As with all great empires that have come and gone, it is easy to sit back and smugly point out the foolish mistakes they made and how they could have avoided the tremendous upheavals that often included: enormous bloodshed, tribulations, currency devaluations, descent from wealth into poverty, loss of world status, steep drops in educational levels, and so on. Yet, how good are we at using the lessons from their mistakes to influence our current actions?
As with all life there is a pattern in nations of birth, growth, expansion, self-confidence, decay, and decline. Must is be always so?
Spain’s greatness was relatively short-lived - about 200 years. Spain had a long history of being a province of empires like Carthaginian, Roman, and French. It did not come into its own until its unification started in 1469 when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile and joined their treasuries. When Columbus, backed by Isabella and her enlarged wealth, sailed in 1492, Spain had a balanced and prosperous economy. Craftmanship was outstanding so its products were eagerly sought by other countries. Work was so plentiful that workers from Italy and France were imported. Saragossa, Barcelona, Granada, Valencia, and Cadiz were busy industrial and commercial centres. There were half a million Moors, known as Moriscos, in southeast Spain who produced excellent olive oil, wine, fruit, and grain, both to feed Spain and for export. Jews also contributed much to the economy. There was a fair degree of tolerance. What destroyed all this?
Portugal had led Europe in exploration. Since the Phoenicians did it in 600 BC, no one had circumnavigated Africa until 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and in 1499 Vasco da Gama reached India. In 1493, with increased ambitions, Ferdinand persuaded Pope Alexander IV, himself a Spaniard, to amend the 1481 papal bull, that gave all new lands south of the Canary Island to Portugal, to allow Spain to exploit anything west of 38̊W. In 1494 this was amended to 46̊37 W by the treaty of Tordesillas.
Spanish prestige, pride, and world status expanded with the building of Spanish colonies and with the wealth of 200 tons of gold and 18,000 tons of silver looted Mayan, Aztec, and Inca sources. Spain became a power to be reckoned with. It had colonies in the Netherlands, France, and Italy, and growing interests that led to wars with Protestants, Muslims, Turks, Dutch, French, and English. With 300 tons of silver and much gold pouring in annually from America, why worry about the expense of a large army and navy?
Ferdinand and Isabella married daughter Joanne to Philip of Habsburg, (their son became Charles I), daughter Isabella to the King of Portugal, and daughter Catherine of Aragon to Henry VIII. The Golden Age of Spain in Europe held, at least in the eyes of Spaniards, until 1659 through the reigns of Charles I (1516-1556), and three Philips: II (1556-1598), III (1598-1621) and IV (1621-1665).THE ROT SETS IN:
Expulsions: With increasing pride, pure (?) Spaniards grew to envy and hate the Moriscos whose hard work had made them prosperous. In 1609 Philip III expelled the Moriscos to North Africa and confiscated all the lands which were never again as productive because the victorious Spaniards were too proud to work the land like the Moriscos. Jews had become too prosperous, so they were expelled as well, and forced to leave their wealth behind. Spain went on to attack North Africa, taking Oran and Tripoli.
Collapse of the Middle Class in Aragon and Valencia followed as Jews and wealthy Moriscos had loaned money to Spaniards to buy land and hire more Moriscos. There had been a growing Christian Spanish middle class.
Inquisition: Staunch Catholics, Ferdinand and Isabella had worked with the church to consolidate their power. They revived the 13th century inquisition as a great tool to rid themselves of enemies and to confiscate fortunes. Some 2,000 were burned at the stake. Pope Sixtus IV tried in vain to halt this. When Philip II tried to extend the inquisition to France and the Netherlands it proved disastrous.
The Wages of Sin: Plunder from the Americas did not stay in Spain. It caused 300% inflation and the belief that true Spaniards no longer had to work for a living. This combination caused prices to soar and workmanship to plummet. The gold and silver was bled off to the rest of Europe to pay for goods previously produced in Spain. Philip II imposed a 10% sales tax to make up for the drain, but this destroyed the middle class that could no longer compete with the rest of Europe.
The Mesta (Sheep-raisers’ Union): was so powerful that it was able to lobby successfully for Cañada, a wide strip of land the full length of Spain. It was taken out of cultivation to permit herders to take sheep north in the summer and south in the winter. Herders exceeded the bounds of cañada, ruining much adjacent farmland that resulted in many farmers leaving Spain. This, plus the neglect of Morisco farms, forced Spain into importing food.
Wars: Charles I spent his “royal fifth” of the wealth of the Americas faster than it came in, what with wars against Protestants in Germany, Turks in Hungary, and in taking Tunis.
Philip II put down revolts in Aragon and among the Moriscos, extended Spanish lands in France and Italy, embarked on the conquest of the Philippines in 1565, destroyed Turkish sea power at the battle of Lepanto 1571, occupied Portugal in 1580, and sent the disastrous Armada of 132 ships to punish England for, among other things, helping the Protestant in the Netherlands. He could not repay loans made by German and French bankers. He died poorer than he was on starting.
Philip III and IV were not strong enough to prevent strife among nobles (who paid no tax) and the corrupt government they built. The Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 ceded lands to France and Philip IV, in trying to curry favour by marrying off his daughter to Louis XIV of France, could not pay the huge dowry demanded. Spain’s strength and fortune were spent, but the empire did struggle on for a few more years.Some lessons we have learned, some not:
Like Spain, we in the industrialized world have been living high on wealth not tied to productivity, but stolen from future generations who are left with huge national debts. We now recognize this and we have taken steps to bring the current deficits down, but little dent has been made in the overall debt. In fact, with many countries, it has increased.
Unions, that did much good, grew too dominant and have been curtailed, but can still cause trouble in working against, not with, management. Do multi-nationals pose a similar problem? What are the long-term results of exporting work to lower-wage countries as Spain did?
Like Spain, we destroy good agricultural land. In North America railroads can get by with 410,000km (260,000 miles), but highways take well over 7.2 million kilometres (4.5 million miles) out of production. A prime example is Canada where only 5% of the country is first grade agricultural land and half of this is within 200 km of Toronto, yet this is an area that is rapidly being cemented over. And, it can be annoying to navigate areas with 22 lanes of traffic.
Like Spain, other European powers spent much blood and treasure fighting themselves, as well as in foreign wars. They are now joining with themselves and others in collective defence with reduced military expenditures, but problems remain, particularly with integrating Russia. We still suffer from procrastination. We often recognize problems when they are small, like the Nazi party of the early 1930s, but wait until much blood and treasure is required to save ourselves if not the world. We still live in a dangerous world where greed, ambitions, hatreds, and ethnic animosities pose threats we often dismiss as not our problem, even though weapons of mass destruction no longer require the resources of great nations. We do need a strong United Nations with its own troops, donated by member nations, trained to a high standard of ethics. Paying impoverished countries to provide poorly trained troops can cause more problems than they solve. The U.N. has done well, but can do much better. We must avoid the fatal Delian League mentality of letting Athens, or in today’s world, the United States, from taking a too-dominant role.