The right wing reinterprets the history of the conquest of America

PP leaders have dedicated themselves to extolling the epic of the deed, but have ignored its shadows

4 min
Illustration representing the arrival of Cristòfor Colom in America.

MadridIn 1892, 400 years after Christopher Columbus set foot in America, it was the first time that 12 October was marked on the calendar as Spain's national holiday. The choice was consolidated with the restoration of democracy, after during Franco's regime this holiday had been put on the back burner because the regime had promoted the date of 18 July. The decree law of 1987 justified the 12 October choice due to the fact that it "symbolises the historical event" in which Spain "begins a period of linguistic and cultural projection beyond the European borders". The colonisation of the American continent marked a before and after in the history of humanity but, like all historical events, it has its lights and shadows.

Over the years, the debate on whether to apologise for the dark parts of history has opened up, and there are many examples of countries that have made public acts of constriction, such as France with Algeria or the United Kingdom for the war in Iraq. In Spain, however, the Spanish right, and specifically the PP, have chosen to turn the refusal to apologise into a political battle, and have gone so far as to rewrite history. A dynamic that has been exacerbated in recent weeks after the Popular Party has reacted airily to the fact that Pope Francis asked Mexico for forgiveness for the sins committed during the country's evangelisation.

The president of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, began by criticising Pope Francis' pardon of Mexico, and different popular leaders were added to it, such as the president of the party himself, Pablo Casado. They thus resurrected a debate that is not new. Two years ago, the same Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, asked King Felipe VI to apologise to his country for the conquest of America. So far he has been unsuccessful. Spain has only apologised to the Sephardic Jewish community for having expelled it from the peninsula during the 15th century.

For the PP, the Pope's letter of apology to López Obrador is a mistake, while for the Mexican president the attitude of the conservatives shows his endorsement of what he considers an "indigenous genocide". Various popular leaders have taken pride during recent days in Spain's colonial past and have sweetened a conquest in which excesses and atrocities were also committed. "There is no empire building without violence and there is no colonisation without violence", says Josep Maria Fradera, professor of modern and contemporary history at Pompeu Fabra University.

No trace of violence

The violence with which the Castilian colonisers treated the indigenous communities is precisely one of the elements that the PP has ignored in recent weeks. Former Spanish President José María Aznar spoke of "chiaroscuros" and "successes and mistakes" in the conquest of America, but went on to say that, despite everything, he was "proud" of this feat. One of these chiaroscuros has for years been the mortality that occurred on the American continent after the arrival of the Europeans - Spaniards, but also the English and Portuguese.

According to Javier Laviña, professor emeritus of American history at the University of Barcelona, the upward trend that has studied this question speaks of a loss of between 85% and 90% of the indigenous population out of the 100 million people that these same studies estimate to have lived there - other trends, on the other hand, estimate the number of inhabitants of the continent at between 10 and 40 million.

Most of this mortality was due to epidemics, such as measles or smallpox, which were imported by Europeans - the American populations lived in a situation of isolation in relation to the Eurasian ones, Fradera recalls. Added to this was the violence exercised on the native communities, although, according to Fradera, it was unequal in the different territories of the continent and had less impact on total mortality than epidemics. Laviña adds the slave trade as another factor that increased mortality. He recalls that, for instance, 20% died during the crossing to the Peninsula. For all these reasons, the historian speaks of "ethnocide".

However, the way the colonisers acted when they arrived in the so-called "new world" was questioned a few years later by Castile. "There were doubts about the morality of what was being done by the church and the Crown. Neither wanted to lose Christians nor subjects", says Fradera. Laviña agrees, recalling that in 1512-1513 the laws of Burgos and Valladolid were promoted, which put limits on the excesses of the colonisers in relation to slavery, for example.

The original communities

Although all historians speak of conquest, for the Director of the Office of the Spanish Language in Madrid, Toni Cantó, one should speak of "liberation" of the original communities because they were subjected to a "savage and cannibalistic" power, he said last week. "It's all much more complex, this is simplification and supine ignorance", counters historian Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz

There were differences between the people who lived on the coast, for example, and those who lived in great empires like the Aztecs. However, from a social and economic point of view, the level of organisation was similar to that of Castile in many cases, says Laviña. They differed at the technological level, since the indigenous communities were not as developed. The cannibalism that Cantó spoke of was a "ritual" cannibalism, amends the historian. That is, they did not eat their neighbours, but after wars, for instance, they made offerings to the gods and the priests bit the liver and the heart of the enemy.

For the PP, however, it was positive that the continent was evangelised. Casado assured that the current leaders of Latin America would have to thank Spain for their arrival and Ayuso even said that "Catholicism brought civilization to America". "What civilization?" asks Sánchez-Albornoz, who recalls that it was in the 16th century when the violent wars between Catholics and Protestants also took place. "A new religion was introduced to supplant the previous ones and caused a moral, intellectual and emotional clash", adds the historian. In fact, there have been clergymen who have censured the "abuses" of colonisation, recalls Javier Laviña.

The conquest of America, in the terms in which it took place, "is not an exceptional event", but what is exceptional "is the moment in which it took place and its pioneering character", says Fradera. It is an "important" milestone from the point of view of globalisation, Sánchez-Albornoz adds. He also recalls, however, that for many centuries nobody remembered 12 October. Now, however, the Spanish right has decided to turn this date into a political hobbyhorse, both inside and outside the state, even without explaining the whole story.