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Magnificent joint venture

30 November 2002

12:00 AM

30 November 2002

12:00 AM

SPAIN'S ROAD TO EMPIRE Henry Kamen

Allen Lane, pp.609, 25

One might think that Henry Kamen, having written books on Spain in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, on the Inquisition, on Philip II and on the War of the Spanish Succession, had just about done, not to say saturated, the period. But no – he has apparently not covered the Spanish empire to his satisfaction; and so we have the present volume, spanning the years 1492-1763. There is no doubting Kamen’s scholarship, much of it drawn from Spanish texts, as he moves magisterially over the centuries: from his setting of the 16th-century European scene under Charles V, to the conquests of the New World, to the sea-change in Spain’s fortunes following the demise of the childless ‘human wreck’, Charles II, and the Habsburg dynasty. Supported by a wealth, at times almost a surfeit, of facts and statistics, Kamen’s theme is intriguing while not altogether surprising: that Spain’s status as a world power owed more to other countries and peoples than to the men of Castile.

When Spain annexed Portugal in 1580, it ruled a third of the world, but its imperial enterprise was in effect a joint venture, with most of the armaments and the finance coming from the Italian states and the Netherlands. While Spain was largely responsible for managing its empire, the resources and manpower, according to Kamen, came from elsewhere. Some of the principal players, too – Columbus, Spinola, missionary explorers such as Padre Kino – were non-Spaniards, and Philip II, who presided over Spain’s imperial acquisitions, had a Flemish father and a Portuguese mother.

The Netherlands, Lombardy, Naples and Sicily were of course part of Philip’s kingdom, and Protestants served in Spain’s forces in Europe. (In the next century a Dutch Protestant admiral would command the Spanish navy.) At the battle of Lepanto, the great majority of the galleys were Italian, mostly Venetian, while Spain provided the highest proportion of men.


In New Spain, many of the early colonists were Italian, and Spain was assisted in its conquests both by native Indians and by slaves from West Africa. Chinese helped in the subjugation of the Philippines, where there were never enough Spaniards to extend the empire into southeast Asia. Because of the very few Spaniards in the New World relative to the vastness of their American empire, little of it was actually subject to colonial authority. The frontiers were pushed northwards by intrepid Franciscan missionaries, but their missions were more successful in keeping other foreign powers out than in converting the natives. The indigenous people also had to put up with Old World animals, plants and pests, which travelled from Europe. But some things caught on: though not mentioned by Kamen, bullfighting was recorded in Mexico within seven years of Cortes’ arrival.

When Spain began to lose power in Europe, in the 17th century, to the Dutch, French and English, they continued to co-operate commercially in America. The Spanish empire was, says Kamen, the first effective example of a globalised economy, based on the seemingly unending supply of silver crossing the Atlantic. Wars did not stop trade, which probably reached its peak during Charles II’s reign. But it may be that the people of the peninsula were always too insular, in their culture and their attitude to learning, to keep up with the rest of Europe.

One could wish that Kamen had written more about the personalities of his story. Did Charles II, who was chronically sick for all 35 years of his reign, make any difference to the course of history? How far can the young Bourbon, Philip V, be blamed for the humiliation of the treaty of Utrecht? It is good to see Francisco de los Cobos, Emperor Charles V’s principal administrator in Spain for some 30 years, making a rare appearance in an English-language history book; but it would surely have been worth mentioning his patronage of the country’s outstanding Renaissance architect, Andres de Vandelvira, not least because Cobos was able to commission those glorious buildings in Ubeda with the funds that came his way from Pizarro’s Peruvian treasure.

Simon Courtauld’s latest book, Border Life: Travels between Mexico and the USA, will be published by Libri Mundi in March 2003.


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