Daily Archives: 5 May 2012

Castile vs. Portugal in the Canaries

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 981-1014:

The traditional hostility of Castile and Portugal, exacerbated by Portuguese intervention in the question of the Castilian succession, provided an added incentive to Castile to acquire its own possessions overseas. One of the major battlefields in the Castilian-Portuguese conflict of the fifteenth century was to be the Canary Islands, which seem to have been discovered by the Genoese in the early fourteenth century. During the course of the Castilian War of Succession Ferdinand and Isabella attempted to substantiate their rights to the Canaries by dispatching an expedition from Seville in 1478 to occupy the Grand Canary. The resistance of the islanders and dissensions among the Castilians frustrated the intentions of Ferdinand and Isabella, and it was only in 1482 that a new expedition under Alfonso Fernández de Lugo laid the foundations for eventual success, beginning with the subjugation of Grand Canary in the following year. Even now, Palma was not taken till 1492 and Tenerife till 1493. But, in the meantime, the treaty of 1479 ending the war between Castile and Portugal had settled the dispute over the Canaries to Castile’s advantage. Portugal renounced its claim to the Canaries in return for a recognition of her exclusive right to Guinea, the kingdom of Fez, Madeira, and the Azores, and so Castile acquired its first overseas possessions.

Castile’s occupation of the Canaries was an event of major importance in the history of its overseas expansion. Their geographical position was to make them of exceptional value as an indispensable staging-post on the route to America: all Columbus’s four expeditions put in at the Canary archipelago. But they were also to provide the perfect laboratory for Castile’s colonial experiments, serving as the natural link between the Reconquista in Spain and the conquest of America.

In the conquest and colonization of the Canaries can be seen at once the continuation and extension of techniques already well tried in the later Middle Ages, and the forging of new methods which would come into their own in the conquest of the New World. There were marked similarities between the methods of the Reconquista and those adopted for the conquest of the Canaries, which itself was regarded by Ferdinand and Isabella as part of Castile’s holy war against the infidel. The occupation of the Canaries, like the Reconquista, was a blend of private and public enterprise. Much of the Reconquista, especially in its later stages, had been conducted under the control of the Crown. The State also participated in the Canary expeditions, which were partly financed by the Crown and public institutions. But private enterprise operated alongside the State. Fernández de Lugo made a private contract with a company of Sevillian merchants – one of the first contracts of the type later used to finance the expeditions of discovery in America. Even an expedition entirely organized and financed under private auspices, however, was still dependent on the Crown for its legal authority. Here again the Reconquista provided a useful precedent. It had been the practice for the Crown to make contracts with leaders of military expeditions against the Moors. It seems probable that these contracts inspired the document known as the capitulación, which later became the customary form of agreement between the Spanish Crown and the conquistadores of America.

The purpose of capitulaciones was to reserve certain rights to the Crown in newly conquered territories, while also guaranteeing to the leader of the expedition due mercedes or rewards for his services. These rewards might consist of an official position such as the post of adelantado of Las Palmas conferred upon Fernández de Lugo – adelantado being a hereditary title granted by medieval Castilian kings and conferring upon its holder special military powers and the rights of government over a frontier province. The leader of an expedition would also expect to enjoy the spoils of conquest, in the shape of movable property and captives, and to receive grants of land and a title of nobility, like his predecessors during the Reconquista. In making capitulaciones of this type, the Crown was clearly bargaining away many of its rights, but generally it had no alternative. When it provided financial assistance, as it did for Columbus and Magellan, it could hope to make rather more favourable conditions, but the work of conquest and colonization had to be left largely to private enterprise.

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Medieval antecedents of Imperial Spain

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 955-980:

Medieval Castile had built up a military, crusading tradition which was to win for it in the sixteenth century an overseas empire. But it had also developed another tradition too easily overlooked – a tradition of maritime experience which was the essential prelude to its acquisition of overseas territories. The discovery and conquest of the New World was, in reality, very far from being a lucky accident for Spain. In many respects the Iberian peninsula was the region of Europe best equipped for overseas expansion at the end of the fifteenth century. Although the opening up and settlement of the New World was to be a predominantly Castilian undertaking, the enterprise had a common Iberian foundation. Different parts of the peninsula each contributed their own skills to a common store on which the Castilians drew with such spectacular results. The medieval Catalans and Aragonese had acquired a long experience of commercial and colonial adventure in North Africa and the Levant. The Majorcans had established an important school of cartography, which had devised techniques of map-making invaluable for the charting of hitherto unknown lands. The Basques, with the experience of Atlantic deep-sea fishing behind them, were skilled pilots and ship-builders. The Portuguese had played a predominant part in the perfecting of the caravel, the stout, square-rigged vessel which was to be the essential instrument of European overseas expansion in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

But the Castilians also had acquired their own commercial and maritime experience, especially during the past two centuries. The growth of the Mesta and the expansion of the wool trade with northern Europe stimulated the development of the ports of north Spain – San Sebastian, Laredo, Santander, Corunna – which as early as 1296 banded together in a brotherhood, the so-called Hermandad de las Marismas, aimed at protecting their domestic and foreign commerical interests in the manner of the Hanseatic League. Similarly, the advance of the Reconquista in the late thirteenth century to Tarifa, on the straits of Gibraltar, had given Castile a second Atlantic seaboard, with its capital at Seville – itself recaptured by Ferdinand III in 1248. A vigorous commercial community established itself in Seville, including within its ranks influential members of the Andalusian aristocracy who were attracted by the new prospects of mercantile wealth. By the fifteenth century the city had become an intensely active commercial centre with thriving dockyards – a place where merchants from Spain and the Mediterranean lands would congregate to discuss new projects, form new associations and organize new ventures. It was Europe’s observation post from which to survey North Africa and the broad expanses of the Atlantic Ocean.

These developments occurred at a time when western Europe as a whole was displaying a growing interest in the world overseas. Portugal in particular was active in voyages of discovery and exploration. With its long seaboard and its influential mercantile community it was well placed to embark on a quest for the gold, slaves, sugar, and spices, for all of which there was an expanding demand. Short of bread, it was also anxious for new cereal-growing lands, which it found in the Azores (rediscovered in 1427) and in Madeira. Like Castile it was inspired, too, by the crusading tradition, and the occupation of Ceuta in 1415 was itself conceived as part of a crusade which might one day encircle the earth and take Islam in the rear.

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