An Essay on the Collapse of Spanish Imperial Might


Ortiz Boabdil confronts Ferdinand and Isabella

Southern American empires of the Aztecs and the Incas respectively, there was only gradual expansion. Realistically the Spanish only ever had control over the coastline through some colonial cities and forts which it planted after landing. It was only through the decimation of the native population t

hrough the spread of European diseases and their use in Spanish wars that eventual allowed Spanish forces to advance further inland. This feeble method of controlling the colonised lands was further hindered by the governing methods employed in the New World. Despite the Vice royalties of Peru, New Granada and later La Plata its methodswere inefficient and hugely corrupt. These became even worse when Charles V began a method of employing rich nobles who granted money to the Crown’s treasury in exchange for a New World appointment. These nobles would often manage the lands largely inefficiently and in a highly Capitalist manner, focusing purely on financial gain from the lands they now controlled. In this way the labouring population of native Americans was squandered through intensively hard labour, and this lead to an investment in slaves from Africa, which in turn had to survive the arduous journey across the Atlantic only to be treated just as cruelly as the Indians. Although, despite it’s faults this policy did work surprisingly well, mainly due to the hardiness of the African slave labour compares to that of the New World natives.

Such inefficiencies and disorganisation riddled the whole Empire and majorly the central bureaucracy encountered massive obstacles in it’s path to effective rule. The main reason for this is the collision between decentralised bodies such as the Councils that ruled the regions of the Empire and the Crown’s aims. As Spain was a nation that came about via the ‘Union of Crowns’ between Castile and Aragon and then when the Habsburgs inherited the Kingdom of Spain he thus combined the lands of the Habsburgs and Spanish. Upon his death he bequeathed the Spanish lands and the Netherlands to his son Philip and thus the eventual Spanish Empire ‘on which the sun never sets‘ came about. The vast amount of lands gained were through succession and not through violent conquest, and even those in which violence ensued it was mainly in defence of lands the Spanish Crown already had claims on, such as the various clashes with the formidable foe of the Ottoman Empire. Philip II himself stated that he would primarily defend the lands that his father bestowed upon him. It was though not this that was a major factor in the eventual downfall, more that the multiple customs of various Crowns that united under the Kingdom of Spain were not weened out, they were embraced – which arguably was an advantagious method to use as it decreased the risk of revolt in the provinces, however it did create a great inefficiency when the bureaucracy was concerned. For example, in Aragon the old laws that were in place at the time of the union of the Crowns in 1469 could be seen nearly intact when Philip II ascended to the throne. This was mainly due to the lack of time that Charles V actually had to attend to such errors; which appeared minor when observed in the massive scale that his whole Empire was staged upon.

Similarly the Spanish enterprise was in fact not Spanish at all, even Columbus himself was Genoese, a nation which played a vital role within the Empire. The Genoese contributed huge fleets for Spanish crusades against the Ottoman Empire, it’s dockyard were used to raise ships for various other naval expeditions, they loaned great war-chests of money to the Spanish Crown over the centuries and even constituted for a notable part of the Spanish army. Without this one small Kingdom the whole Empire would of ground to a halt; this small band of foreign creditors could have brought the mighty Empire to it’s knees if they really desired to do so. But they were compliant, and grew rich and fat from doing so. Other notable nationalities included the Germans, who also bankrolled the Spanish Crown down the generations as well as providing a large minority of the manpower for Spanish forces – this can be seen when considering the Siege of Vienna in 1529 – under Charles V, and then later as mercenaries. Other nationalities such as those of the Netherlands, Portugal and the rest of Italy played equally key roles but i will not touch upon them now, it is the overall reliance on collaboration with others that is the overarching issue, which lead to the collapse of Spanish Imperial power. Inexorably linked to my next point, over time the willingness of these nationalities to aid the growth of the beast declined and thus the Empire gradually declined into a twilight age of static or minimal growth.

The Battle of Lepanto; a conglomerate of Spanish Imperial forces faces the Ottoman Turk, 1571

Most importantly to the actual decline of the Empire was the lack of real leadership to spearhead the country into greatness. This ‘Falta de Cabezas’ was picked up on by the Royal Favourite to Philip IV Olivares, and he stated rightly so that Spain lacked sufficient leadership to continue in greatness. This was perhaps a sly dig at the largely Conservative Councils filled with decrepit old nobles, but he addressed the point exactly. It was as if with the increasing ineptitude of it’s rulers the nobility became less and less able to lead the nation, insufficient as generals, administrators and generally as leaders of men. Linking to this is the actual factor of the ineptitude of the Habsburg rulers that followed Philip II. It was a common theme in the House of Habsburg for marriages to occur between indirect relatives, and even some more direct ones, cousins were usually the choice. However, we can see the epitome of this grotesque habit with Philip’s fourth wife, Anna of Austria, who was the daughter of his cousin and his sister, thus his niece. We can see this as the passing of the fine line between acceptable inter-family relations and incest. The comprehension of this sickens one to the very core, and that is exactly what it did to the Royalty of Spain. Philip III, IV and the final habsburg Charles II were all pathetic rulers who led the colonial giant into dormancy and darkness.

Besides these major factors there are notable others, among them being the immense use of private investment within colonial and indeed overall Imperial enterprise, obviously this fuses with the point on collaboration of others, as this is how it was allowed to take place on such a large scale. Columbus for example was simply hired by the Spanish Crown to perform duties for it, in this way the Crown got all the glory and Columbus got adventure, renown and payment. As well as this there was the sheer amount that the Empire was overstretched by; Castile with a population of around 5 million in the early days was not nearly populous enough to drive a powerful multi continental Empire. Neither did it have sufficient raw materials to export and thus provide finance to hire others, and as well as this the decentralisation of the Kingdom of Spain led to a lack of central funding for the Crown itself.

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