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Spanish Empire Study Program

Overview     Reading     Study Aids     Black Legend    

The Spanish Empire Study Program covers the History of Spain from the Visigoth era, through the Reconquista to the Bourbon dynasty. It also features stories from the age of Exploration and the revolutionary eras of Mexico and South America. In depth biographies of early explorers and adventurers in the New World are highlights of this collection. The Spanish Empire study program includes:

Note: Most histories of Spain produced for English students are written from a viewpoint that is biased against traditional Spanish institutions. An explanation of the Black Legend and its effects on Spanish history is given at the end of this page.

Why Study the Spanish Empire

Much of the history of Spain is glorious and the story of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire is one of the most fascinating episodes in world history. During the late Middle Ages Spain was a great power in Europe and its empire was the largest in the World. Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered the New World and established sea-routes to Asia and their stories are among the most dramatic and consequential in world History.

The history of Christian Spain was deeply influenced by centuries of conflict with the Moslem Moors who occupied parts of the Peninsula for over 700 years. Spanish Christians fought relentlessly to reclaim their land from a hostile power, and their long struggle hardened the Spaniards into bold but chivalrous warriors with a fierce loyalty to the Church.

The Spanish and Portuguese proved themselves not only the most courageous warriors in Europe during the Middle Ages but also the best sailors. The tremendous advances in ship-building and navigation that led to the discovery of America and the opening of trade routes to Asia are mostly attributed to Iberians.

Spaniard adventurers and missionaries settled and civilized much of the New World in only a few generations. There were unquestionably cruel abuses and exploitation of natives but neither the King of Spain or the Church condoned their mistreatment and both took measures to assure that the indigenous population would be protected rather than enslaved. But good intentions could not prevail in such a remote land, and the first Viceroy who attempted to enforce "New Laws" to protect the natives was murdered. Nevertheless, the Catholic religious orders did Christianize many of the natives, and there was much intermarriage from the earliest generations of Spanish rule.

The fortunes of the Spanish Empire declined by the 18th century, partly due to the growing influence of British sea-power, and partly due to misrule by the Spanish Bourbons. The wealth of the Americas was siphoned off to corrupt trading monopolies and scarcely benefitted Spaniards in either Spain or Latin America. Yet the proud Spanish still preferred their traditional way of life to revolution and 'liberal' institutions. Spanish patriots were more effective in resisting Napoleon than any other country in Europe, and the continued their quixotic fight for Christian monarchy over Republican oligarchs well into the 20th century.

Spain is a fascinating country that is not well known or well understood by most English speaking students. This is unfortunate and it is hoped that the Spanish Empire study program can help introduce a new generation to the best traditions of Spain.

Reading Recommendations

The following links provide information about reading options for Spain and Latin America. Details about the 'core' reading recommendations are listed below.

Spanish History—The first five divisions of the Spanish Empire program cover the history of the Iberian Peninsula from Roman times to the 19th century. These two comprehensive histories cover the essentials of the history of Spain.

Spanish Exploration—The sixth unit focuses on early Spanish explorers of the New World. This is one of the most interesting, but under-studied periods of world history. Fortunately the Spanish Empire Library features two outstanding series that cover the voyages of such heroes as Columbus, Balboa, De Soto, and Magellan. These series, which cover many of the greatest adventure stories ever told, were written by Frederick Ober and George Towle. The two series together include over sixteen titles. Among our favorites are:

Unfortunatly, the Ober and Towle series are for advanced readers. For those students who don't have time to immerse themselves in the subject, the following books cover most famous New World explorers at a good introductory level.

Latin America—The final two divisions focus on the Histories of Mexico and South America, with an emphasis on the age of Revolution in the early 19th century. Keeping in mind the biases associated with the Black Legend these books give a good overview of events.

Advanced Students—In Addition to the histories listed above, the Spanish Empire Library includes some excellent books of general interest. Four of our favorites are listed below, but there are many more.

Study Aids

Study Aids are provided to help students review important characters and events. Some resources relate to the entire program and others to specific historical eras.

Historical Maps Outline Maps
Timeline Major Characters
Wars and Battles Era Summaries

Study Aids organized by Historical Era

English Bias and the Black Legend

In spite of the historic achievements of the Spaniards, many histories of Spain, especially those written in English, suffer from anti-Spanish or anti-Catholic biases and distortions. From the age of the Reformation, the interests of Spain were largely in conflict with those of the rulers of England so when entrusted to the pens of Anglo-Saxons, the story of Spain and its dominions does not fare well. According to Wikipedia, the "Black Legend" refers to:

"A style of historical writing that demonizes the Spanish Empire in a politically motivated attempt to morally disqualify Spain and its people, and to incite animosity against Spanish rule. The Black Legend particularly exaggerates the treatment of the indigenous subjects in the territories of the Spanish Empire and non-Catholics in its European territories."

This summarizes the tone of much English historical writing on the subject of Spain and Latin America. The anti-Spanish bias is evident when covering topics such as the Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition, but at least it is fairly obvious. It more subtle and therefore more misleading it is bias in favor of liberal Republican government over traditional monarchy. The Revolutionary governments imposed on Spaniards in both Latin American and Spain were exceedingly corrupt and deeply unpopular, and were authoritarian rather than democratic. Yet in most Spanish histories, the overthrow of the legitimate government and confiscation of Church and common property is hailed as 'liberation'. The corrupt secret societies and oligarchies behind 'revolutionary' movements are never disclosed and the motives of 'patriots' are never questioned.

The Protestant Reformation occurred in England at a time when the forces opposed to the Catholic Church were nationalistic, but still strongly Christian. The leaders of Protestant Britain, therefore promoted ideals of political and religious liberty. The forces opposed to the Catholic Church in the 19th century, however, were atheistic and in virtually all cases controlled by secret societies and criminal cabals. In truth, most of the 'Liberal Republicans' in Spanish dominions sought only to plunder the Church, and cared nothing for 'religious liberty'.

It is difficult for liberty-loving Anglo-Saxons, committed to religious freedom and constitutional, republican forms of government, to see the problems of undermining a traditional Christian monarchy with an atheistic regime controlled by secret societies and criminal elements. So English writers tend to support the fine words and liberal promises of Spanish republicans in spite of centuries of horrid corruption and abuse. When reading stories of the liberal 'Patriots' of 19th century Spain and Latin America, keep these distortions in mind.