In the course of human history, there have been countries with strong military power and superior economies that have gradually risen to become global superpowers (such as England, Germany, and France). These superpowers were characterized by their vast territories and dominant control over the world. Although the Spanish Empire was a latecomer, it quickly emerged as the first global superpower in history. Today, let’s explore with The Wise Goat the process of formation, development, and decline of this empire over time.
The Period From 711 To 1492
In 711, a Berber and Arab army invaded and conquered nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula, gradually establishing independent Muslim states on this peninsula for the next 70 years. By the end of the 11th century, the decline of the Islamic empire of Al-Andalus created conditions for Christian kingdoms to expand and complete the liberation of most of northern Spain in 1085. In the 13th century, the large territories under Muslim rule gradually contracted due to the further strengthening of Christian kingdoms. Eventually, only the territory of Granada remained as a vassal state in the south.
In 1469, the thrones of the two Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united by the marriage of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I. In 1492, the vassal state of Granada fell to the forces of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, and the Moors lost their last foothold in Spain, ending 781 years of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Period From 1492 To The Early 18th Century
In 1492, the name Spain was used to refer to the united kingdom. With the support of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, Christopher Columbus’ ship crossed the Atlantic and discovered America. As the new monarchs of the Renaissance, Isabella I and Ferdinand II centralized royal power, causing damage to the local nobility. With wide-ranging political, legal, religious, and military reforms, Spain emerged as the first global superpower. The unification of the two kingdoms of the Aragon Union and Castilla laid the foundation for Spain and the Spanish Empire. However, each kingdom maintained its separate society, politics, laws, currency, and language.
In the early 16th century, Barbary pirates, under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, raided the coastal areas of Spain, with the goal of establishing new Islamic territories. In 1515, the kingdom of Navarre merged with the kingdom of Castilla. Finally, Ferdinand II became the king of a united Spain. In 1517, Charles V was recognized by the Cortes and became the king of the Spanish Empire, gradually expanding the empire’s territories to Patagonia and the Pacific colonies.
In 1525, Emperor Charles V defeated the French at the Battle of Pavia, causing concern among many Italians and Germans about the expansion of the Spanish Empire. Soon after, Pope Clement VII strengthened the support of some countries and important cities in France and Italy, declaring in the name of God the illegality of the treaty between King Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V. The Pope also led the Cognac League against the Habsburg Empire, angering Charles V. The holy Roman Emperor, who was also the King of Spain, believed that religion had no right to interfere in politics. In 1527, with the fall of Rome, Clement VII and his successor became more cautious in dealing with the Spanish rulers.
In 1529, Pope Clement VII and Karl V signed a peace treaty in Barcelona to establish a more harmonious relationship. The Spanish kings officially became protectors of the Catholic faith, and Karl V was crowned king of Italy in Bologna by Pope Clement VII. They sought the help of the Spanish in overthrowing the Florentine Republic. Under the rule and leadership of Karl V, Spain became the first superpower in Western Europe at the time. In the first half of the 16th century, Spain explored with fleets, undertook world tours, and actively established colonial systems in the Americas. They established New Spain in the 1520s-1530s.
In 1543, King Henry II of France allied himself for the first time with Sultan Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire to occupy Spanish coastal cities. Although the Spanish campaign in Savoy suffered a major defeat, the French still faced difficulty in controlling the threats from Milan and Spain and had to defeat Henry VIII, the English king in the north at the time. Therefore, they had to accept unfavorable conditions. Fernando I, Karl V’s younger brother, led the Austrian army to fight against the Ottoman army in the east, while Karl V resolved domestic issues.
From the late 16th century to the mid-17th century, Spain faced constant challenges from all sides. Barbary pirates, backed by the Ottoman Empire, carried out slave raids, disrupting life in many coastal areas and reviving the threat of a Muslim invasion. The Spanish Empire continued to expand under King Philip II from 1556-1598, occupying most of the Philippine islands and becoming the world’s leading maritime superpower. At this time, the Spanish forced indigenous people in the Americas to mine gold and silver, which they sent back to Spain. They became wealthy from the resources obtained from their colonies, but the Protestant Reformation drew Spain deep into the quagmire of religious war, and the country was also drawn into wars with France, England, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Spain helped the holy Roman Empire reverse the local advances of the Protestant forces. However, Spain later had to recognize the independence of Portugal and the Netherlands, abandoning some territories to France. Spain gradually lost control of territories in the present-day Netherlands, Italy, France, and Germany. By 1640, it was in decline, and Charles II took over the country in 1668. For 35 years until his death, he was described as a magnificent monarch but was unable to maintain Spain’s position. With no heir, the War of Spanish Succession broke out in Spain from 1701 to 1714. As a result, Spain lost its position as a regional power, and the Bourbon Dynasty of France replaced it.
The Period From The Beginning Of The 18th Century To The End Of The 19th Century
The first Bourbon king, Philip V, unified the country under a centralized government, suppressing many privileges of the local nobility. The 18th century witnessed a gradual restoration and prosperity returning to Spain under the Bourbon dynasty. By the end of the 18th century, commerce grew rapidly, and military aid to English colonies in the American War of Independence improved Spain’s international position.
In the 18th century, there was a period of gradual restoration and increasing prosperity throughout the empire. The new Bourbon regime applied France’s modernization system in administration and economy. In 1793, Spain joined an alliance against the newly established French Republic. The Pyrenees War then polarized the nation, with a reaction against the French influence. Peace with France was achieved in 1795, under the Peace of Basel, resulting in Spain losing two-thirds of its territory on the Hispaniola island.
After establishing the First French Empire, Napoleon continuously waged wars against the coalition forces. At the time, Spain had committed to an alliance with France. In 1805, the British navy destroyed the French-Spanish coalition fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. In 1807, a secret agreement between Napoleon and Godoy lost the support of the people, leading to a declaration of war against England and Portugal.
As Napoleon’s army advanced into the kingdom to invade Portugal, they also occupied key fortresses in Spain. Joseph Bonaparte was installed as a puppet monarch and was despised by the Spanish people. The May 2nd Revolution in 1808 was one of many nationwide uprisings against the Bonapartist regime. These uprisings marked the beginning of the war of independence against Napoleon’s rule. Napoleon was forced to intervene personally, defeating some Spanish forces and forcing a British contingent to withdraw. However, subsequent military actions by the Spanish and the British-Portuguese, combined with the catastrophic failure of the French army in Russia, led to the French being driven out of Spain in 1814, and King Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne.
From 1820 to 1823, a revolution took place in Spain, demanding that King Ferdinand VII uphold the Constitution of 1812, led by Rafael del Riego and supported by the people. Faced with the revolutionary movement, the king had to recognize the Constitution and implement some bourgeois reforms. In November 1823, the Bourbon forces of France, acting on the orders of the Holy Alliance, invaded to suppress the revolution, and Rafael del Riego was executed.
The conquest of Spain created favorable conditions for anti-colonial forces in Latin America. Discontent with Spanish policies, they quickly initiated revolutions and declared independence starting in 1809. By 1826, Spain’s American colonies were reduced to only Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1873, the first republic in Spain was established, but it was quickly suppressed by the Catholic Church in 1874. At the end of the 19th century, nationalist movements erupted in Cuba and the Philippines, resulting in wars for independence. The United States intervened in these countries, and in 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out, resulting in Spain losing its last remaining colonies: the Philippines and Guam in Asia, and Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea.
The Period From The Beginning Of The 20th Century Until 1976
In the early 20th century, Spain’s situation was relatively stable. Spain acquired several colonies in Africa, including Western Sahara, Morocco, and Equatorial Guinea. However, the war in Morocco in 1931 led to a decline in Spain’s influence over these territories. The period of dictatorship under General Miguel Primo de Rivera from 1923 to 1931 ended with the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic. The republican government granted autonomy to regions such as the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia, while also recognizing women’s right to vote.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out between the faction led by the dictator Francisco Franco, who was supported by fascist Germany and Italy, and the Republican side supported by 54 countries worldwide, including the Soviet Union. However, due to a lack of unity within the Republican government, their forces weakened over time. On March 21, 1939, Francisco Franco captured the capital city of Madrid, and the Republican government was overthrown. Franco established a dictatorship in Spain and remained the country’s leader until his death. The Spanish Civil War is considered the opening battle of World War II.
During Franco’s reign, Spain played a neutral role in World War II but still supported the Axis powers of fascist countries. After the war, Spain was politically and economically isolated and excluded from the United Nations. The situation changed in 1955, during the Cold War period, when the country became important in the United States’ strategy to establish military presence to prevent Soviet actions in the Mediterranean basin.
In 1956, when Morocco gained independence from France, Spain handed over Morocco to the new country but retained control of Sidi Ifni, Tarfaya, and Western Sahara. In 1958, Spain ceded Tarfaya to Mohammed V (King of Morocco) and established the province of Western Sahara, comprising the previously separate districts of Saguia el-Hamra in the north. In 1959, the Spanish territory on the Gulf of Guinea was established with a status similar to that of provinces in mainland Spain. The first local elections were held in 1959, and the first representatives of Equatorial Guinea sat in the Spanish parliament.
In March 1968, under pressure from Equatorial Guinea nationalists and the United Nations, Spain announced that it would grant independence to its colony. In 1969, under international pressure, Spain returned Sidi Ifni to Morocco, and the Canary Islands and Spanish cities on the African continent were considered equal parts of Spain and the European Union, but with different tax systems. By 1976, after losing complete control over the Western Sahara region, the Spanish Empire declared its dissolution, ending its historical role in the development of human history.
Although the Spanish Empire collapsed after centuries of existence, it left its own mark on the empire map of humanity, with territories spanning continents, including Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and becoming the first empire known as the Empire on which the sun never sets. Its achievements as a maritime power in the past can be considered one of the strongest foundations that helped Spain develop and maintain its position to this day.