A Level History: The discovery of Hispaniola- the gem in 16th century Spain’s crown…

EssayCredit: Andrew Samanor

Today I thought I would share with you all an essay I wrote about the ‘Golden Age of Spain’, for anyone interested in the period, or to help those of you starting your coursework. When I was writing up this essay, all my work seemed to be all over the place- it took me what seemed like forever to collect the information for it in the first place, and that was before I even started putting it together! So for those of you who might be a little stuck on your coursework, I hope this helps you! In it, I examine how far the discovery of Hispaniola (now America) contributed to the growth in power of Spain; I also explore the other reasons for the acceleration in Spanish dominance in Europe. I do hope you enjoy it, and would love to hear what you think!


How far did the discovery of Hispaniola increase the power and influence of Spain throughout the period 1474-1598?

To a greater extent, the discovery of Hispaniola increased the power and influence of Spain throughout the period 1474-1598. The reduction in the power of the Papacy in Spain, great amount of accumulated European lands by the end of the 16th century, and diverse culture and arts had also contributed to the increase in Spain’s power, so that it became the “most powerful country in Europe”[1], although the economic and prestigious benefits to Spain from the discovery of Hispaniola were arguably more significant. Overall however, the actions of the Spanish monarchs was arguably most momentous in the acceleration of Spanish dominance, most notably because it was Ferdinand and Isabella who, through successful strategy, set the foundations for a great Spanish empire.

The discovery of Hispaniola in 1492 by Columbus was significant in marking a new chapter in the increase of Spanish influence in the world. When Ferdinand and Isabella first ascended to the throne, the kingdoms of Castile and Aragón had few foreign territories. However, by the end of Phillip II’s rule, Spain was a formidable empire. The discovery of Hispaniola played a large role in achieving this, as it greatly increased the amount of land under Spanish ownership. The “Treaty of Tordesillas”[2], signed in 1494, dissolved the dispute between the Spanish and Portuguese on territories following Columbus’ return from Hispaniola and prevented any other European State from colonising the named territories, thereby cementing Spanish hold, and was to prove advantageous in the later reigns of Charles and Phillip, particularly after Portugal came under the Spanish rule in Phillip’s reign. The discovery was significant in uniting Spaniards behind a vision of imperial destiny and civilising mission. The system of repartimiento- forced tribute and labour- introduced by the monarchs was to have future financial benefits to Spain due to the increase in supply of labour for gold extractions. Charles built on the legacy of his grandparents by establishing the Council of the Indies. The very fact that such a council was needed to help manage Hispaniola shows the growing importance of Hispaniola to the Spanish Empire. Hispaniola generated income through taxes, customs duties, Indian tribute and, most importantly, a fifth of all precious metals being granted to the monarchy, thus revenues were far greater than in Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign, helping Spain finance further conquests such as Mexico in 1521, Peru and Chile. Both the establishment of the Sugar Cane Industry and the system of repartimiento, which increased the supply of labour for gold extractions, brought financial benefits. The glory Hispaniola enabled Spain to usher in continued from Charles’ reign to that of Phillip. By the end of the 16th century, revenues from the Indies made up twenty percent of the crown’s total income. Moreover, the threat of English or French Privateers siezing Spanish tresure fleets gave Phillip the incentive to build a large navy and introduce a convoy system to protect Spanish treasure. As a result, the threat posed by the French and English was removed and no complete Spanish treasure fleet was ever captured in the 16th century. The expansion of the Spanish navy was to have great benefits to Spain later, as the Spanish navy added immensely to Spain’s power on the seas.. In addition, the Missionaries sent to Hispaniola converted Indians to Catholicism, thereby spreading Spanish interests. Hispaniola’s importance to Spain increased gradually, but by the end of the 16th century its benefits to Spain were immense, financially, politically, and in terms of prestige both inside and outside Spain. Hispaniola could be seen as the most significant cause for the increase in the power and influence of Spain, although it was only because of Ferdinand and Isabella’s granting of financial support and permission to Columbus that Hispaniola was discovered by Columbus. Thus although Hispaniola’s importance to the Spanish Empire increased greatly by the end of Phillips’s reign, it was not the most important cause for Spain’s dominance in Europe.

The reduction in the power of the Papacy in Spain was also significant in elevating Spain’s power. The process of increasing the power of the monarch over the power the Papacy had on religious matters in Spain was started by Ferdinand and Isabella, who, at the start of their reign, had little control over the Papacy. By the end of Phillip II’s reign, however, circumstances had changed greatly in favour of Spanish interests. The monarchs successfully increased the crown’s authority over the church by exercising greater control over senior clerical appointments and church revenue. Perhaps most importantly, Papal control over the Spanish church was eroded when the Monarchs “refused to allow appeals in legal cases to be taken to Rome”[3]. Charles, upon coming to the throne, continued the development of an Erastian Church started by the monarchs. By 1551, the church gave an estimated 500,000 ducats to the crown, through the Cruzada, Subsido and Tercias Reales. These finances ensured the crown avoided great financial issues which might otherwise have curbed Spanish power. A significant increase in the power of the Spanish crown occurred when in 1523 the Pope declared the Military Orders were in the crown’s ownership for ever. The reign of Phillip also saw a continuance of the increase in Spanish power by reforms passed in the Council of Trent, which meant that by the end of the 16th century, many of the abuses that had motivated the Protestant Reformation had disappeared, and the Roman Catholic Church had reclaimed many of its followers in Europe. In this case, the strengthening of the Church and Papacy was beneficial to the Spanish crown, as the consolidation of Catholicism was in Spanish interests. In addition, Phillip’s decision to increase the number of bishops in the Netherlands from four to eighteen increased the crown’s political power and control over the church. Thus, by the end of Phillip’s reign, accumulated church reforms and financial benefits from the Pope after the reigns of all three monarchs had left Spain in greater control of its religious policies, and as a result, a more powerful state.

Arguably the most significant cause for the increase in the power and influence of Spain was the actions of the Spanish monarchs. Ferdinand and Isabella stabilised Spain through the Hermandades, organisation of administration, public unity between Castile and Aragón, and marriage alliances, which spread Spanish interests and control. The “Catholic Monarchs”[4] decision to grant Columbus permission and finance for his voyages was to prove significant when he discovered Hispaniola, and the Inter Caetera bull they signed in 1493 was important in securing Castile’s territory in the Indies. The pursuit of religious uniformity and conquest of Grenada ensured that Spain became united, both religiously and politically, thus it grew in power. Moreover, Castile’s acquisition of Gran Canaria, Palma, Tenerife, and Purto Rico in 1508 built the foundations for an Empire. The re-organised councils and improved Corregidores improved law and order and maintained public control. Charles built on the stability the monarchs left Spain in by claiming victory in the revolts of the Comuneros and Germania, which cemented the alliance between king, aristocracy and the church, thus strengthening Spain. Although continuing the administrative system set up by his grandparents, Charles expanded it by creating new councils such as the Council of the Indies and Secretariat system. The convention that the king remained the source of all power continued into Phillip’s reign. However, Phillip emphasised the stability and supremacy of Spain to other nations by making Madrid the Capital of the Spanish empire, and marking the end of peripatetic rule that had existed under his predecessors. Phillip’s marriage to Mary, Queen of England, made him King of England in title, thus extending Spanish influence. Phillip also continued the administrative system, although the Regional Councils were reorganised for increased effectiveness. This was the most significant reason for the increase in the power and influence of Spain throughout the period of 1474-1598 because of the significant effects decisions made by the crown had on later years. Ferdinand and Isabella’s decisions, both to wage war on Grenada and fund Columbus’ journey allowed Spain to become united in such a way that it became a great power and eventual Empire, compared to the separate kingdoms Ferdinand and Isabella had started their reign with. Of the three main reigns- Phillip, Charles and Ferdinand and Isabella- there was no challenge to the throne, and all experienced long reigns, unlike other states such as England, which saw shorter, less influential reigns, such as that of Edward VI and Mary I. Moreover, Ferdinand and Isabella successfully used marriage alliances, an effective technique to increase Spanish allies with other states to contain France, the main threat to the growth of Spain as a great nation.

Spain’s power in Europe was promoted extensively also by the great number of lands that came under Spanish rule as a result of conquests and inheritances. Upon Ferdinand and Isabella’s ascension to the throne, Spain was a number of disunited kingdoms; however, by 1598, Spain had become the heart of a great empire. The most significant conquest in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was that of Grenada. The victory of the Christians against the Moors brought all the kingdoms of Spain under the Christian rule of the Spanish monarchs, and laid the foundation for a strong state as the separate kingdoms had been united, both religiously and territorially. Moreover, the monarchs’ increase in use of ambassadors allowed them to be represented in other states, and spread their influence further around Europe. The powers of the individual Spanish kingdoms were consolidated on Charles’ ascendancy to the Spanish crown. The unity of the Spanish kingdoms with the inherited “Habsburg lands”[5] created an extensive empire. Not only were these in central Europe, but also included the Castilian Empire in Hispaniola and the Aragonese Empire in the Mediterranean. The Holy Roman Empire thus became the most formidable in Europe. Phillip continued the expansion of the Spanish Empire that had taken place under his predecessors. When in 1580 Phillip took over Portugal, for the first time, the whole of the Peninsula was ruled by one monarch. Spain’s prestige and formidity was thus augmented significantly. Phillip built the Spanish navy to the point where it was four times the size it had been under Charles’ rule. Moreover, the Spanish army also grew, and it was estimated that Phillip “had over 100,000 men under arms”[6]. Spain’s command over artillery had also become more effective, due to its numerous wars against France since the ascension of Ferdinand and Isabella. The huge expansion of Spain’s military by the end of Phillip’s rule had made Spain particularly formidable, and many of the other European powers often felt threatened by the Empire.

Finally, Spanish culture and the arts contributed to the perceived Spanish superiority and power around the world, significant because although foreign ambassadors may not have had great command over the Castilian language, powerful imagery in art could be understood by all, and reported to foreign leaders. Ferdinand and Isabella’s use of both their heads on coins, and artwork in pictures created an imagery of unity. The great Infanrado palace in Guadalajara, and Church of Juan de los Reyes spread their presence, and thus influence. Artists such as Juan de Flandes painted the royal family courteously, allowing them to be more greatly publicised and known to all. Charles built on Ferdinand and Isabella’s use of art for perceived superiority. Regal paintings highlighting his glory were painted, and his portrait was on coins in the states of his Empire. The increase in the ceremony of his court to that of Ferdinand and Isabella gave an appearance of greater wealth and power. The great Palace of Charles V was built in Grenada, allowing Charles to leave behind a legacy of greatness upon Phillip’s ascendancy. Like his predecessors, Phillip continued with the extensive use of propaganda to promote the magnitude of his power. Churches were elaborately decorated, so that all who prayed could gaze on their ruler’s glorified images. Statues, such as that in the Sabatini Gardens were made, spreading Phillip’s presence across his lands. Art was also used to emphasise Spain’s greatness and emphasise the splendour of the ‘Golden Empire’. The ‘Battle of Zepanto’ painting was Spanish propaganda used to show God on Phillip’s side, and emphasise his holiness as ruler. The efforts of the monarchs to give themselves an appearance of glory and power was significant in giving Spain a cultural richness and notability for being influential and dominant.

In conclusion, to a greater extent, the discovery of Hispaniola increased the power and influence of Spain throughout the period 1474-1598. By the end of Phillip’s reign, the Spanish Empire was powerful and dominated Europe, achieved also through the reduction in the power of the Papacy in Spain, great amount of accumulated European lands by the end of the 16th century and diverse culture and arts. Although the actions of the Spanish monarchs was arguably most momentous in the acceleration of Spanish dominance because of the significance of decisions made by the crown in each of the three main reigns, the importance of Hispaniola to Spanish finances and prestige increased greatly as time passed, and thus its importance cannot be understated. Hispaniola gradually became more important to Spain, to the point where the dominance of other European powers in the world such as France paled in comparison to that of Spain.

[1] William Grange, A Primer in Theatre History: From the Greeks to the Spanish Golden Age

[2] Valerie Hansen and Kenneth Curtis, Voyages in World History, Volume 2

[3] Colin Pendrill, Spain 1474-1700

[4] Peter Bakewell, A History of Latin America to 1825

[5] Francesca Davis DiPiazza, Netherlands in Pictures

[6] Göte Hansson, ‪Trade, Growth and Development: The Role of Politics and Institutions

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BreakTheEnigma by BreakTheEnigma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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