The Prescience Of Rudyard Kipling

In 1896, English writer and political observer Rudyard Kipling published a short poem titled, “The Deep-Sea Cables”:

The Deep-Sea Cables

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar --
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world -- here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat --
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth --
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, "Let us be one!"

The late nineteenth century was the halcyon age of the British Empire, an empire for which Kipling is often remembered (or, more accurately, detracted) as an “apologist.” It is rare to find a mention of Kipling in the popular press without a damning association, with his 1899 verse encouragement of the American takeover of the Philippines, “White Man’s Burden.”

On that reading, and given Kipling’s reputation as the “unofficial poet laureate of Empire,” it would be justified to explicate “The Deep-Sea Cables” as a typical pith-helmeted glorification of British rule over the planet—now, with the laying of the submarine cables, aided by the cutting edge of communications technology. With the “deep-sea cables” spiderwebbing the ocean floor, Kipling seems to be anticipating, the world will finally, as the British Empire aimed for all along, “be one.”

I take a very different view of “The Deep-Sea Cables,” and a very different view of Kipling. The later British Empire subject Eric Blair, who very much wrote in Kipling’s shadow, when he wrote about imperialism as George Orwell, adopted a cynical view of British rule which Kipling, the usual interpretation goes, was too tally-ho and forward-march to understand. However, if we take Kipling on his own terms, and read the poem for what it says, I believe we arrive at a much darker vision for the touted unity of humanity than one finds when “The Deep-Sea Cables” is read flat against the page and in the darkroom redlight of post-imperial autopsies. “The Deep-Sea Cables” was not encomium but Greek tragedy, a warning against the hubris of men who think they have become like the gods.

In the September, 2019, issue of The Kipling Journal, I find an intriguing note about “The Deep-Sea Cables,” linking it to a couple of other Kipling poems “in which we are treated to a glimpse of a huge blind sea monster, which an underwater earthquake hurls up to the surface.” Godzilla some sixty years in advance, perhaps. But I think the analogy is more than coincidental. The 1956 Japanese movie Godzilla, like “The Deep-Sea Cables,” can also be read two ways. On the one hand, Godzilla is a campy horror flick—more for laughing at than for being frightened by—about a monster (so obviously a guy in a rubber suit) lurching out of the Pacific Ocean to stomp around Tokyo. On the other hand, Godzilla is a commentary on war, imperial politics, and the nightmare of nuclear holocaust. “The Deep-Sea Cables,” too, can be read as a celebration of empire; or, as I read it, as a warning about human pride, about the false ecumenicism of what today I think we would call “globalization.”

To get a sense of what Kipling was trying to say in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” let us start with the last line of the poem. Here, we find the word “Word” curiously capitalized. This is the hinge of the work.

In a 2015 essay in Modern Fiction Studies, Heather Fielding interprets the capitalization this way: “As the capitalization of ‘Word’ indicates, Kipling ascribes a clear moral authority to the unifying power of the telegraph wires, which enable communication and in the process draw subjects of different nations toward a ‘common good’ that was certainly imperial, Christian, and British in nature.” In the endnote following this sentence Fielding drives the point home further: “Of course, Kipling’s vision of the common structure uniting mankind is an imperialist one. As Bernhard Siegert argues [in Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, trans. Kevin Repp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], ‘[t]he command given… in the “deserts of the deep” was not to become one, but to become ‘British.’” Again, the standard “Kipling as imperial apologist” interpretation.

But consider that Rudyard Kipling, although notoriously difficult to pin down theologically was a product of a British education, and as such would no doubt have been more than passingly familiar with the Holy Bible. Even if Kipling was an atheist, as he himself seems to have said, he would have known the foundational text of Christianity much better than most in our contemporary secular culture do. The Bible would have been baseline for his literary development, storehouse for the imagery and phrasing which a poet deploys in his crafting of lines. In the Bible, in the Gospel of St. John, we read of the “Eternal Word,” Who came into the world, which knew Him not.

The capitalization of “Word” in Kipling’s poem has nothing at all to do with the glorification of empire, nor of being British, nor of being Christian. Kipling was no Pollyanna, no evangelical soapbox orator. Kipling’s odd use of the capitalized “Word” is a warning, with unmistakable Biblical overtones, that man is arrogating to himself a power which he does not understand, and which has the potential to ruin him.

Working backwards from the last line, the rest of “The Deep-Sea Cables” follows from this single capitalized word. At the beginning of the poem, we find ourselves at the bottom of the pitch-black sea, with the wrecks of the vessels which men have built “dissolv[ing]” above us and “drop[ping] down from afar.” The world of men is distant from this deep, dark place. The surface of things, the ships and commerce and battles of nations, is another world, one which, heretofore and while the old technology has prevailed, has left this abyssopelagic cosmos undisturbed. “Blind white sea-snakes” live here, slithering in “great grey level plains of ooze.”

But now there is a new trick that men have learned, a new Promethean moment in their history. It is on this otherworldly muck-bottom that the cables which men have laid—and by Kipling’s day submarine telegraph cables were already a highly-developed technology—repose, providing a home for mollusks. This unpeopled deep is not where men ought to go—this is the strong sense of Kipling’s poem overall.

The Biblical motif of the poem continues. It is impossible for me to read the second stanza, about “the womb of the world” at the sea floor, “the tie-ribs of earth” where the planet is mortised and tenoned, without thinking of the first chapter of Genesis, of God’s awful might in calling forth the bottomless waters out of nothingness. Or of the Book of Job, wherein God taunts a member of his puny human creation who dares inquire after the ways of the Almighty:

Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said:
Who is this that wrappeth up sentences in unskillful words? Gird up thy loins like a man; I will ask thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Upon what are its bases grounded? or who laid the corner stone thereof,
When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody?
Who shut up the sea with doors, when it broke forth as issuing out of a womb;
When I made a cloud the garment thereof, and wrapped it in a mist as in swaddling bands?
I set my bounds around it, and made it bars and doors:
And I said: Hitherto thou shalt come, and shalt go no further, and here thou shalt break thy swelling waves.

Hast thou entered the depths of the sea, and walked in the lowest parts of the deep?
(Job 38: 1-11, 16)

Once we have this Biblical context in place, the poem knits together, and in a way very unlike the glib celebration of the British Empire that many scholars understand “The Deep-Sea Cables” to be. This is Godzilla, a shudder at what is going to come out of the “ooze,” the “waste of the ultimate slime” if men keep “whispering” words in the blind, deaf, and dumb deep, “Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun”—where men ought not go. In their hubris, Kipling is saying, men are making a new dispensation, a new “Word” for the world. This is not empire; this is something that men do not understand. And it will cost them dearly in the end.

Kipling senses that the old world of politics and dominion—the ships whose wrecks filter down as rotted powder from above (and Kipling would have been completely aware, of course, that the British Empire rested on naval prowess)—is meaningless in the new age of instantaneous information sharing. Some people have called this network of telegraph cables “the Victorian internet,” which may sound outlandish at first, given the extraordinarily slow (by today’s standards) rates of information transmission of which even the best telegraph cables were capable. But I think the internet metaphor is more apt than might at first appear. It seems that Kipling’s poet’s antennae were sensing, in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” what a later inspired writer, Marshall McLuhan, tried working out in the 1960s—namely, that new modes of communication exert profound, transformative influence on human society. Whispers across cables thrill the pride of man—we are becoming one! But as the second stanza gives way to the third and last, we find this chilling turn: “For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet./They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time.” This is no longer empire. This is now myth, the eternal retelling of the same story of man’s rise and fall.

Who is “Father Time?” In the deep of the underworld, Tartarus, dwelt the old, wild gods, the Titans, imprisoned there by the Olympians, the bright and shining deities (“Zeus” comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to shine”) who banished the horrible Titans to their prison in the bowels of the earth. While there are many theories on the etymology of the name of one of the Titans, Cronus, in Kipling’s day the most common would probably have been “Father Time,” thought to derive from the Greek word chronos. Cronus was identified in Roman mythology with Saturn, the god of bounty. In ancient Rome, the Temple of Saturn was where the imperial treasury was housed.

Cronus as Saturn, Saturn as the god blessing the political dominion of Rome over the known world. But once a line is crossed, the god no longer blesses, but destroys. In the myth of the Titans, all was well until Saturn, Cronus, “Father Time,” thought that his children were going to usurp him, just as he had usurped his father and mother, the heavens and the earth. Fearing this rebellion by his offspring, Cronus ate his children one by one. The god turned on his empire. The Titan devoured what he had brought forth.

Rudyard Kipling was no Boy Scout cheerleader for progress and the British Empire. He was, above all else, a poet, a man with a mystical connection to the incantatory power of words. “The Deep-Sea Cables” represents one of the most prescient and accurate foreshadowing of the dangers which men were stirring up—“the timeless Things” which men were “waken[ing],” the “Power troubl[ing] the Still” which men were disturbing with their globalist chatter in the primordial deep.


Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.


Featured image: “Rudyard Kipling,” by Sir Philip Burne-Jones, painted in 1899.

Towards a Reappraisal of Colonialism: The Life Of Sir Alan Burns

In the modern Western, especially English-speaking, world in which “critical theory” (lower case!), i.e., “any philosophical approach that seeks emancipation for human beings and actively works to change society in accordance with human needs” has largely replaced empirical research in the Humanities; knowledge has been for the most part reduced to subjective opinion. Descriptive analysis has been supplanted by prescriptive dogma.

From this cesspool of learned ignorance, inter alia influenced by notions of “knowledge and power” (le savoir-pouvoir), espoused by the French intellectual chameleon Michel Foucault, modern “critical theories” (on race, gender, etc.) have become dominant. In the current caliginous academic world, driven on by publish-or-perish, hermetic peer review and the ability to churn out innumerable “scholarly” journals, this has becoming something of a thriving industry on campuses, and increasingly in everyday life. One of the hallmark publications of this was Edward Said’s famous work Orientalism (for a concise rebuttal of Said, there is the work by Buruma and Margalit). Based on this and patterned after Foucault’s post-modernism, the discipline of “post-colonialism” or “decolonial theory” emerged. One definition is that it “is a title coined to describe the intellectual work articulating a broad rejection of Western European supremacy by colonial/racial subjects.”

Simply put, this activism disguised as science ascribes all the ills of what is generally known as the “Third World” to the colonial activities of European powers. As this work is largely idea(l) driven, all manner of “evidence” can be herded to prove the previously established thesis. This, as the French public intellectual Michel Onfray has shown in in his recent book L’Art d’être français : Lettres à de jeunes philosophes (“Lettre 6—Sur l’islamo-gauchisme;” Islamo-leftism, another postcolonial discourse which reintroduces pre-revolutionary theocracy), like all such “critical theories,” works on the same scheme: essentializing [i.e. oversimplification], the liberal application of Godwin’s law, verbosity, exaggeration, denial and amalgamation—lumping together antithetical groups of victims and perpetrators, real or imagined. When one looks at the world today, especially the in the former European colonies, one cannot but be heartbroken, in many instances. The question is whether such “colonialism” lies at the root of these countries’ desperate state?

The book under review here, The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire is, to present my conclusion first, a well-researched and fact-driven antidote to the popular and populist mythography of modern theorists. The author, Professor Bruce Gilley, perhaps best known in the field of Colonial Studies for his (in)famous article, “The case for colonialism” (Third World Quarterly, 2017), is to be commended for this well-written vindication of the British Empire, what it was and what it wasn’t. This biographical tour-de-force shares the same to-the-point literary gusto as the books written by the Sir Alan Burns, Gilley’s subject. Gilley, like Burns himself, prefers intellectual honesty to going with the languid flow.

It should be note here that this book is not a whitewash of colonialism. It is a realistic portrayal of many aspects of the last six or seven decades of the British Empire, based on the career of one of its major proponents, who held numerous key positions in various parts of it. The book opens with an ironic epilogue—Sir Alan Burns at the end of his career, learning of the death of his old adversary in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Dr. Joseph B. Danquah, dying in prison as a political prisoner of Kwame Nkrumah’s regime.

Sir Alan Cuthbert Maxwell Burns, of Scottish descent, was born in Basseterre (Saint Kitts) in 1887. His family and early life on the multiracial and multiethnic Island, and his schooling in England. On p. 19 it is noted that Burns considered his limited formal education to be an advantage: “a strong character and sound common sense are far more valuable assets to a colonial official than the most brilliant academic distinctions;” university produced young colonial officials who were “full of zeal and theory” but lacking in what he considered most important “unlimited patience and a real sympathy for the people among whom the young officer will work.”

The book goes on to describe his further career, from his own writings and those of his colleagues and opponents, initially in the Caribbean and later largely in West Africa. We see here a man who took his posts seriously, having a genuine interest in the people and places he served. This can be seen in many of his publications, such as the Nigeria Handbook which first appeared in 1917 and was appreciated especially by the indigenous population (p. 60). Later, from 1924 on, as Colonial Secretary of the Bahamas, Gilley eloquently describes the realities of life, balancing local and international interests (especially rumrunning into the United States of the Prohibition Era), encouraging and when necessary, goading the local parliament to do their duty and take responsibility. Here, he also produced the first accurate map of the Bahamas. When he left in 1929, his empathy and administrative skills were praised by all.

His next posting, until 1934, was as Deputy Chief Secretary to the Government of Nigeria. Throughout the book, we see how Burns adapted to new situations, especially the tide of growing nationalist sentiments after World War I. We see what the British Empire was and wasn’t, e.g., p. 91: “It has been the policy of British colonial administrations to build up a national consciousness which would one day make it possible to give independence to a united country.” The language may seem dated, but not the will to do good. On p. 92, we read: “With all its imperfections, European government in Asia and Africa has given to the native inhabitants of the tropics greater personal liberty and economic opportunity than they have ever enjoyed before.” Among the challenges Burns faced were occasional uprisings, often to do with the challenges caused by modernity; and the protestors or rebels can, historically speaking, hardly be seen as early forms of anti-colonial resistance, as they are often depicted in modern postcolonial historiography. It is clear that the ruled also saw advantage in British rule—had there indeed been popular opposition, it would have been no match for the always short understaffed British, especially during the Great War, when only a bare skeleton administration remained—or perhaps we must suppose that mass Stockholm syndrome is a defining aspect of colonialism?

Throughout the book, the voices of the governed, the alleged victims come to word in a balanced fashion, such as Ahmadu Bello (p. 92) “The was no ill-will after the occupation. We were used to conquerors and these were different; they were polite and obviously out to help us rather than themselves;” Chinua Achebe (p. 93) “Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were scattered ones before.”

Among Burn’s activities in this period was his pioneering work History of Nigeria (1st ed. 1929) later deemed “tainted colonial historiography,” and the foundation of the Lagos Public Library in 1932. Here Gilley notes (p. 95): “Along with the drawing of maps, the creation of libraries is another colonial endeavor that has been scorned by later critics as devious and wicked. Having first imposed an alien conception on the outer geography of place, the colonialists next implanted an alien conception on the inner geography of the mind. Such libraries were intended, the critics allege, to create a pro-colonial native elite that would perpetuate European rule and train a literate work force to boost colonial profits. All those elderly lady volunteers affixing labels and dusting stacks are transformed by such works into powerful agents of imperial reach as they assist Africans to sign out copies of Baudelaire. ‘The violence of the library’ and ‘conceptual contamination’ are stock phrases. The effect of colonial libraries was to ‘dismember the dynamism and effectiveness of the oral tradition,’ one alarmed scholar complained. ‘Library colonialism remains one of the most hidden but deadly instruments of neo-colonialism’ he warned. On those quiet shelves ‘the malignant influences of Western civilization are diffused among literate Africans like invisible bubbles of air.’”

The next step is of course the burning of books, such as practiced in Canada as a “purification par la flamme,” led by a self-invented Indian, Suzy Kies. This alleged incarnation of colonial evil, Burns himself noted (p. 97): “We do not try to assimilate the colonial peoples, nor to turn them into imitation Scotsmen—or even Englishmen—but to help them develop a higher civilization of their own, soundly based on their own traditional institutions and culture.”

Thereafter, follow accounts of Burns’ next posting in British Honduras (Belize), 1934-1939, a stagnant backwater of the Empire when he arrived. His major activities here were road building, rediscovering the Mayan past which “offered a potential source of meaning and a unity for a place that had long been dismissed as nothing more than a timber settlement” (p. 107), including the founding of a national museum. Here, again, he worked to reform and make local government more effective and fairer. Upon his departure, again his achievements were hailed by even his most stern critics.

The beginning of the war found him in England, where he helped to broker the “Destroyers-for-bases deal.” From 1942 to 1947, he was back in Nigeria, installing, in 1946, a new, more democratic constitution with an African majority. Here, in 1943, transpired what would be the defining moment in Burns’ career, the ritual “Ju-Ju” murder.

The tides were however turning, Britain after the War had lost its desire for Empire, this murder case demonstrated the British government’s changing attitude. While the ruled, who had no taste for being the victims of such murderous rituals, demanded and expected justice, the rulers were hesitant; cultural relativism was coming of age, as Gilley notes (p. 179f.): “Not for the first time, Western progressives who claimed to speak on behalf of the Third World were contradicted by actual existing Third World people.” This seems to have been a turning point for Burns, who now increasingly went on record as a staunch defender of the Empire (p. 172): “The ‘tyranny’ of European rule has replaced tyrannies less bearable… In the past we have made many mistakes in our colonial administration and we will probably make many more in the future, but against our mistakes we can set a record of achievement which has not been excelled by any nation in the world, and on balance we have nothing to be ashamed of.” The historical reality is that more often than not, the British had been asked (sometimes repeatedly before they agreed) to govern by indigenous peoples. As Gilley notes (p. 172) “most colonialism was done by colonials.”

From 1947 until his retirement in 1956 Burns served as Permanent Representative of the UK on the United Nations Trusteeship Council. This is arguably the most relevant section of the book for understanding the present situation. The world mood after the Second World War was decidedly “anti-colonial.” The Trusteeship Council, originally mandated to oversee the trust territories, largely former mandates of the League of Nations, or territories taken from nations defeated at the end of World War II, to self-government or independence, but which also sought to decolonize the remaining “empires” (mainly Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium). Gilley notes (p.195): “The more important question is whether the UN adequately prepared colonies for independence. On this issue, scholars have been silent for an obvious reason: the failure of the UN to direct its attention to the post-colonial future was an inexcusable mistake, arguably a crime against humanity that the body continues to celebrate. Under the growing influence of anti-colonial voices, the UN became what one scholar called a “decolonization machine,” more concerned with ending colonialism than with the lives left behind. It was a mistake that Sir Alan Burns would try to avoid.” Here we see an excellent portrayal of how questions of good governance became overshadowed by emotive racial questions. The grandstanding professing the evils of colonialism was led by countries such as the Soviet Union, Yemen, Egypt, India or the Philippines whose democratic credentials were (and are) somewhat wanting (p. 219): “It is notorious that the most severe criticism comes from the representatives of countries where the administration is most corrupt, the treatment of minorities or the working classes is the most discriminatory, and the constitution so unstable that it is shaken by frequent revolutions.”

The mythical American “anti-colonial” attitudes and policies are also discussed, who saw in every self-proclaimed liberator another George Washington. These countries often insisted on a prescribed timetable (as was the case for the Trusteeships, which as with Somalia was an utter failure) for independence. Burns noted that in determining when a colony was ready for independence (p. 209f.): “There are not enough astrologers assigned to the UN for this task.” The question was as Gilley notes here: “What if the people of a colony did not want a timetable? Would it be undemocratic to force one upon them? Who exactly spoke for colonial peoples: coffee-house radicals in London, Soviet stooges at the UN or the elected native representatives of colonial legislatures? Part of the hypocritical incoherency of the UN policy at this time was the definition of what constituted a ‘colony.’ The criterium was the ‘salt-water fallacy,’ only colonialism overseas was considered ‘colonialism,’ expansion over land was seen as “nation-building” (p. 217f.)—ergo the Soviet Union with its Warsaw Pact Satellite states was not seen as colonial. That France and Portugal also saw their overseas empires as parts of their country did not count; the Belgians (Flemish, Germans and Walloons) noted logically that it would only be right if every UN member would be open to scrutiny for all groups ruled by a particular country (“Belgian Thesis” p. 218).

Having left the UN thoroughly fed up, Burns undertook further missions, such as in Fiji and in the Caribbean. He and his wife were back in Basseterre in 1967 when the new union of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla were formed. The latter did not like the arrangement and demanded the reinstatement of British colonial rule (p. 259), forming a republic two years later, once their request had been turned down.

The tide had however turned for good. Decolonization was pursued on an international level, its proponents as Burns noted (p. 222) were “less concerned with the welfare of the indigenous inhabitants than with the spread of ideological propaganda.” History speaks for itself. Rushed independence—due more to the fact that the now defeatist colonial powers themselves jumped ship rather than mythical freedom fighters who often metamorphosed into butchers—had “virtually guaranteed failure in many places at the costs of hundreds of thousands of lives.”

But post-independence failures, famines, wars, rigged elections, refugee crises etc. are faded out while colonial atrocities, real or imagined, are highlighted, (p. 261): “Alan [Burns] noted that more people had been killed by police firing on riotous mobs in independent India than in the entire period of the Raj—this before the worst violence of the 1970s and 1980s.” Burns noted correctly that (p. 262) it does no good to bend over backwards in avoiding any reference to these things. [Recovery] can only be retarded by a refusal to face the facts or to recognize that everything is not lovely in the garden of independence.” As for these states “until they are prepared to admit their own responsibility for much that has gone wrong, they will not be able to correct the mistakes and to achieve the status which all their friends wish them to attain.”

It is clear that neither Sir Alan Burns nor his defense of the British Empire can be deemed racist, patronizing or the like. He was a dedicated civil servant, devoted to both the Empire and the people it ruled. His goal was not a Tausendjähriges Reich or a dictatorship of the proletariat (both as the book notes, idealized by many colonial nationalists) or some other such ill-conceived utopian dream, but rather, though imperfectly achieved, to lead the ruled to self-rule of their own making, within the confines of inescapable modernity. Although many of his colleagues, as he often complained to London, were not up to his standard, others were.

In conclusion, we hope that this book will contribute to a recalibration of the debate on colonialism and the British Empire in particular. Not to nostalgia for what is no more (and probably never was). Merely to an empirical, fact-based understanding. The fate of many former colonies is indeed determined for a large part by how long and how well they were governed. This can be seen especially in the presence (or lack thereof) of true civil society (not imported neo-colonial NGOs), the building block of democracy. South American states continued and some continue to pursue Spanish colonial exploitation, Haiti’s long independence has not been especially beneficial to its population. Countries that were never colonized, such as China have no real democratic institutions. The real question is do human rights apply to all humans, are the values of the Enlightenment really Eurocentric? Are cultures fixed and static categories; that most be preserved regardless of human cost (as has been noted by Marxists scholars such as Vivek Chibber)?

Indeed, one of the problems with postcolonial theory, critical or other, is that it negates the foundations of reason, reverses cause and effect and denies Ockham’s razor. Thus, before we judge too harshly, it should be asked how European colonialism came to be and what was the situation beforehand (Europeans didn’t introduce e.g., slavery or human sacrifice), and what would have been the alternative in a modernizing world that was becoming more interconnected? Did not the British Empire with some degree of success prevent large scale pillage and exploitation (often fending off American economic exploitation)? It is however easier to judge a theorized past than to learn from our past successes and failures based on empirical evidence. Gilley noted in his 2017 article about European colonialism “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found” — words to bear in mind, especially now, when the former colonies, the so-called Third World is subject to an orchestrated hostile takeover, by imperious, iron-fisted Chinese debt colonization. Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the despotic threats made to Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea do much to put the British Empire in a proper historical perspective.


Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).


Featured image: “Britannia Rules the Waves,” by Nicholas Habbe, painted in 1876.

The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense Of The British Empire

We are so very pleased to offer to our readers a first look at Bruce Gilley’s latest book, The Last Imperialist. Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire. This excerpt is made possible by the kind generosity of Regnery Publishing. Please support this important research and purchase a copy – and tell others.

Bruce Gilley is a Professor of Political Science at Portland State University. His research centers on the empire, democracy, legitimacy, global politics, as well as the comparative politics of China and Asia.


By the 1930s, most colonial governments were under pressure to set out a plan for self-government if not outright independence. India was the furthest along, and African, Asian, and Caribbean nationalists wanted to follow. Good government was losing its appeal amid the allure of selfgovernment. British socialists and communists, including Alan’s brother Emile, were calling for the empire to be handed over to the League of Nations. The Belize Independent columnist and Battlefield general Luke Kemp told his readers that they should follow the advice of Emile, “reputed to be the greatest exponent of the Marxist (communist) doctrine in England” and treat colonial rulers like his brother as temporary “aliens.” “It is the ‘great brains’ that ran this colony to the rocks. Now we ask that men we feel are honest be given a chance,” Kemp demanded. Universal suffrage was needed, because national unity would “be as strong as the political latitude granted to the entire population.” When colonial officials complained about the desultory singing of God Save the King on one occasion, Kemp riposted: “I am quite sure the English taxpayers and the Secretary of State for the colonies would be shocked at the result of a plebiscite in British Honduras as to whether a change to the Stars and Stripes would be desired.”

London had imposed direct rule on British Honduras after the 1931 hurricane to speed recovery. Alan returned the colony to partial self-rule in 1936 with the election of 5 of the 13 seats in the legislature. He gave women the vote for the first time. Even so, the number of votes cast in the 1936 election was a meager 1,300 (less than 5 percent of the adult population), compared to 1,900 in the election before direct rule. Many people had fallen below the income or property thresholds, while others simply could not be bothered to register or vote. Most of the votes, about 1,200, were cast for the two seats in Belize Town. Of the other three seats, two were acclaimed. One returned a candidate whose nomination papers had been signed by a road crew. Robert Turton, the chewing gum nationalist, won the northern chicle district by sixty-five votes to forty-four. Given Alan’s legislative experience in the Bahamas and his “great ability as a speaker,” the Belize Independent bemoaned, the government bloc in the legislature—consisting of six officials and two appointees—was “so well clothed with power that their position” was “nigh impregnable.” Alan was “a Mussolini” for the way he “swept aside” opposing views in legislative sessions.

As in the Bahamas, London argued that any attempt to loosen voting qualifications would cause a backlash from white elites fearing mob rule. Luke Kemp, for instance, wanted only blacks and Creoles to be given the vote under his “natives first” plan. The Maya would be relegated to a secondary
role while whites would be disenfranchised or even expelled. Kemp wrote that “fascism or Nazism is a superior form of government” to colonial rule “for food, shelter, and medical treatment are within the reach of citizens and it is only the small minority that suffers unjustly.” Soberanis and Kemp
appealed for “closer association” with military-ruled Guatemala despite its comparative poverty and instability. Law and order “would be so under any flag,” Kemp wrote. Just as Haiti provided a sobering reminder to citizens of the Bahamas of the dangers of popular government, Guatemala, which had thrown off the colonial “yoke” in 1821 and similarly descended into a century of chaos, did
so for British Honduras. When Alan arrived, the conditions of the working class in Guatemala were far worse than in British Honduras, and labor leaders there were simply killed by the government. For the colony’s middle classes, a populist politics that led to control by Guatemala or by a native fascist regime would spell disaster. When Guatemala mobilized troops on the border in 1938, even the Belize Independent scurried for cover: “British Honduras must ever remain a British colony.”

For Alan, demands for political advance were rooted in demands for social dignity. “The one problem at the bottom of all their troubles, and the ones for which they passionately seek a solution, is how they are to obtain from the white world that recognition of social and political equality which has, up to now, been denied them,” he would write. When the German boxer Max Schmeling defeated the black American boxer Joe Louis in the first of their two fights in 1936, Alan recalled, “The gloom among the coloured inhabitants of British Honduras was worthy of a major national disaster.” Colonialism had, for better or worse, brought “social restrictions and personal insults” to subject peoples which prevented them “from recognizing or admitting” its great benefits. “The inevitable effect of this is that the unthinking mob . . . will follow the noisy and irresponsible persons who freely express their hatred of the white man and promise the people fantastic and impossible things.” The task was to expand democracy without handing over power to demagogues. Holding ultimate power in the hands of the governor for as long as possible, Alan would later write, was critical because it “ensured that British humanitarian and liberal principles should prevail, for the benefit of the underprivileged and often illiterate classes, against the selfish policies of the members of the old Assemblies.”

Alan drove this lesson home in his reform of the Belize Town Board. Since its founding in 1912, the board had been treated as the de facto democratic legislature of the colony because of its elected majority (eight out of fourteen seats). Board members typically debated issues far outside their purview, and the board was diligently covered in the local press. But it was also dysfunctional,
constantly in turmoil over committee battles and mutual recriminations. It failed to collect most of its taxes and most of its elected members were in arrears on their own taxes. One local merchant called it “effete, dishonest, and a menace to the progress of our City.” Without consultation or explanation, Alan cut it down to five elected and five appointed members for the 1936 election.

The act by Il Duce caused outrage on the Battlefield. But locals noticed that municipal affairs were working better and that day-laborers on town projects were being paid on time. A new “Sanitary Brigade” kitted in khaki replaced the slovenly food market and street inspectors of the defunct board. In 1938, Alan suspended the board altogether pending a reorganization. He made himself chairman of an interim board and was seen on the streets inspecting clogged drains and filthy latrines. Kemp eventually admitted that “90 percent of the citizens of Belize wanted the defunct board to be abolished” and congratulated Alan on “a master step.” Alan had proven his point: when faced with a choice between good government and elected government, colonial peoples would prefer the former. Clean latrines and operable sewers might not stir the passions on the Battlefield, but they made lives better and laid the foundations for durable democracy.

True to his word, Alan restored the democratic nature of the Belize Town Board in 1939 with six elected and three nominated members. All nine were non-European, marking the first all-local and majority-elected council in the colony’s history.101 He also added one elected member to the colonial legislature in the 1939 election, replacing a nominated member, leaving the government bloc with a slim majority of just seven to six. In these ways, Alan was balancing his liberal instincts with his attention to administrative efficiency. “It is not logical,” he would write, to tell colonial subjects that “all men are equal before the law and then to deny him the equality which he claims.” Democracy was clearly desirable. On the other hand, if that “right” came at the cost of death and destruction, it would be a poor trade. Like his growing interest in racial questions, his political reforms in British Honduras presaged a growing interest in the question of when and how a colony could be brought to independence. He rejected the idea that “independence should be given forthwith to those colonials who ask for it, whatever may be their competence to govern themselves, and regardless of the consequences to the mass of the population.” There would be nothing noble about decolonization if it caused countries to implode. “It would probably save us a lot of trouble and win us the applause of the unthinking if we surrendered at once to all the demands for self-government and rid ourselves of the burden of trusteeship,” he would later comment. “But we have a duty to the people of the dependent territories and to the world at large that it would be cowardly to shirk, and we could not later escape the responsibility and the blame for the disasters that would follow if we abandoned our trust.”


The featured image shows the map of the British Empire by Walter Crane, printed in 1886.

A New Historical-Political Debate: Greatness And Miseries Of The Spanish Empire

In recent years we have witnessed a very unusual publishing phenomenon. María Elvira Roca Barea, a high school teacher from Malaga, published in 2016 a historical essay, entitled, Imperiofobia y leyenda negra. Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español (Imperphobia and the Black Legend. Rome, Russia, the United States and the Spanish Empire). Despite its title, the book met with great success, ending up selling more than 100,000 copies.

The fact that a book whose subject matter revolves around the Black Legend reached such a number means that people without specific training in the field of history are interested in this topic, and that is precisely where the interest in imperiophobia (“the fear of empire”) lies, not only from a historiographical point of view, but also from a sociological, political or ideological point of view.

History is not a static science, but something that often acts as a pendulum swing that oscillates amidst the topics that generate interest and about which it is written. The fact that historiography does not cease to be a reflection of the concerns and interests of society is a recurring theme in historiographical treatises.

As Gonzalo Pasamar has pointed out as an example of the first steps of Contemporary History, these are inseparable from the political and social changes of the 19th century. In the same way, we see the death and birth of new historiographical trends, in step with the times, as when, from the second half of the 1960s, among the background factors that led to the decline of historicism we can cite the disappearance of the main historians of the generation that developed their careers during the Weimar Republic and Nazism, the student mobilization, or the end of the political hegemony of conservative governments.

In the same way, Charles-Olivier Carbonell surmised that in the 1930s an economic history, oriented more towards exchanges, prices or currency, and not towards the modes or processes of production, as well as a social history that was not limited exclusively to the question of classes, but to that of groups and their form of interaction, such as rural and urban communities, minorities or the marginalized, was constituted.

The Annales school itself is the child of a very specific political and historiographical conjuncture without which neither its genesis nor its consolidation can be understood. It was a period between two world wars, when the process of progressive decline and the end of the historiographical hegemony that had been typical of the Germanic world since about 1870, and which would enter into crisis with the First World War and then with the political rise of the Nazi party, took place.

It is pertinent to frame the publication of Roca Barea’s work within a very specific context, which is related to the image of Spain, both within Spain’s own borders, especially in Catalonia, and at the European level. It is a portrait that has become, if possible, less favorable since the massive Diada of September 11, 2012, the beginning, as Enric Ucelay-Da Cal has pointed out, of the so-called “pro-independence process” that became more radical as the “molt honorabilidad” [“great honor”] of former President Jordi Pujol was called into question, for his undeclared fortune abroad, in what can be understood as an attempt to distract attention, and which has ended with some Catalan politicians convicted by the Supreme Court for the crime of sedition.

In reality, the origin of this situation, at least in the Catalan context, should not be sought from the time Carles Puigdemont was elected president of the Generalitat, nor since the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Statute of 2010, but from the time Jordi Pujol became president of the Generalitat in 1980, with a mandate that, as is well known, would last until 2003, when he was relieved by the socialist leader, Pasqual Maragall.

The feeling of belonging to a wider community, the Spanish one, seems to have been diluted in Catalonia, a society that shows a great polarization between a countryside with a pro-independence majority and a more cosmopolitan and integrated urban centers. At the same time, the decades-long indifference of the hegemonic Spanish parties, the PP and PSOE, captive to the need for votes that the party dominated by Pujol could provide them, led to a tacit agreement – that some would receive support in Madrid, in exchange for “Pujolism” being imposed in Catalonia without too many obstacles.

As a result, the concept of “Spain” was erased from politically correct language, as if it were a cursed word with Francoist reminiscences, and was replaced by the term the “Spanish State,” which seemed innocuous and neutral. All this was due, to a large extent, to the influence of the media as well as to essential elements in the process of building any nationalism, such as education, language or history, always manipulated from a prism aimed at satisfying nationalist anxieties. It is in these circumstances that Imperiofobia appeared as a kind of counterattack that seeks to vindicate the Spanish past, sometimes considered as a taboo, or perhaps as a counterweight that tries to balance the image of Spain.

Of course, the manipulation of history by nationalism is by no means a new element. J.T. Delos drew attention several decades ago to the national sentiment influenced by Germanic thought, whose peak was experienced in the 20th century and according to which, through the invocation of historical rights, blood and soil, there was belief in the “collective soul, in the dark and instinctive forces that prevail in the life of peoples and in the development of their institutions over the decisions of individual freedom,” thus being closer to nature and the physical conditions of life, and less to rationality, and ultimately oriented towards racism, since the principle of their unity was concentrated around race. Delos felt that, in Germany, the language community provided great arguments for national claims, and the poets seized on this argument from the beginning of the 19th century, while politics turned it into a weapon of war.

During the second half of the 20th century, interest in studying the concepts of nation and nationalism increased notably, which led to the publication of numerous works that made this subject one of the historiographical favorites and on which it is very difficult, given the abundant bibliography that continues to be published today, to undertake a detailed study. Ernest Renan, with his work entitled, What is A Nation? gave the initial indication signal for the defense of linguistic and consensualist theories about the nation.

Contrary to what was advocated by the essentialist theses, which served as theoretical support for the Galicia of Manuel Murguía, the Spain of Modesto Lafuente or the France of Jules Michelet, the nation is not in this case something immutable and eternal, but a reality dependent on external instruments, which make up the nation-state, and internal instruments, mainly language and national education, as analyzed by José Carlos Bermejo. This group of theorists also included Anthony Smith, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, who in 1983 coined the famous term “imagined communities,” in one of his books which marked a turning point in the debate that had been taking place on nationalism in recent decades.

In Spanish history we find several examples that show the need for nations to connect themselves with prestigious ancestors. The authors of the great narrative constructions, Juan de Mariana at the end of the 16th century, or the aforementioned Lafuente in the mid-19th century, emphasized the need to remember, for example, the main heroic deeds of Antiquity, which although they did not end in victory, as in the case of the sieges of Saguntum and Numantia, or in the biographies of Viriatus and Sertorius, were nevertheless heroic episodes. Both their memory and the bravery and courage shown in those resistances against the invader were to be internalized by the students who filled the classrooms in order to create citizens committed to the nation and the patriotic values it defended.

This yearning led in most cases to elaborate racist doctrines whose objective was to define “us” very well, since “we” were pure and uncontaminated by the rest of the races, which in most occasions were considered inferior. The case of the Basque Country is very curious, because during the 16th and 17th centuries the Cantabrians stood out as the first representatives of the Basques, a situation that remained more or less stable until the first decades of the 19th century, when this reference was still hegemonic among its cultural and political elites, when referring to the most remote past of Biscay, Gipuzkoa and Álava.

However, from the 1870s, we witness the emergence of the Iberians as the ancestral referent of the Basques, and by the end of the century, Sabino Arana formulated the first Basque national identity, completely separate and exclusive of the Spanish identity, based, as is well known, on race as the nuclear principle of his doctrine. And all this, as is natural, with the aim that the nation would sink its roots in the oldest and most glorious soils possible; or, in Fernando Wulff‘s expression, would be the depository of the “patriotic essences.”

But, as J.T. Delos observed, the nation is a product of social life and nationalism, that complex mixture of doctrines, political claims and passions. This same author, as Anderson would later do in Imagined Communities, stressed that aspects such as national sentiment are nothing more than manifestations of a collective conscience linked to historical conditions and a given environment, in such a way that the community exists insofar as there is a common state of conscience; that is, the awareness of “us” is given by the belief of forming an original entity that is constituted by opposing third parties, who are usually the enemies that all nationalism needs; and, secondly, by the will to perpetuate common life.

On this path, of which all the elements that make up the nation are part, the nation tries to generate a series of differentiating features that make up the identity of that people, since, as David Lowenthal has pointed out in a classic book, the ability to evoke the past and identify with it, both collectively and personally, offers meaning, purpose and value to our existence.

The Imperiophobia-Imperiophilia Debate

The purpose of Roca Barea’s book is, as she states in the Introduction, “to understand why [black legends] arise, what clichés shape them and how they expand until they become public opinion and a substitute for history.” The book, whose subject matter is one of the most controversial in the history of Spain and on which there is an enormous amount of bibliography, is divided into three parts.

The first, entitled “Empires and Black Legends: The Inseparable Couple”, begins with a review of the origin and meaning of the expression, “black legend,” including authors, such as, Arthur Lévy, Cayetano Soler and Emilia Pardo Bazán, who, according to Roca Barea, was the first author to use the expression, in April 1899 in the Salle Charras, in Paris, to refer to anti-Spanish propaganda. The analysis continues with Julián Juderías, who used the expression “black legend” as a title to his well-known book, in 1914.

However, according to Roca Barea, in recent decades there has been a tendency to deny the existence of the Black Legend. To justify this, she mentions a travel documentary broadcast on Spanish Television eight years ago where, under the theme of the discoveries carried out by the Portuguese, English, Turks or Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries, only unedifying facts were mentioned in the case of the latter.

On the other hand, there were a number of authors concerned with concealing, if not denying, that the Black Legend had existed or, in the best of cases, that it disappeared a long time ago. Among them, Henry Kamen and his book, Empire, where the British author defends the idea of Spain as a poor country, stand out. Roca Barea, with a certain ironic tone that she does not abandon throughout her book, concludes that Spain only “became an empire by a stroke of a pen; or, in other words, Spain did not build an empire but, let us say, fell upon it by chance.”

Next, and still within this first part of the book, Roca Barea begins to analyze the respective black legends of Rome, Russia and the United States, leaving the Spanish Empire aside, for the moment, since being the most abused, it will need a much larger space than the rest. Roca Barea states that the racist prejudices that affected the United States and Russia were born in France. The first author responsible for this was Arthur de Gobineau, author of the well-known Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, when he stated that the mixture that was taking place in the United States would end up provoking “a race without beauty or intelligence,” which would result in “the end of the different races,” and would also put an end to “the clear supremacy of the white race.” Whereas, in the Russian case, the French Enlightenment would be directly responsible; Russia went from being an example worthy of imitation, before the Treaty of Paris, to becoming a historical reality doomed to failure after the signing of the same.

After reviewing the three cases cited, Roca Barea finds a common thread that binds these three examples, which consist of the “mixture of admiration and envy.” In this way, she establishes “a fairly solid model of what we have been calling imperiophobia”. Roca Barea goes on to say that this would be “a particular kind of prejudice of racist etiology that can be defined as the indiscriminate aversion towards the people who become the backbone of an empire.”

She concludes the first part of the book by completing this definition a little more, in order to maintain that imperiophobia is particularized by two basic features. Firstly, that it does not go from a more powerful people against a weaker one, but the other way around. Secondly, by its intellectual immunity, given that, in Roca Barea’s opinion, “it is a prejudice of good tone, that is, it is not considered a prejudice but a completely justified and reasonable opinion,” and even finds “its most perfect accommodation among the literate classes, “which is logical “since it owes to them if not its birth, then certainly its development and spread until it became public opinion.”

The second part of the book, dedicated to the study of imperiophobia against the Spanish Empire, which, in her words, would not differ in essence from the cases previously analyzed, doubles the length of the other chapters because it is the paradigmatic example. Some of the episodes, characters and institutions that have traditionally contributed to forge a certain negative image of Spain that is associated with the Black Legend are touched upon. Thus, she reviews the major highlights, starting with the imperial military expeditions carried out by Charles V in Italy, and continuing with the conflict in the Netherlands during the reign of Philip II; Germany and Protestantism; Great Britain; as well, decisive and controversial episodes such as the Inquisition or the conquest of America and the work of Fray Bartolomé Las Casas, to cite some of the most relevant examples.

The fact that Roca Barea begins the epigraph dedicated to the Netherlands with the anthem of the Netherlands is noteworthy, since it highlights some clichés that are recurrent in the image projected both of the Spanish and the Spanish, as we will see. the image projected both of the Spanish and of what is Spanish, as we will have occasion to see later on. The lyrics read:

O that the Spaniards rape thee,
My Netherlands so sweet,
The thought of that does grip me
Causing my heart to bleed.

This question is interesting because it puts us before the mirror of the foreign vision of Spain and the Spaniards. In this sense, José Varela Ortega has just published a fundamental book. It is about how Spaniards have defined themselves and how they have been seen from the outside in a pendular movement that has oscillated between contempt and exaltation, between misery and exaltation.

Stereotypes, as Varela Ortega points out, although imprecise and inaccurate, have the virtue of being very effective. Vague or unproven assertions are the ideal breeding ground for these types of ideas to be successful. It is not only the merit of those publicists who, from the end of the 15th century to the present day, the period analyzed in this book, have proposed a distorted vision of our history, but also of Spain itself because many Spaniards were incapable of articulating a discourse that would counteract these stereotypes, a discourse that could mix both self-criticism and self-esteem about the image that was being projected from the outside, along the lines that Roca Barea also defends in Imperiofobia.

In fact, Varela Ortega gives an example of the prejudices that would continue to plague Spain, not only from the historical point of view but also from the judicial one, and that would translate into a double yardstick, depending on whether the events took place in Spain or in another country.

According to Varela, it is curious “that the U.S. press pontificates about the little left hand of Spanish politicians,” in a country where not two years ago the Supreme Court “unanimously rejected as unconstitutional a petition for the right to secession, signed by a hundred thousand plus citizens of Texas, who harbored desires and pretensions very similar to those of the Catalan nationalists.” Not to mention the German Constitution, which would expressly prohibit the secession of a federated state, so that the territorial unity of the Republic might remain “inviolable;” or, in other words, a case similar “to the secessionist process [which] would force any government of the Federal Republic to intervene in any land”.

The persistence of certain clichés about the history of Spain is a fact that both Roca Barea and Varela Ortega analyze in their respective texts. If we focus on the profile of Philip II and the Duke of Alba, we will see that their reputation in Europe is far from positive, even today.

Roca Barea mentions that a professor at the University of Ghent, named Lieve Behiels, examined, in the 1980s, textbooks used in Belgian education from 1843 to 1986. Behiels concluded that the Duke of Alba was described in most of them “with negative or very negative adjectives:” nineteen times he was called “cruel” and only five times a positive appellative, “brave,” was applied to him.

In the same vein, José Varela warns that, today, in a recently published and infantile Histoire de la Belgique (History of Belgium), the image presented of Philip II and Alba is that they tried to introduce the Spanish Inquisition in Flanders, an extreme event that is uncertain; and about the duke it is stated that he was “little less than a psychopathic butcher even by [the assessment of] current professional historians, such as Robert Goodwin.” A little further on, Varela argues that the Duke of Alba “came to represent the image of violence and cruelty, associated, from then on, with Spaniards in general,” making the Duke the “bogeyman” of Dutch children to this day.

It is true that both Philip II and the Duke of Alba are true protagonists in the Black Legend. Not in vain, for it was William of Orange who wrote his Apologie in 1581 as a rebuttal to the Edict of Proscription, under Margaret of Parma, which had been made public in August of the previous year, where he was accused of treason, rebellion and disloyalty, with the aim of developing a story or an alibi to justify the crime of lèse majesté that he had carried out against his king, a crime we must not forget was one of the worst that could be committed.

Some of these characters who contributed to the origin and consolidation of the Black Legend have been marked by the taint of treason. Indeed, there were active traitors because they wrote slogans, pamphlets or texts denouncing the alleged abuses perpetrated by Philip II and his administration, such as, William of Orange himself or Antonio Perez and his Relaciones, who perhaps perfectly represents the prototype of the traitor in the history of Spain. However, we also find other traitors who are passive, such as Don Carlos, a young prince who left no testimonies to incriminate his father but was nevertheless used and exploited with the aim of showing the ruthless behavior of his father, the king, and who ended up being associated with the “Demon of the South.”

In the eyes of Spanish historiography, Don Carlos was understood as someone dominated by a lust for power, to the point of wanting to overthrow his father with the help of some Flemish subjects who were very unhappy with the treatment meted out by Philip II; he would end his days without his father’s pardon, in a prison cell at the age of barely twenty. Don Carlos went beyond the limits of history, literature and his time; and proof of this is that Friedrich Schiller was inspired by him to compose his drama, Dom Karlos, Infant von Spanien, and of course Giuseppe Verdi and his work, Don Carlo, which premiered in Paris in March 1867, and which definitively consecrated the image of a despotic and cruel Philip II, even to his own son.

Imperiofobia then turns to two fundamental elements of the Black Legend, the Inquisition and the conquest of America, which are the themes with which Roca Barea closes the second part of the book.

In regards to the Holy Office, Roca Barea devotes herself to demonstrating that from “Frenchified literature to the theater of Martínez de la Rosa,” there has been “what we could call a complete normalization of the myth of the Inquisition in Spain itself within the political-literary world of the 19th century.” Her aim is to demonstrate how that myth was created, and she begins by stating that the identification of the Holy Office “with the Antichrist is already found in some texts from the 1530s; that is, at a surprisingly early date, and not only in Germany.” The procedure, in the author’s opinion, was always the same: “a small part of truth served to raise up a big lie that justified a prejudice of racist etiology that so far refuses to recognize what it really is.”

She then cites some of the testimonies that came to justify this thesis of the myth of the Inquisition. Among the authors she mentions are Reginaldo González Montano, author of the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispaniae Artes, whom she suspects was a Spanish apostate; Francisco de Enzinas, another apostate of Burgos origins, who wrote, with the help of his brothers Jaime and Juan, a Historia de Statu Belgico deque Religione Hispanica, under the name of Franciscus Dryander; or Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who wrote a complete history of the Protestant Church and its martyrs, Catalogus testium veritatis (Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth), dated 1556.

Again, as had happened with the Black Legend, “the myth of the Inquisition passed unshaken to the Enlightenment, and then to Romanticism and liberalism, and from there to the present day.” And not only that, but, in Roca Barea’s opinion, the acceptance of this myth is also influenced by the laziness of Spanish society, incapable of counteracting centuries of insults against the Holy Office.

She cites a report broadcast by La 2 of Televisión Española, entitled “The Inquisition: A Spanish Tragedy,” which was aired on May 22, 2013; also the fact that by typing into Google, “tortures of the Inquisition,” “you will find 171,000 results; and these only in Spanish;” or that in a survey carried out by the Council of Europe in 2009 on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the telescope, among students of the European Union, “30 percent of students think that Galileo was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, 97 percent are convinced that before that, he was tortured” and that almost one hundred percent believe that the phrase, “Eppur si muove” (“and yet it moves”) was in reality said by Galileo.

Authors such as Varela Ortega have called attention to the fact that the Holy Office does not need a special appellation. Therefore, it is revealing that not even in English do they refer to the Inquisition as just the “Inquisition,” but rather the allusion is made through the formula “the Spanish Inquisition,” even though the Spanish Inquisition was by no means the pioneer, although it was the one that obtained the most fame or repercussions.

According to José Martínez Millán, the episcopal Inquisition, administered by local bishops, was born with Lucius III. From 1231, with the bull, Excommunicamus of Gregory IX, it became known as the Papal Inquisition, already subordinated to pontifical power. Even within the borders of the Iberian Peninsula, as García Cárcel wrote in a short article, the Castilian Inquisition had antecedents in Aragon. In the words of Varela Ortega, the polemic could be summarized, not without a certain irony, as follows: “It is already known that it [the Inquisition] is Spanish; that of other countries, does not count (the fact that it came from France and that it acted there until almost the French Revolution hardly anyone knows about or is interested in knowing, outside of the odd expert).”

Roca Barea’s next objective is to list data that demonstrate that the Inquisition was not as savage, bloodthirsty and arbitrary as it has been made out to be, adjectives that, incidentally, respond either to the difficulty that often exists with certain institutions, battles or characters when it comes to distinguishing between reality, myth and prejudice, or directly to ignorance. Perhaps, in the history of Spain, one of the best examples of this sense is offered, as we are seeing, by the Inquisition itself.

Furthermore, she establishes a comparison with the rest of the European countries to prove that their legal system was more severe than that of the Inquisition. As an example, she mentions that studies, such as those of Henningsen and Contreras, bring the number of people condemned to death by the Holy Office, between 1550 and 1700, to a total of 1346, while Henry Kamen‘s estimates amount to 3,000 victims. In contrast, Sir James Stephen calculated that “the number condemned to death in England in three centuries reached the chilling figure of 264,000 people,” adding that some convictions “were for crimes as serious as stealing a sheep.”

This series of clues leads Roca Barea to conclude that, in reality, the Inquisition “was never a shadow power, nor did it have the capacity to control society,” since the inquisitors, in general, “worked under difficult conditions and their work was quite routine and bureaucratic. ” Consequently, the Holy Office is for the author “an icon, and its mental representation belongs more to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth.”

From 1480, the Catholic Monarchs, in possession of the functions they had acquired by virtue of a papal bull signed by Sixtus IV in 1478, appointed Juan de San Martín and Miguel de Morillo as inquisitors, and the first act of faith took place in February 1481, in which six people were killed. This is the beginning of a period that Joseph Pérez defines as one of “terror” and about which Modesto Lafuente declares in his Historia general de España: “It was the first step, product of an error of understanding of the enlightened and kind Isabel, whose consequences she did not foresee, and whose results were to be fatal for Spain.”

A chronicler of the time, Andrés Bernáldez, considered that between 1480 and 1488 “they burned more than seven hundred people, and reconciled more than five thousand and threw them into perpetual prisons, where there were such prisons, where they were kept for four or five years or more.” This is perhaps the harshest period of the Holy Office, although the one chosen by Roca Barea to establish her estimates, on the other hand, begins in 1550, some twenty or thirty years after this brutal stage of the Inquisition took place.

Equally problematic are the figures offered by Sir James Stephen, among other reasons because, first of all, Roca Barea does not indicate in which three centuries these hundreds of thousands of murders were committed. Sir James Stephen, who, let us remember, lived in the 19th century, states in his book, A History of the Criminal Law of England, originally published in 1883, that, if the average number of executions in each county was 20 per year, the total would be 800 per year in the 40 English counties, data that Julián Juderías also cites, following Stephen: “And following the same author with his calculations, he arrives at 264,000 executions in three hundred and thirty years.” Naturally these are unrealistic figures which, moreover, would have us to believe, without evidence, that the intensity was always uniform over more than three centuries. In any case, it is difficult to maintain, as Roca Barea does, that the Inquisition belonged more “to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth,” or that it did not have “the capacity to control society.”

The other extreme that attracts Roca Barea’s attention in the construction and maintenance of the Black Legend is the conquest of America, to which she devotes the final pages of the second part of Imperiofobia. The hypotheses she maintains with respect to the Conquest are similar to those defended for the Holy Office: “In the case of America, the deformations reached such a point that it has been impossible to try to make history without adopting a belligerent defensive attitude.”

Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to bring to light the efforts of the Spanish Empire to provide what was necessary to accommodate life in the Americas. She mentions that between 1500 and 1550 “some twenty-five large hospitals were built in the Indies, in the style of St. Nicholas of Bari, and a much larger number of small hospitals with fewer beds,” to the point that in Lima, she tells us, there was one bed for every 101 inhabitants, which we should not expect in each of the cities of the Americas, although she does think that “this pyramid has a broad base of support, as evidenced by the fact that few of these institutions failed.”

If in the field of health this is just some of the data she brings to bear, in the case of education she offers much more that ranges from the creation of higher education centers, which she estimates at more than twenty, and the number of graduates that came out of them, which she estimates, until independence, at “approximately 150,000… of all colors, castes and mixtures.” Likewise, she does not miss the opportunity to establish a favorable comparison, indicating that one must add “the totality of the universities created by Belgium, England, Germany, France and Italy in the colonial expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to approach the number of Spanish-American universities during the imperial era.”

In relation to the conquest of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, José Varela indicates that, as in all American conquests, it was indispensable to collaborate with other indigenous ethnic groups subjugated by the Aztecs “who forced them to a very demanding regime of tribute and decimated them, imposing on them macabre human sacrifices and systematic and very numerous ritual cannibalism.”

In this sense, Varela Ortega argues that it might even be legitimate to question the term conquest because “in most places there was no conquest at all,” to such an extent that the characteristic feature was “the scarcity of warlike acts and the abundance of negotiations.” In this respect, it cannot be denied that, in the conquest of America, which extended beyond the 16th century, there were new formulas for convivencia or coexistence. However, it is quite a different matter to suggest that the military conquest and political, economic or religious subjugation were not the basic pillars of the process, so it does not seem important to argue that these events did not respond, in effect, to a conquest.

However, the main protagonist in the entire chapter dedicated by Roca Barea to the conquest of America has a name of his own: Fray Bartolomé Las Casas and his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indias). Roca Barea dismisses this work as an unreliable historical source; she discredits it because simply, “it produces astonishment and pity,” so no one “with a little intellectual serenity or common sense defends a cause, however noble it may be, as the Dominican did.”

To some extent the life of Las Casas, the Spanish religious, was overshadowed by this work, of which there were many negative comments by prominent authors. But what is certain is that Las Casas had a very broad and systematic bibliographical production, covering several volumes, ranging from the political to the religious, passing through the social and the legal.

In fact, the protective legislation passed in 1542 was inspired by the reflections of the friar. To understand the historical transcendence of Las Casas, it is necessary, on the one hand, to take into account all his work and not only the Brevísima, and, on the other hand, to draw attention to the context in which he lived and avoid the great myths that surrounded him and contributed to create a distorted profile of him. In this way, it is possible to reach a broader understanding of his real persona, a task to which Bernat Hernández devoted himself in his most recent biography.

One of the lasting consequences of Las Casas’ book was, in Roca Barea’s view, to have facilitated “the birth of the myth of the indigenous Eden crushed by the evil white man,” arguing that it did not matter “whether the native is anthropophagous or head-shrinking,” but that “his state of nature makes him intrinsically good.” Subsequent translations into English, French or German, along with the famous engravings of Théodor de Bry in which sadistic, bloodthirsty and brutal scenes, such as that of the natives being devoured by dogs, can be seen, helped to spread and sustain the Black Legend.

Throughout the third and last part that integrates Imperiofobia, Roca Barea links, as she did already in the first part, the French Enlightenment with the creation of Hispanophobic prejudices, to the point of affirming that “Hispanophobia in France does not occupy an eccentric and marginal place, but is part of the central body of ideas of the Enlightenment.” She cites in this sense those authors responsible, among whom she highlights, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, the Encyclopédie or the articles published therein by Louis de Jaucourt.

The essential summary drawn from the French cultural environment about the Spanish is, as the author summarizes, the following: “Spain is a country of ignorant and uneducated people; Spain is backward; the Inquisition and, therefore, Catholicism are to blame for the backwardness and uneducatedness of Spain, and in general of any place in contact with it; Spain is not part of civilization.” And again, Roca Barea again draws the comparison with the political, economic and social situation of France at that time, marked by a deficit that it is unable to control, by successive cholera epidemics, by a backward banking system or by the fact that “there is no running water or sanitation in Paris, and it was the most malodorous capital in Europe.”

But the basic idea with which the book ends and which we have already stressed throughout this discussion is the assumption about the Black Legend by the Spaniards themselves, who are responsible, in the final analysis, for not creating a narrative to counteract the accusations and falsehoods heaped on the national past. In the first place, Roca Barea blames Spanish liberalism, saying that all the clichés of Hispanophobia “rejuvenated by the Enlightenment are already assumed with perfect naturalness, as an unappealable and self-evident truth, in El fanatismo” (Fanaticism by Meléndez Valdés).

Regarding Valdés’ book, an author who, according to her, naturally assumes the clichés of the Black Legend, she mentions that during the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV there were four death sentences handed down by the Inquisition, the last one in 1781. A year later, Anna Göldi became the last witch burned by Calvinism, which leads Roca Barea to argue that “the bonfires go out in Europe almost at the same time from coast to coast,” in an attempt to play down the importance of the Spanish case.

According to the scheme proposed by Roca Barea, the relationship of the Spaniards and their elites with the clichés of the Black Legend were structured as follows. During the “golden centuries,” the Spaniards, although aware of the Black Legend, did not take much interest in it, and when they did, it was in a tone of “cheerful contempt.” In the eighteenth century, part of the elites began to take on certain clichés of the Black Legend. And from the middle of the 19th century onwards it became a natural part of Spanish life because society needed these prejudices to explain its own situation and, at the same time, with reasons admitted by all, to evade its responsibility.

In conclusion, Roca Barea suggests the need, on the one hand, to admit that the Black Legend and its consequences are still alive, and, on the other, to create an alternative discourse that combats the inaccuracies and insults perniciously maintained about the history of Spain. As an example of the former, the author delves in the last pages into the cinematographic sphere to note that, in most of the films analyzed, especially those that deal with the prevailing historical themes, the image of a Spain dominated by fanaticism, backwardness, tyranny and cruelty prevails. With respect to the second point, and in the words of the author, the book was written “to help clarify not the past, but the future.”

It is pertinent to mention at this time that with Imperiofobia Roca Barea completes her views of the Black Legend, and which she leaves off in the Enlightenment. The basic thesis she defended in Fracasología. España y sus élites: de los afrancesados a nuestros días (Failurology. Spain and its Elites: From the Frenchification to the Present Day), is made clear in the Introduction when she says, “There is a moment from which a significant part of the Spanish elites assume the discourse of the Black Legend because it is the winning discourse of the eighteenth century.” Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to follow the path that takes her from the time the Bourbons acceded to the throne down to the present, with the aim of demonstrating that the prejudices associated with the Black Legend still survive in Spanish society.

Continuing her account near the end of Imperiofobia, Roca Barea maintains that it was in the century of the Enlightenment when a series of problems were born that Spain still suffers from today, such as, the rejection and moral condemnation of the Habsburg period, for which the Spanish elites were responsible because of the influence of Frenchification. Of course, and in line with her previous book, the source of the necessary breeding ground for the clichés to survive was France, especially with regard to Spain’s responsibility for the Inquisition and the destruction of the Indies. The Spanish inferiority complex would explain not only why these prejudices were present in the 18th century, but also why, by the 19th century, the intellectual and political elites cared little about the dismemberment of the empire and its eventual decomposition.

The Black Legend is, in the end, and in Roca Barea’s opinion, “the hanger from which hangs northern supremacism,” made possible because “not only has the Roman Church been completely defeated, but also because the Spaniard, the last of the sons of Rome to rule in the West, has been defeated.” The essential conclusion that this whole series of arguments brings forward for Roca Barea, what she wishes to emphasize, is that “from the situation of cultural subordination there is no way out without the assistance of the elites.”

She concludes Fracasología by arguing that the weakening of Spain can be seen in how the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America was celebrated and how the Fifth Centenary of Elcano’s and Magellan’s Round the World Tour is being celebrated. If Portugal, “with eight million inhabitants, is in a position to impose its presence on an equal footing in the celebration of a historic event, a milestone in the history of mankind,” that means that “our country has reached a state of extreme weakness,” to the point that “Portugal is right now capable of imposing its will on Spain, which has five times its inhabitants.”

The truth is that the theses defended by Roca Barea have raised debates, if not very heated controversies, which have gone beyond, in something that is rarely seen, the scope of academic discussion. This can be seen very well when in the newspaper El Mundo, in its edition of December 26, 2019, a heterogeneous group formed by journalists, lawyers, writers, academics or university professors signed a manifesto “In defense of Elvira Roca,” whose purpose was to reject the information given by the newspaper El País on December 20, 2019, according to which Imperiofobia gave, in at least about thirty instances of incorrect or even non-existent references. Among the signatories in support of Roca Barea were personalities, such as, Carmen Iglesias, Director of the Royal Academy of History, the playwright Albert Boadella, and the philosopher Fernando Savater.

The response published by El Mundo revealed “an astonishing campaign of public vilification directed at the researcher Elvira Roca Barea,” a harassment that had its origin in the pages “of the newspaper El País, with no holds barred,” but which “was taken up by other media.”

The final paragraph of the manifesto closes by linking it with one of the clearest argumentative lines of Roca Barea’s book, that is, the assumption of the prejudices about the Legend believed by Spaniards themselves, who also do nothing to remedy it – an idea which yet persists, although this time in journalism, since as one reads, “the very article in El País, in its efforts to disavow the book, Imperiofobia, does nothing more than confirm one of the theses that its author defends;” and this is, as we have just pointed out, “the resistance of a part of present-day Spanish intelligentsia to admit the survival of the Black Legend among us.”

However, perhaps the most forceful response to Imperiofobia has been the book by José Luis Villacañas, professor of philosophy at the Complutense University, Imperiofilia y el populismo nacional-católico (Imperiophilia and National-Catholic Populism), which is another history of the Spanish Empire.

There were two motivations, according to Villacañas in the Prologue, which prompted him to write this book. In the first place, because he considers Imperiofobia a “harmful and dangerous” book; and in his opinion, it is “an ideological artifact that has initiated the offensive of a reactionary thinking whose effects we are now clearly observing.” And secondly, because Roca Barea’s book attacks “in an insidious and grotesque way” everything that this author defends in his work, to the point of qualifying what Roca Barea does in her book as “reactionary intellectual populism.”

Imperiofilia is an amendment to the entirety of Roca Barea’s book. For Villacañas, both Imperiofobia and the reception it has received are the reflection of something he defines as follows: “The success of the book reveals the limited cultural demands of certain elites of the country, who, faced with a world they no longer understand nor know how to lead, need a legitimacy that Imperiofobia offers them in a brutal way.”

Thus, in the first part of Imperiofilia, he sets out to dismantle the theoretical scheme on which the work he intends to refute is based, by questioning aspects, such as, the distinction he makes between the “superiors” and the “inferiors,” the relationship between intellectuals and the maintenance of imperiophobia or the use he makes of the term “empire.”

According to Villacañas, the essential point in Roca Barea’s book is when she suggests that in order to analyze such complex phenomena, “the variable is still the difference between Catholics and Protestants;” so that “if you go against a Lutheran empire, then you are neither anti-Semitic nor racist.” On the other hand, “if you go, for example, against the Spanish Empire, which expelled the Jews in tragic conditions and exterminated them as a very ancient peninsular people, then, by a strange rule of three, you are anti-Semitic.” In his opinion, this type of approach meets not only with the approval, but also with the complicity, of “famous film directors, influential journalists and far-sighted editors,” who applaud without hesitation Roca Barea’s hypotheses.

In the second part of Imperiofilia, Villacañas exposes what he considers to be the two fundamental categories that constitute Imperiofobia, following the case studies chosen by Roca Barea: Imperial victims and the victimizers. Within the first group we find Rome, Russia and the United States, while in the second group we find Italy, German Protestants, England and Holland.

Villacañas understands that, in the epigraph dedicated to the imperial victims, Roca Barea’s objective is none other than to defend the idea that the use of the power of empires does not produce a bad conscience, which is why she presents a precursor, Rome, in the process of forming Black Legends. From his point of view, she is only interested in proving Rome’s innocence: “At last the eternal city finds its advocate before history. Now its ghost can rise again and put on the white robe of the innocents of history.”

On the contrary, regarding the victimizers, Villacañas thinks that what Roca Barea wants to demonstrate above all is that Protestant Germany is the true enemy of Spain; or, in other words, the precursor and forger of the Black Legend, an opinion that he does not share, since he believes that the beginning should be placed in the wars of the Netherlands. Furthermore, he does not accept Roca Barea’s interpretation of Luther’s or Calvin’s behavior when he says that the latter, in a period of four years, had fifty-four people burned, alleging that Calvin “may be an unsympathetic character, but to turn him into a pathetic criminal is unfounded.”

Villacañas also says that, in general, Roca Barea’s description of Italy, Germany and England is “superficial and inconsistent,” and adds that in the case of Holland it borders on “delirium.” And, finally, he recalls that the entirety of Imperiofobia is riddled with messages that lead to Catalonia, which is why he wonders if, in reality, there is the possibility that Roca Barea “wants to send the tercios to Brussels, to extradite Puigdemont, or to continue celebrating autos de fe, and force the good people to roar after the inauguration of the inquisitor of the day.”

At the part dedicated to Spain, Villacañas simply dismisses Roca Barea’s argument regarding the Holy Office and the conquest of America. At the heart of the matter is his own deficient methodological apparatus. In relation to the Inquisition, he maintains that the sources most used by the author of Imperiofobia to document her assertions are “comics” or “television documentaries;” or what amounts to the same thing, “the sources of the new populist science.” Again, he insists that it is Roca Barea’s intention to compare the Inquisition with the way the French courts used torture, for example, in order to demonstrate in this way, in a view clearly favorable to the Spanish Inquisition, that it was more regimented.

Villacañas summarizes Roca Barea’s view of the American issue as an attempt to limit everything to a battle between the Catholic world and the Protestant world, which prevents the observation of reality with the necessary clarity to understand it. All of this is clothed by the tendency to use “populist anachronisms,” since anachronism is the method most loved by what he calls “intellectual populists.” From Roca Barea’s treatment of Las Casas, valuable because it can thus be demonstrated that a Spaniard initiated the Black Legend, perhaps making good the idea of that negative community which evolves directly towards a lack of community, and to other aspects, such as, the fact that in America, in the 18th century, “the most audacious theories of the Enlightenment were arriving and being studied,” which he regards simply as exaggerations.

Villacañas devotes the end of the book to two other topics to which Roca Barea does not pay as much attention as to the previous ones: the Enlightenment and liberalism. In both cases Villacañas’ opinion is similar. On the one hand, when analyzing the Enlightenment, he says that Roca Barea “is not interested in the movement of ideas nor in understanding them,” but only in “counting the Catholic embassies that were set on fire by the English and pursuing this cosmic battle of which she is the last champion, the last crusade, the Spanish Joan of Arc.” When time comes to say something about liberalism, she does it to point out that “what interests the author of liberalism itself is the will to put into circulation the concept of Latin America as opposed to that of Hispano-America, which affects the Spanish Empire and constitutes the last sign of imperiophobia.”

Imperiofilia closes by recalling that Roca Barea’s success is based on the need that, in the absence of a Spanish nationalist response to the excesses of Catalan nationalism, there is compensation “in a work that calms many insecurities, generates absolute loyalty and attends to the unhappy conscience of many of those who see themselves endangered as a people.” Imperiofobia, he concludes, is ultimately “a product of Steve Bannon’s factory, mixed with the castizo heart of Gustavo Bueno’s imperial melancholy, used by the founding fathers of the Association in Defense of the Spanish Nation in its inaugural proclamation, and current inspirers of the VOX political party.”

The historiographical debate between María Elvira Roca Barea and José Luis Villacañas is nothing more than a reflection of the polarization suffered by Spanish society at present, since it has also had its manifestation in the media. It is not a question of reiterating here the fundamental role that historical knowledge plays in any democratic society, but of vindicating the need not to trivialize it in order to obtain political, economic or ideological advantages.

This becomes even more pertinent in a society dominated by immediacy, where slow and original thinking seems to be disappearing and history tends to satisfy old longings for grandeur. Otherwise, we will continue to be prisoners of a historical narrative riddled with inaccuracies, which refuses to debate with researchers and specialists and which finds in anachronism its best ally; or perhaps this is just a symbol of our own curse, and therefore we are condemned to be haunted by it throughout our history.


Bruno Padín Portela is a historian, with a Masters in Archaeology and Ancient Sciences and a PhD in History from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published articles in Spanish and has written international reviews analyzing topics related to Spanish historiography, especially the role of traitors in the accounts of the histories of Spain. He is also the author of the book, La traición en la historia de España.


The featured image shows, “The Conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521,” an anonymous work, painted ca. 17th century.