Spanish Empire Research Paper

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The Spanish Empire forms a crucial component of any understanding of world history during the first global age (c. 1400–1800 CE). At its height, it extended around the world; the activities of its officials and subjects, many of whom never set foot in Europe, established and maintained a significant number of the period’s economic, political/military, and cultural networks, and its territories produced some of the most desirable products of global commerce.

The concept of a “Spanish Empire” has become increasingly controversial. Spain as an entity never existed during the first global age in the sense of a political unit that directed an overseas empire, created and retained for the benefit of the metropolitan center. Instead, before the early nineteenth century, a territorially huge, composite monarchy tied together under the rule of a single dynasty a variety of domains, which included the Crown of Portugal between 1580 and 1640. The accession of a new monarch, Charles IV (1748–1819), was still marked in Manila when the news finally arrived in 1790 with cheers of “Castile, Castile,” and leaders of a newly constituted country of Spain only decided in 1837 to govern its remaining overseas territories by special laws.

Historiographical Controversies

Two types of ideological position drive most of the really contentious debates about the history of this composite monarchy. First, a large number of contemporary countries have originated entirely or in part with the independence of its domains, and the resulting nationalistic historiographies, including that of the modern country of Spain, embody understandings of it as putative empire. From their differing local perspectives, historians of each of the resulting nations pictured the empire in a manner that justified costly independence wars and explained serious nineteenth-century economic and political problems. Second, in order to construct a tidy narrative for a geographically messy subject, some historians present “Spain” in the first global age as a developing, centralized state, whose strength at any time was determined by its autonomy in formulating policy and its capacity to shape society, while others challenge this vision as a useful way to understand this monarchy’s history.

The royal cosmographer Juan Bautista Munoz (1745–1799) convinced the Crown to establish in 1781 the magnificent Archive of the Indies in Seville to preserve the record of the administration of the Hispanic monarchy’s vast Castilian domains. In part because of this resource, historians have concentrated heavily on the monarchy’s administrative networks involving the interactions among various court officials and councils and the royal viceroys, governors, high commissioners, judicial tribunals and justices, trade and taxation officials, and major municipal councils. The emphasis on administrative interactions produces a picture of a system much more unitary and under the control of royal authority than was ever true. A different impression emerges when greater attention is devoted to connections between locations that involved lineage networks, the regular orders or church administration, the investors, managers, and workers (slave and free) who developed agricultural and mineral resources, the merchants who organized vast commercial networks in the face of incredible obstacles, and the massive world of fraud and clandestine networks of production and smuggling. The roles of women have only been made somewhat visible in the last few decades. In general terms, research on the domains of other Iberian Crown governments remains more poorly developed than that on Castile.

The Domains of the Hispanic Monarchy

The traditional chronological limits for the history of this composite monarchy are the marriage in 1469 of two first cousins, the “Catholic monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabella of Trastamara, and the defeat at Ayacucho (modern Peru) of the last Bourbon army in the continental Americas on 9 December 1824. In between, the territorial extent of the monarchy’s realms varied a great deal, and events continuously influenced the patterns of interactions among its domains and at times could inflect them significantly. Isabella (1451–1504) inherited the crown of Castile, which already included the Canary Islands, on her brother’s death in 1474, and Ferdinand (1452–1516) obtained the crown of Aragon when his father died in 1479. The Crown of Aragon was a composite monarchy consisting of the kingdoms of Aragon and Valencia and the principality of Catalonia in the Iberian Peninsula, the counties of Cerdanya and Rossello north of the Pyrenees, and the island kingdoms of Majorca, Sardinia, and Sicily. After a decade of fighting, the Muslim emirate of Granada surrendered on 2 January 1492 and became a Castilian domain. Ferdinand added the kingdom of Naples to the Aragonese domains when the ruling Trastamara branch died out in 1504, and in 1512, he conquered the Iberian kingdom of Navarre, which he added in 1515 to the Crown of Castile. By this time, Castile’s domains had expanded significantly in the Caribbean region as a result of the four expeditions of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and those of adventurers drawn to the region in search of wealth.

Isabella’s death brought to the Castilian throne her daughter Joanna (1479–1555) and Joanna’s husband Philip of Habsburg (1478–1506), son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519) and ruler of the Low Countries and the Franche-Comte on the west bank of the Rhine. Due to Joanna’s signs of mental illness and the growing political instability after death removed Ferdinand as Aragonese ruler and Joanna’s regent in Castile, her elder son with Philip, Charles of Habsburg (1500–1558) became joint ruler of the Iberian Crowns. When his grandfather died, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V, which united the destinies of the Crowns of Aragon and Castile, the realms of the Habsburg Rhine and Low Countries, and the dynasty’s holdings in Central Europe, although the latter would eventually be ceded to Charles’s younger brother Ferdinand.

Expansion During the Reign of Charles V

Charles’s Castilian territory expanded enormously with the defeat of the Aztecs in 1521, the beginning of Inca subjugation in 1532, and a series of long voyages intended to turn the vast Pacific Ocean into a Castilian zone from the Americas to the Philippine Islands. Regions of the viceroyalties of New Spain, with its capital at Mexico City, and Lima would eventually produce about 80 percent of the world’s silver, for which demand was particularly high in China and South Asia. After the death of the Milanese ruler Francesco Sforza, Charles gained a major financial and production center when he took control of the Duchy of Milan, and he continued the efforts, begun in 1497 with the conquest of Melilla, to add North African enclaves.

The terrible destruction of American peoples by epidemic diseases, war, the collapse of complex economic and political regimes, and harsh conditions of forced labor motivated the Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas (1474–1566) and other Iberian authors to develop sophisticated ideas about economic policy, constitutional thought, human rights, and international relations. These would provide an important intellectual context for the eighteenth-century development of distinctive American identities and of the Liberal constitutionalist movements that would do much to reshape world political history in the second global age.

Revolt, Expansion, and Rivalry

Subsequent developments within the global monarchy were shaped in fundamental ways during the reign of Charles’s son Philip II (1527–1598) by the revolt that began in the late 1560s in his Low Countries domains, the organization of Manila in the Philippine Islands as a connecting point between American silver production and the enormous Chinese appetite for this product, and by Philip’s successful assertion in 1580 of his claim through his mother to the throne of Portugal, as Philip I. From the Dutch rebellion and resulting eighty years of military conflict to 1648, the United Provinces of the Netherlands emerged as a potent commercial and political opponent, and by the mid-seventeenth century, Amsterdam had become the financial center of European activity in the world economy. The emergence from 1571 of regular commercial interactions between Acapulco and Manila gave the Castilian government broader interests in the vast Pacific region and produced significant flows of Chinese immigrants, merchants, and products toward the Philippines. The crown of Portugal brought with it not only rule over Castile’s neighboring Iberian kingdom but even more significantly, over Portugal’s extensive non-European domains.

The European and Mediterranean wars of Charles V and Philip II placed great pressure on the Habsburg dynasty’s financial resources. The long, fragile commercial links among Hispanic global domains and the monarchy’s role as the military bastion of reformed Roman Catholicism made Castilian and Portuguese positions in the global economy attractive targets for intervention and attack by the Dutch, English, and French Protestants. During the reigns of Philip’s son and grandson, Philip III (1578–1621) and Philip IV (1605–1665), matters deteriorated further. The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) used methods similar to those of the Portuguese to secure important chunks of the European share of Indian Ocean and East Asian commerce, and other Dutch commercial interests asserted increasing control over another significant component of the global economy, the Atlantic slave trade. Moreover, the Dutch took over the sugar-producing regions of northeastern Brazil and gained footholds in the Caribbean and North America. English and French groups also became more active on a global scale in the wake of such dramatic Dutch successes. The contraband trade, always important from the beginning of the global economy, increased notably everywhere as merchants and officials sought to avoid arbitrary royal seizures of bullion and other goods and a Crown fiscal and monetary regime oriented exclusively toward military commitments too extensive for the Hispanic monarchy to fulfill.

In addition to the Dutch war, the monarchy found itself embroiled with the revived French monarchy under the Bourbon dynasty in contests that would eventually cost it the Aragonese domains north of the Pyrenees, the Franche-Comte, and some territory in the southern Low Countries. European conflict focused, however, on the terrible Thirty Years War (1618–1648), which centered on the Holy Roman Empire, whose Habsburg emperors were the cousins of the Hispanic rulers. Faced with weakened elite support, riots, evasion, and fraud everywhere, the government of Philip IV’s favorite, the Count-Duke of Olivares (1587–1645), pulled ever more administrative functions toward Crown institutions and officials in Madrid, further alienating those elsewhere and making it increasingly difficult to achieve royal aims in the face of widespread disobedience. The most damaging manifestations of discontent surfaced in 1640 when the Iberian Habsburg dynasty was confronted with rebellions in Catalonia, which it would only recover in 1653, and Portugal, whose independence under rule by the Braganza dynasty would be conceded in 1668 when Philip IV had been succeeded by a sickly infant who reigned as Charles II (1661–1700).

Bourbon Dynasty and American Independence

When Charles II finally died without direct heir, a genuinely global war began, to decide whether the Hispanic monarchy would be ruled by a member of the Austrian branch of the house of Habsburg or of the French Bourbon dynasty headed by king Louis XIV (1638–1715). The long War of the Spanish Succession was finally ended by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which awarded the throne to Philip V (1683–1746) of Bourbon, Louis XIV’s grandson, but stripped away control of the southern Low Countries and the Italian domains, except Sardinia (Naples and Sicily would later be recovered by the dynasty). For more than a century, Creole elites in the Americas and Philippines gained greater control and influence over royal and church offices and institutions, often in violation of existing statutes, and especially after the monarchy’s difficulties during two major world wars of the mid-eighteenth century (1740–1748 and 1756–1763), in the latter of which the British captured Havana and Manila in 1762. Bourbon ministers felt that these domains required greater supervision and that their economies needed to be transformed in order to produce more revenue for their defense.

Wealthy Creoles were squeezed out of Crown administrative positions by peninsular appointees, excise taxes were levied on widely consumed products, and labor controls over indigenous peoples were challenged in order to bring them into a money economy in which their purchases could be taxed. Rather than play its traditional role of assisting Creole elites to maintain their disproportionate share of production and political authority, the Crown was increasingly seen by many of them as an arbitrary, destabilizing entity, especially after significant uprisings of Native Americans, urban plebeians, and African slaves appeared to confirm Creole claims that Bourbon policies placed control by the “civilized” minority in jeopardy. British maritime successes during conflicts with revolutionary France exposed the weak connections between Madrid and the monarchy’s overseas domains. Napoleon’s imposition in 1808 of his brother as Spain’s ruler occasioned independence uprisings in the Americas, and the restored Bourbon monarch Ferdinand VII (1784–1833) faced too much postwar poverty and political turmoil in his peninsular domains to hang on to more than Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

Research Challenges

Although the legal and administrative regimes of the various Hispanic domains influenced the histories of each, economic, religious, subaltern, and clandestine interactions created alternative stories every bit as decisive in forming the complex reality of such a vast territorial conglomerate as the Hispanic monarchy. In the end, the histories of each place were fundamentally shaped by their shifting relationships with other constantly changing locations, and until researchers develop the means to integrate such multivariate and multidimensional interactive webs, we will not approach an adequate grasp of the processes driving the history of this monarchy or the world within which it was deeply integrated during the first global age.


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