Book Review: Empire: How Spain Became A World Power 1492-1763

Empire:  How Spain Became A World Power 1492-1763, by Henry Kamen

There are a great many writers, some who fancy themselves historians, who complain about the sorts of biases that histories often have in emphasizing only certain players.  This book does more than that, in actively seeking to provide some necessary balance to a look at Spain’s empire and what that meant and who was involved in it, over the course of a lengthy book of more than 500 pages where the author goes into great detail about the polyglot composition of Spain’s imperial possessions and the complexity in which they were ruled over and even the limited scope that they often involved.  Now, I happen to believe that those who direct and lead deserve a great deal of credit for what gets done, but this book does a good job at showing the level of collaboration that was necessary among people from diverse backgrounds so that the Spanish imperial effort could succeed, some of whom were enemies of Spain but traders to the Spanish colonies that allowed them to receive necessary goods for survival–as was the case with Britain and the Netherlands.  At the very least, this sort of book can help re-frame the debates that exist in history from being stale arguments about important people and peoples.

This book is a bit more than 500 pages and seeks to explain how it is that Spain got to be and stayed as a world power for a period of nearly 300 years.  This work is divided into eleven generally chronological chapters, beginning with a list of illustrations and maps and a preface that makes it clear that the author has a social history in mind rather than one that focuses on the leaders of Spain’s political or military order.  After that the author discusses the foundations of Spanish empire in the marriage alliances that brought Castile and Aragon together and the negotiations that led to the takeover of Grenada in 1492 (1).  After that the author discusses the early Western Empire that came about through the Burgundian inheritance (2) as well as the freelance operations that led to the New World and its settlement (3), even if it can’t really be called a conquest.  The author discusses the way that many peoples were involved in making Spain a world power in the 16th century (4) and spends a chapter paying close attention to Manila (5) and the complex way that Spain managed to hold on to this entrepot in the face of its isolation.  There are chapters on the role of the frontier and the way that few Spaniards were present on Spain’s porous borders (6) as well as the way that Spain struggled with the business of world power but long found willing assistance from friends and foes in underwriting and supplying its imperial needs (7).  After that the author discusses questions of identity and missionary work (8) as well as the shoring up of the empire in 1630-1700 in the face of Dutch independence (9).  The author explores the Spanish colony under the management of the Bourbons (10) and then closes with a look at what it took for Spain’s empire to be established and maintained in the broader perspective (11), after which the book ends with the usual glossary, list of abbreviations, notes, select bibliography, and index.

It is important to recognize that no nation can make it to a world power without help.  Some of that help comes from one’s own people, but a great deal of that help comes from immigrants, other nations willing to trade with you or your imperial territories, peoples who provide mercenaries or linguistic help, the people of those imperial territories, and many others.  A proper understanding of historical context and a concern for the just giving of credit where it is due requires us to be honest about these sorts of matters, and it is worthwhile to ponder the complexities of how empire is made.  Whether we are looking at who serves as soldiers in one’s armies, or who translates in diplomatic matters, or who trades what, or who provides necessarily logistical work, a lot of people must act in a beneficial matter, including one’s enemies, for an empire to endure as long as Spain’s did.  That Spain itself was deeply divided among different polities that were not until at least the 18th centuries patched into one state, and that still to this day have not become unified together, is something that needs to be recognized and this book is a worthwhile piece of Atlantic (and Pacific and Mediterranean) history in doing that.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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