- Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires
This collection offers a sustained engagement with race in the Renaissance using the lens of the Black Legend —the twentieth-century neologism coined to protest widespread perception of colonial Spain's "unique brutality" in conquering the New World (1). As a whole, its essays propose that the distinctness of European colonialism and capitalism derives in large measure from "the drastic qualitative shift in the sixteenth century (which in the eighteenth century was universalized as race and racism)" (2), a shift integral to "the commodification of labour" (3) that attended Western expansion in the Americas. [End Page 1289]
A number of contributors play on a (racialized) logic of double difference, which the introduction traces back to Las Casas. As has been noted, Las Casas's condemnation of Spanish colonial brutality also unquestioningly presumes the "transparency and universality" (119) of Spain's religious and cultural values. While generalizing this constitutive opposition vis-à-vis their own colonial possessions, the second Northern European wave used Las Casas's critique to project an intra-European imperial difference, differentiating their regimes from Spain's. Lomano's fine essay deploys this pattern with exemplary care: tracing the vicissitudes of a single event across three centuries, he shows how the different narrations of Pizarro's 1532 capture of the Inca Atahualpa dynamically construct national-imperial identities and differences in response to changing complex of "values, epistemologies, and political projects." Fuchs, e.g., asserts that the ostensibly pervasive persistence of an exoticised fascination with Moorishness, even during the Reconquista, is turned by other Europeans nations into a pejorative characterization of Spain as itself Moorish. Silverblatt in turn claims to see in the organizational practices of the Inquisition the roots of modernity, anticipating Spain's position "in the vanguard of the modern world, installing cutting-edge bureaucracies and race-thinking designs" (100), even as "British propagandists" treat the Inquisition as "Spain's most glaring affront to the standards of civilization" (99). Such propagandist bent is further exposed in Campos's and Bradley's essays on the strategic and compensatory double standards operative in a range of English texts. In a turn on this pattern, Gravatt suggests De Bry's texts and images reveal less a strategic Protestant attack on Spanish Catholic colonization than a broader self-reflection upon human failings shared by Spaniards, Northern Europeans, and New World inhabitants alike. In another variation, Nocentelli argues that the Dutch Linschoten's Itinerario produces an alternative Portuguese "Black Legend," attributing to Portugal not so much colonial brutality as a racial inferiority, a degeneration which results from its practices of marrying natives.
Structuring this compilation around revising the Black Legend has the virtue of lending it greater coherence than is usually the case. However, the Hispanocentrism leads to a degree of monotony in argumentation and approach. More uncomfortably, and against the contributors' intents, this volume sometimes comes close to mitigating Spanish colonial practices on the dubious grounds that others were just as bad. This may be so, though I remain uncertain about the criteria whereby we decide which colonial regimes were more brutal. The implication is most startling in Silvermoon and Ennis's otherwise fascinating reconstruction of the "perseverance" (150) of the Nahua, as a consequence of a modular, adaptable social organization that allowed them "to imagine and understand" themselves "within the larger colonial and global order" (165). This celebration of resilience is oddly framed by their claim that "the destruction of indigenous cultures does not necessarily result from Spanish colonialism," surviving "despite the brutality of European colonialism." But showing that, far from being unique, Spain was "merely" the first European power "to carve [out] an empire in the New World" (1) requires more attention to economics and body counts, to material practices, [End Page 1290] than Rereading affords, given its focus on the politics of representation —rather than...