Empires in Conflict

Spain and Portugal

By 1450, the absorption of the Atlantic System into the European economy had brought Portugal and Spain into direct competition with threats of clash and warfare.  To mitigate against direct conflict, the two kingdoms sought and negotiated a division of the Atlantic among themselves.  In the 1450s, the Pope granted exclusive rights to Portugal for African exploration and trade.  The Pope was sanctioning a Portuguese monopoly position in the African slave trade.  The data from the Translatlantic Slavery Database project (see tab above) confirms this and shows how much Portugal dominated the trade and shipping of slaves in the Atlantic for the next 4 centuries.

Early in its colonization, Spain used the encomienda system which granted a number of indigenous workers to and large deeds of land to the military officers of the Spanish conquests as personal fiefdoms.  Naturally, these officers became exceptionally wealthy and powerful in a brutal system of conquest and exploitation.  The abuses of the encomienda system provoked  protest and internal disputes  The genocidal policies of the Spanish to the indigenous population of the Americas also provoked a moral crisis within the Spanish empire.  A leading defender of the rights of the Indians was the Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas, who engaged in a series of debates in 1550-51 at Vallodid, Spain.  Opposing him was another Dominican  Juan GinĂ©s de SepĂșlveda, who argued that enslavement of the Indian population was allowed for by natural law and Catholic theology.  While the results of the debate were left ambiguous, the encomienda system was modified through decrees that outlawed slavery.  However the wider systematic abuse of native and indigenous labor in the Americas continued.

Price Revolution and the Rise of Holland, England and France

From 1516 Flanders and the rest of the Netherlands were absorbed within the Habsburg / Spanish Emperor and King, Carlos V's control as an inheritance.  From about 1480 onward the Flemish city of Antwerp had grown into a major mercantile town that traded with the Portuguese and Spanish to the South, and with English, and German merchants with their wool and silver.  By 1560 various grievances arose in the Netherlands against Habsburg / Spanish rule, until a full-scale revolt broke out in the 1570s against Habsburg rule.  By 1581, the Netherlands had effectively broken off from Spanish ruled Flanders and the Dutch Republic was established.

By the second half of the 16th century, the influx of massive amounts of bullion in gold and silver began to undermine the Spanish economy as price inflation erupted.  The emperor Charles V who was confident of his dual position as emperor of Spain and of the Habsburg Empire was forced to abdicate in 1555 after his attempts at a proclamation to be Universal Emperor met resistance. From the late 16th century, we find Spanish power eclipse and the rise of new nation-state and mercantile based empires emerge in England and in Holland.  There is also more debate now about whether the notion of the decline of Spain, or the later decline of the Ottoman Empire are correct notions.

The price revolution of the late 16th century prompted a shift in industrial productioin to the northern European countries of Holland and England.  By the 17th century both Holland and England become world based empires that rival the Spanish and Portuguese.  By the 18th century Britain becomes the major ocean based global empire.  France, the weakest of the new empires gradually expanded its empire in North America and to a more limited extent in Caribbean.  Together all of these empires engaged openly in expanding the Atlantic-African slave system.

The Dutch empire was based on its mercantile and technical prowess, and a political revolution that all coalesced by 1581 when the Dutch Republic was pronounced.  The Dutch invested heavily in fishing and merchant fleets and began to dominate the Baltic trade in fur and timber, and the Atlantic fisheries and whaling.  The Dutch established advanced factory systems for drying and salting fish on board their fishing fleets, while in whaling they advanced the process of industrial whaling operations at Spitsbergen in the Atlantic Arctic region.  The Dutch also established two separate chartered companies to develop their world trade.  The first was the VOC, or the the Dutch East India Company, that controlled the trade to the Indian Ocean and to Japan and etablished colonization of South Africa and Indonesia.  The Dutch also established a West Indies Company (WIC) that controlled trade and colonization in the Atlantic.  In Africa, the WIC set up slave forts that competed with the Portuguese, and it attacked the Portuguese coastal colonies in Brazil..  Eventually the WIC controlled trade and colonization to the Carribbean.  The Dutch also famously settled in New York before abandoning its New Netherland colony along the Hudson River to the British in 1665, when the Second Anglo-Dutch War forced the Dutch to abandon New York.

Up through the end of the 1500s Britain's exploration and exploitation of the Atlantic lagged behind the other maritime powers.  It relied more upon fishing, piracy, and a smaller but more mobile Navy.  The defeat of the Spanish Emperor Phillip II's Armada invasion force of 1588 marked a turnaround in British emphasis on its fleets.  From that point onward we find a gradual increase in Atlantic involvment.  It would remain until the late 17th century after the English Civil War that we would find a major British effort at Atlantic dominance.