Spain's Road to Empire,  by Henry Kamen




Empire: how Britain made the modern world by Niall Ferguson

Piers Brendon finds that Europe's greatest empires both failed to practise what they preached

11 January 2003

It was an empire, so the cliché ran, on which the sun never set. It began amid loot and blood, continuing with slavery and Christianity. Its builders divided and ruled – more by collaboration than coercion, though they anticipated the Germans in setting up concentration camps. It relied on private enterprise rather than state aid, for its home base was tiny and its people mostly indifferent, if not hostile, to the imperial enterprise. Indeed, the empire was so disparate that historians have questioned whether it had any genuine existence at all. But its cultural legacy survives and its language (as befits a race of hopeless linguists) is now ubiquitous.

Which empire? This description fits both the British empire and the Spanish. But if similarities emerge strikingly from these excellent books, so do their differences. These are brought out all the more clearly because the authors have radically contrasting approaches to history.

Crudely stated, Henry Kamen is a splitter while Niall Ferguson is a lumper. The former dissects the Spanish empire so sharply that he ends up with little more than a congeries of weaknesses. The latter, hammering together a print version of what promises to be a fine television series for Channel 4, reckons the British empire was on the whole a Good Thing. The books shed an interesting light on each other.

Kamen argues that the Spanish empire was hardly worthy of the name since it was rotten to the core. It was based on dynastic alliances rather than national vigour, starting with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469 and growing into an unwieldy European conglomerate under the Emperor Charles V. Spain had a small population and large debts. It was technologically backward, militarily feeble and culturally hermetic. It relied on Genoese bankers, German soldiers, Italian and Belgian sailors, Indian allies in the New World, Chinese traders in the Philippines. The Spanish monarch could never control its far-flung territories or monopolise their wealth. When the Araucanians captured the governor of Chile, they killed him with symbolic refinement – by pouring molten gold down his throat.

Kamen makes his case incisively, but not altogether convincingly. If Spanish power was illusory, how did Pizarro and 260 countrymen capture Atahualpa, the ruler of Peru, in 1532, massacre 8,000 followers in two and a half hours, collect a king's ransom in treasure and behead the Inca empire? This was exceptional, Kamen asserts. The usual process was to exploit conflicts in the indigenous population, as Cortes did. When he stormed Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital) in 1521, his army consisted of 900 Spaniards and 300,000 native warriors.

Nevertheless, this was a Spanish victory just as Plassey was a British one, even though most of Clive's troops were sepoys. The point is that both empires employed auxiliaries and ruled with the help of local élites. This did not mean they were impotent. Nor did the insubordination of their own men, and frequent frontier defeats, prove the Spanish empire a chimera. For the British empire was similarly afflicted.

Of course, Queen Victoria reigned over a Greater Britain far stronger than anything imagined by Philip II of Spain. Sustained by incomparable financial and industrial resources, Britannia ruled a quarter of the earth. Unlike Spain, which mainly peopled its dependencies with single men who married local women, British settlement was, as Ferguson says, a "family affair". Colonists took with them the mother country's ideas of liberty, free trade, and the rule of law. Elsewhere, in the non-white empire, Britain provided cheap, efficient and relatively honest government, and invested unprecedented sums.

Yet Britain's empire fell even faster than Spain's. This suggests that by 1945 the imposing façade concealed a gutted ruin, though Ferguson attributes the collapse to the assaults of rival empires in two world wars. He is sardonic about Britain's subsequent efforts to find a role, comparing Tony Blair's messianic aspirations with Gladstone's endeavours to export British progress to benighted regions. Bombing Serbia to protect human rights is the equivalent of sending gunboats to suppress the slave trade in west Africa. "The Mahdi was in many ways a Victorian Osama bin Laden, a renegade Islamic fundamentalist whose murder of General Gordon was a '9/11' in miniature."

Blair's neo-imperialist project is pie-in-the-sky, since he lacks the power to implement it. But Ferguson apparently favours American moves to secure a more "orderly world". The trouble is that superpowers invariably profess altruism while practising Realpolitik, and their interventions are often disastrous. Ferguson knows this and cites appalling instances of British imperialism at work. He recalls the Tasmanian genocide. He finds a banyan tree standing in Cawnpore on which 150 Indian mutineers were hanged, simultaneously. He reports that when British officers wore out the dance floor at the Bloemfontein Residency during the South African War they sold the old floorboards for 1s 6d each to Boer women in the camps – to make coffins for children.

Despite all this, Ferguson quotes Smuts's assertion that Britain established the "widest system of organised human freedom which has ever existed". He declares that London exercised a restraining influence on imperialists in treatment of native peoples and that the empire had a "conception of human rights". True enough. But Spanish monarchs also tried to rein in the conquistadors and insisted their primary duties were preaching the gospel and protecting the Indians. Horrified by the barbarities of the slave trade, Philip II even suspended it for a time. Yet atrocities occurred wherever standard-bearers of European civilisation trod. Morally, there was little to choose between the two.

Kamen's book is more scholarly, less entertaining than Ferguson's, which is also beautifully illustrated; the latter includes words like "rip-off", "fat-cat" and "belly-up" – a touch of the Schamas. And it employs such a broad brush that slips occur: Lord Mansfield did not pronounce slavery illegal in England in 1772, but said slaves could not be removed from England against their wishes. Still, like Kamen, Ferguson has done a first-rate job on a subject that is looming ever larger on the historical horizon. Empires are striking back.

Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley' is published by Pimlico




February 10, 2003


A lively new book questions Spain’s imperial history

by Tara Pepper

At the end of the 16th century, a solitary Spanish galleon plowed the Pacific between Asia and Acapulco, risking a perilous crossing to bring silver back from the Americas to Manila, where Asian traders gathered. For 200 years, Spanish ships traversed the same route, returning with loads of silk, spices, jewelry, gold and jade destined for the courts of Europe. But according to a lively new book by Henry Kamen, that image – of a lone, stoic ship spreading wealth in its wake – is misleading. In “Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power 1492 – 1763”, the Barcelona-based British historian delivers a sharp blow to Spain’s sense of its grand imperial past – a memory that still permeates politics, religion and foreign policy today. The Spanish Empire, Kamen argues forcefully, was neither created by Spain, nor was it as powerful and entrenched as the myths surrounding it suggest. “We are accustomed to the idea that Spain created its empire”, Kamen says. “[But] it is more useful to work with the idea that its empire created Spain.”

The Manila galleon, as it was known, became the iconic image of the Spanish Empire during its 17th-century heyday, when it encompassed lands from California to Patagonia, the Philippines to North Africa. Court chroniclers sang of Spain’s glory: “Never has a king or people ventured so far or conquered so much… as our people have done, nor have any others achieved… what we have done in feats of arms, in navigations, in the preaching of the holy gospel,” wrote López de Gómara in 1552. Modern historians followed suit, painting a dramatic picture of Spain’s rise to world dominion that started in 1516, when the country was incorporated into the European empire ruled by Charles V.

But according to Kamen’s book, the true story is quite different. When Spain became part of Charles V’s empire, it was immediately sidelined – not least because it was significantly poorer than some of the emperor’s other territories, including what are now Austria, Hungary, most of Italy and the Netherlands. Charles rarely visited. Only when precious metals from the New World – courtesy of Christopher Columbus – began to flood Spanish coffers under Charles V’s son, Philip II, did Spain win a prominent place in the empire. In fact, writes Kamen, the Spanish expansion abroad was driven as much by individuals from other countries as by Spaniards: Columbus, for one, was an Italian based in Lisbon, and later explorers were Italian, Portuguese and German.

Kamen also questions Spain’s sway over its foreign dominions, doubting that they were ever fully under Spanish control. His meticulous research shows that Spanish imperialism was based less on military conquest that on uneasy alliances and trades. Italians and Germans financed Spain’s expeditions. The country’s ability to trade in the Philippines depended on Chinese help and acquiescence. Even the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico and that of the Incas, which extended from the south of modern Colombia into central Chile, was achieved only by marshalling the manpower of those empires’ own enemies. Spain’s title to the Americas was acquired through a letter from the pope (though indigenous tribes took no notice when it was read aloud to them).

In fact, Kamen writes, Spain didn’t even exist as a unified nation during this period. Though the feuding kingdoms of Aragon and Castile had achieved peace by the beginning of the 16th century, the provinces still had separate governments, laws and taxes. They didn’t begin to develop into a nation until 200 years later. And until that happened, argues Kamen, Spain couldn’t possibly have had the necessary manpower, credit, ships or weapons to pursue global conquest alone. Indeed, the Spaniards’ limited resources allowed them to assert their authority over only a tiny proportion of the lands they claimed to have conquered, in what are now Mexico and the Philippines.

Kamen is braced for a critical outcry when the book hits stores in Spain next month (it is already out elsewhere in Europe). But he is hardly the first to take such a stance; Spanish historian Bartolomé Leonardo de Argensola voiced similar qualms about Spain’s empire back in the 17th century: “We wish to be seen as champions of what is good, but at the very most we are ghosts and apparitions”, he wrote. Says Kamen: “The Spanish are conscious of their empire still, and what they may have lost. But they have a very unrealistic view of what their empire was”. His pugnacious book will certainly do its bit to change that.


The Spanish acquisition

Henry Kamen's lucid study, Spain's Road to Empire, portrays the subtle relationship between the conquistadors and the conquered and how all empires decline

Peter Preston
Sunday December 8, 2002
The Observer

Spain's Road to Empire
by Henry Kamen
Allen Lane, Penguin Press $25, pp640

There is an inevitable Stars Wars touch to modern perceptions of empire building. Power games. We strike and other empires strike back. We rule and others cower. (George W Bush probably goes to the movies). So, once upon a time, Britain sprayed pink territories across the globe. Now - from hero to zero - we are left with the Falklands, Gibraltar and Bermuda and a sense of loss and resentment follows in train. Yet, in reality, was the British empire ever remotely like that? What, indeed, do we mean by the word 'empire'?

Henry Kamen - brilliant and prolific from his Barcelona base - sets out to answer this crucial question for the time (roughly 1500-1800) and country (Spain) he knows as intimately as any living historian. The Spanish empire came first, remember, while Britain was still ruminating and feuding. So what? We sank the Armada soon enough and chased them out of North America. Our empire knocked theirs into a cocked hat, didn't it? A simple-minded, chauvinist assumption.

In reality, the empire the Castilians built was much more akin to some loosely knit multinational. Say a hotel chain - Best Western, Hilton - where local entrepreneurs buy a franchise and do their own thing within distantly imposed guidelines. This hegemony was built by Flemish princes and Genoese explorers, by Portuguese sea captains and Chinese traders, by Africans, Belgians, Italians, Basques, Dutch. To call it a 'Spanish' empire is to praise the front men over-zealously and connive at a self-deception.

Spain began as an isolated, impoverished land, cut off from the tides of change which flowed through Europe: and, at the close, it returned to the solitariness and poverty of Franco. There was never much outright power in between. After the Armada, Madrid had to make do with a feeble fleet (one far inferior to anything at Paris or London's command) that made extreme colonial devolution a hapless necessity. In Europe, dynasties married, made alliances, dissolved them. Beyond it, the conquistadors came and rolled over distant local administrations (even empires, in another stretched form of the term), lending lustre to the centre.

But the the makers of empire were always the resilient few - almost con artists, seeming to command forces which never quite appeared over the horizon. Kamen tellingly contrasts the tiny bands of adventurers and the far greater, but far more naive forces ranged against them. Their power was the power of example, and of decision. Once the initial conflicts were over, they ruled by complex forms of consent.

After the final secession of Portugal in 1668, much of that conquistador spirit - never as widespread as legend would have it - faded away. (Castilians, en masse, were reluctant travellers and lousy linguists, always keener on navel examination than naval derring-do). Once the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713, Spain settled for imposed boundaries and an inert, grumpy conservatism. Gradually the myths rolled back. Who cared about the Gulf of Maracaibo when Minorca had been ceded to the British?

The great days of Spanish empire lasted under a hundred years. Yet they were great - and they had continuing resonance from Guam to Sicily to California. What the Spaniards brought, in their cut-price, almost diffident way, was knowledge and technological: know-how. What they offered was partnership.

They were modest, anxious administrators, always short of cash and not always over-endowed with ambition. But their weakness was also a strength. The partners did not fear them. They understood how much they, in turn, were needed. They had equal shares in this rickety, consensual enterprise. They recognised that Spain's power was neither more nor less than the sum of the capacities of its collaborators.

Is that how today's Spain remembers its past? Naturally not. Empires wax mightier in the memory and one Pizarro is worth 100 forgotten financiers. Gibraltar festers on because it is a continuing, taunting symbol of failure. ('Never since the medieval Arab invasions had the Spaniards ceded a fortress on their own territory to a foreign power,' Kamen writes). Ceuta and Melilla are cherished, against all common sense, because they evoke an allegedly gallant history. The stirrings of the Basques and Catalans are not some sudden effusion. Their roots are buried here, too.

Kamen is lucid, scholarly and perceptive. There may be little that is factually new along this road, but his interpretation - tunes of glory firmly muffled - is a revelation. He explains what is seldom realised and always swiftly forgotten: that order and ingenuity and calm were as vital to the construction and maintenance of empire as force of arms. The wisdom of the many built on and then out-distanced the bravery of the few.

And there is one other resonance. Why, within the European Union, are Britain and Spain - supposedly ancient enemies - in fact the warmest, most co-operative of friends? Political commentators put it down to a personal warmth between Blair and Aznar, but you cannot escape other parallels as you turn these pages.

Why did the princes of India embrace the Raj so easily? Why do we still look longingly at Africa while Madrid scans South America? Why are our two languages the dominant tongues of Western advance?

Britain and Spain were often enemies. Their empire ended in ignominy, bitterness and autocracy. Ours died away in a slightly self-righteous haze of magnanimity. But, perhaps, a century or half a century on, there is no real end of empire for either of us. The legend that Kamen constructs and then deconstructs has a potency which leaves fact - and honesty - trailing. Best friends, despite ourselves: bound together by fond illusion and defeat.


Pathogens of empire

Henry Kamen explodes the myth of the conquistadores in his lucid study, Spain's Road to Empire

Miranda France
Saturday February 1, 2003
The Guardian

Spain's Road to Empire
by Henry Kamen
640pp, Allen Lane, £25

The conquistadores were wrongly named. Those brave men who crossed the Atlantic to "discover" the New World were neither all-conquering, nor all Spanish. Perhaps they should have been called adventurers, collaborators or opportunists, though if you ask a Latin American, you'll hear some choicer suggestions.

The point, as made by Henry Kamen in this impressive study, is that Spain alone neither created nor maintained the Spanish empire, which at its peak covered a third of the world, from the Netherlands to New Mexico. Spain did not even exist as a political entity until the 18th century. It was merely an association of states, of which the most powerful was Castile.

But Castile was not rich and its taxpayers strained to bankroll the endless succession of wars waged by the monarchy. So the crown depended on diplomatic links and foreign contractors for advice, weapons, soldiers, engineers, ships and, most vitally, for credit.

Kamen believes that many Spaniards are still in thrall to a harmful myth about their empire - that is was "a unique achievement of their own". He is drawn to myths about Spain, and shoots them out of the air with elegant pops. His excellent book on the Inquisition revealed it to have been a much subtler institution than the torture-machine portrayed by historians and Monty Python. Here he reveals the Spanish empire as a collaborative effort, the creation of Europeans and, perhaps most of all, native Americans and African slaves.

Spain's empire-building started in 1492, when Isabella and Ferdinand, the "Catholic Monarchs", defeated the Muslim kingdom of Granada. Serving the crown were French, Italian, German and English soldiers; the heavy artillery was imported from Italy and Flanders and operated by Milanese and German technicians. As an international venture, it was a sign of things to come.

Enter Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor who was present at the surrender of Granada to request Castile's backing for a project that had elsewhere been dismissed as chimerical: he wanted to find a westward ocean route to India. Isabella and Ferdinand, buoyed up, says Kamen, by a "messianic triumph", gave him the green light.

In the event Columbus discovered something else: the Bahamas. But never mind - he brought back samples of gold and encouraging news that the natives were "all naked, and without skill at arms, a thousand running away from three [Spaniards]". These were to become the motors of Spanish domination: gold and the exploitability of the natives.

The expeditions that followed Columbus's relied, time and again, on international manpower and financing, but the Spanish also had help on the ground. The natives were friendly - at least some of the time - especially when they needed support in their own territorial disputes. Hernan Cortes could not have overthrown Montezuma in 1520 without the help of his enemies, the Tlaxcalans.

But the real conquistadors were these: smallpox, typhus, measles, diptheria, influenza, typhoid, plague, scarlet fever, yellow fever, mumps, colds, pneumonia and gonorrhoea. Europeans did not even have to lay a finger on the Indians to kill them. Their deadly pathogens were carried ahead of them, by insects or animals. Probably 90% of native Americans were killed by disease.

In the mid-16th century, the silver discovered at Potosi (now in Bolivia) established it as the money-making hub of Spain's vast empire. Thousands of Indians died there while toiling in the mines. Eduardo Galeano writes movingly about Potosi in The Open Veins of Latin America (which is almost the opposite of this book, full of emotion and myths). He describes how the indigenous people thought they saw their ravaged mountain weeping as it was plundered.

Between 1550 and 1800, Mexico and South America produced more than 80% of the world's silver and 70% of its gold. These riches turned out to be the great tragedy of Spanish America. Gold- and silver-mad, the colonisers failed to develop the continent's other resources - and Latin Americans still live with the consequences.

In the Philippines, too, they were lazy: at the end of the 18th century the citizens of Manila jointly denounced them as men who wanted to "seek their fortune by the shortest road".

Little of the wealth ended up in Spain, because Castile had creditors to pay, and other western European powers, especially England, were better at making trading links. It served their purposes best to keep Spain in power, as Robert Walpole explained to the House of Commons: "It is true that all that treasure is brought home in Spanish names, but Spain herself is no more than the canal through which all these treasures are conveyed over the rest of Europe."

In about 1740, an adviser to Philip V noted that Spain earned less in trade from the whole continent than France made from the island of Martinique alone. Spain, he said, had wasted its efforts pursuing "conquest" and neglecting the biggest resource at its disposal: "the native population of America, which could have been drawn into productive schemes, instead of being oppressed and exploited".

How much did Spaniards care? They were, Kamen finds, reluctant imperialists. Many resented the empire as the source of Spain's poverty, and they were largely uninterested in the peoples "conquered" on their behalf. The first drawing from life of an American Indian was done by a German. Pre-Columbian treasures were destroyed or melted down.

Spaniards took to the New World the things they loved best about home, including, in 1519, the Inquisition, which duly reported that the German immigrants "are all heretics and spawn of that wild beast Luther". There was nothing anybody could do about it, though. Foreigners were forbidden to go to Spanish America, but they went anyway. They were not allowed to trade, but they traded. They were forbidden to extract gold and silver, but they did and paid no tax on it. The irony was that Spain depended on these law-breakers and smugglers because it was not capable of supporting the colonies alone.

Stuffed with details and dates, The Road to Empire is a valuable reference book, well-written and lucid. What brings it alive for the general reader are the contemporary accounts, such as the young Spaniard proudly writing home: "I have subjected the whole province, burning houses and hanging Indians." Or a voyage to the Philippines vividly described by one passenger: "Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts. In every mouthful of food there went down an abundance of maggots."

While reading this book, I kept thinking of my own trip to Potosi with a friend, eight years ago. Ragged children were playing on the slopes of the old silver mine. Two of them, about six years old, offered to take us crawling down a tunnel into the old mine. It was an intoxicating idea - a journey to the one-time heart of the Spanish empire, if not of Europe. But we weren't brave enough, the water-logged tunnels looked unsafe and the children cheerfully admitted that there was a strong possibility of rats. We asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up, and they said they would like to study tourism. It was one of the most depressing places I have ever visited.

· Miranda France is author of Don Quixote's Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spain (Phoenix)


A polyglot adventure
(Filed: 05/01/2003)

Ann Wroe reviews Spain's Road to Empire by Henry Kamen

In one of the most famous scenes from the Spanish conquest of America, the Aztec ruler Montezuma was handed a breviary by a priest. He was told that it would speak to him. He held it to his ear and then, after a time, threw it to the ground. "This book does not speak to me!" he cried.

Henry Kamen, an expert on imperial Spain, sees this incident as a prime example of why the Spanish empire failed to endure. There was never a proper understanding between the Spaniards and the people whose lands they made their own: no commonalty of language or interests, no shared concepts, no sense of common enterprise. This was true in America; it was true in Asia, where the Spanish kept a precarious foothold while trade was managed by the Chinese; and one might argue that it was true even in the Netherlands, the least exotic but most solid part of their empire, where Spanish administrators never cared to learn the language of "the bogs of Flanders".

Unfortunately, that failure to communicate is also true of this book. Professor Kamen's argument is a good one: that the Spanish empire was not very "Spanish" at all, but a chaotic organism that was only created, and only survived, thanks to the hard graft and financial acumen of non-Spanish peoples. The empire's bankers were Genoese, its mapmakers Portuguese, its troops Italians and Germans, its sailors Basques, its labourers Indians and blacks, and the whole enterprise was one astonishing polyglot adventure. But his book transmits almost none of that excitement, dread, colour or violence to the reader. It is a long slog of names, places, dates and battles, retailed with assurance but with such relentlessness that the reader may well fear he will be asked to take a test at the end.

From time to time, little flashes of human interest show through. Ferdinand of Aragon happily eating his first pineapple; poor Charles V, so crippled by piles that he could not move without weeping; a description of a meal of kidney beans served to passengers crossing the Atlantic in 1697, "in which there were so many maggots that they swam at the top of the broth". Perhaps most poignant is the remark of Bernal Diaz, who was in Mexico with Cortes, that he had become so used to sleeping fully clothed and fully armed, fearful of Mexican attacks, that he could never take off his clothes to sleep for the rest of his life, and after dozing a little would have to get up again, "and look at the sky and stars and walk around for a bit in the dew".

It may seem childish to prefer such things to a couple of meaty pages on the territorial implications of the treaty of Westphalia. But empires are made by men (and women), and in a book for the general reader, as opposed to a textbook, it is their experiences the reader wants to hear. All kinds of fascinating characters enter and leave these pages, and it would be good, notwithstanding the length of the book, to stay with them longer and get some proper sense of the extraordinary project on which they were engaged. What about that Lutheran heretic, spotted in Venezuela in the 1520s before one had ever been seen in Spain? (He had come out as an agent of German bankers, and was potentially as disastrous in Spanish eyes as any virus or weed they were transmitting themselves.) What about Isabel de Guevara, who had to steer the ship and fire the cannon at the Rio de la Plata after all the men fell sick? What about La Condamine, who mapped the Amazon Basin and discovered rubber, quinine and platinum? To focus more on such examples, and to cut down on the continuous reiteration of the argument that Spain did not do everything alone, would have made this a better book.

None the less, Kamen pulls off a considerable achievement. He changes our perception of the Spanish empire. By the end of this book, the cruel and arrogant monolith is convincingly revealed as a haphazard amalgam of different peoples, interests and motivations. "Empire" was never an official aim. Spain, an inherently poor country in which both an army and a navy were difficult to raise, never controlled much of anywhere. In the Americas, the colonisers clung to the fertile coasts, accepting that the vast interior was beyond either colonisation or evangelisation, though some tried. (Coronado, the first Spaniard to enter the Great Plains, reported that he saw nothing but buffalo and sky, a description that serves to this day.) The Spanish were rapidly ejected from Japan and never got much beyond Manila. Everywhere they went, they showed almost total indifference to the cultures they met; and the cultures responded (when disease left them standing) by accepting only a surface gloss of Spanish customs and religion, and rejecting the rest.

Most interesting, perhaps, was the reaction of Spain's enemies in Europe. As the empire began to break up, the nations who had sent out privateers for decades to prey on "the Manila galleon and the Acapulco ship" (the two vessels that accounted for Spain's trans-Pacific trade) lamented its possible disappearance. The Spanish empire, as Robert Walpole reminded Parliament in 1739, had always been a "canal" to channel treasure to the rest of Europe. Spain's rivals loved the silks and silver, the porcelain and tobacco that came from the imperial enterprise, and thrilled to the new discoveries Spain was making. Yet they hated it, too, and the Spaniards in turn knew they were hated: a burden, for any holders of global imperium, that persists to the present day.



The reign of Spain was mainly brutal
(Filed: 08/12/2002)

John Adamson reviews Spain's Road to Empire by Henry Kamen

In the catalogue of history's cautionary tales, none comes grimmer than the rise and fall of the Spanish empire. Arrogantly confident in its military and religious superiority - so the story runs - Spain set about the conquest of the New World, suppressing the civilisations of the Aztecs and Incas, and bringing them under the iron rule of bigoted priests and rapacious conquistadors.

But imperial hubris brought a punishing nemesis. The riches of the Americas produced decadence and decline. And by the 18th century, as Spain slipped ever more behind its rivals Britain and France, her rulers were reduced to pining for their glory days under Philip II and wondering, in helpless bafflement, where all their one-time greatness had gone.

Or so it has seemed. For this new book by Henry Kamen now turns all these traditional assumptions on their head. There was no centrally driven "imperial design", he argues; no government-sponsored project to conquer the New (or, for that matter, any other) World. Colonial rule never succeeded in subjugating the vast tracts of territory the cartographers described as "Spanish". And, still more controversially, there was no real "decline of Spain", despite the hand-wringing of nostalgic 18th-century intellectuals.

The starting-point of Kamen's story is not Spain's strength but her weakness. From the "reconquest" of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors at the end of 15th century, "Spain" was actually a loose confederation of various separate kingdoms and jurisdictions, each with different cultural and linguistic traditions. It lacked either the financial or human resources to embark on the costly business of conquest.

Its empire in Europe - which, by the 1550s included the Netherlands, Sardinia, outposts in North Africa, and large tracts of the Italian peninsula - was acquired mostly by the accidents of dynastic inheritance. And even in the New World, the acquisition of territory owed more to the private quest for plunder than to an official programme of territorial expansion. The existence of conquistadors does not imply a coherent government-backed strategy of conquest.

Moreover, these "conquests" were rarely wholly Spanish affairs. In Europe, manpower was provided by Italian, French, Netherlandish, Bavarian, Irish, Franche-Comtois and Polish troops. Finance came, not from Spain, but from German, Florentine, and Venetian bankers.

Even with the conquistadors themselves, the familiar tale that against stupendous odds men like Hernando Cortes (the conqueror of Aztec Mexico in 1521) destroyed whole civilisations in the Americas with a mere handful of soldiers turns out to be largely myth. Cortes, for example, could never have succeeded without the military assistance of several thousand native Tlaxcala warriors, only too happy to see the end of Aztec rule.

Likewise, Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru - a process that extended over some 35 years - would have been impossible without the active military support of the rival Indian clans. The native Indian peoples, Kamen argues controversially, were almost always complicit in the process of conquest.

Achieving any measure of central governmental control over these "sporadic efforts of adventurers" proved highly problematic. In far-off Spain, Friar Bartholome de las Casas defended the rights of the native peoples (two centuries before anything comparable in Protestant England), and well-intentioned rulers like the Emperor Charles V (King Carlos I of Spain) issued edicts, such as New Laws of 1542, against their enslavement. But on the other side of the globe, in the jungles of Panama or the highlands of Peru, it was the settlers' "frontier law" that tended to prevail.

"The cruelty of the Spaniards [in the New World]," Kamen concludes, "was incontrovertible; it was pitiless, barbaric and never brought under control by the colonial regime." When, for instance, 15 colonists in the Yucatan were killed by the Maya in 1546, the Spaniards retaliated with the enslavement of 2,000 men, the hanging of their women, and the burning of six native priests.

Viruses, microbes and bacteria went on their own much more effective killing spree. Throughout the Americas, the arrival of the conquistadors proved a demographic catastrophe for the indigenous populations as they succumbed in their hundreds of thousands to smallpox and other hitherto unknown European diseases.

Yet, for their sporadic brutalities towards the Indians, the colonists never sought to wipe out the native peoples, for the simple reason that they needed them if their mines and estates were to continue to work: genocide was bad for business. Nor did native cultures suddenly collapse as a result of the shock of confrontation with the superior Spanish world. In both the Americas and the Philippines, there were large tracts of territory that remained unconquered - well into the 18th century - and outside the reach of the colonial regime.

Attitudes towards race were similarly complex. While at home Spanish kings prohibited intermarriage with Jews and Moors in the interests of "purity of blood", in the Americas they actively encouraged intermarriage between the conquistadors and the Nahua and Inca nobilities. In time, racial prejudice did develop (particularly towards the mixed-race poor); but the Creole elites continued to take pride in their own claims to descent from native princely stock and flaunted the fact in the portraiture and coats of arms.

Yet, if Spain did not make the empire, the empire - argues Kamen - was the making of Spain. The process of becoming (almost involuntarily) a world power created a collective identity out of the diverse peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, and in turn provided the confidence for a further - and often overlooked - phase of imperial expansion in the early 18th-century: into Texas and California.

Whether this late flurry of colonial activity is sufficient to rebut the case for there being a "decline of Spain" in the century after 1650 seems to me very doubtful; as is Kamen's overdrawn assessment of Spanish culture as, for the most part, xenophobic, indifferent to external stimuli and impervious to change. Nevertheless, this is a boldly conceived project that sustains its case - and its gripping story - with a pugnacious elan that carries the reader through to the final page.

John Adamson is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.






Domingo 26 de mayo de 2002 - Número 345            


El historiador británico, conocedor del siglo XVIII y el tratado de Utrech, recorre las calles del peñón para vivir de cerca la historia de estos días: el debate sobre el futuro de la roca. Y llega a la conclusión de que, guste o no, los gibraltareños se sienten británicos aunque los bobbies discutan en español.

Un hispanista inglés en Gibraltar


No lo entiendo», me dice el taxista mientras nos dirigimos hacia la frontera que separa La Línea de Gibraltar. «Mucho ruido y pocas nueces. Cuanto antes lleguen a un acuerdo, mejor». Es una mañana típicamente inglesa, con un fuerte viento soplando de levante y amenazantes nubes cargadas de lluvia cubriendo la solemne cumbre de la Roca. «Cuidado con las largas colas de coches», me advierte. Y no exagera. La policía española reduce el movimiento de los coches en la frontera a paso de tortuga.

Cruzo la verja que separa ambos lados, que de algún modo me recuerda el checkpoint Charlie en Berlín durante la guerra fría, sólo que ahora las armas no se ven. Los controles son por parte del lado español, no hay ningún control británico. «¿Por qué?», le pregunto a un policía de aspecto amigable, «podemos pasar libremente hacia Francia y Andorra y no hacia Gibraltar?». «Es porque Gibraltar no acepta el tratado de Schengen», me contesta. El tratado, recordemos, garantiza el libre movimiento de mercancías y personas entre los estados miembros. El policía no me explica por qué no hay controles parecidos en la frontera de Andorra, que tampoco acepta Schengen.

Tomo el autobús hacia el centro de la ciudad, junto con docenas de españoles que se desplazan cada mañana hacia ella para acudir a su trabajo. De inmediato te sobrecoge una sensación de encierro en Gibraltar, las calles intentan desesperadamente abrirse camino entre los edificios, casas compitiendo entre ellas en altura para conseguir ver la luz. «¿Qué opina usted», le pregunto a una señora en el autobús, «del conflicto sobre Gibraltar?». «Estoy en favor de tomar posesión del Peñón», dice con toda firmeza, «para recuperar lo nuestro. Si tuviéramos Gibraltar, tendría un trozo de lo que es mío». No tiene ni idea de cuando había sido suyo, pero está convencida de que realmente es de ella.

La verdad es que hace 300 años que Gibraltar no es español. Fue entregado a los británicos mediante el Tratado de Utrecht (1713), y de hecho les ha pertenecido desde 1704, como consecuencia de la Guerra de la Sucesión española. En aquella época se trataba de una pequeña fortaleza sin ninguna importancia, pero los británicos perdieron 1.500 hombres defendiéndola contra las fuerzas franco-españolas, y no estaban dispuestos a cederla. Luego, unos 10 años más tarde, intentaron devolverla a España, pero el Parlamento británico lo vetó. Todavía era una pequeña fortaleza, y no tenía ningún valor estratégico. No obstante, todos los gobiernos españoles desde entonces no han querido aceptar su pérdida, y no han cesado de reclamarla. Su devolución en 1720 no hubiera significado mucho pesar en Londres.

Con los siglos, Gibraltar, de ser un pequeño, aislado e insignificante lugar con un puñado de familias británicas, pasó a convertirse en una exitosa comunidad con su principal actividad centrada en la base naval. Desarrolló su propia personalidad y civilización con independencia de británicos y españoles. Se convirtió en un símbolo.

La gente de la Roca, viviendo en un apretado territorio de seis kilómetros cuadrados, se ha hecho su propia identidad, que está intentando defender tanto contra el Gobierno británico como contra el español. En marzo de este año, el ministro de Exteriores británico, Jack Straw, visitó la Roca y fue recibido con hostilidad. «Los gibraltareños piensan», me dijo un oficial británico en Londres, «que los vamos a entregar a España».

Si una cosa es cierta, es que los gibraltareños son británicos.Los olores y sonidos de primera hora de la mañana son los mismos que se pueden percibir en una calle inglesa. El dueño del pub está limpiando las mesas, el señor de la tienda de fish and chips está colocando el menú, el olor de bacón y huevos fritos flota en el aire. Dos atentas y sonrientes damas policías aceptan amablemente contestar a mis preguntas. «He vivido aquí toda mi vida», dice una, «y estoy orgullosa de ser británica». «Gibraltar es Gibraltar», dice la otra, «pero también es una pequeña parte de Gran Bretaña».Una y otra vez, a lo largo del día, recibo la misma respuesta de todos aquellos con quien hablo. En ventanas, tiendas, en todas partes se puede ver la bandera británica ondeando orgullosamente.

No cabe duda del sentimiento que rige en la calle. La gente no está preocupada por los detalles de los argumentos, para ellos existe una gran verdad, su solidaridad. En 1967 hubo un referéndum en el que el 95.8% votó a favor de la asociación con Gran Bretaña.De resultas de ello en 1969 se redactó una Constitución para Gibraltar. Como consecuencia directa, Franco cerró todo acceso al Peñón por tierra. Fue una larga confrontación que duró años.Desde entonces las cosas no han cambiado. Cada amenaza que viene del exterior intensifica la solidaridad entre ellos.


«Nos han forzado a tener una mentalidad de sitiados», me dice una ejecutiva. «Es verdad», confirma un hombre de negocios. «No pasaría si las cosas fuesen normales, pero ahora 30.000 gibraltareños se han convertido en políticos activos». Lo que piden es muy sencillo: desean que se les deje solos, que puedan seguir con sus vidas. «No me interesa la política», me decía un vendedor, «sólo quiero ganarme la vida tranquilamente. Mi padre es británico, mi madre española y vive en España. No sabemos lo que quieren los políticos».

España siempre ha rehusado negociar directamente con Gibraltar porque no es un estado soberano. Los británicos hasta hace poco han aceptado representantes de Gibraltar sólo como parte de su equipo de negociación, pero han llegado a acuerdos sin consultar con los políticos del Peñón. A partir de los últimos encuentros entre Piqué y Straw, y Aznar y Blair, parece que Gran Bretaña y España se han estado moviendo hacia la solución de una «soberanía compartida». La opinión pública en Gibraltar no acepta de buena gana esta fórmula. A los gibraltareños no les cabe ninguna duda de que los españoles se los quieren engullir. «España», decía el hombre de negocios, «está utilizando la carta de Gibraltar para consolidarse en la Comunidad Europea». A muchos les parece que la cooperación entre Blair y Aznar en la CE implica acuerdos que no son del interés de Gibraltar. Por supuesto, aceptan que España quiere una solución pacífica. Pero se oponen a los argumentos que España ofrece.

La tesis que con más frecuencia se esgrime en la prensa española es que Gibraltar es un centro de actividades financieras ilegales.Sobre esto, el hombre de negocios señaló que las estadísticas demuestran claramente que hay más actividad ilegal en España que en Gibraltar, no porque España infrinja más sino porque la economía de Gibraltar es tan minúscula que cualquier blanqueo de dinero es proporcionalmente insignificante. En todo caso, dijo, «¿suministrarían, por favor, las autoridades españolas la evidencia de la actividad ilegal?, y entonces Gibraltar investigaría el asunto». Se habían hecho repetidas peticiones a España sin resultado; el Gobierno español nunca había presentado ninguna.

Para Gibraltar la amenaza más directa es la insistencia del Ejecutivo español en citar el Tratado de Utrecht para justificar sus reclamaciones.Quien se mostró muy enérgico en cuanto al argumento de Utrecht fue el vicepresidente de la comunidad judía de Gibraltar, Solomon Levy. En la antesala de su oficina hay una gran pancarta que llevó durante la visita de Jack Straw. En letras negras dice: «Nací británico y quiero morir británico».

La familia del señor Levy tiene su origen en el siglo XV en Córdoba, y han vivido en Gibraltar durante 250 años. En todos estos siglos, España prohibió la existencia de judíos. Pero los británicos les aceptaron en Gibraltar. Por ello el padre de Levy le decía que Gibraltar era «bendito». En realidad, me explica Levy, España no tiene ni idea de lo que realmente dice el Tratado de Utrecht. El propio tratado (art. 10) excluía a los judíos y musulmanes de Gibraltar. ¿Si España empleara el tratado para reclamar Gibraltar, lo utilizaría también para expulsar a todos los judíos? El señor Levy, 65 años, elegante y con un gran sentido del humor, es un enamorado de España: habla español a la perfección, ama las corridas y le encanta la zarzuela. Pero subraya: «somos británicos, y británicos quedaremos, aunque hablemos español todo el día».

Expulsados del territorio español en 1492, los judíos empezaron a regresar por primera vez algunos años después de que los británicos tomaran Gibraltar, convirtiéndose en una parte destacada y próspera de la comunidad. Ahora cuentan con cuatro sinagogas en la ciudad, y su figura más destacada fue el tío de Solomon Levy, el malogrado Sir Joshua Hassan, primer ministro en aquella época.

El enérgico punto de vista del señor Levy coincide con el de otros muchos en la población. Fue educado en Inglaterra, pero tiene opiniones inflexibles en cuanto al Gobierno británico.«El señor Blair es un traidor», dice, «es el primer presidente del Gobierno británico que quiere devolvernos a España».

Levy no ve diferencia entre el caso de Gibraltar y el de Ceuta.«Si Gibraltar vuelve a España, entonces Ceuta y Melilla vuelven a Marruecos. Pero Gibraltar no volverá nunca a España, y si eso ocurriera empezaríamos un movimiento clandestino de resistencia».En cualquier caso, «¿qué harían con Gibraltar?». Su consejo para Madrid es inequívoco: «Manténganse alejados de Gibraltar y paren de hacer perder el tiempo a todos. Hay mejores cosas que hacer en este mundo». Se consuela con el hecho de que a pesar de Blair, el Parlamento británico está del lado del Peñón. En una encuesta entre los diputados esta semana, el 75% pensaba que el pueblo de Gibraltar tenía el derecho a decidir su propio destino.

Ahora la amenaza de lluvia ha desaparecido y el sol empeza a salir. En el muelle los botes amarrados se mecen al vaivén de las cristalinas aguas. Podría tratarse de una escena en cualquier lugar de veraneo español de la Costa Brava o de la Costa del Sol. Esto, desde luego, es España, pero es España británica.Hablando con la gente, no cabe ninguna duda. Una pareja de turistas de Yorkshire está haciendo una visita de un día desde su base en Málaga. «¡Esto parece tan inglés!», exclaman con satisfacción.Su única sorpresa fue al visitar la catedral anglicana: «no es lo que esperábamos». La agradable y amplia catedral es sorprendente.Comenzada en 1825, fue construida de estilo morisco para conmemorar la fundación de Gibraltar (el Gibel Tariq o Roca de Tariq) en el 711 por el invasor precedente del Norte de África Tariq-ibn-Zayad.El edificio evidencia el deseo de los gibraltareños a aceptar lo que les rodea, tanto España como Africa, sin dejar de ser británicos. «Permaneceremos británicos para siempre», me dice una sonriente joven mientras me devuelve el cambio por mi compra».


El Peñón, sin tierra disponible, no cuenta con una economía viable propia. La retirada de la base naval británica ha reducido la actividad económica aún más. Como resultado, el Gobierno y los habitantes han procurado desarrollar las finanzas del sector privado, con la ayuda de impuestos bajos y sin IVA. En el pasado este énfasis de la empresa privada alentó el contrabando de tabaco y drogas. Hoy, subrayan las autoridades, prácticamente ha desaparecido.El atractivo de los impuestos bajos, por otro lado, ayuda a animar el turismo. Mientras uno va caminando a lo largo de Main Street (Calle Principal), con sus familiares tiendas con nombres británicos y banderas patrióticas británicas, uno no puede perderse las numerosas tiendas ofreciendo descuentos sobre perfumes, tabaco y alcohol. Podría ser Andorra en una tarde de sol, excepto que el idioma aquí es el inglés.

Al final de Main Street, dos bobbies con el tradicional uniforme de policía británico discuten acaloradamente en un impecable español con un vagabundo. Como todos los policías británicos, ellos también van desarmados excepto por sus porras. Escuchándoles uno casi puede imaginarse cual sería la escena hoy si Gran Bretaña estuviera todavía en posesión no sólo de Gibraltar sino también de Menorca, Alicante, Barcelona y todas las demás ciudades españolas guarnecidas por los británicos durante los años anteriores al Tratado de Utrecht.

Aunque formalmente son una colonia, es la población nativa, los llanitos, quienes defienden la presencia británica. Los británicos del Reino Unido son una pequeña minoría, alrededor de una décima parte de la población de Gibraltar. Unos 3.000 trabajadores españoles cruzan a diario la frontera para trabajar en la Roca. Algunos han decidido asentarse aquí y como es lógico defienden el punto de vista gibraltareño. Luisa es una atractiva señorita de 32 años que trabaja en un gran restaurante en donde todo el personal de barra y los camareros son oriundos de España. Hace algún tiempo decidió viajar y ampliar sus horizontes. Trabajó en Latinoamérica y también en las islas de Hawai. Su inglés es perfecto. Hace dos años regresó a Madrid, pero no podía encontrar trabajo, le dijeron que con 30 años ya era «demasiado mayor». De modo que intentó suerte en Gibraltar. Y nunca lo ha lamentado. Encuentra la vida satisfactoria, y piensa que la imagen que la prensa española ofrece es desinformada. «¿Paraíso fiscal? El mundo entero es un paraíso fiscal, tanto en España como en otros países». Sobre el aparente conflicto con España, no tiene ninguna opinión. «Si me dan trabajo y respetan mis derechos estoy contenta».

La tarde llega a su fin, y allá a lo lejos en la bahía contemplo cómo un ferry español se mueve por las brillantes y transparentes aguas hacia Algeciras. Después de hablar con tanta gente no me siento más informado sobre las causas de la crisis. Para los gibraltareños ningún aspecto de la situación tiene lógica. ¿Representa Gibraltar una amenaza para España? Esa es la imagen que se presentó en el año 2000, cuando la presencia del submarino Tireless se vio como una posible amenaza nuclear. Pero en todos los demás puntos Gibraltar no puede comprender por qué un diminuto puerto de 30.000 personas, sin prácticamente recursos económicos, puede tener alguna importancia para España. Los gibraltareños sienten que Gibraltar ha sido positivo, inyectando millones de euros en la economía española y dando vida a la ciudad vecina de La Línea».


Lo que alimenta a los ciudadanos es su orgullo. Están listos para defenderse contra España e incluso contra el Gobierno británico.España siempre ha visto la pérdida de Gibraltar como la pérdida de su «integridad territorial» y soberanía. Ha mantenido constantemente que «el derecho de autodeterminación» no se puede anteponer a la «soberanía e integridad territorial». Muchos en Gibraltar se sienten ultrajados ante eso. «La actitud española», me dijo un señor, «echa por la borda los principios de la ONU». «Todas estas pláticas sobre soberanía», manifiesta un vendedor, «son bazofia. Hoy en día nadie es soberano. Todos estamos en la UE, por qué no podemos cooperar?».

¿Pero qué pretenden reclamando la autodeterminación? Muy pronto queda claro que esta palabra también tiene sus problemas. Evidentemente, pocos sugerirían que Gibraltar ha de ser independiente. Un pequeño grupo ha insinuado que Gibraltar podría ser integrado en el Reino Unido, como Irlanda del Norte, pero esta idea tiene pocas posibilidades de éxito. Parece de hecho que la mayoría de la gente quiere continuar tal como está, pero sin las molestias en la frontera.

Lo que más me sorprende de todo es el comentario de un escritor que me dice que «en 50 años Gibraltar sería española, si se permitía que la cooperación con España se desarrollara naturalmente». Quería decir que la actual presión que España ejerce sobre teléfonos, sobre acceso a la frontera, sobre el aeropuerto sólo servía para crear un problema donde no debería haberlo. Pude entender su idea. La presión fuerza a los gibraltareños a sentirse británicos, mientras que la cooperación les ayudaría a reconocer que existen otros caminos hacia delante. Aquí hay una comunidad en la que casi las cuatro quintas partes nacieron en la península, y dos terceras partes son católicos. Su dinero y su propiedad están aquí, no en Gran Bretaña. Hablan el idioma y conocen la cultura de España, y muchos de sus negocios funcionan con la ayuda de los españoles. Deberían ser capaces como Andorra de modificar su sistema fiscal. Y siempre mantendrán su identidad específica, arraigada en su idioma. Con cooperación, la convergencia (aunque no la integración) con España es lógica.

Ha sido un día largo y agotador. Ahora los turistas se preparan para salir de la ciudad y las tiendas empiezan a cerrar. Muy pronto, mientras cae la noche, se hará más difícil divisar la línea que separa el cielo de las aguas del Estrecho. A lo largo de la costa hacia Algeciras las luces se encienden, como un brillante collar extendiéndose en la distancia. Gibraltar se prepara para otra noche, mientras el inmenso Peñón, como un oso soñoliento, se prepara para dormir.

HENRY KAMEN es historiador. Su última obra es «Felipe V: el rey que reinó dos veces» (Temas de hoy). En noviembre publicará «Spain's Road to Empire» (Penguin).





POBLACIÓN: 59.828 habitantes.
DESEMPLEO: 4.084 parados.
SUELDO MEDIO. 900 euros.
TRANSPORTES: Una línea de autobús urbano.Autobuses a Cádiz, Málaga, Sevilla, Madrid y Barcelona.
HOSPITALES: Una plaza por 314 habitantes. Tres ambulatorios.
EDUCACIÓN: 16 colegios, dos institutos, dos centros de FP y una escuela universitaria (Magisterio).
SEGURIDAD. Un agente por 118 habitantes. 1.390 delitos en 2001.




POBLACIÓN: 27.649 habitantes.
DESEMPLEO: 322 parados.
SUELDO MEDIO: 2.120 euros (bruto).
TRANSPORTES: Una línea de autobuses urbanos, puerto y aeropuerto.
HOSPITALES: Una plaza por 163 habitantes (no incluye el hospital militar). Un ambulatorio.
EDUCACIÓN: Ocho centros de primaria y dos de secundaria.
SEGURIDAD: Un agente por 125 habitantes. 1678 delitos registrados en 2001.