The Spanish and Portuguese Empires

The first major impetus towards colonization in Africa, Asia and America came from the Iberian Peninsula, which had promoted the most significant of the Voyages of Discovery in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The dual motive for imperialism was ideology and wealth, aptly expressed by Bernal Diaz, who accompanied the conquistadores into Mexico in 1519: ‘We came here to serve God and also to get rich.’1 Both Spanish and Portuguese imperialism had, therefore, the characteristics of the medieval crusade against Islam and heathendom, while also assuming the more modern role of openly exploiting the capital wealth of overseas dependencies. These possessions bordered on the three major oceans. For Portugal they included the Atlantic islands of Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores; the coast of Brazil; fortress settlements in East Africa (like Mombasa) and West Africa (like Sao Jorge); more continuous stretches of African coastline like Angola and Mozambique; bases in the Indian Ocean like Ormuz, Goa, Calicut and Colombo; and scattered posts in the Far East in Macao, Malacca, Java, the Celebes and the Moluccas. Spain's possessions, rather more compact, included the Canaries, most of the West Indian Islands, the whole of Central America and a substantial area of South America and, almost as an afterthought, the Philippines.

The purpose of this chapter is to point to comparisons and contrasts between the empires of the two Iberian powers, concentrating on their origins, their administrative structure, and their reaction to external and internal threats.


The origins of Iberian imperialism reveal a basic paradox. Portuguese exploration was far more systematic and carefully planned than the Spanish voyages, yet, once discovery had been converted into conquest or annexation, it was Spain who introduced the more efficient administrative structure.

Portugal was able to make an earlier transition into maritime reconnaissance than Castile because she had accomplished her part in the Reconquista from the Moors by the mid–fourteenth century, whereas Castile was still confronted by the substantial Moorish enclave of Granada until 1492. For Portugal the next and natural step was to strike at Islam in North Africa, and the capture of Ceuta in 1415 was the beginning of a carefully planned strategy. Under the guidance of Prince Henry the Navigator (d. 1460) Portuguese mariners explored the West African coastline with the ultimate aims of capturing the supplies of gold from south of the Sahara, one of the sources of the Moors’ wealth, and of attacking Islam from the rear, making possible a two–pronged crusade. For most of the fifteenth century Castile had no equivalent aims, being content with the acquisition of the Canary Islands. The Portuguese grand design became even more ambitious in the second half of the century. John II (1481–95) dispatched advance explorers like Pedro de Covilhao to report on the feasibility of achieving maritime contacts with India, of breaking into the Indian Ocean spice trade, and of establishing an alliance with supposed foreign Christian potentates like Prester John in order to complete the encirclement of Islam. Thus, when Vasco da Gama made his epic voyage to India (1497–8), he may well have been acting on fragments of information gradually pieced together in Lisbon. These were sufficiently encouraging to commit Portugal to a policy of eastward expansion round the southern coast of Africa. Castile had no such information and was therefore forced to rely more upon luck and conjecture. Hence her eventual interest in Columbus, whose hope to prove that the Orient could be reached by sailing due west had less significance in the Portuguese scheme. The voyages of Columbus (1492, 1493–6, 1498– 1500, 1502–4) were at first considered disappointing, and the Portuguese appeared to have established the only really useful imperial possessions because they alone possessed obvious wealth. Yet, within fifty years the Spanish possessions had grown rapidly, with settlements being established far into the interior, while the Portuguese colonies remained essentially coastal. This sudden acceleration of Spanish energy was due to two main factors.


Figure 4. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the sixteenth century

First, the Spaniards found that their main source of wealth was in the interior of the spheres of influence allowed to them by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494); they were therefore forced to focus their attention beyond the coastal areas and offshore islands. Initially the main activities were those of the conquistadores: Cortes in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, Alvarado in Guatemala, Quesada in New Granada and Montejo in the Yucatan. Their search was primarily for the gold reputedly amassed by the Indian civilizations. Once the Spanish Crown had assumed partial responsibility for the administration of the new areas a second rush into the interior began, this time to the enormously rich silver deposits of Zacatecas and Guanajuato, discovered in New Spain (1543–8), and of Potosi in Bolivia (1545). This necessitated further administrative changes to cope with constantly expanding frontiers and settlements. By contrast, Portugal's wealth continued to be derived through coastal entrepots and, since the products were more diverse and varied, it would have involved enormous effort to take control of them all at source. What really mattered was that the outlets like Goa, Kilwa and Malacca continued to be supplied by the producers. Where gold was discovered in the interior some efforts were made at conquest; for example, expeditions were sent, without success, from Mozambique into the empire of Monomotapa in the sixteenth century. Alternatively, some attempt was made to establish permanent settlements, especially in the Minas Gerais area of Brazil during the gold rush of 1693. On the whole, however, bullion was never more than a secondary source of wealth to Portugal, while to Spain it was fundamental.

Second, the depth of penetration was decided by the degree of resistance from the indigenous populations. The Spanish conquests in Central and South America were made at the expense of civilizations which were culturally sophisticated but totally unprepared militarily for the type of warfare conducted by the conquistadores. Both Cortes and Pizarro took maximum advantage of the novelty of firearms and horses, exploited civil wars at the expense of the rulers, and resorted to kidnapping their respective opponents, Montezuma and Atahuallpa. The Portuguese, on the other hand, encountered greater difficulties beyond the coastal areas, particularly in the East. The main force in the Indian Ocean was Islam which, in its various political manifestations, was far more resilient than the American Indian empires. The Muslims of the East African interior fiercely resisted Portuguese attempts to enlarge their coastal settlements, and the ports of Mombasa and Malindi were eventually recaptured by the Swahili and the Omani Arabs by the end of the seventeenth century. Portuguese settlements in India faced constant threats in the sixteenth century from the newly established Mughal Empire in the north, while the East Indies Portuguese bases were set up at the very time that militant Islam was in the process of driving Hinduism out of Sumatra and Java. Elsewhere, several other powers possessed enormous resources and could not be subdued by a mere handful of adventurers: the Hindu states of southern India, the Ming and Manchu dynasties of Imperial China and the Shogunate of Japan. Generally the Portuguese recognized their limitations as conquerors, and preferred to establish diplomatic relations with rulers of the interior while guarding their coastal interests and shipping lanes. The result was that the Portuguese Empire, outside America, consisted of numerous widely scattered bases and coastal enclaves, very different from the much larger colonies of Spain.

The early stages of both Spanish and Portuguese imperial expansion owed much to private enterprise. In America and Africa a series of semi-feudal states emerged, the owners of which were given extensive privileges and powers by the Crown. By the encomienda system, established in New Spain and Peru, the conquistadores acquired huge areas of land, together with the right to extract tribute and labour services from the inhabitants. Hernando Cortes, for example, owned 25,000 square miles and 100,000 Indians. A similar method developed in Portuguese Brazil after 1533. Prominent settlers were granted vast estates, some of which actually exceeded Portugal in size, and the owners (donatarios) possessed extensive political, judicial and military powers. Asia and the East Indies were exceptions to this scramble for private land by soldiers of fortune. Since the nature of Portuguese activity in these areas was entirely commercial, land tenure on such a massive scale was considered impractical. Another barrier, of course, was the military strength of those indigenous civilizations from which such concessions would have to be extracted.

Private enterprise gradually gave way to direct rule by the mother power. This involved a transition from imprecisely defined feudalism to a new bureaucracy. Spain led the way in the sixteenth century, setting up a uniform system in her American colonies. Portugal followed more slowly and hesitantly, experimenting with different methods before moving towards the Spanish system in the early seventeenth century.

The apex of the bureaucracy consisted of the Kings of Spain and Portugal (the thrones being combined between 1580 and 1640) and the institutions which served them in Europe. The Spanish system developed along conciliar lines. The principal administrative innovation was the Council of the Indies (set up in 1524 by Charles V), which co–operated with the Casa de Contratación (1503). Between them they directed every aspect of colonial government and fiscal organization, appointing and issuing instructions to officials at the upper level of the colonial bureaucracy. Portugal eventually adopted a similar system, headed, from 1643, by the Overseas Council. The influence of Spain on Portugal was obvious; the search for a conciliar solution to administrative difficulties was a typically Spanish resort.

The colonial level comprised the principal overseas officials, who deputized for the King. The Spanish colonies were gradually divided into Viceroyalties: for New Spain (1535), Peru (1569), New Granada (1717–24 and 1740) and La Plata (1776). The Portuguese Empire had a less uniform system, the titles conferred often varying between Viceroy and Governor or Captain General. Brazil, for example, was made a Captaincy General in 1549 and changed to a Viceroyalty in 1640, although the latter term was not used permanently until 1763; while the most important post of responsibility overseas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the Viceroyalty of Goa (1505), which supervised Portuguese settlements throughout the Indian Ocean and the East Indies. Spanish Viceroys were much more under the control of the home government in the sixteenth century because of the constant checks exerted by the Council of the Indies. When the Portuguese equivalent became operative in the seventeenth century the semi–independence of the Captains General was partially curbed, but they always retained a far greater degree of initiative and freedom than the Spanish Viceroys.

The administrations of both empires had a lower range of officials which included Governors, Captains and Corregidores. The home governments and the Viceroys had considerable difficulty in controlling those who were responsible for the more inaccessible areas of Spanish America and Portuguese Brazil. Corruption was therefore more pronounced at this level. More important, the indigenous population was often badly treated, in defiance of regulations issued from Madrid and Lisbon. In 1542 the Spanish government promulgated the New Laws, which banned the enslavement of Indians. But the reaction of local estate owners was so hostile that many officials were unwilling to enforce them and, after 1550, thousands of Indians were seized and put to forced labour on plantations and in mines. The decrees of King Sebastian of Portugal in 1570 were equally unsuccessful. The authorities could not, or would not, enforce the ban on Indian slavery and, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, unscrupulous frontiersmen made their fortunes by becoming slave hunters. The inability to prevent the maltreatment of Indians was undoubtedly the greatest single failing in the administration of both empires.

The Portuguese Empire faced more persistent and prolonged difficulties than the Spanish Empire and showed earlier signs of decay. Yet its remnants lasted longer. A survey of the external and internal threats will show that Spain's loss of empire was more sudden and traumatic and therefore more difficult to combat with renewed imperialism.

External threats were far more dangerous to Portuguese possessions. The Portuguese maritime empire was vulnerable to any other European power which chose to concentrate on achieving naval supremacy in the East. During the seventeenth century the Netherlands rapidly overtook Portugal as a ship–building nation and developed a strategy for conquering Portuguese colonies and taking over the spice trade. Making Batavia their focal point for the extension of their dominion and commerce in the Orient, the Dutch appropriated the entire East Indian archipelago, with the exception of New Guinea, Portuguese Timor and the Spanish Philippines, and also drove the Portuguese out of India and Ceylon, leaving only Goa intact. During the 1630s and 1640s the Dutch also captured Brazil and Angola, but their resources had been overstretched, and internal revolts won these back for Portugal. Nevertheless, by the end of the seventeenth century Portugal had lost half of her imperial possessions—those which could be dominated by the range of a ship's cannon. Spain also experienced continual threats to her coastal possessions, islands and maritime commerce. These were the result mainly of French and English unwillingness to accept the Spanish monopoly in South America and the Caribbean confirmed by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Francis I, King of France between 1515 and 1547, summed up this feeling: ‘I should be very happy to see the clause in Adam's will which excluded me from my share when the world was divided.’1 English privateers launched a series of attacks in the West Indies in the 1570s and 1590s, forcing Philip II to spend large sums on strengthening coastal defences. But there was never any real possibility that the whole of the Spanish Empire would be conquered. No European country possessed resources (or, indeed, the inclination) to launch major land expeditions into the interior of Central and South America and then to overcome the rebellions which would inevitably follow. Spain's losses, therefore, were confined to several West Indian islands and the coast of Florida, captured by Britain when Spain unwisely committed herself to the side of France in the Seven Years’ War in 1761.

Internal threats were infinitely more damaging to Spain, for these destroyed her dominion in continental America and broke the sometimes tenuous links between the metropolitan and colonial halves of the administration. Portugal also suffered loss in the form of Brazil, but the retention of her African possessions was some consolation. The major problem confronted both countries was the emergence of a proto–nationalism in the colonies. This was the product of accumulated resentment against the grip of the peninsulares on the administration and against the restrictive economic policies exercised by the mother country. The catalyst for open revolt was the French occupation of Spain and Portugal from 1808. One by one the colonies seceded, having no desire to be ruled by a foreign European power. The process continued after Napoleon's downfall and the defeat of France. Between 1811 and 1825 Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and La Plata declared themselves independent from Spain, while Brazil and Uruguay broke away from Portugal. What had once been the major strength of Spain's colonial dominance, the enormous land area, now became its greatest liability. There was no possibility of any large–scale reconquest, particularly since Britain and the United States expressed open hostility to any such scheme. Portugal survived the crisis more effectively. Forced to abandon Brazil, she managed to strengthen her position in Africa. The Portuguese inhabitants of Angola and Mozambique had no similar secessionist ambitions, largely because they were greatly outnumbered by Africans and relied upon Portugal for economic and military support.

The first two decades of the nineteenth century killed the spirit of Spanish imperialism. True, the colonies of Cuba and the Philippines were retained until 1898, but Spain made little effort to enter a second period of imperialism, unlike Britain and France who, at various stages, had suffered similar reverses. Portugal, on the other hand, developed a new colonial impulse towards the end of the nineteenth century when she joined in the scramble for Africa and extended Angola and Mozambique deep into the interior. This imperial revival was harnessed by the Salazar Régime from 1932, and was not recognized as an anachronism until the Portuguese Revolution of 1974.

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