There was a time when saying Spain versus Portugal was a shorthand for Western expansion overseas, inter-imperial competition (as well as cooperation), and new worlds below the Tropics full of spices, sugar, and silver. The Iberian peninsula was, in the sixteenth century and beyond, the Janus-faced prow of Europe towards the Atlantic. But the Iberian rivalry was not merely about whose flag would be flying over which harbour—it was also a struggle between two models of empire.
For the merchants and rulers in Lisbon, an empire was a global network of ports of call, trade entrepôts (feitorias), and coastal or island plantations. Empire building mainly advanced by securing maritime trade routes to the East Indies, organising sugar engenhos in Pernambuco and Bahia, and cultivating connections with rulers south of the Sahara to trade in slaves and gold. In these political-cum-commercial relations with African counterparts the Portuguese didn’t receive tribute—they paid it to gain access to markets, quite simply because they (like all Europeans) lacked the power to force their way in (and Akan, Congolese, and other African rulers were very much aware of their relative strength). They could afford to pay tribute, often in the form of expensive gifts, because the Portuguese merchant fleet was in the profitable business of market integration, both in factors and goods, of previously disconnected economies. Portuguese caravels were the first to forcefully move labour from the eastern to the western shores of the South Atlantic (where it was more productive and thereby more expensive), and brought South Asian spices, West African gold, and Brazilian sugar to European consumers. The lure of gold would eventually draw the seafaring Portuguese somewhat further inland to Minas Gerais by the early-eighteenth century, where, according to Fragoso and Florentino, a more diversified economy developed, but colonial Brazil remained closely attached to the Atlantic seaboard.
The theory and practice of empire was seen differently from the Castilian court and Andalusian trading houses. In their eyes and in their account books, an empire was about planning cities, appointing officials, raising taxes, and harvesting grain to sustain self-sufficient economies. Contrary to the impression tourists get when they visit churches in Seville, Irigoin and Grafe have shown that most of the treasure from the core mining regions of Zacatecas and Potosí was not spent subsidising the metropolis, but transferred to the fringes of its American empire, financing military outposts and ports in Chile, the River Plate, and Cartagena. Ultimately, in this model, imperial domains had to provide material basis for further empire-building, that is, discovery, conquest, founding new towns, rolling back the frontier. If the Portuguese empire was all about connecting distant peripheries, the Spanish strategy in the New World was centred on building (or appropriating) successful economic cores which could support further expansion at the fringes. Unlike the Portuguese, the Spanish went about the business of empire by large-scale military—and crucially bacteriological—conquest: as Crosby persuasively noted, Old World pathogens and livestock allowed them to outfight the large polities they found in central Mexico and the Peruvian highlands.
These two approaches to empire building were not a result of different cultures or institutional legacies, as the early history of both nations can be traced to a common past of Iberian communities and polities. Rather they reflected some structural characteristics of the early modern economies of Spain and Portugal, and particularly their population geographies. In the mid-1500s the Kingdom of Portugal was home to about 1.5 million people in a narrow sliver of land on the Atlantic of about 90,000 square kilometres divided by the Tagus,1 with the port of Lisbon at its mouth. Across of the border the joint Spanish kingdoms boasted a population of 10 million in 500,000 square kilometres, concentrated in the landlocked agrarian landscapes of the Castilian interior. The Portuguese mariners and Spanish farmers who travelled halfway around the world to build these two Iberian empires—and to sustain their divergent strategies of empire-building—reflected those landscapes. The Portuguese empire was a seaborne creature that avoided straying too far away from the shore, and whose power is better understood by painting a dot for each of its ports and posts on coastlines from Brazil to East Asia or by counting successful round voyages across the South Atlantic than by measuring square kilometres of territory. 2 The Spanish empire was amphibious and saw naval superiority as a prelude to terrestrial expansion: its power is best captured by mapping the growth of its many cities and their respective agricultural hinterlands in the New World, and measuring the intensity and scale of intra-imperial trade circuits and fiscal transfers during the colonial period.
Later imperialists sometimes ignored the early modern Iberian experience and their contrasting models of empire building, but did so at their own risk. In his Ancient and Modern Imperialism Evelyn Baring—Earl of Cromer and head of the British mandate in Egypt in the late-nineteenth century—compared British imperial strategy only with the exploits of classical Rome, ignoring the much more recent, and I would argue at least equally relevant if not more, rise and fall of Spain’s and Portugal’s overseas empires. And yet there was much to learn, as echoes of both models of empire were present in different contexts of the British domains in Africa. The British adopted an indirect, Luso-like model in ‘peasant colonies’ such as Northern Nigeria, and a city-founding, Hispanic-like strategy in ‘settler colonies’ such as South Africa. But that is another story for another matchday (and for when South Africa manages to classify to the World Cup).
- In Portuguese the river is called Tejo, which sounds much better, especially when Alberto Caeiro (aka Fernando Pessoa) turns it into a poem. [return]
- The impressive Voyages database on the trans-Atlantic slave trade (a wonderful example of what global cooperative research can accomplish) is a good place to start counting. [return]