Simon Courtauld

Magnificent joint venture

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.)

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