First Encounters: Spanish Explorations in the Caribbean and the United States, 1492–1570
The Adventures of Captain Alonso de Contreras: A 17th Century Journey
Art and Death at the Spanish Habsburg Court: The Royal Exequies for Philip IV
Bourbon Spain, 1700–1808
As we contemplate the vast historical changes unfolding around us, there is a certain fascination in looking back to earlier ages, when old empires were seen as threatened with collapse, while new ones took their place. This, too, was happening in the seventeenth century, when contemporaries speculated on the long-term prospects for the increasingly ossified Spanish empire, and on what would happen in the event of its collapse. One of them, Sir Francis Bacon, sagely reflecting on the rise and fall of states, drew a not very comforting conclusion from his reading:
Upon the breaking and shivering of a great state and empire, you may be sure to have wars. For great empires, while they stand, do enervate and destroy the forces of the natives which they have subdued, resting upon their own protecting forces; and then when they fail also, all goes to ruin, and they become a prey. So was it in the decay of the Roman Empire; and likewise in the empire of Almaigne, after Charles the Great, every bird taking a feather; and were not unlike to befall to Spain, if it should break.1
If, in the long run, Bacon’s prediction was to be largely fulfilled, the Spanish empire whose “shivering” he foresaw proved in the shorter run a great deal more resilient than might have been anticipated. But the suspicion that it might “break” was reasonable enough for a man who could remember Spain and its empire during the high noon of Philip II. This was the empire on which, in the words of Ariosto, the sun never set—an empire whose dominion extended from Italy to Peru, and thence across the Pacific to the Philippines.
Its acquisition was owed in the first instance to the foot soldiers of Castile, men whose toughness and determination had earned them their reputation of being the best soldiers in the world. Once conquered, it was sustained by a regular supply of silver from the mines of America, which helped to pay the costs of a large bureaucracy and a formidable military and naval apparatus designed to defend it from its enemies and to keep its scattered territories subservient to the center of empire in Madrid.
We can trace something of the first stages of its development, at least on its transatlantic fringes, in the lavishly illustrated volume of essays First Encounters, designed to accompany the Florida Museum of Natural History’s current traveling exhibit of the same name. These essays, although placed between two chapters of a more general character—one on the background to Columbus’s voyages and the early Spanish penetration of North America, and the other on the encounter of Europeans and native Americans—are largely concerned to provide readers with some idea of recent historical and archaeological findings about the arrival and first settlement of the Spaniards in the Caribbean and on North American soil. As such, the essays are good on detail but restricted in scope. But for readers who want to know at…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.