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Why My Book About Spain Upset the Spanish

Outraged Spanish conservatives have turned against an historian for daring to question the idea that bravery, patriotism and belief in a Christian god were the key values of the Conquistadores who created Spain's new world empire. The historian, Henry Kamen, has been accused of "rubbishing the history of Spain" and "destroying the foundations of the Spanish empire", in his book, Empire. How Spain became a world power (HarperCollins, 2003). There has even been talk among those most upset by the attack on such national icons as conquistadores Hernán Cortes and Francisco Pizarro of settling Spain's wounded honour with an old-fashioned duel.-- Guardian (March 17, 2003)

So what's all this about?

In principle, the controversy has been limited to the pages of the conservative daily newspaper ABC, some of whose readers and journalists were shocked that anyone should question the accepted, school-taught Spanish view of the New World conquest as an epic tale of organized empire-building carried out by brave, loyal Spaniards for the greater glory of their country and monarchs. The strongest reaction came from members of the conservative Royal Academy of History, an august body staffed mainly by aging nobles and generals, with a sprinkling of retired academics. One of the academics, Luis Suárez Fernández, fumed that Kamen's "theses are false. He is just trying to grab attention. We have the misfortune that foreigners write our history for us." Another, who refused to let his name be published, commented that the foreigners "attempt to write our history, which we do much better here." A former director of the Academy complained: "the worst thing is the morbid passion, the history that defames."

The entertaining aspect of these criticisms, at least from the author's point of view, was that none of the critics had read the book, which was published only the day before. Luis Suárez admitted that he had not even seen the book, but was relying on press reports for his opinion. Several letters written to the editor of ABC similarly relied on press reports. "Most of what he says is distortion and twisted interpretation," complained one. "In other times this would have led to a duel."

Reviews by some university professors were frankly skeptical of the book's value, principally because they had not had time to read it or digest its contents. A full-page review published in the cultural pages of the same right-wing newspaper by a university professor, Ricardo García Cárcel, hinted that the author was way out on his own in his views, and that he was trying to revive the "black legend," a tag used by Spaniards to refer to anything that criticizes aspects of their society. Another university professor, Luis Ribot of the University of Valladolid, was concerned about the bibliography. In his review in a weekly journal, he pointed out that the book had many serious "weaknesses," notably "the use of an abundance of studies written in English, and the limited use of studies in Italian and Portuguese."

The criticisms levelled against the book have in general two main characteristics. First, they are frankly xenophobic, in the defensive way that, for example, Soviet official historians always reacted toward non-Soviet history. García Cárcel, in a recent article in the Spanish popular history magazine Clio, asked himself: "What have foreign historians contributed to our history?" and came up with the answer that one should not accept "European dogmas." There continues to be continuous distrust of foreign scholars, whom Spaniards like to fit into neat ideological categories before they decide whether to read their books. Undiluted nationalism, but above all "Castilian" (rather than "Spanish") nationalism, is the keynote. Second, the criticisms rely on several centuries of legend-making about the achievements of Spain.

Before going any further one should summarize some of the arguments of the book, in order to explain the reaction. The following lines are taken from the preface:

The first main conclusion is fundamental: we are accustomed to the idea that Spain created its empire, but it is more useful to work with the idea that the empire created Spain. At the outset of our historical period "Spain" did not exist, it had not formed politically or economically, nor did its component cultures have the resources for expansion. The collaboration of the peoples of the peninsula in the task of empire, however, gave them a common cause that brought them together and enhanced, however imperfectly, peninsular unity.

The second conclusion is equally important: the empire was made possible not by Spain alone, but by the combined resources of the western European and Asian nations, who participated fully and legally in an enterprise that is normally thought of, even by professional historians, as being "Spanish". This book therefore attempts to deconstruct the role of Spain, in order to understand who really contributed to what. The creators of empire, as presented here, were not only the conquerors from Spain. They were also the selfsame conquered populations, the immigrants, the women, the deportees, the rejected. Nor were they only the Spaniards: they were also the Italians, the Belgians, the Germans, and the Chinese. Many Spaniards preferred and still prefer to consider the empire as a unique achievement of their own; these pages offer material towards an alternative view.

This presentation can be highly distasteful to those Spaniards, and above all to those historians, who adopt the existence of Spain as fundamental, and who see its achievements as equally so. "Kamen fails to see," ABC thundered, "that what Spain gave to the world was its culture." The argument of the book has been, by contrast, accepted with alacrity in the nationalist regions of the peninsula, which have always questioned the hegemony of "Spain." "Kamen takes Spain down a peg," went a headline in Catalonia's newspaper Vanguardia. It seems that in Spain history is still a vibrant ideological issue.

The battle over the legends of the past can be particularly painful to those steeped in the traditional picture. At a lecture I gave to an audience of seven hundred in the city of Bilbao, an elderly gentleman objected that my statistics, which explained that most Spanish soldiers and generals in the age of empire were not Spanish, could not be true, and he would prove it by citing the names of Spain's great generals. He then went on to cite the three that he knew. At this point an impatient member of the public rose to his feet and pointed out to the gentleman that the three he had cited were, as it happened, two Italians and one German. The incident illustrates the frustration and anger of those who do not wish to accept the book's arguments. Another gentleman confessed that he could not rebut the statement that tens of thousands of Mexicans had helped Hernán Cortés to triumph over the Aztecs, but surely (he said) that fact reinforced the role of destiny, since only a divine miracle could explain Cortés's success in obtaining the aid of so many Indians. Evidently, as a last resort many traditionalists prefer to believe that Spain's success as an imperial power must be stated in terms of miracles, and not through the process of historical explanation.

The controversy has obviously helped the book's sales in Spain. Within one week of publication it had reached position number five in the top ten best-selling non-fiction titles. This is unprecedented for a volume of 700 pages that is fully backed by footnote references and bibliography (with deficiencies, of course, in the number of Italian and Portuguese works cited). The book, satisfactorily for the author, is also doing very well in the USA, where it features as a main selection of the History Book Club, and has been well received, notably with a major review in the Wall Street Journal.