History of the Spanish Empire

The 17 year old Carlos I, son of Juana the Mad and Felipe the Handsome, had to leave his Flemish homeland to claim the Spanish inheritance left to him on the death of Fernando in 1516. When, in 1519, he also became ruler of the Holy Roman Empire he was, arguably, the most powerful man in Europe apart from the Pope. Under his stewardship, Spain would begin to add further American territories and also more land in Central Europe. Firstly, though, Carlos had to overcome quite a lot of resentment in his ‘home’ country. After all, at the beginning of his reign he spoke absolutely no Castilian, had never lived outside Flanders and was thought to be squandering the legacy of Los Reyes Católicos (the Catholic Kings). Because of his strong leadership, devout Catholicism and his success in emulating, and then surpassing, neighbouring Portugal and its overseas adventures, Carlos won over his critics.

During the time of Fernando, Spain’s American assets were mainly islands in the Caribbean, beginning with Santo Domingo, and then the establishment of a colony in Cuba in 1509. By the time 1600 was to arrive, however, the country was in control of all the largest islands in the Caribbean, most of modern Mexico and Central America, The Philippines, Florida and large parts of South America itself, from Venezuela down to Argentina.

Many of these new possessions were gained because of the work of adventurers and explorers who became known as Los Conquistadores – the ruthlessly brilliant conquistadors. Hernán Cortés, starting from the base in Cuba, was responsible for subduing the Aztec Empire in Mexico. Famous for scuttling 10 of his 11 ships, so that the sailors could not be tempted to try to mutiny and escape from Mexico, and accompanied only by about 650 soldiers and sailors, Cortés ruthlessly imprisoned the Aztec Royal family. He personally, in 1525, tortured and killed Cuauhetemoc, the last Aztec Emperor, and several other leading Royals. Aided by the imported Old World diseases such as smallpox, which caused the deaths of 90% of the native population, the Aztec civilisation was largely destroyed.

Shortly afterwards, Francisco Pizarro was able to begin a similar process with the Incas of Peru, in 1532 capturing the ruling monarch, Atahualpa. By a mixture of cunning strategy, outstanding leadership and far superior weaponry a small Spanish force was able to overcome a much larger Inca army. The new colonies were able to send home enormous cargoes of silver and gold accumulated from the Aztec and Inca Empires, where the Spanish King was entitled to El Quinto Real, or the Royal Fifth. As Seville was the port receiving all of this trade back in Spain, it grew into one of the wealthiest cities in Europe during the sixteenth century. It is also worth visiting the wonderful town of Trujillo in Extramadura, Pizarro’s birthplace, which really is like walking onto a 16th century film set. The Plaza Mayor is dominated by a statue of Pizarro and the whole place was transformed by Inca wealth.

When, in the middle of the century, enormous silver deposits were uncovered in Mexico and Bolivia, these were able to replace the now depleted riches of the Aztecs and Incas. The indigenous population was forcibly moved to newly founded towns established around the silver mining areas and they were later supplemented by imported African slaves. The efforts of Catholic missionaries such as Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas ensured that laws were brought in to give some sort of protection to the locals and to ensure that the colonisation had a religious and moral aspect as well as the economic one.

By the time Carlos I died in 1556, the majority of the wealth from the new world had been spent on European territorial conflicts so that his son and successor, Felipe II, had to continue to try to develop new sources, further increasing the overseas Empire. In 1580, he was able to claim the throne of Portugal and so unite the two most prominent European overseas empires. However, there was no great internal development of trade or industry to help sustain the economy at home. In Spain, foreign merchants were the dominant force and money which didn’t go to them – or for European conflicts – tended to be spent on building enormous palaces and churches. Indeed, one of Felipe’s biggest extravagancies was to decide to convert the small provincial town of Madrid into his new capital – after a brief flirtation with Valladolid – which was a tremendously costly exercise.

By the time of Felipe’s death in 1598, the Spanish Empire was already on the brink of decline and this was exacerbated by the succession of three less than successful monarchs. Felipe III didn’t care much for the life of the court and liked hunting instead; Felipe IV would rather cultivate a reputation for the beauty of his mistresses and both of them unofficially abdicated their responsibilities to others. Having unsuccessful wars with Holland and France, losing control of Portugal and then, in 1630, losing the monopoly on American silver and consequently those shipments dwindling substantially, Spanish power was rapidly diminishing.

When Carlos II proved to be unable to produce children, leading to the War of the Spanish Succession, the collapse of the Spanish Empire was inevitable.

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