The modern world as we know it would not be the same without Spain. Find out how the Spanish Empire became one of the biggest empires of the world and how they lost it all.
Throughout history the world has been shaped through conquests, wars and revolutions. Spain is no different. In large part, the Spanish wars modelled the world approximately into what it is now. Through five centuries they discovered continents, formed one of the biggest empires of modern history, lived through some of the most surprising revolutions and civil wars and lost it all.
First it's important to understand that the Spanish crown and the Spanish military culture was very peculiar. For centuries Spain was considered one of the most devout Catholic countries, and many of the consequences the conquered suffered at the hands of the conquistadores were related to their religious ethic (convert or die). This same strict religious philosophy is what brought the empire's downfall. However, it must be noted, that this is what made it great in the first place.
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The king of Aragon Ferdinand and Castile's Isabella got married, unifying two neighboring kingdoms into one. At that time it was not known as Spain yet, and it wouldn't be for a few years still, but it was the beginning of something great. Isabella and Ferdinand were known as the Catholic Monarchs. Their religious belief is, supposedly, what pushed them to reconquer Andalusia, with its centre in Granada, the southern part of the Peninsula, for quite a few centuries in moorish hands. When this was accomplished they were ready for more.
While Spain expanded south of its own territory, with the conquest of Melilla in the North of Africa, an even bigger chance presented itself in form of a Genovese sailor, Christopher Columbus, who had a sailing project to find a new route to the Indies. Isabella was interested and funded his voyage. As luck would have it, he did not find what he was looking for, but as luck would have it, something much bigger and that would bring much wealth to Spain in the future: a new continent, today known as America. And so the Spanish Empire begins.
Through the course of the next century the millions of people learnt the Spanish language and it would become the most important and spoken in the world. The 16th century played host to colonization, rebellions and many epic and many epic battles in the Spanish wars theatre. Most of Central and South America was conquered by the Spanish, including the powerful Inca Empire.
On the home front there were several revolts, mostly due to the crown's decision to raise taxes almost everywhere in order to finance even more wars. The commoners rose up and took arms, the moriscos in the south of Spain also expressed their unhappiness and befriend Europe's arch-enemy, the Ottoman empire. Finally the highest Spanish classes in Aragon rebelled too.
The empire kept growing when Spain annexed The Philippines in Asia, Tunisia in Africa and the Azores Islands in Europe. As they got more powerful they gained more enemies than friends and the seeds of what would become full blown conflicts were planted.
However, everything that goes up, must come down and nearing the end of the century Phillip II believed himself and his empire, invincible. He was wrong and he paid dearly for his arrogance and blind faith that God was with him when he lost the Spanish Armada, the biggest fleet ever seen in Europe until then, thanks to bad weather and British military efficiency. Spain never recovered and its golden era began to decline.
After the Spanish Armada disaster, Spain's treasury was as good as empty. Once again the crown decides to raise taxes, making its subjects extremely incensed. There were several revolts, not only in Spain but also in the Spanish Netherlands. A big war ensues, one that wouldn't be solved for many years, although it had a few breaks. France, Spain's old-time enemy got involved tipping the scales and deciding the outcome of the war.
But those were not the only neighbours they had trouble with. Portugal, which at the time was merged with Spain, had become fed up with them and decided to become independent once more. Of course Spain wasn't willing to let go that easily and went to war. In the end the Portuguese king was astute enough to develop diplomatic ties with England. Eventually Spain had no other choice but to recognize that Portugal was a free nation, though they did so grudgingly.
Despite everything, some more Spanish wars were still to come.The first succession war took place when King Charles II (House of Hapsburg) died childless. He named a successor from the Bourbon house, but England was not happy about it, and presented a contender instead. This war took almost 15 years of the first half of the 18th century.
Spain still had the idea of recovering at least some of its former glory and looked for places to expand, though their next campaign was the unsuccessful attempt to recover Gibraltar from the British.
When this didn't work they set their eyes on a small archipelago thousands of miles from home, south of Argentina: the Falklands (or Malvinas). However they were not the only ones to see it and disputed over it with the British. Again Spain was declared the loser.
Naturally, Spain held some resentment against the English, and when they saw a chance to get back at them, they went for it without thinking twice. The American colonies were rebelling and fighting for their independence. Spain decided to support the Americans against England. A war was fought and the Americans won. All the participating countries signed the Treaty of Paris. In truth Spain didn't get all it wanted, Gibraltar for example, but it did recover some of its colonies.
By the 19th century, Spain and France were no longer enemies. Au contraire, they seemed such good friends that they decided to invade Portugal together. But it did not go how the Spanish planned though because Napoleon had an ace up his sleeve. He had very quietly stationed his troops in Spain and began to occupy it. This led to the Popular War, when the people in Madrid rose up in arms against Napoleon's troops.
A few years later there was a military uprising that deposed the king and a liberal government was established, it lasted three years (trienio liberal). King Ferdinand VII, naturally, was not happy at all and begged the French to invade his country and put him back in power. The monarchy was restored, and even though the King had made promises to the liberals, he kept none of them, little did he know that on his account soon some more Spanish wars were to come, such as the First Carlist War.
Once again there was a problem with succession, Ferdinand VII only managed to produce one daughter, and Spain's law didn't allow girls to rule, so he went and changed it and then died when Isabella was only three years old. She was proclaimed Queen, but her uncle Carlos did not accept her as Princess of Asturias or queen and promoted himself as a contender to the crown. The first Carlist war ensued. Carlos lost. However he still had many supporters and a chance arose to solve the problem a few years later. Carlos wanted to marry his son to Isabella, but she refused and the second Carlist war broke out. Many years later Amadeus I, the first non-Bourbon king for ages was proclaimed, a new contender Carlos, duke of Madrid, from the House of Bourbon appeared. The Carlists were successful in taking over a few cities in the north, but in the end the government won and Carlos had to flee.
In the colonies things reached boiling point too. Spain declared war on Morocco. A fervent nationalism arose and thousand of young men volunteered and Spain got Europe's support, Spain won and kept Ceuta and Melilla in perpetuity.
In America, the Dominicans, who had gained their independence a few years before, asked to be annexed back to Spain. However the conditions were not the ones they expected and a new independence war broke out, the Dominican Republic was lost, one of the few remnants of the Spanish empire.
Cuba, their most lucrative colony, remained, but not for long. The war was long and difficult, but finally Spain prevailed. But then, in a final twist, the USA got involved, tipping the scales against the Spanish by supporting Cuba, which gave way to the American-Spanish war. Not only did Spain lose Cuba, but also The Philippines and eventually Puerto Rico, the last of their remaining empire.
Truly no longer an Empire, Spain tried to retain what little it had left and perhaps expand a little further. They found harsh resistance from some native tribes in Morocco and wanted to put an end to it. A large contingent of troop was sent to the North African country, but the commander's ineptitude lead them into the Battle of Annual (or the Annual Disaster),a heavy defeat which cost the lives of several thousands.
The country finally seemed to find peace, but one more episode was to come, the Spanish civil war. It all happened when the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing parties, trade unions and labour forces, won the elections in Spain. They had a very anticlerical position, and catholics and the wealthy classes trembled in fear. Several army generals rebelled and one of the bloodiest civil wars Spain has ever seen broke out. Commanded, in the end by Francisco Franco, the rebels, who called themselves nationalists, won, and Franco established a totalitarian government. It ended only upon Franco's death in 1975.
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