Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World 1492-1763 
by Henry Kamen.
Allen Lane, 609 pp., £25, November 2002, 0 7139 9365 0
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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.

Although by no means the ‘world’s first superpower’, Spain’s was the first of the great European overseas empires. By 1492, the Portuguese explorations of the Atlantic, which had carried their flimsy caravels to the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores and down the West African coast, had begun to demonstrate how much might be gained from maritime expansion. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, had reluctantly agreed to finance the ever importuning Columbus, in the hope of securing for themselves some of the benefits enjoyed by the neighbouring kingdom. Kamen’s belief, first popularised in the 19th century, that the war against Granada was the ‘prototype of Castile’s imperial experience’ because it taught Castilians to ‘pursue the practice of military adventure’ now seems a little threadbare, if not entirely false. What Ferdinand and Isabella were after when they signed Columbus’s charters in their camp before the captured Muslim city was not military adventure. Nor were they the slightest bit interested in new worlds. The discovery of a few scattered and impoverished islands in the Atlantic may have aroused geographical curiosity throughout Europe, but it did nothing to increase either the wealth or power of Spain. They wanted what their Portuguese rivals had been looking for: a trade-route to the East, if possible a legitimate supply of slaves procured without difficulty and, the biggest prizes of all, gold and silver. Columbus’s discovery was the greatest disappointment of his life, and he continued to deny its existence until his death: he had set sail for Asia, and Asia he claimed was what he had found. It was equally disappointing for his patrons, who were in no doubt that whatever he had found it certainly wasn’t the Land of the Great Khan; and they treated him as monarchs tend to treat those who disappoint them.

All of this changed between 1519 and 1522. In 1516, on the death of Ferdinand of Aragon, the kingdoms of both Castile and Aragon, and the Aragonese empire in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean, passed to the Habsburg Charles of Ghent, who had also inherited from his grandfather, Maximilian I, most of what is now Central and Eastern Europe, together with the Duchy of Burgundy, which included modern Holland and Belgium. This huge territory was tied together, as most of the subsequent Spanish Habsburg Empire would be, by marriage, but at this stage it resembled more a modern multinational corporation than an empire.

In 1519, however, Charles became Holy Roman Emperor, and, as many Europeans quickly realised, here, for the first time since Charlemagne, was an Emperor with the power to make good the Empire’s claim to be the legitimate descendant of the Roman imperium. Charles may never, as he wearily told Pope Paul III in 1536, have had any ambition to be the master of the universe – dominus totius orbis – as which his advisors and panegyrists had so often portrayed him. But he certainly aimed at keeping his scattered domains as one polity, with one ruler, one future and, if possible, one religion.

Then, in 1520, Hernán Cortés, an obscure soldier of fortune from Extremadura, stumbled on and swiftly overran what subsequently came to be called the Aztec Empire: the great barbarian kingdom the Spaniards had always expected to find. It was not only a conquest worthy of Cortés’s vision of himself as another Caesar, it was also one which provided vast wealth in gold and what in the long run would prove to be infinitely more valuable, silver. As Adam Smith wryly remarked, for the first time in human history, Fortune had granted her devotees ‘something not very unlike that profusion of precious metals’ they had spent centuries looking for. ‘One might call oneself emperor of this kingdom,’ Cortés boasted to his sovereign, ‘with no less glory than that of Germany’ – the Holy Roman Empire – ‘which, by the Grace of God, Your Majesty already possesses.’ Charles V was now master of vast domains on which, as Ariosto famously declared, ‘the sun never set’. When, 12 years later, Pizarro chanced on the vast Inca domains to the south, the Spanish Empire had been transformed.

The Empire of Charles V was always the Holy Roman Empire and its centre lay in Europe. But when Philip II succeeded his father in 1556, he was compelled to renounce both the Austrian homelands and with them, any claim to the Imperial title. Neither Philip the ‘Prudent Monarch’ nor any of his successors ever referred to themselves as emperor although, according to the Venetian Ambassador, a gossipy and not always reliable source, Philip once contemplated assuming the title Emperor of the Americas. His respect for the Roman genealogy his family had devised for itself was too great, however.

Thus in some sense there never really was a Spanish Empire, only a conglomerate of states under one sovereign, and broadly subject to one system of law, which came to be called the Catholic Monarchy. For Philip and his successors, the centre of that monarchy would be, as it never had been for Charles, Spain, and in particular Castile. Charles had been a peripatetic ruler and his Empire had never had an administrative centre. Philip, once he had become King, never left the peninsula, and the belief took hold that Castile had made the Empire. In 1580, after a relatively unbloody campaign, Philip acquired the kingdom of Portugal, and with it the extensive Portuguese possessions overseas. From then until 1648 the Catholic Monarchy could truly be said to have spanned the world, from Angola to the Indian Ocean, from Sicily to the China Sea.

Ideologically, it was sustained by the ambitions of the Church, and in particular by the intellectual supremacy of the Dominicans and Jesuits, who sought to mobilise its immense power to evangelise the planet. In 1586, the town council of Manila, backed by the Jesuit Alonso Sánchez, went so far as to propose an invasion of China, using Spanish troops and Christianised Japanese auxiliaries. Philip, his mind occupied with matters in Europe, ignored the plan, which was in any case absurd. But it revealed something about the ambition of the missionary orders. Even the most brilliant and most sober of the Jesuit imperial theorists, José de Acosta – who ridiculed Sánchez’s project – nevertheless held firmly to the belief that somehow, at some future date, the Asia which Columbus had failed to reach would finally be brought within the Christian fold, and the world would be only a step away from being united in Christ.

For the most part, however, the Catholic monarchs from Philip II to Charles II were overwhelmingly occupied with simply keeping the whole thing together. Like all empires, the Spanish was always moving in two directions, forever expanding while simultaneously trying, often desperately, to deter its existing possessions from disaffection and rebellion, of the kind which in 1640 lost Philip IV Portugal and seven years later almost lost both Catalonia and the Kingdom of Naples. As the ambassador of the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus, warned Scipio Africanus when he took his army into Asia in 190 BC, empires are acquired piece by piece, but have to be kept together as a whole. Sooner or later, over-extension has been the death of all of them – a lesson almost every theorist of empire has repeated, but one which no imperial monarch has ever been willing or able to act on.

The War of the Spanish Succession, which followed the death in 1700 of the poor demented Charles II, ‘The Bewitched’, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs and a monarch who had become an image of his disintegrating empire, left Spain with only its American possessions and the Philippines. The Bourbon dynasty which succeeded to the throne (and holds it still), in particular the ‘enlightened’ Charles III, did its best to modernise what remained. To some degree it succeeded. But as Adam Smith observed of the British in 1776, no monarch could ever divest himself of any part of what he had inherited. Pride and prejudice would always frustrate any attempt to transform ‘turbulent and factious subjects’ into ‘affectionate and generous allies’. The ambitious project proposed by the Count of Aranda in 1778, which would have turned the Empire into a federation of states, not unlike the British Dominions, might have saved the American colonies, at least in the short run. It was never taken seriously, however, and Spain, like Britain, had to endure years of uprisings before it would recognise that its Empire – or at least that Empire – could no longer be sustained.

That the Spanish Empire survived for so long is more to be wondered at than its ultimate collapse. This was never, as historians have so often depicted it, a cross between the Napoleonic or Austro-Hungarian Empire and the great colonial empires of the 19th century. It never had, as Rome had had, and France and Britain were to acquire, a metropolitan centre which, for the coloniser if not always for the colonised, could offer a focus for their future hopes and aspirations. Madrid became the seat of the Spanish monarchs in 1561 and for a while it was, as the playwright Calderón de la Barca described it, ‘the common patria of everyone’. But it never became a true metropolis, and today it has none of the obvious, if faded, imperial grandeur of London or Paris or Vienna or Berlin or even Prague. Few could guess that it was once the administrative centre of a world power. Ironically, the most imperial of its monuments, Charles III’s triumphal arch and Tiepolo’s magnificent ceiling in the Royal Palace, celebrate an Empire which, even by the time they were commissioned, was already truncated and far along the road to extinction.

Its closest modern parallel is neither of its immediate rivals, France and Britain, but the Soviet Union, which was also a loose conglomerate of largely self-governing states, held precariously together by a number of factors of which force was perhaps the least important. The active collaboration of local elites, on which Kamen dwells at length, was clearly crucial, but there were other, more elusive cultural and ideological forces at work. Religion, for one, on which he has too little to say. And the law, for this was an intensely litigious society, and the first in Europe to devise a legal system which reached across all its scattered domains – Kamen says almost nothing about this. In one sense, indeed, it’s possible to see the Catholic Monarchy as a legal construct, sustained not only by the various councils of state and the massive law codes which attempted to legislate for every aspect of colonial affairs, but also by a series of law courts and legal constraints on government officials, which often served the crown far better than its unreliable armies. The political economist Charles Davenant, like all good English Protestants, hated Spain and its Empire. But, he wrote in 1700, ‘whoever considers the laws and political institutions of Spain, will find them as well formed, and contrived with as much skill and wisdom, as in any country perhaps in the world.’ England, he urged, would do well to follow her example.

It was the standing of the monarch’s actions under the law, and consequently before God, which made the great ethical-legal debates over the legitimacy of the imperial enterprise between 1512 and the late 17th century of such importance. There were no comparable public airings of the state’s conscience in any other European empire, yet Kamen dedicates a mere page and a half to them. To describe what he calls the ‘theory of empire’ as having ‘small influence on the real world’ is not simply false on its own terms, it is to miss the point. Like all states the Spanish monarchy required an identity. What its various ‘citizens and subjects’ and rulers believed it to be mattered immensely. For whatever reductionist historians may think, empires have always been in need of what Machiavelli, writing indeed about Ferdinand of Aragon, called ‘great expectations of themselves’. Early modern Spain, like the modern United States, conceived itself to be a source of legitimacy, a society governed by the laws of God and man. When that failed, when the Empire could no longer provide expectations or inspire loyalty, when the image which the persistent claim to have done everything according to the dictates of God and nature fell away, then sooner or later its disaffected parts would follow.

Despite its insistence on the diversity and fragility of empire, Spain’s Road to Empire is in many respects a traditional narrative history which could have been written half a century ago. There is a great deal about battles, but not much on the economy and very little on culture, although Kamen does have some interesting observations on the role of language in the construction of the imperial image. There is nothing on gender, even though this was an empire in which women played a significant role. One of them, claiming to be the descendant of the last Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, even sued the Crown for compensation a hundred years after the conquest. Her demand that her ancestor’s empire be returned to her was finally dismissed, but only after years of litigation. Kamen also has very little to say on other areas on which recent historians have written so interestingly: on cartography, architecture and the all important representation of empire both at home and overseas. He has some suggestive pages on the role of science and exploration in the new Bourbon monarchy, but little about how crucial this was to become in the continuing struggle with France and Britain. And when most of the new imperial history is becoming increasingly comparative, and it is evident that all the European powers battled as fiercely with each other as they did with any of their conquered peoples, to have a book which pays such scant attention to international relations is disappointing, particularly in the light of Kamen’s insistence that it was largely foreign initiatives and foreign manpower which were responsible for creating the empire in the first place.

The final conclusion of Kamen’s book, that Spain itself had neither sufficient wealth nor manpower, and that all that made its Empire possible was in the hands of others, begs an unanswered question. Why and how was Spain, or Castile, able to mobilise these foreign resources in what were always, ideologically and politically, if not consistently economically, its own interests? Kamen tells us that all the others ‘who invested in the ongoing business of empire . . . reaped the appropriate rewards’, that the Spaniards ‘made their own distinctive contribution and enjoyed the honour of being the managers of the enterprise’. How they were able to do this, however, he does not explain. And perhaps it will remain a mystery, at least until Serge Gruzinski completes his major book on the Catholic Monarchy.

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