Imperial Spanish Practice

Unlike the British Empire, the vast realms of Philip II owed much to the Church.

18th-century engraving of the construction of the first Christian church in San Miguel de Piura, Peru, c.1534.Britons are accustomed to think of the ‘Empire’ as an experience unique to themselves. But in fact all Europe’s Atlantic-facing countries had their external ambitions articulated in imperial expansions. First there was Portugal, which made the Indian Ocean something like a Portuguese lake by the early 16th century. Its control of contact with the west coast of Africa was formidable and guaranteed by successive popes, who were assumed to have the deciding voice in such matters during the late Middle Ages. Spain followed, being allocated all land to the west of the Portuguese dominions. Then came France, whose mercurial monarch, Francis I, justified his involvement by the exclamation that he ‘would like to see the clause in Adam’s will’ which excluded France from a role in the New World.

Britain was late to enter the struggle for empire, but by the early 17th century it had American colonies in territories which the Spaniards had despised because they did not seem to produce gold or silver. Holland, too, was also engaged as a great trading nation and took over some of the original Portuguese outposts. Since the New World needed a substantial labour force to produce the sugar, the tobacco and the coffee that Europe wanted, a flourishing trade in African slaves was embarked upon. These came from East as well as West Africa and were sold or exchanged with European goods brought from such ports as Cádiz, Lisbon, Nantes. Middleburg and Bristol. This trade now seems an iniquity but the slaves were mostly sold by African kings, noblemen or merchants, not kidnapped by European captains. The Portuguese were the most important traders, for they had ample demands in Brazil, which became the richest of their dominions.

The British Empire was characterised in North America at least by emigrants seeking to escape religious orthodoxy at home. The Spanish empire in the centre and south of the Americas was concerned to impose a religious orthodoxy of its own, based on the unreformed but vigorous Catholic Church. What strikes us most in reflecting on the nature of the conquests by Spain is that the Church provided an all-embracing ideology for the Spanish expansion. It is typical that for a time in the early 16th century the empire’s supreme authority, established on the island of Santo Domingo with powers throughout the Caribbean, was vested in three Jeronymite priors.

Hugh Thomas‘ latest book, World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II, is published by Allen Lane.