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Art As Propaganda

March 2023
4min read

The Black Legend

The Spaniards [wrote Las Casas of the scene above] were no sooner arriv’d in the Isle of Cuba , but this Cacyque [chief] who knew ’em too well, … resolv’d to defend himself … but he unfortunately fell into their Hands [and] was burn’d alive. While he was in the midst of the Flames, tied to a Stake, a certain Franciscan Frier of great Piety and Vertue, took upon him to speak to him of God and our Religion … [The Cacyque ] ask’d the Frier whether the Gate of Heaven was open to the spaniards; and being answer’d that of ’em as were good men might hope for entrance there: The Cacyque , without any father deliberation, told him, he had no mind to go to Heaven, for fear of meeting with such cruel and wicked Company as they were; but would much rather go to Hell…

MEXICO : [The Spaniards] afterwards went to Mexico , where King Monteçuma accompanied with his Nobles receiv’d ’em … being carried upon a Golden Frame, or Chair of State, and conducted ’em to the Palace that was provided for ’em. But the same day they seiz’d this unfortunate Prince …

All the Nobility of the City was engag’d in representing Plays and Shows, and in dancing round the place where their King was imprison’d, to allay the Troubles of his Mind during his Captivity; in these Plays they expos’d to view all their Riches and Magnificence. … there were about the Palace two thousand young Men that were the very flower of the whole Kingdom, and the Pride and Glory of the Court of King Monteçuma: While they were thus engag’d, the Commander of the Spaniards with one of his Troops came to fall upon ’em. … Accordingly they fell upon ’em, pronouncing the word St. James , which was the Signal for massacring these poor naked Indians … and not so much as one of ’em escap’d.

HISPANIOLA : They erected a small Scaffold, supported with Forks and Poles, uj)on which to execute their Chiefs, and those of the most considerable quality among ’em. When they had laid ’em at length upon this Scaffold, they kindled a gentle Fire, to make ’em feel themselves die gradually, till the poor Wretches after the most excjuisite Pain and Anguish, attended with horrible Screeches and Outcries, at length expir’d. I one day saw four or five Persons of the highest Rank in this Island burn’d after this manner.

HISPANIOLA : They cut off the Hands of those they sav’d alive, and sent ’em away in that miserable condition, bidding ’em carry the News of their Calamities to those that were retir’d into the Mountains to escape the Spaniards .

One day the Governor of the Island, accompanied with 60 Horse and 300 Foot, sends a Summons to about 300 of the greatest Lords of the Country to attend his Person. … The Indian Nobles, not at all suspecting any treacherous Design, were by the Governor’s Order brought into a House cover’d with Straw, which he commanded to be set on fire, where they perish’d miserably. Those of ’em who attempted to escape were pursued by the Spanish Troopers, and kill’d without Mercy. … This same Governor caus’d Queen Anacaona … to be hang’d, that he might disgrace the Memory of that Princess as much as he could by so ignominious a Death.

MEXICO : In the flourishing and famous City of Cholula … [the Spaniards] demanded 6000 Indians of ’em to carry their Baggage, their Utensils and Provisions: When they were come, they shut ’em up in divers Yards, and ’twas a miserable Spectacle to see the poor Wretches prepare to carry the Burdens they were to lay upon ’em. They were almost stark naked, and stoop’d down prostrating themselves upon the Ground, submitting like Sheep to the Blows … these Tyrants gave ’em.

Spain’s Infamy Spreads

The pictures on these two pages dramatically show how, as time passed, the Black Legend grew. The French water color of 1582 above, from the same series as those on the three preceding pages, depicts an unusually inhuman torture scene on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti). In 1598, the famous Flemish engraver Theodore de Bry used these drawings as models to illustrate a Latin edition (far left above, and opposite page) of Las Casas’ Very Brief Account. A close approximation of De Bry’s engraving appeared in another French edition (center), this one published in 1620. Nearly three centuries afterward, the legend was still very mucli alive—at the service of a new enemy of Spain. The date of the title page above is 1898, at the height of the Spanish-American War. The New York publisher translated the 1620 French text and quite obviously, as his caption suggests, had the same torture scene in mind. But his propaganda technique was subtler: he iuithheld the plate because, he claimed, it was “too horrible to print.”

Stern But Just: Another View

During Spain’s colonial regime, as in the bloody years of conquest, the conflict between ideals and reality continued. The rare pictures on these two pages, details from a manuscript probably prepared by Mexican Indians in 1565, are uniquely valuable because they show this conflict from the inside. The manuscript originated during a residencia, the investigation conducted upon the death or retirement of a viceroy so that the King could assure himself that his legates were not only loyal and honest, but also that they were not mistreating the natives under their care. The official u’hose administration—was under scrutiny here was Luis de Velasco, second Viceroy of New Spain, who had died in office the year before. He was evidently a humane man: he had freed 150,000 male Indian slaves. Above he is seen appointing Indians to minor posts as justices and constables; he is discoursing with one of them in the picture below. Even under such an administration, however, injustices could lake place, and the victims were allowed to state their grievances. The Indian drawings on the opposite page show Dr. Vasco de Puga of the royal audiencia— a court iuhich also exercised administrative functions—misappropriating the services of native constables and punishing them severely for minor infractions. The two unfortunates at top left were dilatory in bringing a wet nurse to the palace; the one at right had refused to deliver fodder for de Puga’s horses. At center both de Puga and his wife belabor another constable for bringing them inferior fruit. The Indian at lower left is carrying adobe bricks for a wall around the Spaniard’s vegetable garden, and those at lower right are in trouble because the wet nurse, when she arrived, did not have good milk. It is revealing that—possibly as a result of Las Casas’ protests—Spain encouraged such complaints from below.

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