Pre-18th Century Spanish America Ideas on Human Difference

The formation of ideas about human difference has been contingent upon both fluid and persistent socio-political, historical and economic forces since globalisation arguably began with the age of discovery in the 1400’s, arguably spear-headed by the Spanish empire. This is perhaps most perceptible in the key signifiers of human social distinction. Concepts such as ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ appear to be static, objective human categorisations; yet, when subjected to a process of historical and geo-political scrutiny, each proves to be a subjective and poignant signifier, even a product of a process of social and historical construction and part of the production of knowledge.[1] The historical phenomenon of the Spanish State serves as an exemplar to demonstrate a convergence of ideological paradigms which shaped notions of human difference, underscoring this central contention that ideas of human difference are generated within a specific historical milieu, often involving the confrontation of two or more ethno-cultural groups.

It is crucial to acknowledge that Spain’s dominance of Africa from the 15th century and parallel conquest of Latin America was enacted with the conscious and unconscious appropriation of Eurocentric ideals which emphasised European supremacy and assumed European cultural, theological and economic superiority over Amerindians. The seeds of such national superiority have been traced to Biblical delineations of difference,[2] with its demarcation of blessed and cursed progeny, reinforced historically by medieval theological thought which associated blackness with the devil and sin, while whiteness was aligned with purity and righteousness. The widely accepted European medieval theory of ‘monogenism’, derived from the Biblical teaching of a common ancestry and family tree concept of origins, gave impetus to the Spanish State’s self identity.[3] This widely accepted view within medieval Europe has been largely discredited in more recent centuries, dismissing the notion of a common human genesis.[4]

The Iberian Peninsula had left a potent legacy and precedent at the conclusion of the medieval period, with Spain’s stark delineation and unyielding destruction of human difference. The pronounced ethnic diversity on the peninsula in the form of Jewish and Muslim migrants from throughout Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, exacted a Spanish definition which underlined difference rather than similarity, and in fixating upon difference, brought the reflex action of the decimation of such diversity, through a systematic, historic and prolonged practice of massacre, segregation, conversion, inquisition and expulsion.[5] Such unenlightened, barbaric and medieval practices, one may argue, left their mark on the Spanish psyche, readily appropriated by the American Spanish state, as it imported and imposed its imperialistic, paternalistic and sanctimonious practices, upon a rich diversity of Amerindian ethnic societies. This precursor to the Spanish American state illuminates the historical consciousness of the earlier Spanish rule in Europe, revealing the cultural hegemonic assumptions and practices the Spanish state appropriated from its 14th and 15th century European roots.[6]

The early 20th century pejorative branding of pre-eighteenth century Spain as the ‘black legend’ evokes “Spain’s colonial brutality in the Americas during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” [7] Ironically, Spain drew condemnation from other European nations for such action, deemed to be an ignorant, superstitious and fanatical nation, incapable of entering modernity.[8] Spain’s European condemners had been equally culpable in sub-Saharan Africa, in stimulating the African slave trade. By casting Spain as the antithetical demon, England, France and northern Europe masked their own international sins in the process. This brief observation illustrates one process that shaped human ideas about human difference, namely, intra-cultural ignorance and an insular societal gaze which repeatedly reinforced the values, practices and beliefs of Spain’s own cultural epicentre, and in the process, defined other ethnicities by their differences and their otherness. Moreover, the Spanish American state constructed a false social hierarchy based upon religious assumptions which condemned humans living a more unencumbered and simple existence initially beyond the grasp of modern commerce and technological innovation.

Furthermore, Spain’s Eurocentrism was buttressed by the prevailing ‘Latinising’ philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, whose notions of human barbarism, cast Amerindians of the New World as intrinsically inferior beings, bereft of the light of civilised knowledge and cultural sensibilities. Kant allegedly appropriated the formative Spanish Catholic writer “Las Cassas (and his) sixteenth century prescriptions about barbarians.” [9] The black legend’s origins are attributed by Greer to the three events including “the expulsion of Jews and Moors from the Iberian Peninsula; the so called discovery of America and domination and exploitation of African and Indian slaves; and the privileged position in which Christianity found itself.”[10]

Insight into the formulation of ideas concerning human difference derived from the American Spanish state are noted in revisionist views of the Black Legend, which credits Spain with the dubious honour of “commodifying labour needed for colonial expansion in the Americas…instead of (Spanish) capitalism receiving kudos for stimulating the industrial revolution.”[11] Greer’s assertion that the burgeoning concept of “race emerged in Spain from the opportunistic wealth seeker, (an individualistic cause not considered in eastern empires such as the Chinese of Ottomans), …(inspiring) Spanish conquistadors and other northern European colonists,” [12] highlights the geo-political nature of constructions of human difference. Indeed, Las Cassas’s classifications of the barbarian (emanating from the sixteenth century) illustrate the artificial construction of otherness and human difference, informing the way the Spanish American state approached Amerindian ethnic groups and the African slaves.

Politically motivated criteria to confer barbarian status and thereby remove human dignity, included a focus upon the absence of conventional religion, permitting a thrust of colonialism and imperialism to be sanitised as the Indians of the new World receiving civilisation, in fact a falsely ennobling enterprise. Scholars such as Greer have also drawn attention to the Spanish state’s conference of Las Cassas’ criterion of the Latinate requirement of a civilised society, a cultural construct which excluded the Americas from civility and vindicated Spain’s imposition, in effect a dangerous reinvigoration of the “humanist renaissance recovery of Roman Imperial power”. [13] Furthermore, Jesuit historian Juan de Mariana from the 1600’s drew attention to the concept of the diminution of cultural breeding through inter-racial breeding, another social construct in itself, with little basis in biological fact. ‘Inter-mixing and bastardisation’ as it was pejoratively known, “register a religio-ethnic racism” when the assumed benefit of full assimilation to the pariah culture failed to occur. [14]

This matter of the racial formulations has been extensively studied by Barth. [15] This scholar contends that ethnic identity is maintained by “repeatedly redefining social boundaries, which may or may not coincide with geographic boundaries”[16], …and that by “dichotomising others as strangers or members of another ethnic group, a limitation of shared understandings (is imposed, nurturing) differences in criteria for judgement of value and performance.” [17] In relation to the American Spanish state, while the mindset instigating notions of human difference sprang from European ideologies of capitalism, conquest and misplaced notions of civilisation, the interface featuring Spanish ethnicities in the New World, allowed Spanish identity and membership, and its Amerindian corollary, to “not based upon a once off recruitment process”,[18] but rather find recurring validation and expression. As the politically and economically superior entity, the Spanish state’s view of itself was reinforced as a result of its confrontation with African and Amerindian ethnicities, while conversely, African or Amerindian ethnic groups’ sense of themselves was retained, yet their subjugation at the hand of the European Spanish super power state prior to the 18th century wars of independence, meant their ethnic expression was muted and their religious and social practices were sidelined by Spanish hegemonic insistence.

Some have asserted that the Spanish state’s supremacy over the American Indians was due to “their own theory of the relativity of human social behaviour.” [19] Furthermore, the Spanish scholastics allegedly appropriated Aristotelian notions of the natural man, incapable of moral awareness and superimposed this paradigm upon the American Indian.[20] Aristotelian ideologies of the theory of natural slavery, conveniently served the imperial cause of sixteenth century Spain in the New World. The “concept of natural man – someone who had chosen to live outside the human community, thereby causing themselves to be less human and impoverished…”[21] certainly reveals a pre-existing cultural lens, which dictates what one observes while surrounded by a different culture to one’s own and what one identifies with. It is now quite self-evident that many aspects of another ethnic group and their culture remain unnoticed, as one is relatively bound by the parameters of one’s own cultural limitations and ways of understanding the world.[22] Recent scholars have helpfully turned their attention to the factors which cause new definitions of ethnicity to emerge, stabilise and be transformed.[23]

The ultimate, yet hard won Amerindian independence from the dictates of the Spanish state was a signifier that inter-cultural confrontation clarified both geographic and ethnic boundaries, and in spite of the composite cultural identity nullification, the vestiges of ethnic memory were preserved, permitting a rebuilding of Amerindian cultural practices not derived from Europe.


Barth, F. (1969), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organisation of Culture Difference, Scandinavian University Books, London.

Greer, M.R.; Mignolo, W.D. and Quilligan, M. (2007) Race in the Middle Ages, chapter 4 in Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Pagden, A. (1982), The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wade, P. (1997) Race and Ethnicity in Latin America, Pluto Press, London.

Wimmer, A. (2008), The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory, AJS Volume 113 Number 4 (January 2008): 970–1022


[1] Wade 1997:5

[2] Wade 1997:10

[3] Wade 1997: 7

[4] Ibid ,7

[5] Greer et al 2007: 75

[6] Ibid

[7] Greer et al 2007:1

[8] Ibid

[9] Greer 2007:1

[10] Greer 2007:2

[11] Greer 2007:3

[12] ibid

[13] Greer 2007:7

[14] Greer 2007:13

[15] Barth 1969.

[16] Barth 1969:15

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid 15

[19] Pagden 1982: 3

[20] Pagden 1982:3

[21] Pagden 1982: 6

[22] Ibid 4-5

[23] Wimmer :2008 1011


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