Spanish empire story, interrupted

I realize my pursuit of my “Project 500 Years” has been a little episodic. When I started out on December 31, 2020, my intention was to survey the main developments in Western colonialism worldwide on a daily basis, covering the events of one year each day starting in 1520 CE. Had I continued with that plan, I think that by now I would reached the events of 1932 CE and be more or less in the home stretch to the present day…

However, two sets of events intervened. One was a family crisis, which forced me to interrupt the year-per-day approach somewhat abruptly at the end of June (= 1695 CE). The second was the detachment of one of my retinas, in early November. The retina got successfully stapled (or whatever) back into place. But part of the treatment also etched out much of that lens so now I need cataract surgery to regain binocularity. Living and working one-eyed leaves me both clumsy and tired. Grrr.

However, these setbacks in the original plan gave me time to think about the project more broadly. Here were some of the conclusions I came to:

  • When I jumped right into the project on 12/31/2020 I didn’t have much idea of what I was getting into. (But still, I’m glad I did jump in!)
  • Specifically, 1520 was a pretty arbitrary starting point, chosen for the “500 years on” aspect of the project. The notable events of that era were, it turned out, pretty significant: The Spanish conquistadors entering and seizing huge parts of today’s Mexico (“New Spain”), and Martin Luther starting his agitations in Europe… However, if we want to look at the roots of the transoceanic empires built on all the world’s continents by a handful of polities perched on the Atlantic coast of Europe, it was clear I’d need to go back to Portugal’s transoceanic empire-building, which started in 1415.
Dates of adoption of the Gregorian Calendar
  • I also discovered that while it might be cute to divide up the world’s events into the discrete, 12-month-long chunks we know as “years”, actually, most of the significant ones bleed over a number of different years. Hence, the choice of which year to assign an event to is sometimes fairly arbitrary. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that different European or non-European polities were switching at widely differing points from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars, a switch that involved the skipping of 11 (or later on, 12) calendar days.
  • I came to a deeper realization than hitherto of the role that these empires played in spurring the emergence and consolidation of the states that were their metropoles. (I have long been of the view that states form nations more than “nations” form states. So my new realization of the role that empires played in forming those five states helped fill in that puzzle for me.) You can see some of my musings from last September on that topic, here.

So, as the weeks passed after June, I became less focused on resuming my year-per-day writing practice and more inclined to take a different approach: that of exploring the origins– and the animating origin myths/ideology–of each of the five big West European empires in turn. In chronological order these would be: Portugal, Spain, England, Netherlands, and France.

In late August I published a pretty lengthy piece about the foundations and first 165 years of Portugal’s empire, taking it up to the moment in 1580 when the Castilian/Spanish state was suddenly able to take it over. I followed that up with a piece on Portugal’s use of exemplary terror and two pieces that were intended as bridges between my study of the early Portuguese empire and that of early Spain:

I am still pretty pleased with all those pieces. (In that last one, I traced the roots of European transoceanic empires back even further– to my own long-distant ancestors, the Vikings.)

So then, on to Spain.

… Which proved for some reason harder to conceptualize and plan out, as a piece of writing, than the big essay I’d done on Portugal. In late September I wrote a piece on Columbus, whose 1492 voyage was the self-evident starting-point for the Spanish part of my project. Then in late January I became captivated by some reading I’d been doing into how, in and around Spain’s 1580 takeover of the Portuguese empire, some of the Spanish conquistadors in the Philippines became seized by the idea of conquering all of China– which they thought should be a very simple matter! That topic, I saw as having lots of relevance to today’s world: “Spain’s fantasies of unipolar world dominance!”* So I thought I would head speedily to Spain’s colonial presence in East Asia and write about that. However, I didn’t quite get as far as the post-1580 situation, since first I needed to explain how it was that there were fortified Spanish colonies in East Asia in the first place. (Not an easy matter– they had to get there by traveling all around the world via the Atlantic, Mexico, and then the Pacific!) So I wrote about that, first, here, last week…

Anyway, Iong story short, there certainly is a story that I can pull together about the first, say, 100-150 years of the Spanish Empire that is analogous to the one I wrote about Portugal; and I do still plan to write it. But I need to plan it better, and pay due attention to the breathtakingly cruel story of what the conquistadors did in the Caribbean, in New Spain (Mexico), and Peru. Breathtaking, because what happened was that a tiny handful of well-armed, violent men were able to subdue a number of large and fairly technologically sophisticated empires in the Americas. And they did so because they had horses (never seen before in the “New” World), steel weapons (ditto), a rigid and cruel religious ideology, a host of Old World diseases that they brought with them, and a set of political/economic institutions back home that actively encouraged and incentivized their continued campaigns of plunder, looting, and rapine in the “new” lands they encountered…

So I need more time to pull that one together.

And along the way, in December/January, I got distracted into the whole matter of what Quakers were doing in the early decades of the English settler-colonial project here in Turtle Island. See the four pieces I wrote on this topic in January, here. Those pieces were all part of the broader “origins of Western imperialism” project, but a very specific– dare I say niche– part. It is, though, a story that strikes very close to home for me personally since I am an English-origined settler in Turtle Island who is also a Quaker.

In doing that work, I also started noticing how the forms of individualized land ownership that the Quakers and other settlers introduced into Turtle Island not only completely disrupted the forms of communal land use and land management that had long been practiced here– but they were also far more individualized and capitalistic than the vast majority of land holdings back in England at the time… Another interesting example of how the practice of empire spurred the growth of capitalist relationships back in the metropole…

I’ve also been doing the podcast project with my friend Yousef Aljamal that explores commonalities between Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine and various other settler colonialisms in history, and engaging in some activities on Russia/Ukraine and on China…

But now, with everything that’s going on in my life (and in the world), I am doing some heavy-duty discernment over how best to spend the limited reserves of time and energy I have at my disposal. I may actually set aside writing the “big” Spanish Empire piece for a short time, while I work on some of these other projects. But I shall come back! It’s an important story, and needs to be well told.

  • By the way, spoiler alert here: What brought an abrupt end to Spain’s moment of unipolar ambition was the devastating (for them) debacle of the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588… And that “sea-change” in world affairs then paved the way for the emergence of the English and Dutch empires at the end of the century. Stay tuned!