Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Effect of American Conquests on Spain

The reign of Charles V was the age of Spanish conquest and domination in America. This conquest had a great effect first on Spain and ultimately on Europe. For Spain was the first European nation to found an overseas empire. Yet it was no empire in the modern sense of the word. Mexico, Peru, and Chili were explored and exploited, but they were not colonized as we understand the word. The conquerors did not reclaim or cultivate the land. Indeed, they were actually forbidden to grow vines or grain in the conquered countries, lest Spanish trade in wine and corn should be injured.

They were also forbidden to emigrate and settle there. For Spain, far from requiring an outlet for superfluous population, was already too thinly populated, foreign wars being a constant drain upon its manhood. Emigration, therefore, instead of being a necessity, was an actual menace.

The Spaniards, at the same time, were intensely jealous of their overseas trade. They tried to keep it entirely for themselves, and shut out not only all other European nations but even all Spain except Castile. This produced smuggling and piracy on an enormous scale. And soon the proud galleons of Spain, which at one time could sail the seas in safety, were obliged to go in companies to avoid the attack of pirates.

All the Spaniards did then was to procure as much gold and silver from these lands as they could. And this they procured not by their own toil but by the forced labour of the natives whom they had enslaved. Soon gold and silver poured into Spain. It was from America that Charles drew much of the wealth which enabled him to carry on his many wars. With that wealth at command he might have succeeded in dominating Europe, and in founding the world empire he desired to found, but for one thing which wrecked all his plans. This was the Reformation. By it his policy was divided, his alliances complicated, his great ambitions baffled. Thus, for him, in a manner the conquest of America and the Reformation annulled each other.

But although gold and silver poured into Spain from the New World, Spain became no richer. For the Spaniards spent this easily won wealth like water. Most of it went out of Spain again to pay for the hire of foreign soldiers, and for foreign luxuries, which the Spaniard could no longer do without. For Spain had no manufactures, and as its population constantly lessened in numbers even agriculture was neglected.

At length the country could not grow enough corn and wine to supply the demand of its own people, and foreign merchants supplied these things. So the enormous wealth of America profited Spain not at all. The country gradually grew poorer. Noble beggary became the fashion. The Spaniard, born generous and grown proud, disdained to toil, and the labour in field and workshop was left to foreigners. Their labours again brought Spain no profit, for having made their fortunes they returned home carrying their wealth with them.

Thus once again seeking to dominate Europe a great ruler cast his own kingdom down from the high place she had won. With both hands the Spaniards flung away the golden prize which their daring seamen had wrested from the ocean, and the New World became the heritage of another race.

While the mother-country declined the colonies could not prosper. Under the inhuman treatment of their conquerors the native populations of these colonies dwindled, and a bitter hatred grew up between them and their masters. Charles, indeed, took some interest in his American possessions, and even tried to make good laws for them. But he was too much preoccupied by his efforts to dominate Europe to make much headway. He knew little of the principles of commerce, and he was utterly ignorant of the modern ideas of colonization, the Cortes, or parliament, equally so. Consequently the dealings of Spain with her overseas possessions is a record of mistakes and lost opportunities.