Monday, January 23, 2017

Why Were the Spanish the Bad Guys?

You see it all the time in pirate movies. Bad guy Spaniards. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides the Spaniards come in at the end of the movie and destroy the Fountain of Youth because it’s “unnatural.”

In the 1956 movie The Black Swan, we open with our hero, Jamie Warren, being tortured by the evil Don Miguel.

In the 2007 movie Elizabeth: the Golden Age the evil Spanish insult Good Queen Bess, then launch an attack against England.

Every time the pirates aren’t in conflict with England’s Royal Navy, they are fighting the Spanish. And while the Navy is usually portrayed as uptight buffoons, the Spanish come off as evil – literally mustache twirling bad guys, swarthy, overdressed, and fond of torture and rape.

Why? What was wrong with the Spanish? Why were they so often the Bad Guys?

First and foremost, Spain claimed all of the gold and silver rich lands of Central and South America. While today it seems ridiculous that a country of only 195,364 square miles (about 31,000 mile larger than the state of California) would claim over 8,149,627 square miles of territory – all of which already belonged to other people.

But the racism of the time said that non-Christians weren’t really people, and that they had no rights. International policy also ran along the lines of “might makes right” so that it was perfectly OK to attack and over-run a foreign nation. As far as Spain, and the Spanish, were concerned, they actually owned all of the Caribbean, and Central and South America, and no one had the right to even come into the place without their permission. So they were not at all friendly to people who wandered into their territory.

Trying to defend and indefensibly large chunk of territory, one of the policies that Spain enacted was a law stating that any person carrying even a single Spanish coin, or any ship transporting even a single Spanish coin, was a pirate. Pirates were punished either by being hanged, or by being sentenced to work rowing a Spanish galley ship until they died. And since the only money being minted in the New World was Spanish money, and all trade was carried out in it, many, many “false pirates” were arrested and killed.

The Catholic Church, once the only Christian church in Europe, had given the territory to Spain, and had also instructed Spain to “keep the faith.” In other words, to prosecute any non-Catholics. This Spain did by establishing the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition was charged with “converting” non-Catholics, by torture if necessary. Protestant English and Dutch, as well as Native Americans and Jews were “put to the test” until they changed religion. And woe to the person whose conversion was not deemed “sincere” enough! People were burned at the stake in Spanish territory, and this did not make anyone more fond of the Spanish.

Lastly, we here in the United States are largely descended from the English. Our system of Law is based on English law, and our national language (by practice, if not by actual law, because we don’t have an “official” language) is English. Most of North America was first settled by the English. So we have a history of siding with the English, and the textbooks that teach our children were written by those who sided with England.  

The animosity between England and Spain goes back a long way. In the 1530’s the King of England, who happened to be married to a Spanish princess, wanted a divorce. His wife had not been able to bear a live son (only a single daughter, Mary), and since England had just come out of a civil war lasting almost 100 years over a question of a woman inheriting the English Crown, the matter seemed very important.

This sort of thing had happened before, and it was considered wise for the queen in question to step down for the good of the country. But this Spanish princess had her reasons, and she did not. In order to get his divorce, the king was forced to form his own church, and make himself the head of it.

Divorce in hand, the king (now a Protestant instead of a Catholic) married another woman, who also had a single child, also a girl. Still later another wife finally gave him the son he believed he needed. When this English king died, his chain of succession looked like this: A son, Protestant. An older daughter, Mary, who still clung to her Catholic faith, and a younger daughter, Elizabeth, a Protestant like her father and brother.

Then the only son died.

Mary inherited the throne, and being angry about being cast aside, took out her rage on all the English who had joined their monarch’s church. She re-established Catholicism as the State Religion, and burned anyone who would not change back. She also married the King of Spain, Phillip.

Then Mary became ill.

Desperately, Mary tried to convert her younger sister, Elizabeth, to Catholicism, but the younger sister (who was not only loyal to her father’s religion, but depended on the support of non-Catholic England for her very life) would not convert.

Phillip, still king of Spain, was attracted to the younger woman, and also wanted to continue his alliance with England, Phillip asked Elizabeth to marry him. While his wife was still alive.

Elizabeth was outraged. There are rumors that Phillip then tried to rape her. We’ll probably never know for sure if it actually happened. But if it did, this was a head-of-state, king of one country, propositioning and possibly sexually assaulting the soon-to-be-head-of-state of another country. Imagine Donald Trump attacking Kate Middleton. Especially if she had the power to declare a war.

Mary died and Elizabeth became Queen of England. England and Spain didn’t get along.

And it didn’t hurt that the English were outraged over the way Spain treated the Protestant English sailors that they could catch. And it really didn’t hurt that England wanted the tons of gold that Spain was stealing from the New World natives. And it really, really didn’t hurt that there were a lot of brave English sailors willing to risk life and limb to become filthy stinking rich by stealing Spain’s gold.

And that’s why you usually see Spain as the bad guys in pirate stories.


  1. TL;DR: English propaganda.

  2. wrong, wrong, wrong...a lot of wrong information. I will respond to every nonsense written here.
    The british were the biggest criminal people on the sea.