Great Expectations of Themselves

Anthony Pagden

  • Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World 1492-1763 by Henry Kamen
    Allen Lane, 609 pp, £25.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9365 0

At its height, roughly between 1556 and 1640, the Empire of the kings of Spain stretched from the Philippines to the shores of the North Sea. The 19th-century Russian Empire covered more territory and the British had a larger population, but no other European empire was spread so widely or embraced so many different peoples. This behemoth has conventionally been called the Spanish Empire. At the time, however, Spain described two united, but in many respects distinct kingdoms, those of Castile and Aragon, and the Empire was widely believed to be, and was represented as, the creation of Castile. By the middle of the 17th century, it had reached its furthest extent, exhausted its vast resources, and was already beginning to crumble, consumed by rebellious subjects and economic forces its rulers were powerless to control. A hundred years later it was all but finished, a bit-player on an international stage dominated by its old enemies, Britain and France.

Henry Kamen’s ambition is to show that this historical picture is essentially false. According to him, Spain did not make the Spanish Empire, the Empire made Spain. Furthermore, it was not a single coherent organism dependent for its existence on Castile, as the older historiography (in Kamen’s account of it) has always maintained. Rather, it was an assemblage of bits and pieces run by a bewildering range of peoples, cultures and even, on occasions, religions. Castile’s role in empire building was certainly crucial, but it could never have managed it alone. The shape this global power finally acquired was as much Aragonese as Castilian, and as much Italian – Genoese and Neapolitan – as Aragonese.

Kamen likes advancing provocative arguments. At first encounter, the idea that the Spanish Empire was a multinational affair, created, financed and in part managed by non-Spaniards, has much to recommend it. It is, however, neither as original nor as provocative as he suggests. Kamen makes no mention of the so-called ‘new’ imperial history, but Spain’s Road to Empire is following in the steps of some of the best recent work on the British and French Empires. The broad argument that modern empires were co-operative affairs, and that the experience of empire created the modern nation, is, for instance, the main theme of Linda Colley’s Captives (2002). The recognition that all empires are essentially frail – Kamen’s point of departure is Braudel’s description of the Empire of Philip II as ‘un total de faiblesse’ – is also widely accepted. True, few recent historians of Spain have seen things this way, but neither are they as resolutely nationalistic as Kamen makes out. Most of the works he cites in support of his belief that Spanish historiography is still dominated by an ‘essentially imperialist and Eurocentric perspective’ date from the first half of the last century. Set against, say, John Elliott’s concept of a ‘multiple monarchy’ (Elliott is absent even from Kamen’s bibliography which, given his enormous influence, is difficult to account for) or Serge Gruzinski’s writings on mestisaje (also absent) which depict the Empire as not only multinational but also multiracial, his claims appear a great deal more modest.

Kamen’s end-dates are familiar ones: 1492 was the year of the final collapse of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews and, of course, Columbus’s first voyage; 1763 marked the end of the Seven Years War and established Britain as the world’s greatest maritime power. Spain had been in decline for over a hundred years by then, but Kamen is right to pursue his story through to what was, in retrospect, the final phase of the Empire beyond the frontiers of Europe. It is not entirely clear, however, why he didn’t continue to the end of the century, when attempts by a new enlightened administration to transform Spain’s overseas possessions into the likeness of British America, began the cycle of wars of independence which by 1898, had finally shrunk what his blurb absurdly describes (in gold capitals) as the ‘world’s first superpower’ to more or less what it had been in 1492.

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