An oak planted in a flowerpot. Raymond Carr on the serendipitous rise of the Spanish empire

Spain's Road to Empire: the making of a world power (1492-1763)

Henry Kamen <em>Allen Lane, The Pe

In 1492, when Columbus set out to find the Indies, Spain was a relatively poor country on the periphery of Europe. Yet when Philip II came to Spain as its king in 1556, he inherited from his father, the emperor Charles V, a global empire that in Europe included Spain, much of Italy, the Netherlands (that is, present-day Belgium and Holland) and overseas dominions that stretched from the Philippines to Mexico. It was the first empire of which its inhabitants could boast that the sun never set on it.

Henry Kamen sets out in this blockbuster to explain the genesis and survival of this empire. Spaniards in general and Castilians in particular, he argues, have presented a false and distorted picture of the empire as the exclusive work of their own heroic enterprise. For him, it was "made possible by the collaboration of many people".

Its finances were managed by Genoese and German bankers. Spinola, who saved what is now Belgium for Spain, was an Italian banker, and the brilliant commander of an army of which only 10 per cent were Spaniards. It was the Portuguese who controlled the African slave trade, which brought in the blacks who made the Caribbean sugar mills a prosperous concern. The domestic servants and artisans of Lima were black. In the outpost of the empire in the Philippines, Chinese vastly outnumbered the Spanish, controlling its trade. Above all, without the co-operation, forced or willing, of the indigenous people of the Americas, the empire could neither have come into existence nor been maintained. This emphasis on the role of foreigners and indigenous peoples is essential if Kamen is to prove his central thesis: how un-Spanish - above all how un-Castilian - the empire turned out to be. Yet the British empire in India was not un-British because, as the local commanders insisted, it was dependent on what they called the "loyal sepoys" of the Indian army. In Africa, imperialist adventurers employed thousands of conscripted native porters and miners.

All colonial empires have been created by the men on the spot, missionaries such as Livingstone, soldiers such as Clive, and businessmen such as Rhodes. Spain's American empire was conquered not by the armies of the Spanish crown but by individual, military entrepreneurs such as Hernando Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, both Castilians. They acted in the name and under the patronage of the Spanish crown, which alone could legitimise their conquests. From the outset, the co-operation of the indigenous Indians was essential. Cortes could not have conquered Mexico without the help of tribes that chafed under the rule of the Aztec empire. Those who moved to America - mostly Castilians - can be seen as economic migrants from a poor country out to improve their prospects abroad. "I came here to get rich," Cortes is said to have remarked, "not to till the soil like a peasant." To get rich from their estates and from the silver mines of Mexico and Peru, they were dependent on the indigenous labour that the crown granted them the right to conscript.

The conquest was a disaster for the Indians, but they could not be exterminated, as the North American Indians were by colonist farmers hungry for land. In Spanish America, Indian labour was essential. Kamen describes how, given that Spanish penetration outside the cities and towns was limited, the Indians retained their sense of identity, so much so that they have staged political comebacks in Ecuador and Peru. The language barrier was insuperable. Languages always impose a cultural and political baggage. But as the Indians rarely mastered Castilian, they remained relatively untouched by its political and religious messages. Missionaries struggled to translate Christian doctrines into native languages. Optimists took pride in their evangelisation of a continent; realists realised, especially at the frontier, how superficial conversion had been.

Spain, Kamen claims, did not make the empire: the empire made Spain. Just as pride in the possession of a great overseas empire gave Britons a strengthened sense of their own identity, so Spaniards found in the empire a common purpose and a pride in their achievements. But, to the enemies of Spain, these achievements constituted a mortal threat. They did not consider the empire un-Spanish; they invented the Black Legend to prove that it was. To Burghley, Elizabeth's great minister, Philip II was determined to dominate the world. The Italians saw the Spaniards as arrogant, "barbarian" conquerors. Just as widespread anti-Americanism fuels American nationalism, so widespread fear and hatred of Spain bred the defensive, nationalist xenophobia in Spain so evident in the works of the satirist Quevedo.

Kamen has ransacked the large corpus of scholarly works on Spain and its empire; most scholars, however, would question his insistence on its essentially un-Spanish nature. He shoots at the reader information on the empire as a transnational business enterprise, on the problems of the frontiers, on the empire's racial tensions and class structure, on the work of the missionaries with the Indians. Kamen acknowledges that he is not writing comparative history. Seen in comparative terms, the Spanish empire was not unique. It shared the problems of all seaborne empires: the difficulties of ruling an overseas territory by paper instructions from a distant metropolis, difficulties conquered, in British India, only with the electric telegraph and the steamship.

In the 19th century, the British empire did not face a serious threat from other European great powers. The Spanish empire was surrounded by a host of enemies as they ganged up against the hegemon: the British, the French, the Dutch and the Turks. The abiding difficulty was to match the naval power of these enemies. In this, Spain failed despite repeated efforts, culminating in the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Without the resources - from either Spain or America - to build a great navy, it was, as an observer remarked of the British empire in 1810, an oak planted in a flowerpot. Surrounded by enemies, it was a miracle that the empire survived. Like Doctor Johnson's observation of a dog that could walk on its hinder legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Raymond Carr is the author of The Spanish Tragedy: the civil war in perspective (Phoenix)