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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Societies that Created the Empires

More important for our study than the political and economic circumstances in which the empires were created, is the type of society that was already taking place in each of the imperial countries. For, on the long eve of their trans-oceanic enterprise, Portugal as well as the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, had undergone severe crises, and the rush to expand was intimately related to them. These crises had occurred in the second half of the fourteenth century, and it was the process they unleashed that set the stage for the expansionist drive. Not satisfied to merely travel familiar routes, this expansionism called for the search of the unknown across the seas. It was then that the social groups, economic structures, political systems, and ideologies began to take on the characteristics that, once fully developed, left their imprint upon the expansion.

The Burgundian dynasty had collapsed in Portugal in the tremendous social upheaval that began in 1383 and lasted until 1385. What had taken place then was a typical bourgeois revolution; as such, it picked up the threads of an ongoing crisis in the traditional society and weaved a new set of problems for the old and the new classes alike. Out of that upheaval rose, with John I, the Avis dynasty. Inevitably, its policies had to respond to the desire for change that had brought the Avis into power and that the dynasty itself had come to embody. The Avis was, thus, a modernizing dynasty. It was willing, no doubt, to honor the aspirations of the traditional nobility, but only within the feudal-bourgeois scheme that the new classes had proposed.

Although Portugal was flanked by Castille on the north and the east, there were still those who would try to expand eastward, exploiting the resentments left by a bitter dynastic war. After a series of failed attempts, the Treaty of Alcaçovas, signed in 1479, closed-off that possibility. In turn, the mentality of renewal that had inspired the revolution of 1383 and initiated the dynasty of the Avis was best represented by the groups that opted to explore the Atlantic routes. A close alliance, sealed with England in 1373, had been followed by improved relations between Portuguese ports and Flemish cities. But this renewed trade satisfied only those mercantile groups with little ambition. The Atlantic had much more to offer that was attractive not just to merchants, but also to ambitions noblemen, already impoverished or on the brink of poverty, and especially to the lesser nobility—the hidalgos—who placed their hopes in the House of Avis and its policy of renewal. These classes formed the feudal-bourgeois alliance that went on to explore the Atlantic, the western islands, and especially the African continent.

Duarte, the second king of the Avis dynasty, acknowledged the existence of a new society. There was a traditional notion—repeatedly voiced in Spain at that time—that viewed the whole of society as composed of “orators, warriors and land laborers.” In contrast, the Portuguese King suggested, in El leal Consejero [The Loyal Adviser], a much more complex division of society: orators, warriors, land laborers, fishermen, officials, and artisans. The important thing in Duarte’s conception was that each of the classes had taken on a new and unique identity. The old nobility, impoverished and worn out, had been replaced by a new nobility—personified by the “Holy Constable” of John I, Juno Alvarez Pereira—avid for land, honors, and wealth. This new nobility would hold the crown in check by demanding from it grants and opportunities to conquer riches. There were also the young sons of the lesser nobility (fidalgos mancebos), who were left with no land and without a penny by the right of the first born. These young hidalgos were anxious not to engage in any activity that might compromise their status as noblemen; instead, they expected the crown to open new frontiers so that they could obtain the land they did not have.

By then, Portugal was experiencing a land crisis. An exodus of peasants had left the land fallow, while cities witnessed the growth not only of the bourgeoisie but also of poverty stricken middle and lower classes. Two different policies began to take shape at the start of the fifteenth century, each proposed by one of the sons of Juan I: that of Prince Henry the Navigator, who wanted to push the overseas expansion—and would “bleed Portugal to death,” as his critics would say; and that of Prince Peter, who as regent of his nephew Alfonso V did his best to increase agriculture and fishing, maritime commerce, slave trade, and trade in metals and spices. Henry’s policy seemed to attract the noblemen; Peter’s the bourgeoisie. But both policies eventually merged into one, as the lower ranks of the nobility moved closer to the groups of merchants—Portuguese as well as international—who advanced in the conquest and colonization of the islands and the African coasts. These parallel interests did not converge in Ceuta or in Morocco, conquered by Alphonse V, but in the Atlantic islands where the sugar plantations and refineries had been started; in Africa, where the slave trade prospered; in the vast Eastern Empire built by Gama, Almeida, and Albuquerque, where fabulous, albeit ephemeral, businesses were started; and, above all, in Brazil, where, especially after 1530, the “sugar barons”—noblemen turned into entrepreneurs—carried out a methodical exploitation that produced enormous wealth. This they did with capital supplied by the Flemish and Jewish middlemen who marketed their products.

This was not the case of Castille, which had been an Atlantic state until the thirteenth century, when it also gained access to the Mediterranean. Its fairly vigorous bourgeoisie had been growing since the eleventh century in many cities affected, directly or indirectly, by the trade renaissance, which had given a start to the development of maritime traffic and commercial contacts among different regions. But the strength of the old aristocracies was by far greater in Castile, and it grew even more every time the Crown was forced to rally its noblemen against the Muslim threat or every time an internal crisis—minority feud or civil war—had left them in complete control of the situation. The Castilian bourgeoisie was never able to overcome the old aristocracies, even when its ties to the Monarchy grew closer; because, no matter how strong those ties might come to be, the bourgeoisie was constrained by a royal power distrustful of their ascent and by its own internal dynamism, since many of its members would renounce mercantile adventures for the sake of propertied wealth and the eventual honors usually conferred upon the local gentry or the lesser nobility.

Still, the alliance with the monarchy increased the power of the bourgeoisie. But this was not what mattered most in the struggle between the class of merchants and the old aristocracies. The crucial problem of the bourgeoisie was that it did not have a project capable of luring the aristocracy to a Cantabrian or a Mediterranean expansion. In both areas, the Castilian bourgeoisie had arrived too late and was able to undertake only routine transactions, very different, for sure, from those that the Catalan bourgeoisie offered the knights of Aragon when the two groups united in the first half of the twelfth century. This is why a feudal-bourgeois society rose in Catalonia long before it emerged in Castile.

In any case, the attempt to constitute such a society in Castile had some possibilities as long as balance was maintained between the bourgeoisie, supported by the Crown, and the aristocracy. But all possibilities vanished when, shortly before the progressive dynasty of Avis came to power in Portugal, a setback took place in Castile: the assassination of Peter I, in 1368, by Henry of Trastamara, his bastard brother who had allied himself with France. Peter I had pursued a vigorous anti-aristocratic policy with the support of the groups that shared with him the same enemies. The Trastamara dynasty, on the other hand, served the interests of the aristocracy and allowed the feudal system to be fully restored. New and repeated gifts to the lords depleted the royal treasury and gave over to them a number of royal cities.

This was a serious setback, because it further dislocated the political life of Castile, a kingdom that was forced to juggle two separate economies, both of them probably in crisis. The Trastamaras had no economic vision and were as out of step and myopic as the aristocracy, which did not understand the new mercantile world and refused to step aside or make room for the bourgeoisie, who, no doubt, understood it better. In 1438, at the Cortes [Royal Council] of Madrigal, the bourgeoisie proved that it had a clear grasp of the situation and of the mechanisms that controlled it at the time. But stepping aside meant giving up a certain amount of power, and that was something that the aristocracy of the period was not willing to do. With the exception of the very modest venture on the Canary Islands, every possibility for such an opening was foreclosed by concerns about the Muslim presence in Granada and by conflicts among different aristocratic groups, dynastic disputes and the civil and international wars they unleashed.

In turn, the eastern states had made much progress since 1137, when Aragon had been joined with Catalonia under Ramon Berenguer IV. The community of interests of their feudal-bourgeois alliance had encouraged the aggressive moves of the Catalan bourgeoisie in the Mediterranean, which led to major territorial and mercantile enterprises: the conquest of the Balearic Islands between 1229 and 1235, the Conquest of Valencia in 1238, the occupation of Elche and Alicante in 1266. All these were regions that offered land to the feudal lords and that became part of the ever growing area of commercial activities controlled by Barcelona. The advance of the bourgeoisie did not stop here. At the end of the thirteenth century, Peter III took possession of the Kingdom of Sicily. Shortly after that, the Almog vares3 moved into the Eastern Mediterranean and formed separate states to which Peter IV of Aragon granted sovereignty. While the issue of the royal occupation of Corsica and Sardinia was still being debated, Alphonse V conquered the Kingdom of Naples in 1432. A tight mercantile network expanded through the western Mediterranean. It was the golden age of Barcelona’s bourgeoisie, since it was Barcelona that benefited the most from increased trade within an area under its control. As its economic power and its internal and international prestige continued to rise, the Barcelonan bourgeoisie sought to increase the autonomy it enjoyed within the political system of the Crown of Aragon. And when Alphonse V died in 1458, the bourgeoisie began to think about the independence of the Principality of Catalonia. This was, in fact, an attempt to dissolve the alliance, established by Ramon Berenguer three centuries earlier, between the maritime cities and the kingdom that constituted their hinterland, an attempt, that is, to dissolve the feudal-bourgeois alliance which was the political and economic base of society under the Crown of Aragon. Catalonia—mainly Barcelona—headed the separatist uprising of 1462. But the feudal-bourgeois society was too much a part of the entire structure—both territorial and mercantile—of the Kingdom, and it resisted the secession attempt. When the revolt was finally brought to an end in 1472, the alliance was reestablished, or better still, the alliance was now fully acknowledged as an irreversible fact in the Kingdom of Aragon. The political and economic system that the alliance made possible grew stronger at the end of the fifteenth century with Ferdinand’s campaign to reunify Naples.

The union of Castile and Aragon, sealed by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469, promised to be the beginning of a new era. With the experience of the last civil wars in both kingdoms still very much alive, Isabella and Ferdinand managed to curb the inclination of the aristocracy to revolt. At the same time, they gave legal status to the middle classes and offered them guarantees that encouraged their development. The Crown also mounted a final and decisive offensive against Granada, the last Muslim kingdom that still remained on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1492, the Muslims were vanquished and the territory of Granada was annexed to Castile. During the war, the Spanish high command had been housed in Granada at the camp of Santa Fe. The agreements that authorized Christopher Columbus to embark on his trans-Atlantic voyage were signed at that same camp. And shortly after that, in accordance with the wishes of Queen Isabella, Cardinal Cisneros began the conquest of the Maghreb with the taking of Oran.

The Castilian aristocracy that had been ruthlessly forced to give in and that had finally turn to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella to obtain their favors was not the same aristocracy that had supported the Trastamaras and their restoration of feudalism, or that had opposed and in the end defeated the attempts by Alvaro de Luna to centralize power, or that had even resisted, at the beginning, the Catholic Monarchs. It was, to be exact, an aristocracy that had been politically defeated, but that retained still much of its social and economic power. It retained, above all, its prestige as the highest layer of society; and that prestige could not be undermined by the rise of new mercantile groups nor could it be changed by new forms of wealth. Although it was politically subjected to royal power, the aristocracy continued to prevail when the monarchy realigned the forces that supported it, precisely because it set limits to the ambitions of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, in turn, was dealt a heavy blow when the monarchy expelled the Jews and dismantled the entire system of connections between Spain and the mercantile and financial network of the rest of Europe.

The Castilian bourgeoisie had yet to contend with its rivals in Flanders and Germany, where they were protected by the alliance between the Catholic Monarchs and the Hapsburgs. But by then it had become perfectly clear that the bourgeoisie could not contend with the Castilian aristocracy. With its overwhelming presence, particularly enhanced by the Reconquest, this aristocracy had pushed into the rural areas vast social groups that, under different circumstances, would have been inclined to engage in mercantile and industrial activities and would have thus strengthened them. These were the groups of local gentry, or citizens, who had been in charge of municipal government in Castile for quite a long time. The prestige of the aristocracy trickled down to its lowest ranks—to the hidalgos, and also to those who managed to become hidalgos, and even to those who passed themselves off as hidalgos. This was precisely the group that seemed to find no real place or promise within the social and economic structure of Spain at the time. After the conquest of Granada, few royal favors were bestowed upon the lesser hidalgos of Extremadura, Castile, Leon or even Andalusia. The great noble families had set eyes on Granada with their insatiable hunger for power, which the Crown would somewhat tame by offering them wealth instead. But perhaps Queen Isabella had the lesser nobility in mind when she designed Spain’s program of expansion to Maghreb, which she entrusted to Cisneros. And perhaps she also had in mind the lower urban and rural classes, which were crowded together within an economic structure that was rigid and offered no way out.

The support for the project of a trans-oceanic expedition was part of the same line of thought. The economic and social successes of the Portuguese were a serious concern for the Spanish monarchy. But the monarchy was also troubled by the social and economic problems that had arisen, especially in Castille, after the final recovery of the entire territory of Spain. It was a difficult time for the economy, both in the Atlantic area and in that of the Mediterranean. The underprivileged classes—even some of the nominally privileged—had no access to land, which was entirely under the monopoly of the great families. Industry and commerce offered few prospects for the Spanish middle classes in the Mediterranean world, which was being closed off to them, or in the world of the Atlantic, which for centuries had been regulated by ironclad rules and was then even more so. Once again, the expansion beyond its own margins seemed to be the only solution, and Spain found it, as would Portugal later on, at a crucial moment in its development.