1.14 The Spanish

Trade Empires and Early Capitalism

Spain, of course, still held the largest overseas empire. The Spanish not only held almost all of South America, all of Central America, and the American West as far north as Oregon, but they held territory in the Pacific island chain of the Philippines as well. South American silver passed through both Spain and the Philippines en route to China, where it paid for luxury goods that were shipped back to Spain. The Spanish crown, especially under a branch of the Bourbon royal family that became the royal dynasty of Spain in 1700, exercised direct control over colonial trade and taxation, rather than relying on a corporation as did the Dutch and English).

What set the Spanish empire apart from the other overseas empires was the fact that its colonial system suffered from infighting between Spanish-born royal bureaucrats and the creole elites who dominated the Spanish New World itself. Many of these creole elites lived more like traditional nobles in Europe, dominating land-based economies, rather than overseers of a more commercially-based agriculture like the plantations of the Caribbean or Brazil.

To be clear, South and Central America were important regions within the global trade network, but the Spanish state itself did not enjoy the same level of direct control over, or power derived from, its colonial possessions as did its European rivals over theirs. Instead, the vast Spanish empire was relatively fragmented, with regional elites exercising a high degree of local autonomy. Thus, even the vast wealth still generated within the Spanish empire did not translate into an equivalent degree of state or military power for the Spanish monarchy.

Meanwhile, the overseas empire of Portugal steadily shrank as its colonies and factories were seized or handed over to the Dutch and British in the seventeenth century. While Portugal had enjoyed a relatively brief period of ascendancy that began with the remarkable voyage of Vasco Da Gama in the fifteenth century, it was not able to complete with the better-funded and equipped forces of the Netherlands and Britain, and thus most Portuguese colonies and trading posts were lost over time to its rivals. The major exception was Brazil, which was hugely profitable, and which imported staggering quantities of slaves; Brazil was also the last European state to outlaw slavery, in 1888.


Finally, it should be noted here that Russian explorers moved eastward across Siberia from the period of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries in search of furs. Furs were so critical to the Russian economy at the time that they were often used in lieu of currency outside of the major cities. In turn, Russian fur trappers and traders arrived at the Pacific in the late seventeenth century. From there, they sailed across to Alaska and then down the west coast of North America, establishing small churches and forts but not colonizing territory (i.e. for the most part, they did not stay and establish families). By the early eighteenth century, the various branches of European exploration and expansion converged in the Pacific Northwest of what later became the United States: in the eighteenth century, Russian fur trappers, French fur trappers, Spanish missionaries, and English explorers all arrived in what eventually became the American states of Washington and Oregon.

By the seventeenth century, the peoples of Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia were all linked by commerce, trade, politics, slavery, and warfare. Obviously, those contacts would only grow stronger going into the modern period.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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