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  • Images of Barbaric Spain in Eighteenth-Century British Travel Writing
  • Ana Hontanilla (bio)

Europe has traditionally been studied as a political, economic and cultural unity that historically developed in connection with the ideas of Christianity, civilization, and empire. After the New World was "discovered," Europe's imperial and civilizing mission was no longer contained within its western boundaries but also occurred within an expanded sense of geography. This is to say that the status of civilized and civilizing Europe was not defined solely from within its geographical limits but also in contrast to its colonial world. Much of the work of describing the discovery, interpreting the exploration, and articulating the connection of the newly-found territories to the motherland in Europe was done through the writings of explorers, ambassadors, soldiers, adventurers, and missionaries. The recovery and analysis of these various kinds of travelers' narratives about foreign and exotic places where they went and lived have brought a new perspective to our understanding of the historical development of the imperialized world.1

Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Spanish explorers and conquistadors in America predominantly produced the colonial discourse. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the imperial discourse was for the most part a British and French production, not only in America but [End Page 119] in Africa, Asia, and even Europe as well. In the process of examining the rise of British and French imperialism during the eighteenth century, it is crucial to acknowledge these nations' reaction to the 'Other' beyond their shores. But it is also of prime importance to investigate how they constructed the European 'other.' As Katherine Turner has argued, postcolonial studies that assume an undifferentiated European imperial center during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries presuppose homogeneity among European nations, which in practice did not exist.2 Enlightened notions of civilization and culture served to delineate the division between civil society and barbarism, between Europe and the rest of the world. However, the Enlightenment served to demarcate new ideological borders that not only operated in the overseas colonial world but also within the boundaries of Europe itself. Therefore, the initially uniform picture of imperial Europe or the assumption that modern Europeans defined themselves as a single people breaks down in the context of describing the literature of inter-European tourism, most visibly, perhaps, in British travel writing concerning Spain.

In the following essay, I limit my exploration of British travel writing to accounts regarding Spain during the eighteenth century. I study how these narratives produced and disseminated a perception of Spain as an uncivilized and barbaric country, ruling it out as a member of "Enlightened Europe." Spaniards' religious practices were generally tied in with ancient paganism and therefore the population was commonly perceived by foreign visitors as pagan and primitive. In addition, the Spanish Inquisition provided the travelers with a dangerous, threatening ethos that promptly resolved any doubts of whether or not Spain was an enlightened civilized country. The seemingly outdated commercial and political institutions of Spain also contributed, in the minds of British explorers, to the formation of a nearly enslaved population in need of liberation from the tyranny of governmental tax control and its subsequent state of poverty. The local inhabitants too closely resembled the Indian or African savages and exhibited a state of personal and cultural corruption, as well as an economic dependence only potentially alleviated by adopting British institutions.

A postcolonial analysis of British inter-European travel accounts shows how differential forms of religious, political, scientific, economic, and social progress in eighteenth-century Spain highlighted discrepancies in the stage of the same civilizing path that all European societies should attain.3 As the idea of civilization emphasized the movement towards political, economic, and scientific progress, demanding an accumulation of spiritual, technical, economic, and political values in the evolution of a nation, not all countries, and particularly not the Iberian countries, matched up with eighteenth-century [End Page 120] British standards of commercial and political reforms. Therefore, the location of Spain as a civilized country became extremely problematic.

By referring to Spain's dramatic change of status from imperial power to a culturally-regressive and economically-dependent land, I do not intend to insinuate...


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