Why did the Spanish empire disintegrate so much earlier than the other European empires?
Of the major seafaring European powers (England, Portugal, Spain, France, Netherlands), Spain and Portugal were the first to launch seafaring explorations explicitly to discover new trade routes. The Spaniards were the first to “discover” the New World, the Americas, in 1492. Within 1550, they had established the first worldwide empire, taking over all of South America (except for Brazil, which went to the Portuguese. But the Iberian Union later, which conjoined Spain and Portugal, meant that Spanish Empire effectively controlled all of SA).The Spanish Empire, mining massive amounts of gold and silver, then sending them over the Atlantic Ocean in massive treasure fleets, became enormously wealthy. So why did the Spanish Empire disintegrate so soon?Firstly, the Spanish Empire made many enemies and became overextended. In the 1500s, the Spanish Emperor also became the Holy Roman Emperor, in effect meaning that Spain controlled Austria as well. Around this time, however, Holland, England, and various breakaway Protestant German states raised trouble. Most of Spain’s finances and efforts were dedicated to fighting off these menaces, draining the treasury. Charles V himself abdicated due to fatigue.Secondly, Spanish society was stagnant. Crucially, a viable middle-class never arose. In England, a new merchant class was made rich through trade in the New World, in Holland a similar manifestation, and in France, the famous bourgeoisie originated from this time. In Spain however, most of the wealth was funneled into the Court and the nobility and Church. Yes, a few aspiring entrepreneurs went and became famous. But on the whole, colonial administrators, plantation owners, soldiers, were all nobles. As such, they were already secure in their wealth and had no ambition, no drive, no motivation to drive them to more riches. Eventually, the Spanish economy stagnated as a result.Finally, a combination of civil wars, piracy by the English, and court corruption led to the decline of the Spanish Empire. The invasion by Napoleon sealed the fate of Spain, with colonies seeing Spanish weakness and declaring independence a few short years later. At the same time, the British and French empires were on an upward trend, gradually acquiring more colonies in Asia and Africa.The rest, they say, is history.
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