One of the top headlines on El País’s website earlier this week read: “The Spanish black legend spread by Hollywood”. The article beneath reported how the Defence Ministry has given an award to historian Esteban Vicente Boisseau for a book he has published on how Spain’s presence in the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries has been distorted by British and US cinema over the decades.
I have not read the book, although El País went into some detail regarding its content, explaining how Boisseau sees a deliberate, long-standing attempt by British and American filmmakers to smear Spain’s past. Given that the article quite clearly takes the historian’s side on the matter, offering a strident synopsis of the book, reading Boisseau’s work itself now feels rather redundant.
“Without a doubt, the African-American population would find it unacceptable if in Disney theme parks there were an attraction, to the sound of happy music, that showed Africans being captured by pirates,” Boisseau notes, in a passage quoted in the article that lambasts the depiction of Spaniards in such places.
Then, apparently with a straight face, the author draws on a famous film franchise that he believes is laced with anti-Spanish slander: “The message conveyed in Pirates of the Caribbean is that robbing, torturing and killing Spaniards, selling, buying and abusing Hispanic women and looting are not only justified but rather that they are happy events, a true bit of fun.”
It’s hard to know which is more troubling: Boisseau’s argument, El País’s willingness to recycle it without critical comment, or a government ministry’s decision to reward the product of such a provincial mindset.
To return to the author’s point: no, I’m sure African-Americans might find it unacceptable to see themselves depicted being merrily enslaved in Disney World. But that’s because they suffered hundreds of years of slavery. Spaniards didn’t. Meanwhile, to cite Pirates of the Caribbean as evidence of a plot against Spain is surely either part of a very elaborate, book-length joke, or something more worrying.
A catalogue of further dastardly Anglo-Saxon celluloid-shaped attacks on Spain’s proud history follows in the article, including the bloated Gérard Depardieu vehicle 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Disney’s animated Pocahontas, or, going much further back, Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (which, rather thoughtlessly, was made in the year 1898).
What do we make of such historical paranoia? I have written at some length about how sensitive Spain, or at least many Spaniards, have become about their international image over the last couple years, mainly as a response to the Catalan crisis. But this silliness over history – attempting to present a prosperous, developed member of the EU as the victim of a weird conspiracy – raises the bar. The petty comparisons with the sins of other countries made by Boisseau/El País – Henry VIII killed more people than the Spanish Inquisition, they protest – make it worse. It’s the Y tú más mentality used by discredited politicians in the hope that their opponents’ scandals will eclipse their own and now it is seeping into prize-winning academia.
When Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed recently that Spain should apologise for abuses committed during its conquest of Latin America, the vitriolic backlash that followed seemed to be fuelled by this recent trend of national defensiveness.
In its current mood, Spain is not going to consider López Obrador’s request and, from a country where it’s hard to look up without seeing a national flag, perhaps that is asking too much. But a more informed, less emotionally charged understanding of the conquest of the Americas can only be a good thing. How many people, for instance, are aware that disease, rather than military might, was the most deadly factor in overwhelming the Aztecs, Incas and Native Americans?
Boisseau’s Jack Sparrow-fixation is only one of many ways in which history can be misread or crowbarred into a particular worldview. Last weekend, members of the Spanish and Catalan governments were among those who gathered at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where several thousand Spaniards died at the hands of the Nazis. In a speech paying tribute to the victims, Gemma Domènech, head of the Catalan government’s historical memory department, cited the “political prisoners” being held in Spain, in reference to the nine independence leaders who are in jail facing charges of rebellion. Spanish justice minister Dolores Delgado walked out in protest.
This is not the first time the Catalan independence movement has tried to frame its cause alongside some of the 20th century’s most horrendous atrocities and noble campaigns. Apartheid-era South Africa, segregation in the United States and Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement have all been invoked by Catalan leaders in recent years, as their insistence on “internationalising” their cause has spilled over into misjudgement. Domènech’s insistence on mentioning the Catalan cause in the same breath as the victims of Mauthausen is surely a misstep even the most fervent independentista should blanch at. Not only does it show a poor grasp of history and a crass lack of taste, but her own cause (which, whatever injustices it may have suffered in recent years, has a death toll of zero) is belittled when placed next to the Holocaust.
It reminded me of a similar case from 2013 when Eva Durán, of the conservative unionist Popular Party (PP), made the mistake of comparing the trend of escraches – gatherings of demonstrators outside the homes of politicians – with Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. For some, history revolves entirely around their own needs.