Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Review of Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 by Henry Kamen

This review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History, Empires 

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Elaborate Review
Overview:
The identity of Spain did not begin before the 18th century, as before they were a collection of territories with hereditary claims.  The Spanish empire was not built by only Spanish peoples.  This book shows who contributed what to the empire.  Development of their capabilities came about through experience with other peoples, and learning from them.  Spain’s territory is the amalgamation of political units of Castile and Aragon, coming about through the marriage of Princess Isabella of Castile and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon.  Neither had effective political power over their realms as they were in civil war.  The way they unified and pacified the realms was by collaboration and directed violence.  They built a web of relationships that became characteristic of Spanish power.  Tolerance of alternative religions and peoples, turned into intolerance after Spain had become Champion of Christendom.  As Spain did not have much resources, it used a vast trade network to obtain what it needed, paid for silver coming from the New World.    

After Isabella and Ferdinand took the throne of their respective territory, they were able to effectively pacify the realms, stopping the civil wars.  As their territory was in the hands of the nobles which controlled the economy and had the allegiance of vassals, what Isabella and Ferdinand did was develop institutions and mechanisms that enabled collaborations between the nobles, cities, Church, and commercial sectors.  As for the violence, they did not end it, but organize and direct it elsewhere such as religious enemies.  

Isabell and Ferdinand, unlike their successors, traveled their territories constantly.  They were known by their communities.  When they traveled, they took along them judges, so that many disputes could be resolved personally.  A monarchy based on collaboration rather than fear.  Building alliances and preventing constant reprisals from warring nobles.  Stability was achieved using traditional structures of power.  

Spain later had support from popes, who provided Spain with funds.  Fueling a religious motive to the empire.  Muslims and Jews were either baptized or forced to emigrate.  Cultures and identity which were tolerated before, became victims of imperial power.  As Spain became Champion of Christendom, alternative religions were not tolerated.  The intolerance was law and ideal, but the rigid attitudes could not be enforced in practice. 

Expansion of Spanish territories required international support by those who had the means of colonial enterprise.  Spain itself did not have the economic ability to expand.  Early in the 16th century, Spain had political leaders which tried to create a stable economic system, make communication easier, and build a military might.  Foreigners tended to control the money, which received property rights in payment for the debt.   

Military force was needed to maintain Spanish power, had had little part in its creation.  It was the collaboration of powerful political elites and enterprising traders across multiple nations that brought the Spanish empire into existence.  Precious metal was key to development, rather than conquest.  Spain was depended on imports for some products such as arquebuses and cannonballs, while also needing army supplies that came from foreign sources.  When Spain was threatened politically by specific nations, foreign interests came to Spain’s defense because they did not want to lose their income.

Conquest did not automatically mean that the conquered accepted what the conquerors decreed.  To put their laws and culture on others, they needed to be understood.  That required communication and time, the former was difficult and the latter long.  

Spain is intimately tied to the New World, the Americas.  There was not that much conquest to the subjugation.  More complicated than just subjugation.  Nor were the conquistadors often soldiers, as they came from different occupations.  When Spain tried to expand, they used adventurers to establish control, but then needed to bring the adventurers under control.  Spain issued rules and regulations, but they were ignored in practice.  

There was great animosity between the various American groups, which the different groups wanted to use the conquistadors to enable them to overcome their opposition, and the conquistadores tapped into this animosity to fulfil their goals of greed.  Using native supernatural symbols against the enemies.  It was less the few conquistadors that overcame improbable odds, and more their very high number of allies that enabled them to overcome obstacles.  Not military superiority, but an ability to adapt to unfavorable conditions. 

Many regions of the Americas were difficult to subjugate.  Other regions remained free because Spaniards had no reason to intrude.  The Spanish did not desire to destroy the natives as that would hurt their own interests in subjugated labor, but there was no hesitation of using extreme violence for security and land.

Caveats?
An easy book to read but can be hard to keep track of who is who politically.  The political spheres of influence are complex.  


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•What is Spain?
•How did Isabella and Ferdinand handle their territories?
•Who did Isabella and Ferdinand have to collaborate with? 
•What political maneuvering did Spanish leaders use? 
•What peoples facilitated the brining about of Spanish power?
•Why did Spain become intolerant?
•Were Spain’s laws enforced? 
•What role did the New World play in the Spanish Empire? 
•What role did globalization have in Spanish power? 

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9780060932640
Pages to read:   518
Publication:     2004
1st Edition:      2003
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5