptions like the valiant Araucans Indians from Chile. In reality we find that it was the Spanish Crown which first introduced laws abolishing Indian slavery in America. Although these laws were frequently violated in the end they nevertheless prevailed.

First steps towards a democratic system in America

As much as possible the Spanish Crown and its agents tried to preserve the laws and the political structures of the Aztec and Inca empires so that the Indians would be ruled by their own laws. The Crown even went so far as to recognize the hereditary rights of the Indian chiefs. In those tribes that did not already have a juridical tradition the laws of Castile applied. In the Indian townships they functioned the same way as in the other kingdoms of Spain. The Indians would choose among themselves the mayor, bailiffs, court clerks, and councilmen, and the royal authorities were strictly forbidden from interfering in any way with the freedom of elections. Not even the “Audiencia”, (tribunal of justice) which was responsible for the education and good treatment of the Indians in spiritual and temporal matters, nor any other law-authorities had the right to ask the members of the “cabildo” (councilmen) to reveal what had been discussed at its meetings. (24) This was the seed of a democratic system.

Spain establishes public education in America 300 years before the English did it in its territories. The Church, protector of the Indians, educator and messenger of the Gospel.

Another legacy that certainly deserves recognition is the educational labor of the Catholic Church, which had the generous financial support of the Spanish Crown. From the start of the colonization they would build a school next to every church and monastery in order to teach the Indians to read and write in Latin, also in their own tongues, and later in Spanish. The missionaries promoted as a common language Nahuatl for the Indians of New Spain, Quechua for those from Peru, and Latin as means of communication among the natives and the Spaniards.

On January 6, 1534, barely 3 years after the conquest of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) by Hernán Cortés, the first institution for the higher education of the Indians was founded, the Holy Cross College in Tlatelolco. This college turned out Indian scholars as finished as the Spanish who gave great service as translators among both cultures. In Hispanic America, three hundred years before public education would reach the United States; a system of schools, colleges, and universities was founded in what would become the first public educational system in the New World wholly supported by the Crown of Spain. Some of these schools had as many as 800 to 1000 students and there one would find the children of the Spaniards and the Indians in the same classrooms. In 1531 there were more than 10,000 Indians students in the schools of New Spain. The first school for girls in the New World was founded in 1548 by the first archbishop of Mexico City, Juan de Zumárraga. Bishop Zumárraga was described as “an apostle, poor, humble, wise, prudent, educated, charitable, a mortal enemy of superstition and tyranny, an indefatigable propagator of the true doctrine of Jesus Christ, a protector of the helpless, a benefactor of the people, materially as well as morally...he founded hospitals, established schools for native boys and girls, and as the editor of many important works for the education of the Indians, he was very liberal minded.” (25)

In contrast, it is necessary to point out that not until 1789 was the first system of public education in United States founded in Boston, and not until 1825 were girls permitted to attend and only up to elementary school level (277 years after Mexico). According to the United States Bureau of Education “in 1800 the average American was receiving no more than 82 days of schooling in his lifetime. Many communities had no schools...The educational situation during the first decades of American national life was wholly chaotic.” (26) In 1865, after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson, a man who had never attended school, became President of United States.

In 1551, Spain founded in Lima, Peru, the first University in America.

The University of San Marcos in Lima was founded in 1551. In 1553, thirty-two years after the conquest, the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico was founded, along with the University of Santo Domingo (one hundred years before Harvard.) The language of the natives had an honored place in its curriculum and Indian professors went on to teach in European universities. (27)

Although we all know that many of the poor and ignorant peasants came from Spain during the conquest, according to American historian Francis C. Kelly: “A surprisingly large proportion of the (Spanish) pioneers of America were college men; and intelligence went hand in hand with heroism in the early settlements of the New World.” (28) (*) Along with the first missionaries many historians arrived, like the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente ("Motilínea) who learned the native languages and tried to chronicle their history, traditions and legends, which until then had been handed down by word of mouth among the Indians for generations. With the exception of the Aztecs who left behind pictographic codicils, and the Mayas who had a hieroglyphic system, most of the Indians had no written language. Nothing escaped the inquisitive and sharp eye of these wise men; the flora, the fauna, the mineralogy and the geography of America broadened their intellectual horizons. Many, upon learning in depth about the native cultures, showed great admiration by leaving behind objective records of their experiences. More than 4 million documents and publications of great historical and scientific value from the 16th to the 19th centuries can be presently found at the “Archives of the Indies in Seville.

Before the middle of the 16th century, bishop Zumárraga brought the first printing press to Mexico, almost at the same time that printing was introduced in Madrid (100 years prior to Boston.) In 1539 they published the “Breve y más Compendiosa Doctrina Cristiana en Lengua Mexicana y Castellana”, the first book edited in America, a catechism in two languages, Nahuatl and Castilian. By 1575 they were publishing books in 12 different native dialects, grammar books and dictionaries of several Indian languages were also published in the Universities of Mexico and Lima, whereas in United States' colonial times, John Eliot's Indian Bible stands alone. (29) In regard to the importance given to science by the Crown of Spain we must take notice of the fact that “a medical school was opened at the University of Mexico 204 years before Harvard, and began the study of anatomy and surgery, with dissection, eighty six years before William Hunter opened the first school of dissection in England.” (30) According to Kelley at the end of the Spanish rule "Mexico was so full of schools and colleges for boys and girls, for handicrafts, trades, and arts of all kinds, as to justify a sweeping statement: Up to that day there never had been a country on the face of the earth that in so short a time had done so much in an educational way. When the circumstances of time and conditions surrounding the effort and the obstacles to be overcome, are considered, history presents no finer record of educational achievement and success.” (31) (*)

Humboldt was also witness to the scientific progress of Hispanic America praising the great accomplishments in the study of Natural Sciences that had being defrayed by the Crown. After visiting Mexico in 1803, Humboldt maintained: “No city of the New Continent, not even excepting those of the United States, can display such great and solid scientific establishments as the capital of Mexico. The capital and several other cities have scientific establishments, which will bear a comparison with those of Europe... Instruction is communicated gratis at the Academy of Fine Arts and hundreds of young students without consideration of rank, color, and race, were confounded; we see the Indian and the Mestizo sitting beside the white, and the son of a poor artisan in emulation with the children of the great lords of the country...No European government has sacrificed greater sums to advance the knowledge of the vegetal kingdom than the Spanish government...All these researches have not only enriched science with more than four thousand of new species of plants, but have also contributed to diffuse a taste for natural history among the inhabitants of the country.” (32) (*)

One must keep in mind that Humboldt was protestant and a liberal minded scientist. For years he traveled throughout the continent and lived among the Indians and missionaries in the Amazon forest and in the farthest corners of the hemisphere leaving behind an invaluable testimonial of the realities of this historical period. Certainly his perceptions differed greatly from the tales of intolerance, brutality, backwardness and mistreatment of the natives that are still commonly portrayed. Unfortunately, this "Black Legend" myth has deformed the historical reality for generations and although it is true that many examples of cruel and abject exploitation did exist, it is also true that it was not the norm nor was it tolerated by the laws of Spain.

Humboldt “found cannibals in the parts of South America where the missionaries had not yet arrived, whereas the Indians who lived in missions he found to be engaged in agriculture and were generally well treated. He noticed that the descendants of the ferocious Caribbeans lived in the missions as peaceable farmers. Many missionaries tried to develop the natural talents of the Indians and Humboldt tells of the surprise of many European travelers in the Orinoco region at finding the natives playing the violin, the violoncello, the triangle, the guitar and the flute. At the mission of Manoa in Rio Negro he adds that the villages were bigger and more beautiful that the ones he had seen in some parts of Europe and was impressed to find a certain air of ease and prosperity that struck him pleasantly.” (33)

The policy of the Spanish Crown and of the missionaries was to try to encourage the growth of the Indian population. It is certainly true that during the first 20 years of the colonization, in some islands of the Caribbean, the brutality of some of the conquistadors and the diseases they brought for which the Indians were not immune, brought about an almost total annihilation of the indigenous population. As a result hospitals were built in order to care for the Europeans and the Indians. They found it necessary to control those deadly diseases that were destroying the population since they did not have the natural defenses against those germs. Smallpox was the most deadly plague. A third to a half of the Amerindians died victim of that terrible disease alone. Diseases common in the New World such as the yellow fever and syphilis, on the other hand, also took a heavy toll on the Europeans who died by the thousands. The battle between the two worlds went all the way to the pathogens’ level.

Spain vaccinates the natives of America and of Philippines against the smallpox

At the beginning of the 19th century Spain set a milestone in medical history for the control of contagious diseases. At the end of the 18th century, English Physician Edward Jenner, developed a vaccine against the smallpox by using the cowpox pathogen as an agent. As Dr. Powell points out, as soon as it was available, “an enlightened Spanish government sponsored very early use of vaccination against smallpox, precisely because the disease was so dangerous to the Indian population.” (34)(*) Along with the gospel, the Spaniards brought the western medical knowledge to America. There was never any attempt of genocide of the Indians on behalf of the Crown, to the contrary. As historian Salvador de Madariaga indicates, “the Spanish Crown constantly reiterated its paramount interest in the natives, this has been a constant feature of the regime, even in its worst days and in the worst governed parts.” (35) (*)

In 1555, a council of the Church of New Spain ordered the construction of hospitals near the church in each village. The hospitals would have to admit not merely the sick but the poor as well even if in good health...No distinction was made between Indians and Spaniards. Some, however, had been founded to meet the special needs of the Indians (there was one in Mexico for Indians not living in the capital who happened to fall ill while there), others catered to certain needs of the Spaniards. Cortés founded one for venereal diseases. Most of these charitable institutions were also used for giving hospitality to travelers and they were comfortable and some even luxurious. (36)

First mental hospital in the Continent is founded in Mexico City.

In 1567 the first mental hospital was founded in Mexico, the “Hospital y Asilo de Convalescientes de San Hipólito.” In Europe there was not a mental hospital that could compare to it with the exception of Spain, which was the pioneer in founding psychiatric hospitals in Europe. France did not have its first mental hospital until 200 years after Mexico and in the United States it was not until 1751 that the first mental hospital was founded in Philadelphia. The founder of St Hipólito's hospital, Bernardino Alvarez, was from Utrera, Andalucía, and he made a great fortune in Peru. After a tumultuous life of sin, he experienced a spiritual enlightenment and turned to a religious life dedicating his fortune to the care of the poor and destitute. In his hospital Spaniards and Indians were treated alike. The building had two stories and took care of as many as 220 patients and remained in use until the beginning of the 20th century. Alvarez also founded hospitals in Puebla, Xalapa, Perote, San Juan de Ulúa, Veracruz, Queretaro, Acapulco, Antequera, Guadalajara, Havana and Guatemala. Later the religious order of San Hipólito was established with the purpose of caring for the sick. By 1690 the first mental hospital in the New World exclusively for women was founded in Mexico, its name was La Canoa. (37)

In 1597 the first hospital opened in what is now the United States in Florida, which at the time was part of the Spanish dominions. In it both Indians and Blacks were treated alike with the Spaniards. “When the nineteenth century opened, there were only three medical schools in the United States, and only two general hospitals. There were at that time at least eight hospitals in the city of Mexico alone. Two of them, the San Andrés and the Hospital Real of Indians, were large. The San Andrés had 400 beds, all endowed, while the Indian Hospital cared for 350 to 400 patients. In a severe epidemic it cared for over 8,000. Humboldt gave the number of beds available as 1,100 in 1803.” (38)

As a result of this, in New Spain, Humboldt mentions: “not only has the number of natives increased for a century, but also New Spain is now more inhabited in 1803 than before the arrival of the Europeans...between 1752 and 1802, in New Spain, the ratio of birth to death stood as 170 to 100, despite a number of torrid-zone plagues; for the cold or temperate part of New Spain the ratio of births to deaths was of 190 and even 200 to 100...The increase of population was simply due, says Humboldt, to an increase in prosperity.” (39)

England and France owned most of the black slaves in America

In regards to the inhumane slave trade of Blacks, historian Salvador de Madariaga affirms: “Words cannot describe the cruelty which stood at the basis of Black slavery in the Indies. The kidnapping of healthy men in Africa and their transportation to the Indies were operations that could only be performed by heartless men. The Spaniards never undertook them. But insofar as they purchased the human goods obtained by such criminal methods, they cannot elude some historical responsibility in the heavy deeds that the English, French, Dutch and Portuguese committed to supply them, as well as themselves, with human beast of burden.

This fact, however, once on record, there is overwhelming evidence, according to Humboldt, to establish another no less important, “that the parts of the New World where the slaves were best treated were precisely those under Spanish's sway. Humboldt bears constant witness to this. His figures show the huge consumption of slaves in the French and English colonies, although they were by far the smallest in territory. Of the 70,000 slaves supplied yearly by the trade, 38,800 went to the British colonies and 20,000 to the French, leaving 11,200 for the much larger Spanish and Portuguese lands. Humboldt points out that all the Spanish colonies, not excluding the Isles of Cuba and Puerto Rico, have between them, over a surface bigger than the whole Europe, a smaller number of Black slaves than the single State of Virginia.” (40)

There was a great contrast between the amount of free Blacks in the Spanish colonies and all the others. “In Virginia, in 1860-1, the Negro or mulatto freemen constituted only 11% of the total population of African origin; in Cuba they constituted 35%.” The main reason for this disparity was that Spain, since Carlos V's times, tried to promote the liberation of the Black slave. According to Humboldt: “Nowhere in the world, wherever slavery is found, is manumission (liberation) as common an occurrence as in the island of Cuba because Spanish Legislation, in sharp contrast with French and English laws, is quite favorable to freedom and neither hinders it nor makes it onerous.” (41) (*)

Contrast between the Spanish laws regarding the black slavery and those of the other European colonies

Humboldt often points out that the Spanish legislation was the most humanae...These laws were always interpreted in favor of freedom. The Government desired to increase the number of freed men. A slave who, by his own industry, has managed to put together some money, can force his master to set him free under payment of the moderate sum of 1,500 to 2,000 francs. Freedom cannot be refused to a Negro under the pretext that he cost three times as much when he was bought, or that he had a special talent for a particular craft. A slave who has been cruelly ill-treated thereby acquires his freedom under the terms of the law...The Spanish law ensures four rights to the slave which all other nations refuse him: to seek a better owner, to whom his previous one is bound to let him go; to marry as he wishes; to buy back his freedom at the lowest market price, or to win it as a reward for good services; to own property and to buy the freedom of his wife and children. Humboldt contrasts this system with the legislation inflicted on the slaves in the French and English possessions.

While the laws of Spain were in every way favorable to manumission, the master, in the non-Spanish Antilles pays to the Treasury five to seven hundred dollars for every slave he frees. And he adds: “What a contrast between the humanity of the oldest Spanish laws concerning slavery and the traces of barbarism one finds at every page in the Code Noir and in some provincial laws of the English Antilles! The laws of the Barbados, laid down in 1688, and those of the Bermudas, dating from 1730, stipulate that the master who kills his slave by malice will pay ten pounds sterling to the Royal Treasury... These observations are confirmed by English travelers. J.B. Moreton published in 1793 his impressions of the English West Indies. All students of the History of the New World should read them. He attested that in Great Britain and Ireland the beasts of the field are better protected by the law than slaves in the West Indies. If a white man or woman barbarously and wantonly attacks a slave, even the property of another, and loops off the ears, nose, or testicles of the same, the only punishment by the law, though the owner of the injured slave prosecute most vigorously, is a fine, perhaps not one fourth the value of the slave.” (42) (*)

“The position of free coloreds in Havana is happier than in any of the nations which, for many centuries, have prided themselves in the advances of civilization (43)(*) Integration through the mix of Europeans, Blacks and Indians were the characteristic of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in contrast to the segregationist attitude that prevailed in the English, French and Dutch colonies.

In comparing the fate of slaves in different countries, the new Encyclopedia Britannica (Macropedia, volume 16, page. 861) points out that: “By way of generalization, it may perhaps be said that slaves fared better in colonies of Catholic and Latin nations than those of Protestant countries Nevertheless, we must point out that the first voice to condemn black slavery in America was that of Quaker William Edmunson. In 1676 Edmunson wrote stating his belief that perpetual slavery was incompatible with Christ's law...However, the history of human rights should hold a special place for the man who apparently was the first one to systematically and unequivocally condemn black slavery in a declaration made in Havana in 1681, Father Francisco José, the fiery Capuchin friar born in Jaca, Aragón. (44) (*)

Thousands of schools, hospitals, hospices, orphanages, mental asylums, and leper colonies throughout Hispanic America were founded under the initiative of the Crown of Spain, the Church and many Spaniards who came to the New World, and once they became wealthy and decided to remain, they donated great amounts of money for the maintenance and upkeep of charitable works that would benefit the people; institutions that were open to everyone, Spaniards, Indians, Mestizos and Blacks.

It is worth pointing out that the Spanish Crown requested provincials, prelates and other religious authorities to instruct the faithful in their sermons, along with advice and confessions of the duties of the citizens to see that whatever sums they bequest for pious foundations were left in the Indies. “Felipe III wrote to the Viceroy of Peru and the Archbishop of Lima asking that they lead the spirit of charity of devout persons so that instead of leaving pious legacies for new convents, they should leave their money for works of public interest, such as education and assistance to orphans and unwed mothers without means, of poor Indians, hospitals and such things. This and other Royal Orders of a similar trend show a special anxiety of the Crown to see that the wealth of the Indies remained in the Indies.” (45)

Professor Lewis Hanke affirms that "No European nation... with the possible exception of Portugal, took her Christian duty toward native people so seriously as did Spain." (46) English scholar, Ronald Syme, maintains “In spite of the handicaps of geography and of distance, Spain was able to hold her wide dominions for three centuries and set upon them indelibly the stamp of her language, thought and institutions. That achievement deserves more honour than it has commonly earned-and a more searching investigation.” (47)

We find the curious paradox that at times, taxes were more onerous in Castile than in Spain's own overseas colonies, and frequently life in America was easier and more prosperous than in the Iberian Peninsula where poverty was quite common. Even the poor in Hispanic America fared better than some of the peasants in Europe... “Lima, Peru, in colonial days had more hospitals than churches and averaged one hospital bed for every 101 persons, a considerably better average than Los Angels (California) has today.” (48)

Spain founded 23 universities in colonial America, something without parallel in the history

Culturally speaking, Spain gave the very best to America. “The Spanish record of some twenty three colleges and universities in America, graduating 150,000 (including the poor, mestizos, and some Negroes) makes, for example, the Dutch in the East Indies at a later and supposedly more enlightened times, look obscurantism indeed. The Portuguese did not establish a single university in colonial Brazil nor in any other overseas possessions. The total of universities established by Belgium, England, Germany, France and Italy during later Afro-Asian colonial periods assuredly suffers by any fair comparison with the pioneering record of Spain.” (49)

The task undertaken by Spain in America was not solely motivated by greed and thirst of power or glory. There were adventurers, conquistadors, exploiters, saints and criminals, but in the most part, the Spaniards who arrived in America, which was then the promised land, were looking for a better life just as it is today for those who want to improve their standard of living and arrive in the United States dreaming of starting a new and better life. Others were moved by religious ideals, for the Crown and many missionaries their main concern was the evangelization of the Indians, and the proof of this is the large quantity of churches, convents, hospitals and schools they left behind. They tried to give the natives the one thing they treasured most, eternal salvation through the teachings of Jesus Christ without forgetting their temporal needs. In doing so many gave their life into martyrdom.

Carlos Fuentes, the celebrated Mexican author lamented in a recent trip to Houston, that after the independence we have not been able to find voices raised in favor of the Indian cause that would match the fervor of Father Bartolomé de Las Casas. Amazingly, even today, 500 years later and almost at the beginning of the XXI century, the North American Indians find in the teaching of Las Casas the moral support they need for their just claims. Such is the legacy left behind by this courageous priest from Seville!

In Hispanic America flourished a sophisticated European culture since the very beginning of the conquest.

According to Dr. Powell, “the American students find it disconcerting when they learn that in the Spanish American lands of Catholicism and Inquisition, a sophisticated European culture flourished, almost from the moment of the Conquest itself. This included everything from complex municipal and regional government, vast projects for Christianizing (i.e. Europeanization), and protection of even the most savage aborigines, to encouragement and successful establishment of all kinds of schools and universities, hospitals, and the production of scholars and a very respectable literature-a far more exciting and plentiful literature, by the way, than colonial English-America produced. This is to say nothing of economic and commercial activities on the grand scale. Students are invariable surprised to learn that, for all its weakness, the general system and aim was that of ‘ennoblement’ (ennoblecer) rather than destruction.” (50) (*)

In 1944 the “Black Legend” and related errors in our educational system, were exposed in a Report of the American Council on Education. It denounced the racial prejudices, bigotry and ignorance that characterizes the way the Spanish conquest and colonization of America is treated in most of the history books used in our schools. The ACE's report ends its discussion of high school texts with this warning: “The usual and vicious misapprehensions concerning the heinous character of the Spanish conquest should be diligently guarded against... Guard against the effects of the ‘Black Legend’.” (51)

More than five decades have gone by and nothing or little had been done to correct it. It is about time to give justice and put an end to the distortions and historical manipulations that, in the words of historian Julían Juderías, “systematically ignore of whatever is favorable and worthy of honor in the various manifestations of culture and art; the accusations which are always being launched against Spain, based upon happenings which are exaggerated, badly interpreted, or false in entirety.” (52) (*) It is of foremost fairness to recognize the value of Spain's legacy in America. Dr. Powell “rightfully urges our acknowledged experts and scholars in all matters Hispanic should conduct a much more thorough assessment than heretofore of our errors or, perhaps worse yet, the partial truths, in our education about Hispanic peoples and countries. All that is required, and all that should be demanded, is accuracy of facts, elimination of invidiously erroneous comparisons, and sophisticated historical perspectives.” (53) (*)

The legacy of Spain in America should be commemorated with pride. As a result of this encounter a new race was born along with a totally new world. There were great accomplishments in art and architecture in America before the European arrival. To the trunk of these great indigenous cultures Spain grafted the western civilization, which was already the fruit of multiple grafts. From the artistic hands of Spaniards, Indians, Mestizos and Blacks, great achievements were made like the Cuzco School of Painters, and all the rich indo-baroque art that bedecks churches and cathedrals throughout the American Continent.

The Spaniards, astonished by the paradisiacal beauty of America had to learn an infinite amount of new things that were unknown to them before and, as Adam, they had to put name to everything. Hundreds of indigenous words came to form part of the Spanish language. There was a cultural renaissance that was influential in what would come to be known as the "Golden Century of Spanish Literature." Many great Mestizo writers enriched the language, among them the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was a precursor of the human rights for women in America. There were scientists like Celestino Mutis who came to America as a physician and was so fascinated by the flora that he became the most famous botanist of his century. In conclusion, as a result of the encounters of these cultures there remains in Hispanic America a legacy which encompasses architecture, literature, linguistics, music, art and science that has no paragon in the history of non Hispanic America.

The Hispanic world should commemorate the year 1992 full of pride of their heritage since they are heirs to a rich bi-millennium humanistic and cultural legacy. They can show the world the transcendental contribution made by the Iberian-Indian-African-American people to universal culture.

Houston, February, 1992 On the 500th Anniversary of the Encounter of Two Worlds


Fr. José de Acosta, S.J.: “The Procuranda Indorum Salute, Pacificación y Colonización.” Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, (CSIC) Madrid 1984

Lewis Hanke: “The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America.” University of Philadelphia Press, 1949.

Institute of Hispanic Culture: “A Hispanic Look at the Bicentennial,”
Most Rev. Francis C. Kelly: “Blood Drenched Altars,” TAN Books, 1935, Rockford, IL.

José Ignacio Lasaga: “Vidas Cubanas” volume I, Editorial Revista Ideal, II volumes Miami, 1984. Edición bilingüe.

Bartolomé de Las Casas: “De Regia Potestae”, CSIC, Madrid 1984

Salvador de Madariaga: “The Rise of the Spanish American Empire.” The Free Press, N.Y. 1947

Philip Wayne Powell: “The Tree of Hate.” Books, Vallecito, CA, 1985

William H. Prescott: “The Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic.” Hooper Clarke, Chicago

“Francisco de Vitoria y la Escuela de Salamanca”, CSIC, Madrid, 1984

William T. Walsh: “Isabella of Spain”, TAN Books, Rockford, Illinois


(*) (Emphasis added)
(1) Philip W. Powell, “The Tree of Hate p. 23
(2) Ibid., p.p. 16, 17
(3) Salvador de Madariaga, “The Rise of the Spanish America Empire” p.12
(4) José I. Lasaga, “Vidas Cubanas” p.18
(5) Ibid., p.p. 21, 24
(6) Lasaga, p.p. 24, 25
(7) Madariaga, p.p. 13, 14
(8) Powell, p. 30
(9) Madariaga, p. 13
(10) Ibid., p.19
(11) Francis C. Kelly, Bishop of Tulsa, “Blood Drenched Altars” p.p. 62, 63
(12) Madariaga, p.p. 259,260
(13) Ibid., p.23
(14) Ibid., p.p. 261, 262
(15) Powell, p.16
(16) Madariaga, p.98
(17) Ibid., p. 26
(18) Ibid., p. 102
(19) Ibid., p.p. 89, 90
(20) Powell, p. 23
(21) Madariaga, p.p. 262-264
(22) Kelly, p.60
(23) Madariaga, p.60
(24) Madariaga, p.p. 46, 47, 49
(25) Kelly, p. p. 80-90
(26) Ibid. p. 95
(27) Ibid., p.p. 86, 87
(28) Ibid., p. 394
(29) Madariaga, p. 39
(30) Ibid., p.p. 100, 101
(32) Ibid., p.p. 93, 94
(33) Madariaga, p.p. 249, 252
(34) Powell, p. 143
(35) Madariaga, p.92
(36) Ibid., p. 52
(37) Ruben D. Rumbaut, M.D.,“Bernardino Alvarez, New World Psychiatric Pioneer,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 127 (March 9, 1971), p. 1219
(38) Kelly, p.p. 394-398
(39) Madariaga, p.p. 258, 259
(40) Ibid., p.241
(41) Lasaga, p. 82
(42) Madariaga, p.p. 243, 246
(43) Lasaga, p.82
(44) Ibid., p.p. 92, 93
(45) Madariaga, p. 59
(46) Powell, p. 17
(47) Ibid., p.p. 23, 24
(48) Ibid., p.p. 24, 25
(49) Ibid., p. 25
(50) Ibid., p. 132
(51) Ibid., p.p. 133-136
(52) Ibid., p. 11
(53) Ibid., p.p. 163, 165

Source: Myth and Reality: The Legacy of Spain in America [Free Republic]