Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763

Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763

by Henry Kamen

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From the late-fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth century, Spain was the most extensive empire the world had seen, stretching from Naples and the Netherlands to the Philippines. This provocative work of history attributes Spain's rise to power to the collaboration of international business interests, including Italian financiers, German technicians, and Dutch traders.


From the late-fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth century, Spain was the most extensive empire the world had seen, stretching from Naples and the Netherlands to the Philippines. This provocative work of history attributes Spain's rise to power to the collaboration of international business interests, including Italian financiers, German technicians, and Dutch traders. At the height of its power, the Spanish Empire was a global enterprise in which non-Spaniards — Portuguese, Basque, Aztec, Genoese, Chinese, Flemish, West African, Incan, and Neapolitan — played an essential role.

Challenging, persuasive, and unique in its thesis, Henry Kamen's Empire explores Spain's complex impact on world history with admirable clarity and intelligence.

Editorial Reviews

Atlantic Monthly
“An import chronicle, written with fluidity and a commanding sweep, along with a sharp eye for telling detail.”
Wall Street Journal
“Enthralling …. Magnificent history.”
Publishers Weekly
Whether the term "globalization" is defined as the global imposition of a hegemonic culture or as a more creative dynamic of global interactivity, it's nothing new-it can be traced at least as far back as the Spanish Empire of the 16th and 17th centuries. Kamen (The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision) depicts this golden age globalization on a suitably grand canvas, tracing the surprisingly hesitant and serendipitous spread of empire from Naples to Manila. He demonstrates to superb effect that this empire was in its very origins a truly multinational enterprise in which the Spanish element was one among many. This element, he suggests, was wholly-if understandably-distorted by contemporary propagandists. In reality, without Genoese bankers, expansionism into the Canary Islands (and Italy itself) would have been unworkable; without Muslim agency, Granada would not have fallen, nor Tenochtitlan without indigenous collaboration; there were Greeks, Netherlanders and at least two blacks in the party that conquered the Aztec capital. Like David Northrup in his recent study, Africa's Discovery of Europe, Kamen restores agency to those who have been relegated to victim status: the black people who helped forge colonial society, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. While he recognizes that empire catalyzed Spanish patriotism, not least a regressive nostalgia among settlers in the New World, he observes that among those who cried out "Espa$a!" at the battle of Muhlberg (1547) were crack Hungarian cavalry. While memories of empire (not quite so dead as Kamen claims) continue to shape Spanish culture, and as new forms of global imperialism develop, this sophisticated and broad-minded book could not be more timely. 16 pages of color illus., 11 b&w photos. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Kamen (Philip of Spain) attempts to explain how the peoples of the Spanish portion of the Iberian Peninsula managed to acquire control of an unprecedented world empire. From the 15th century, Spain was inspired by competition from Portugal into mounting a series of ventures to seek commercial ties with the Orient, which led first to the discovery and conquest of the Canary Islands and then the New World. Dynastic interests were also drawing Spain into a contest with France for possession of the Italian states of Lombardy and Naples. By 1580, the Spanish Empire would expand to include Portugal and its colonial holdings in Brazil, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. By 1600, Spain possessed an empire that embraced the globe. What Kamen has accomplished is to demonstrate how much of this achievement was the result not of simple conquering but of the successful cooperation between the Spanish and the people (Mexicans, Peruvians, Portuguese, Flemings, and southern Italians, among others) with whom they came into contact. The Spanish could not have controlled these lands without the assistance of people who saw it in their own interest to help maintain Spain's global enterprise. This study of global empire will interest both students and lay readers. Highly recommended for all academic and larger public libraries.-Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Wide-ranging survey considers Spain’s conquest of much of the Americas in the light of conditions and developments back home. Kamen (The Spanish Inquisition, 1998, etc.) amplifies here his previously stated view that the Spanish military adventure in the New World was Spanish in name only; it relied on legions of foreign mercenaries, Catholics displaced from Protestant lands in rebellion, and would-be Crusaders, all of whom served in far greater numbers than Spaniards themselves. It relied, too, on the cooperation of conquered peoples. The Spanish assumed control of local polities, Kamen notes, by "placing themselves at the top in the place previously occupied by the Aztecs and Incas" but otherwise leaving the pyramid of power largely intact. The process of conquest helped Spain forge itself as a nation; where formerly it had been a congeries of small kingdoms united only provisionally by the task of driving out the Moors, in the face of the common goal of subduing faraway lands "the Galician, the proud Asturian and the rude inhabitant of the Pyrenees," in the words of a contemporary observer, joined with fighters from Castile, La Mancha, and Andalusia to create something new: Spain. This is a history of large forces moving sometimes of their own accord and by their own logic: the institutions, for example, that slowly replaced adventurers and conquistadors with bureaucrats, and the elaborate trade networks that developed to cart off and distribute all that New World loot to a waiting Europe. Kamen does a fine job of answering such thorny questions as: "Who gave the men, who supplied the credit, who arranged the transactions, who built the ships, who made the guns?" Well written andexactingly researched, of much appeal for professional historians and general readers with an interest in the world-systems view of things.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Harper Perennial
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763

Chapter One


The money from our realms alone would not be sufficient to maintain so big an army and fleet against so powerful an enemy.
-- Ferdinand the Catholic, July 1509

In a small ceremony in the year 1492 at the university city of Salamanca, in north central Spain, Queen Isabella of Castile was presented with the first copy, just off the press, of the humanist Antonio de Nebrija's Grammar of the Castilian language. She was slightly puzzled, and asked to know for what it served. Five years before, she had been presented with a copy of the same author's textbook of Latin grammar, and had found that to be undeniably useful; it had certainly helped her with her own earnest and not always successful efforts to learn Latin. But a grammar of one's everyday spoken tongue, as distinct from the formal study of a language used by professional people and lawyers, was something different. No other European country had yet got round to producing such a thing. Before Nebrija could reply, the queen's confessor, Fray Hernando de Talavera, bishop of Avila, broke in and spoke on his behalf. 'After Your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues,' he explained, 'with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes on the conquered, and among them will be our language.' It was a reply that the queen could understand, for in the preceding months she had been actively engaged in military operations in the lands to the south of Castile, and the idea of conquest was uppermost in her mind.

In the preface that he subsequently wrote for the Grammar. Nebrija followed through Talavera's line of thought and claimed that 'I have found one conclusion to be very true, that language always accompanies empire, both have always commenced, grown and flourished together.'

The sentiment was, by then, a commonplace; Nebrija copied the phrase from the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla. The meaning of the reference was also no novelty, and reflected in good measure Nebrija's concern to advance his career by keeping on good terms with the government of the day. 'Language', in this context, was not limited to vocabulary and grammar. It implied, rather, the imposition of culture, customs and above all religion on subjected peoples. Language was power. Victors, as the Piedmontese humanist Giovanni Botero was to write a Century later, 'would do well to introduce their own tongues into the countries they have conquered, as the Romans did'. Over the next few generations, as Castilians came into contact with other peoples, they found that the problem of communication was a fundamental challenge. Talavera himself was to discover, from his experiences in the formerly Islamic territory of Granada, that conquest could not easily be followed by changes in laws or language. The task of understanding, and being understood, had to be resolved before power could be successfully imposed.

It was not an assignment that the Castilians could take on alone. Nebrija's Grammar, like everything he and his humanist colleagues in Castile did, leaned heavily on foreign influences and expertise. Since the 1470s Spain had begun receiving the new invention of the printing press, brought in by Germans. The entire printing industry in Spain until the early years of the next century was almost exclusively a foreign enterprise, with Germans predominating but with an occasional French and Italian printer as well. It helped to connect the Spanish peninsula to the cultural activity of the Renaissance in Europe. But it also had an important political role, for among the first pieces of work produced by the presses for distribution to the public in Castile were the texts of royal decrees. Isabella from the beginning extended her patronage to the presses, financed their work and protected them with special privileges. Spaniards, however, were slow to develop the new invention. Scholars found it hard to get native printers with the expertise to print their works. 'Alas,' lamented a Castilian humanist in 1514, 'that we have not yet been visited either by the prudence of an Aldus or the proficiency of a Froben!' The complaint was a reflection on one of the problems that came to affect Spain's political future profoundly: its technological inexperience. A single small example will serve. Though Castilians were the first to have contact with the natives of the New World, the first drawing from life of an American Indian was done not by a Castilian but by a German, Christoph Welditz, who encountered one in Spain in 1529. The first books to be published in the New World were also the work of a German, Hans Cromberger of Seville, whose agent, the Italian Giovanni Paoli, issued the first printed book in Mexico in 1539. In other respects as well, Castilians were slow to respond to the challenges of the age. Among the few pioneering Castilian printers was Miguel de Eguía, who complained a few years later that Spaniards depended on foreigners for printing and that authors had to wait for their books as if they were gifts from America.' Though native printers eventually set up successful businesses, over the next two generations those who wished their books to be well printed took them abroad personally to France, Flanders and Italy.

Foreign expertise was crucial. Fostered in its early stages by German printers, Renaissance learning in the Iberian peninsula owed its success in part to the training that Spanish scholars had received in Italy, in part to the numbers of Italian and Sicilian scholars who came to teach and sometimes to settle. The humanist Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, the papal diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, and the Sicilian scholar Luca di Marinis (known in Castile as Lucio Marineo Siculo) figured prominently among the Italian visitors. In addition to the strong native influences in peninsular culture, for the next half-century scholars from all parts of Spain looked to and accepted the literature and learning that came from abroad ...

How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763
. Copyright © by Henry Kamen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Henry Kamen is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in London and an emeritus professor of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona. He is the author of Empire: How Spain Became a Great Power, 1492-1763, as well as several other books on Spain. He divides his time between Barcelona and the United States.

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