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God, Gold, Glory, and Spice: When Portugal and Spain Ruled the World
Spanish and Portuguese colonies
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Imagine for a second, with a single stroke of the pen, the Pope dividing the world between two rival empires. That’s what happened in 1494 when Pope Alexander VI authored the Treaty of Tordesillas between John II of Portugal and Ferdinand of Aragon, effectively dividing the world between Portugal and Spain.
The two kingdoms took different paths before reaching the same point on their respective roads to power. Portugal occupied the far southwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula. If Portugal had any plans to aggrandize its territory, it would have to face the growing influence of Castile which was quickly consolidating its power and increasing its state apparatus on the Iberian Peninsula. Portugal’s history with its Iberian neighbors had episodes of struggle which eventually allowed it to survive and develop relative to the vacuum left on the peninsula after the Reconquista from the Moors. Castile eventually swallowed the kingdoms of Navarre, Aragon, and Leon before it became the Kingdom of Spain. Facing a powerful adversary, Portugal looked to the waters of the Atlantic and built a powerful empire based on monopolizing trade and commodities. Although the original motive was gold, Prince Henry the Navigator, the monarch of Portugal, invested heavily in researching the seas, and in 1444 brought to Europe the first cache of African slaves from Guinea. These initial caches silenced his critics who voiced concerns that he was wasting time and money on futile pursuits. Instead the Portuguese under Henry’s successor, John II, mounted more fruitful expeditions farther down the African coast until they reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. The route to Asian spices, fueled by growing European demand, had finally opened up and it was further incentive for Portugal to push the margins of Europe’s known frontiers.
Spain’s bid on the high seas was no less tenuous or ambivalent. Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator, visited several European monarchs until Ferdinand and Isabella reluctantly agreed to finance his voyage. Perhaps it was news that Portugal was making strides in the oceans that convinced them to agree to such a risky venture, but it was still a hard sell for Columbus and the decision was rife with risk. Columbus wasn’t doing this for charity and in the negotiations he carved out a potentially lucrative contract for himself which included the glorious title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” viceroy of all lands he should discover, and 10 percent of profits of the resulting trade. Making matters worse, Columbus planned to travel across the Atlantic, unlike the Portuguese who never sailed far from Africa’s coastline. Ferdinand and Isabella were truly underwriting a quest into uncharted waters, figuratively and literally. Columbus’ initial motivation was a direct route to the Spice Islands which would cut out the middleman of Islamic traders and bring untold wealth. It would also assure Spain a cut in the high demand European market for expensive Asian goods. The European spice monopoly at the time was controlled by the Venetians and required a long, cumbersome, and expensive overland journey. A secondary motive of Columbus, and no less important, was to convert souls. Columbus was vehement about this and doing God's work was equal priority to that of gold, glory, and spices. The Spanish monarchs were also supporters of proselytizing and gold was an instrument to raise funds for the reconquest of the Holy Land. The Portuguese were also eager to spread the Catholic-Christian faith. When they staked claims to African lands it was accompanied by a padraos, or a pillar with crosses, that signaled a religious purpose to their newly claimed possession.
The Portuguese had made incredible advances in physical distance in their sprint to the East Indies’ spice market. After reaching Cape Verde in 1445 Diogo Cao had almost made it to Africa’s tip by 1485 stopping at Cape Cross located in modern day Namibia. Dias finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487; De Gama made it to India by 1498 and by 1509 Sequeira had reached the tip of the Malay peninsula, or modern Singapore. The Portuguese met resistance from local traders, especially in the Indian Ocean basin, but military and seafaring technology gave them an edge and they squelched the opposition. The Portuguese caravels were more maneuverable and their firepower superior to the Arab dhows. Although their fight to control the waters of the Indian Ccean basin was won by superior boats and accompanying weapons, the other half of the fight was waged to break the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade. The Venetians’ monopoly of spices was dependent upon their agreement with the Muslim middlemen. By the early sixteenth century the Portuguese had established trading colonies in Goa, India (1510), Malacca on the Malay Peninsula (1511), and Macau, China (1535) among many other islands and ports in the Indian Ocean basin. Eventually the Portuguese would push to Japan and establish trading enclaves in Nagasaki. Coincidentally, along the way, in 1544 Portuguese ships spotted Taiwan and aptly named it Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island”. In the West Atlantic Portugal had occupied the east coast of South America, or Brazil. To say the sun never set on the Portuguese empire would be hard to negate.
Portugal’s decline was signaled by a crisis of succession in 1578 when King Sebastian was killed in battle without an heir. Philip II of Spain claimed the throne of Portugal through his mother’s lineage and subsequently invaded Portugal. By 1580 Philip united Spain and Portugal. Portugal’s overseas possessions came under increasing attack by the Dutch, English, and French - enemies of Spain. Spain’s complete and humiliating loss in 1588 while attempting to invade England was also a contributor to Portugal’s decline because Portuguese ships were vested in the invasion. Eventually England and the Dutch took over many of the former Portuguese colonies in their efforts to acquire slaves and spices. Even their share of the spice trade was once again overtaken but their rivals, the Venetians, by the middle of the 16th century.
Spain’s rise toward global domination was as mercurial its fall. The Spanish possessions in the America’s ran the length of the Cordillera from the southern Andes to just north of present-day San Francisco, California, at its apogee. Across the Pacific the Spanish claimed the Philippines when Magellan landed in 1521. Named the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Philippines remained a Spanish possession until 1898. The Philippines was an excellent location to conduct trade for the Spanish empire and it was trade that gave the Spanish Philippines its modus operandi. From Manila, the capital of the Philippines Viceroyalty, huge Spanish galleons would embark across the Pacific heading towards Mexico (New Spain) and Peru laden with Spices. The first galleons from Manila arrived in Acapulco in 1550 and the Pacific-facing city was given a monopoly in 1573 to trade with Manila becoming the most important port in Spanish Mexico along with its Atlantic counterpart Veracruz.
Spanish and Portuguese explorers remain larger than life and it’s important to demystify their feats of daring. Columbus, Pizarro, Cortez, De Soto, Cabrillo, Coronado, Magellan, De Gama and De Leon’s intentions were to find gold and spread the Christian faith. However, searching for vague descriptions of a Shangri La, spun by tales that had been woven in the Middle Ages was not beneath them. True to the wide imagination the burgeoning printing press, an invention which roughly coincided with the Age of Exploration, fueled these beliefs and people had no reason to not believe what they read. De Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth was not unfounded and in central Florida he would have found beautiful fresh-water springs that perhaps resembled this fabled place. On the other side of the contitent, Coronado searched for the fabled seven cities of gold, known as Cibola. These great tales, motivated by various searches through primeval wilderness, were part of the mystique of exploration and human curiosity. Legends of Prester John’s Kindgom of Gold found a new life and purpose in the New World of the Americas. However, there was an earnest desire to bring Christianity to the heathen savages of the New World, mistakenly called Indians by Columbus’ naïve belief he had reached the East Indies. In fact he was far short of his goal and had probably landed at Samana Cay, in today's Bahamas. Columbus took his belief that he landed in Asia to his grave and this was perhaps the first cruel lesson in the Columbian Exchange. Between the slave trade from Africa and the annihilation of the natives of the Americas, it remains one of the greatest genocidal episodes in human history, intentional or not. In addition to Indians' enslavement, missionary activities were often the handmaiden of the sword and done with force and coercion. The motivation to find gold in the New World and supply Spain’s coffers were done with effective force. Cortes managed to topple the entire Aztec Empire with a minimum of troops. Mounted on horses, an animal the Aztecs had never seen, convinced them that the Conquistadors were sent from the gods. Still, the Spainards deserve credit because they debated the morality of their treatment of the Natives before any other colonizing European did so. The colonists and theologians effectively presuured the King to pass laws against abusing the natives, although such laws were no doubt cast aside when they conflicted with the interests of those that were meant to uphold them. The Europeans also brought another nasty biological side effect – disease, for which the natives had no built up resistance. The smallpox epidemic of 1520 brought by Cortes is said to have victimized up to 50% of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Disease, not battle, would remain the primary agent for destroying Native American populations from its introduction in the late fifteenth until the 19th century. Disease is also another factor that contributed to the importation of African slaves to the New World. Africans had built up immunities to withstand disease and they were accustomed to working in hot, humid climates. This proved ideal for humid, coastal plantation societies that occupied most of the New World.
Spain’s demise as a world empire was as abrupt as Portugal’s. Eclipsed by rising powers such as Holland, France, and England, the first blow to the Empire was the defeat of the Spanish Armada off the coast of England. Because of its all-powerful status, Spain also became entangled in continental wars which continued to drain its coffers. Most notable was the Thirty Years War, a bloody feud between Catholic and Protestants. Still, with its overseas empire yet to reach a high water mark, the Empire survived despite some territorial losses to France. In the nineteenth century, the independence movement in the Americas spread quickly and between 1810 and 1825 Spain had lost Mexico and all of its possessions in South America. The 1898 war with the United States, the Spanish-American War, was really the defacto end of Spain’s overseas colonies as it lost Guam, Philippines, and Puerto Rico, all to the U.S. Spanish troops left Cuba after the war and the island was on its way to independence although the U.S. had a heavy hand in its political future.
Today, Spanish and Portuguese are among the most widely spoken languages, mostly because of the huge populations that are native speakers in South and Central America. The religious zeal that brought over missionaries has also left its mark as the America’s south of the United States remain overwhelmingly Catholic although the governments of most countries, if not all, are secular. The Spanish influence in the United States is not easily missed. Names of most towns and cities along California’s littoral are Spanish and the string of 21 Franciscan missions along the state’s El Camino Real are a testament to Spain’s use of religion as a colonizing agent. Geographical names are also prominent as far north as Colorado and Texas and New Mexico's Spanish heritage date to the late sixteenth century. St. Augustine, Florida holds the best example of Spanish fortress masonry in the continental United States and marks the coast to coast presence of Spain in North America. On the other side of the world, one only has to wander the streets of Macau to appreciate the indelible mark left by the Portuguese on mainland China – dazzling baroque churches, fortified heights, and arcaded squares occupy whole city blocks in the enclave was finally handed over to China by the Portuguese in 1999. The global reach of these two empires can be found on all of the inhabited continents of the world except Australia yet few appreciate or understand why. When people speak of globalization today, it carries mostly a bad connotation. Yet this buzzword should be nothing new as Spain and Portugal were simply an earlier version of a trend that has occurred since the dawn of history – the motivation for humans to travel for a host of purposes that include curiosity, commerce, proselytizing, wealth, glory, and conquest.