spain's wealth and its fall from power -- 10/22/19

Today's selection -- from The Mexican Wars for Independence by Timothy J. Henderson. When Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the New World in 1492, it vaulted Spain, already a significant power, to the upper tier of world powers. Then, much to Spain's delight, that discovery led to the further discovery of stupendous, almost incomprehensible amounts of silver and gold in its colonies, especially Mexico. But Spain squandered that treasure and fell from its perch as a world power in spite of, or perhaps because of, this staggering wealth:

"During the 1540s, rich veins of silver were discovered in the prov­inces of Zacatecas and Guanajuato, several hundred miles north of Mexico City. From that point onward, the obsessive focus of the Spanish government was on getting silver out of American ground and into Spanish coffers, while losing as little as possible along the way. To that end, the Spanish regime devised an oppres­sively rigid system of trade, only to squander much of its windfall defending the Catholic Church during the religious wars over the next century and a half. Meanwhile, Spain's elites stubbornly ad­hered to the medieval notions that God was the source of all truth, that science was pernicious, that war was the only fitting ooccupation for a gentleman, and that productive labor was for rubes.

Illustration by Gustave Doré depicting the famous windmill scene from Don Quixote

"Spain's ruling class was, by most measures, the most parasitic, in­tellectually bankrupt, and resolutely mediocre in Europe, helping to ensure that Spain fell further and further behind the rest of Eu­rope in developing its productive capacities. During the seven­teenth century, while England was laying the groundwork for the industrial revolution, Spain seemed to be moving backward. Although Spain jealously guarded its absolute monopoly on trade with its American colonies, it could not begin to supply the sorts or goods that colonists needed, wanted, or demanded. In exchange for American silver, the Spaniards were able to ship a handful of agricultural products -- wine and olive oil, raw wool -- along with some iron implements and crude textiles. The bulk of what they sent -- products that the colonists, a captive market, had to pur­chase at often scandalously inflated prices -- was in fact produced in the countries of northern Europe and reexported from Spain. By 1680, fully two-thirds of Spain's silver was being sent directly to foreigners to pay for these products, and foreigners exercised nearly complete, albeit indirect, control over Spain's colonial com­merce.

"By the mid-1600s, Spain seemed to have entered into a mortal decrepitude. It had been defeated in war; lost portions of its vast empire to the English, French, and Dutch; had primitive agricul­ture and little industry, a shaky currency, and a demoralized pop­ulation ravaged by wars and plagues. Nothing symbolized Spain's decline more poignantly than the king himself. Charles II, who in­herited the throne in 1665, suffered from mental retardation and bone disease, and was so feeble that he had to be breast-fed for his first six years. In later life, he was subject to convulsive seizures that experts reckoned to be the result of demonic possession, the prov­ince not of doctors but of exorcists, wizards, and visionary nuns. His sad, elongated face; his jutting lower jaw (a common char­acteristic of the Spanish Habsburgs, of whom Charles was the last); his oversized tongue, which made it hard for him to speak and caused him to drool; his legendary lethargy and ignorance; and his inability to produce an heir all made him the perfect sym­bol of the decaying empire."



Timothy J. Henderson


The Mexican Wars For Independence


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2009 by Timothy J. Henderson


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