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1: Early Years: Distant Spain

Abstract || 2: Oxford >>


    The writings of a humanist are basically his intellectual history. Hence this personal note. I was born in Torquay, England in 1911, and as a child I wandered around the shores on its beautiful bay during World War 1. Navy vessels came and went~ and I clearly remember arrival of a destroyer different from the ones I was used to; it was American. The United States had just entered the war, and I became conscious of the existence of that distant land, never dreaming that I would make my home there. Some wives of interned Germans were billeted with us; they were kind people, and we became very fond of them. At the same time I saw young English soldiers going off to fight the Hun; I recall how one kindly helped me across a busy street. Then, at the railway station, I would see Red Cross trains arrive, full of young English soldiers with all kinds of ugly wounds. I became aware of the tragic absurdity of such international "relations."

    Staring at the sea had made me conscious of the world beyond the horizon, and I saw another aspect of the sea when we moved to the then great port of Southampton. Majestic liners came from and went to America, the outposts of empire, and other even more exotic countries. Every day I walked past the monument to the "Titanic." The docks were full of all kinds of strange people, among them swarthy people who spoke an odd language. They were "dagoes" —from "Diego"— i.e. Spaniards. Diego, or Santiago, is one of the most common Spanish names, since Saint James is the patron saint of Spain. Later I was to wander the length of the Way to Santiago, but at the time I simply thought Dagoes were odd people. At school I studied Spanish, which was regarded as a rather second-class language as compared with French (for culture) and German (for science and theology).

    My family moved to Winchester, where I haunted the great cathedral where Philip II of Spain, the Devil of the South, married bloody Mary Tudor. The chantry of Bishop Gardiner, in the gaunt counter-reformation style of El Escorial, contrasted with the more lovely ones of earlier bishops, notably that of William of Wykham. One of my first publications was a detailed account of the marriage, based on the conflicting versions of chronicles and historians. I realized that history comes in different colors and shades.

    Philip II’s ambition was to rule the world. This grand design triggered the fear and hatred which Spain inspired in much of Europe. We were proud of Sir Francis Drake, whose victory over the Armada was celebrated in a monument in Plymouth, near where I was born. Later I became familiar with La Dragonlea, the Spanish epic about "El Drac"-the Dragon (Drake!)—the monster feared by the Spaniards. This is a splendid example of a historical figure seen from opposing sides. Had the Armada won, how different the history of the world would have been, to borrow Pascal's phrase about Cleopatra's nose.

    Spain was seen as obscurantist, backward, and ignorant. The Anglican priest of our church, a scholarly individual, dismayed that I was studying Spanish, said "Spain has no literature." He thus echoed the nasty remark of Montesquieu that Don Quixote "is the only one of their books which is good, because it shows how ridiculous all the others are." Speaking with pity rather than malice, he did not even mention Don Quixote, which enjoyed immense popularity in England.

    Already in school I was attracted by the Spanish novels of the nineteenth century, and they had a profound influence on  my attitude toward Spain, since I came to appreciate Spaniards as humans.

    However, in the history classes the historic antipathy toward Spain was apparent. The totally negative attitude toward Spainīs role in the world, which was general in Europe at the time, permeated the textbooks. Later, in the United States, I found that the common view among even professors was that the English came to settle in the New World, while the Spaniards came simply to exploit the lands they conquered, looting them of gold and exploiting or exterminating the Indians. This disregarded the magnificent cities the Spaniards built in America and the work of the missionaries who protected and educated the Indians.  All this is what Spaniards call la leyenda negra, the black legend.  It reappeared in the 1992 celebrations of the discovery of America, which were largely counterproductive.

    It was a shock to me to find that in Spain textbooks gave a quite different version of history, which had formed the outlook of Spaniards from their childhood. This is a worldwide problem; it creates misunderstandings which fuel hatreds which easily explode in wars.  Hence the importance of international efforts to create a common version of history, which would be fair to all nations.  It is an almost impossible task. The latest example is the opposition in Japan to mention in textbooks of the Japanese atrocities in China.


Abstract || 2: Oxford >>