Reclaiming an imperial history of the (white, Anglo-Saxon) West (that excludes Spain)

Francisco de Vitoria

Some of the English-speaking world’s most renowned historians have recently set up a scholarly group whose aim they declare is “to reclaim history, not weaponise it”, by means of calling out “fake history” in the face of “culture wars”. Their website, History Reclaimed, justifies this endeavour as a response to undefined “campaigns to rewrite the histories of Western democracies”. In their view, “blatantly false readings of history” are seeking to undermine the morale of democratic and free societies by, for instance, stigmatising some of their respective nations’ central figures as racists because of any tenuous connections with slavery during their colonial past.

The group includes accomplished and celebrated professors such as Robert Tombs, David Abulafia, Nigel Biggar, and Niall Ferguson. Their website, and their social media presence, combines new popular history materials with repurposed, older articles written by its main proponents. Their project vindicates a “shared history” of the West that celebrates the legitimacy, and the achievements, of the Anglosphere: the subheading of their introductory text briefly states that the culture wars undermining the West are “particularly virulent in North America, Australasia and Britain”.

The reception of this polemic venture has been predictably mixed. Right-wing tabloids have applauded this “fightback” by “top academics” against the “woke” agenda of Black Lives Matter and related movements. This type of positive reaction often emphasises the supposedly uphill struggle of these historians against the dominant discourse in the public sector, the civil service, and the universities that employ them across the English-speaking world.

Despite the facile narrative that defines this type of media, the claim is not without merit when noting that most endorsers are of emeritus status. The advancement of their own academic careers is evidently no longer central to their practice. Self-censorship is likely to operate amongst younger scholars of a similar persuasion in departments where mainstream narratives may apply suffocating pressure to conform with anti-imperial and decolonising programmes.

In a persuasively argued blog entry, Professor Alan Lester of the University of Sussex casts a critical eye over the group and their initial entries, by noting how its promoters “believe themselves to be marginalised and gagged” despite their relatively privileged positions, which include at least one CBE (Professor Biggar). Lester rightly takes issue with History Reclaimed over their notion of “shared” history, one that, in the context of the British Empire, denied the sovereignty, agency, and dignity of Black and Indigenous people.

Whilst acknowledging that activists often get historical detail wrong in their contemporary defence of Black and Indigenous histories and rights, the ethos of History Reclaimed seems blind to its own contradictions when attempting to “restore redemptive balance” to the history of the British Empire by incurring in hyperbole, decontextualisation or cherry-picking of testimonies and anecdotes.

I will add to Professor Lester’s criticisms not by accumulation, but instead by lamenting the group’s reductionist view of what “The West” actually is. In what looks like a historical branch of the AUKUS defence pact, History Reclaimed purports to defend the positive legacies of colonialism whilst ignoring the contributions to civilisation made by European nations other than Britain.

This is harder to justify considering that the group includes renowned experts in Mediterranean history such as Professor Abulafia. Because of the narrowness of this perspective, the project seems condemned to producing only scattered and partial pages in its professed aim to defend the self-worth of Western democracies based on the implementation of their best historical values.

By ignoring, for instance, Spain’s historical endeavours, the group misses some of the cultural seeds of the “free world”. Spain’s reputation has been historically castigated, for the best part of four centuries, as part of a war of propaganda between Catholic and Protestant Europe that led to the Black Legend and to a patronising, Orientalist, often racist, view of the Iberosphere that was reinforced by Romanticism. Popular perceptions of Spain’s Reconquest and global expansion are shaped by false and decontextualised narratives about the Inquisition and the values of its empire, despite the positive contributions made in recent decades by, amongst others, rigorous English-speaking Hispanists such as John Elliott, Geoffrey Parker, and Stanley Payne.

Reclaiming Spain’s history as a fundamental element of the development of Western ideas requires a brave step forward: accepting that the West cannot be understood without the contributions made by Al-Andalus and Sepharad to most things we hold dear, that is, without acknowledging that Islam and Judaism are very much part of our shared culture. The tradition that would lead to the separation of Church and State cannot be detached, in its most profound roots, from the double truth expounded by Averroes many centuries earlier, a doctrine that would interact with Thomistic thought in Scholastic Christianity and that would pave the philosophical way for the Renaissance.

Equally, how could we explain advances in medicine without the influence of Avicenna and his Canon Medicinae, or without the innovation in surgical science and equipment that filtered through to Europe via Southern Spain? How could we configure a rights-based notion of the law without reference to Maimonides and his preference for acquitting a thousand criminals over condemning a single innocent man? What would have happened to the works of the Classics after the mythical fire of the library of Alexandria had it not been for the School of Translators of Toledo set up by the Christian Kingdom of Castile under the sponsorship of King Alfonso X the Wise?

When it comes to imperial history, the New Laws of the Indies, largely shaped by the empathetic eye of Father Bartolomé de las Casas, and based on the philosophy of Scholastics of Salamanca such as Francisco de Vitoria, were an early attempt at consecrating the dignity of the indigenous people in the letter of the law. This was a moral debate unheard of in the Anglosphere until many centuries later, and Spain’s official policy concluded, with Vitoria’s De Indis, that the indigenous people of the New World had agency, dignity, could not be enslaved, and needed to be treated fairly as fellow human beings with a soul of their own.

New laws of the Indies

The Spanish crown defended such notions, in an almost utopian struggle against human nature and the dynamics of colonialism, to the best of its capacity during the viceroyalties system. Spain produced an empire based on “borders of inclusion” that led to a mestizo continent, in contrast with the largely white Anglosphere of the “borders of exclusion” redeemed by History Reclaimed. This missed opportunity to defend a wider set of Western values is also illustrated by the visible legacies of 48 UNESCO world heritage sites, such as universities and hospitals, built by the Spanish crown outside Spain, in stark contrast with just 14 left by the British Empire across the world.

Similarly, the 2021 iteration of the series Ethnologue: Languages of the World documents the survival of some 30 million speakers of indigenous languages in the territories of the former Spanish crown, spread over a hundred aboriginal languages, of which Guarani, with 6.5 million speakers, is the most widely spoken. By contrast, North of the Rio Grande, barely 170,000 speakers of Navajo and a few tens of thousands of Sioux and Western Apache survive. Unlike other global languages such as English, French or Mandarin, Spanish did not expand as a predator of minority languages, but rather as a guarantor of their survival.

Francisco de Vitoria himself advocated that the conversion to Christianity of the American Indians could only be carried out through a system that ensured mutual understanding. Spanish Franciscans were responsible for the first grammars of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, as well as catechisms and manuals of Otomi, Purepecha and Mayan, whose formal survival is largely due to their efforts. Likewise, the Dominicans did the same with the Mixtec and Zapotec languages, and the Jesuits promoted the formalisation, use and development of the Guarani, Mapudungun and Allentiac languages in the Southern Cone. Quechua even spread to regions where it had never been the dominant language.

The great unifying expansion of Spanish at the expense of the indigenous languages throughout the American continent would take place, paradoxically, coinciding with the declarations of independence of the different Spanish-American nations, after the expulsion of the Jesuits in the 18th century, and with the collapse of the empire in the 19th century.

Therefore, when attempting to legitimately defend the brighter passages of the West’s colonial past, History Reclaimed does its cause a disservice by focusing, thus far exclusively, on the histories of the largely white, English-speaking nations of the world. In doing that, their credentials as potential champions of a countercultural movement also suffer: what they are doing is simply defending what has been the status quo in international historiography and its popular perceptions for several centuries. If this was the case, introducing elements of comparison such as those provided by the Spanish-speaking world would risk further damage to their narrative, by casting a comparatively darker tone (in both literal and metaphorical senses) over the history they seek to celebrate.

Read more by Carlos Conde Solares

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