Cortés, during his campaign to conquer the ancient empire of the Mexica—the word which anthropologists would now have us use when we talk of the Aztecs—wrote to the emperor Charles V that he hoped to offer him an empire as great as the one he already had in Germany. As we know, he was able to do it. His distant cousin, Pizarro, offered the emperor the Inca empire; and other conquistadors, such as Gonzalo de Quesada, were able to fill in territories lying between Peru and Mexico. Thus was founded one of the greatest of European political enterprises.
In its duration and cultural influence, the Spanish empire overshadows the empires of Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, and even Russia. “He who has not seen Mexico does not know Spain,” I once wrote myself, and Spanish linguistic influence over the territory of what used to be considered Anglo-Saxon America is still growing. The Spanish empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines lasted till 1898.
Further, though the empires of other European nations came to an end untidily or in disputed circumstances, the empire of Spain ended with a bang, an explosion that caused the destruction of the United States battleship Maine in 1898, and then the war that turned over responsibility for what remained of the Spanish empire to the US, which took over Cuba for four years, the Philippines for nearly fifty, and Puerto Rico indefinitely.
The battleship Maine had been launched in 1890 as one of a new generation of vessels designed to make the United States equal at least to Germany in naval power. It was over 300 feet long, had a beam of nearly 60 feet at its widest, and had a ship’s company of over 350 men. Technically, it was a second-class battleship, being slower than the four first-class ones in the United States Navy, and alongside the battleship Texas.
The Maine steamed into Havana Harbor on January 25, 1898, in order to protect American citizens in Havana, whom President McKinley in Washington, on the advice of his ebullient and nationalistic consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of Robert E. Lee, thought might be at risk as a result of riots against would-be reformers in Cuba. The Spanish government in Madrid, headed by an elderly liberal prime minister Práxedes Sagasta, reluctantly accepted the arrival of the Maine on the understanding that it was a visit by a warship of a friendly neighbor; and the Sagasta government, for its part, ordered its own modern cruiser, the Vizcaya, to visit New York.
Those riots were unusual ones, for they were directed against the idea that imperial Spain might allow the Cubans to govern themselves under a home rule regime; the rioters were coming to the defense of the Spanish army. Until a few years before, Cuba had been one of the richest of European colonies. Whatever one may think, in the tradition of J.A. Hobson or Lenin, of the effects of empire on …