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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
Spain in America

Edward Gaylord Bourne

in the
Barnes & Noble edition,
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
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 p. vii  Introduction

Of the many volumes published by Harper in the American Nation series, under the general editorship of Albert Bushnell Hart, between 1904 and 1908, several have stood the tests of time and advancing historical scholarship. One of these durable works is Spain in America, 1450‑1580, by Edward Gaylord Bourne (1860‑1908). The book holds a seemingly secure place in bibliographies of its field; authorities of the stature of Samuel Eliot Morison continue to cite its judgments with respect. Robert Ergang1 observes that it is "still the best concise work on the subject"; R. A. Humphreys2 calls it "admirable." These comments typify modern scholarly opinion of Bourne's work.

What explains the enduring vitality of a survey written almost sixty years ago? Charles Gibson has written that Bourne's merit "lay in the original literary and acumen with which he interpreted sources, in the objectivity of his observation, and in the critical insights he applied to Spanish colonization prior to 1580. He did not pursue his subject in detail beyond the sixteenth century, but he did succeed, through an unequivocally scholarly presentation, in laying a positive assessment of early  p. viii Hispanic colonization before the American public. He may justifiably be termed the first scientific historian of the United States to view the Spanish colonial process dispassionately and thereby to escape the conventional Anglo-Protestant attitudes of outraged or tolerant disparagement."3

Bourne brought to his work a rare erudition and a mastery of the art of historical criticism perhaps unequaled by any of his contemporaries. To these sources of strength we may add a talent for synthesis that enabled Bourne to compress into a few pages the elements of a problem as complicated as the Vespucci controversy; and a clear, simple style, ideal in a work designed for the general reader.

The intellectual and political tendencies of his time unquestionably contributed to Bourne's achievement. The period in which he wrote saw the flowering of American scientific history, characterized by a strong emphasis on objectivity and critical use of sources. Not long before, Henry Adams had given a masterful example of the scientific method in his History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. On a much smaller scale, Bourne applied the same principles of personal detachment and meticulous critical method to his study of Spain in America.

Bourne's time also saw the rise, amid great public debate, of an American empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific, attended, in the case of the Philippines, by  p. ix violent suppression by the United States of native rebels unwilling to accept her rule. It cannot be doubted that the new imperialist climate of opinion, America's new status as a colonial power, influenced Bourne's historical judgments and disposed him to view with greater sympathy the Spanish colonial process.

A book almost six decades old cannot entirely escape historical correction. Bourne's work contains some factual errors. Thus, in regard to Columbus's early life and his First Voyage, we can state with assurance that Columbus was not born "about 1446," but between August and the end of October, 1451; that the story of the presence of an Englishman and an Irishman on the First Voyage is a myth; and that the statement that at first "only the criminals in the jail were ready for the venture" rests on slight foundations. However, the few and relatively unimportant errors in Bourne's book do not materially diminish its value.

It is more important, perhaps, to note that two figures with whom Bourne dealt quite harshly, Sebastian Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci, have fared better at the hands of modern scholars. Particularly noteworthy is the recent effort to rehabilitate Vespucci, initiated by Alberto Magnaghi and pursued along varied lines by Frederick Pohl, Roberto Levillier, and others. I have indicated some recent writings on the Cabot and Vespucci problems in my supplementary bibliography.

The remarkable chapters on the Spanish colonial system are models of compression, organization, and lucidity; they continue to have great value as an outline sketch or introduction to the subject. Rereading these brilliant chapters, one is struck by the modernity of Bourne's  p. x thought, by his dispassionate tone, by his relativism, illustrated by his skillful comparisons of Spanish colonial experience with that of other nations to put Spanish policies and actions in a better light. Bourne has been criticized for excessive reliance on the Recopilación de Leyes de las Indias, for confusing Spanish legislation with colonial reality. However, Bourne used not only law codes but travel accounts and other sources, and he was well aware of the frequent divorce between the law and actual colonial practice. Thus, on the subject of the treatment of Negro slaves, Bourne wrote: "On the relative humanity of the Spanish laws in regard to slavery there can be no doubt; but whether Spanish slaves were more kindly treated than French or English is a different and more difficult question."

Bourne initiated a scholarly reaction in the United States against the leyenda negra, the "black legend" of Spanish cruelty and fanaticism. This reaction continues to gain strength. Indeed, one may rightly as whether the wheel has not turned full circle, and whether a leyenda blanca, a "white legend" of Spanish altruism and tolerance, is not beginning to emerge from the writings of such scholars as Lewis Hanke. Bourne never made a statement so sweepingly favorable to Spain as Hanke's claim, in his Aristotle and the American Indians (1959), that "no other nation made so continuous or so passionate an attempt to discover what was the just treatment for the native people under its jurisdiction, as the Spaniards."

The past six decades have greatly extended our knowledge and understanding of the Spanish colonial  p. xi world that Bourne sketched with such deft strokes. Scholars have investigated the themes of discovery and conquest in much detail; they have explored virtually every corner of the political structure of the Spanish Empire in America; and in recent decades they have made extremely fruitful researches into colonial economic, social, and intellectual history. In returning Bourne's book to active service, it seemed desirable to supplement his "Critical Essay on Authorities" with a bibliography that would introduce the general reader to the large literature that has accumulated since the first publication of Spain in America. This bibliography is of course highly selective. Readers who wish to extend their acquaintance with the literature of the field are particularly directed to the guide of R. A. Humphreys and to the sections edited by H. F. Cline and C. E. Nowell in the new (1961) American Historical Association Guide to Historical Literature.

Benjamin Keen.

The Author's Notes:

1 Europe From the Renaissance to Waterloo (N. Y., 1939), xiii.

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2 Latin American History, A Guide to the Literature in English (London, 1958), p21.

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3 Charles Gibson and Benjamin Keen, "Trends of United States Studies in Latin American History," American Historical Review, LXII (July 1957), 857.

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Page updated: 23 Jan 08