It may be hard for most people to imagine, but Spain was the first global Superpower. It gained this status as the defender of Europe against Muslim armies and by leading the West’s exploration of America. In 1492, the same year that Spanish-financed Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, the last Muslim stronghold of Granada was ceded to Ferdinand and Isabella to complete the Catholic Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. With Spain as its political base, and gold and silver flowing in from its American colonies, the Hapsburg dynasty became the dominant power in Europe. It controlled rich parts of Italy through Naples and Milan, and Central Europe from the Netherlands through the Holy Roman Empire to Austria. In the 16th century it added the far distant Philippine islands to its empire. The Hapsburgs held off the Ottoman Turks, whose resurgent wave of Islamic conquest in the 16th century swept across the Balkans and nearly captured Vienna.
The Hapsburgs went into decline in the 17th century, and while any such momentous event has many causes, for our purposes the focus will be on the economic collapse of Spain, which not only sapped the empire of strength but served to build up the power of its rivals.
The demands of empire required a strong and growing economy, but Spain did not keep up with the economic expansion that was taking place in other parts of Europe. Madrid’s financial base fell out from under its empire. Spain could continue to consume in the short term because of the flow of precious metals from American mines, but it could not produce the goods it needed at home, which in the long-run proved fatal to its standing as a Great Power and as an advanced society.
Spanish imports were double exports and the precious metals became scarce within weeks of the arrival of the American treasure fleets as the money flowed to Spain’s many creditors. What industry there was, along with banking and shipping, was in the hands of foreign owners. As a modern historian, Jaime Vicens Vives, has concluded, “This was one of the fundamental causes of the Spanish economy’s profound decline in the seventeenth century, maritime trade had fallen into the hands of foreigners.” This, plus the “opening of the internal market to foreign goods,” produced a “fatal result.” Spain’s exports were at the same time under heavy pressure by competitors in third country markets. A nation that cannot control its domestic market will seldom be able to sustain itself in foreign markets, which are inherently less accessible and more unstable.
Yet, Spanish leaders were deluded by a sense of false prosperity. This is testified by the statement of a prominent official, Alfonso Nunez de Castro in 1675: “Let London manufacture those fine fabrics of hers to her heart’s content; let Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her brocade, Italy and Flanders their linens…so long as our capital can enjoy them; the only thing it proves is that all nations train their journeymen for Madrid, and that Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody.” A few years later, the Madrid government was bankrupt. The Spanish nobleman had foolishly elevated consumption, a use for wealth, above production, the creation of wealth.
Historians have traced the flow of Spanish gold and silver across the markets of Europe. Those who “served” Spain by establishing industries to manufacture goods for the Spanish market gained the money. Spain’s rivals, France, Holland (which started a successful revolt in 1568) and England, prospered by their trade surpluses, and reinvested the money to expand their own capabilities. Another modern expert on Hapsburg history, Henry Kamen, has cited contemporary sources who referred to 17th century Spain as “the Indies for the foreigner.” The military empire of the Hapsburgs became the economic colony of other powers, or, to use a current phrase, Spain was the “engine of growth” for the rest of the continent.
Where there were jobs and prosperity, there was also rapid population growth, and rising tax revenue. Rival powers were able to field and finance military forces that could defeat the once superior Spanish forces both on land and at sea. The irony of this is that Spain was ruled by a warrior aristocracy tempered by centuries of constant warfare against Islamic hordes and Christian heretics. These nobles looked down on merchants and manufacturers and disparaged their mundane professions only to find that without a strong domestic business class they could not afford the fleets and armies that guarded the empire they had built.