Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Causes of Spain's Decadence

The golden age of Spain began in 1492, in which year the conquest of Granada extinguished the Arab dominion, and the discovery of America by Columbus opened a new world to the enterprise of the Spanish cavaliers. It continued during the reigns of Charles I. and Philip II., extending over a period of about a century, during which Spain was the leading power in Europe, and occupied the foremost position in the civilized world. In Europe its possessions included the Netherlands and important regions in Italy, while its king, Charles I., ruled as Charles V. over the German empire, possessing a dominion in Europe only surpassed by that of Charlemagne. Under Philip II. Portugal became a part of the Spanish realm, and with it its colony of Brazil, so that Spain was the unquestioned owner of the whole continent of South America, while much of North America lay under its flag.

Wealth flowed into the coffers of this broad kingdom in steady streams, the riches of America overflowing its treasury; its fleet was the greatest, its army the best trained and most irresistible in Europe; it stood as the bulwark against that mighty Ottoman power before which the other nations trembled, and checked its career of victory at Lepanto; in short, as above said, it was for a brief period the leading power in Europe, and appeared to have in it the promise of a glorious career.

Such was the status of Spain during the reigns of the monarchs named. This was followed by a long period of decline, which reduced that kingdom from its position of supremacy into that of one of the minor powers of Europe. Various causes contributed to this change, the chief being the accession of a series of weak monarchs and the false ideas of the principles of political economy which then prevailed. The great treasure which flowed into Spain from her American colonies rather hastened than retarded her decline. The restrictions and monopolies of her colonial policy gave rise to an active contraband trade, which reaped the harvest of her commerce. The over-abundant supply of gold and silver had the effect of increasing the price of other commodities and discouraging her rising industries, the result being that she was obliged to purchase abroad the things she ceased to produce at home and the wealth of America flowed from her coffers into those of the adjoining nations. Her policy towards the Moriscos banished the most active agriculturists from the land, and large districts became desert, population declined, and the resources of the kingdom diminished yearly. In a century after the death of Philip II. Spain, from being the arbiter of the destinies of Europe, had grown so weak that the other nations ceased to regard her otherwise than as a prey for their ambition, her population had fallen from eight to six millions, her revenue from two hundred and eighty to thirty millions, her navy had vanished, her army had weakened, and her able soldiers and statesmen had disappeared.

In addition to the causes of decline named, others of importance were her treatment of the Jews and the Moriscos, though the banishment of the former took place at an earlier date. Despite their activity in trade and finance and the value to the nations of their genius for business, the Jews of Europe were everywhere persecuted, often exposed to robbery and massacre, and expelled from some kingdoms. In Spain their expulsion was conducted with cruel severity.

Many of the unfortunate Jews, seeking to escape persecution, embraced Christianity. But their conversion was doubted, they were subjected to constant espionage, and the least suspicion of indulging in their old worship exposed them to the dangerous charge of heresy, a word of frightful omen in Spain. It was to punish these delinquent Jews that in 1480 the Inquisition was introduced, and at once began its frightful work, no less than two thousand "heretics" being burned alive in 1481, while seventeen thousand were "reconciled," a word of mild meaning elsewhere, but which in Spain signified torture, confiscation of property, loss of citizenship, and frequently imprisonment for life in the dungeons of the Inquisition. Severe as was the treatment of the Jews throughout Christendom, nowhere were they treated more pitilessly than in Spain.

The year 1492, in which Spain gained glory by the conquest of Granada and the discovery of America, was one of the deepest misfortune to this people, who were cruelly driven from the kingdom. The edict for this was signed by Ferdinand and Isabella at Granada, March 30, 1492, and decreed that all unbaptized Jews, without regard to sex, age, or condition, should leave Spain before the end of the next July, and never return thither under penalty of death and confiscation of property. Every Spaniard was forbidden to give aid in any form to a Jew after the date named. The Jews might sell their property and carry the proceeds with them in bills of exchange or merchandise, but not in gold or silver.

This edict came like a thunderbolt to the Israelites. At a tyrant's word they must go forth as exiles from the land in which they and their forefathers had dwelt for ages, break all their old ties of habit and association, and be cast out helpless and defenceless, marked with a brand of infamy, among nations who held them in hatred and contempt.

Under the unjust terms of the edict they were forced to abandon most of the property which they had spent their lives in gaining. It was impossible to sell their effects in the brief time given, in a market glutted with similar commodities, for more than a tithe of their value. As a result their hard-won wealth was frightfully sacrificed. One chronicler relates that he saw a house exchanged for an ass and a vineyard for a suit of clothes. In Aragon the property of the Jews was confiscated for the benefit of their creditors, with little regard to its value. As for the bills of exchange which they were to take instead of gold and silver, it was impossible to obtain them to the amount required in that age of limited commerce, and here again they were mercilessly robbed.

The migration was one of the most pitiable known in history. As the time fixed for their departure approached the roads of the country swarmed with emigrants, young and old, strong and feeble, sick and well, some on horses or mules, but the great multitude on foot. The largest division, some eighty thousand in number, passed through Portugal, whose monarch taxed them for a free passage through his dominions, but, wiser than Ferdinand, permitted certain skilful artisans among them to settle in his kingdom.

Those who reached Africa and marched towards Fez, where many of their race resided, were attacked by the desert tribes, robbed, slain, and treated with the most shameful barbarity. Many of them, half-dead with famine and in utter despair, returned to the coast, where they consented to be baptized with the hope that they might be permitted to return to their native land.

Those who sought Italy contracted an infectious disease in the crowded and filthy vessels which they were obliged to take; a disorder so malignant that it carried off twenty thousand of the people of Naples during the year, and spread far over the remainder of Italy. As for the Jews, hosts of them perished of hunger and disease, and of the whole number expelled, estimated at one hundred and sixty thousand, only a miserable fragment found homes at length in foreign lands, some seeking Turkey, others gaining refuge and protection in France and England. As for the effect of the migration on Spain it must suffice here to quote the remark of a monarch of that day: "Do they call this Ferdinand a politic prince, who can thus impoverish his own kingdom and enrich ours?"

Spain was in this barbarous manner freed of her Jewish population. There remained the Moors, who had capitulated, under favorable terms, to Ferdinand in 1492. These terms were violated a few years later by Cardinal Ximenes, his severity driving them into insurrection in 1500. This was suppressed, and then punishment began. So rigid was the inquiry that it seemed as if all the people of Granada would be condemned as guilty, and in mortal dread many of them made peace by embracing Christianity, while others sold their estates and migrated to Barbary. In the end, all who remained escaped persecution only by consenting to be baptized, the total number of converts being estimated at fifty thousand. The name of Moors, which had superseded that of Arabs, was now changed to that of Moriscos, by which these unfortunate people were afterwards known.

The ill-faith shown to the Moors of the plain gave rise to an insurrection in the mountains, in which the Spaniards suffered a severe defeat. The insurgents, however, were soon subdued, and most of them, to prevent being driven from their homes, professed the Christian faith. By the free use of torture and the sword the kings of Spain had succeeded in adding largely to their Christian subjects.

The Moriscos became the most skilful and industrious agriculturists of Spain, but they were an alien element of the population and from time to time irritating edicts were issued for their control. In 1560 the Moriscos were forbidden to employ African slaves, for fear that they might make infidels of them. This was a severe annoyance, for the wealthy farmers depended on the labor of these slaves. In 1563 they were forbidden to possess arms except under license. In 1566 still more oppressive edicts were passed. They were no longer to use the Arabic language or wear the Moorish dress, and the women were required to go about with their faces unveiled,—a scandalous thing among Mohammedans. Their weddings were to be conducted in public, after the Christian forms, their national songs and dances were interdicted, and they were even forbidden to indulge in warm baths, bathing being a custom of which the Spaniard of that day appears to have disapproved.

The result of these oppressive edicts was a violent and dangerous insurrection, which involved nearly all the Moriscos of Spain, and continued for more than two years, requiring all the power of Spain for its suppression. Don John of Austria, the victor at Lepanto, led the Spanish troops, but he had a difficult task, the Moriscos, sheltered in their mountain fastnesses, making a desperate and protracted resistance, and showing a warlike energy equal to that which had been displayed in the defence of Granada.

The end of the war was followed by a decree from Philip II. that all the Moors of Granada should be removed into the interior of the country, their lands and houses being forfeited, and nothing left them but their personal effects. This act of confiscation was followed by their reduction to a state of serfdom in their new homes, no one being permitted to change his abode without permission, under a very severe penalty. If found within ten leagues of Granada they were condemned, if between the ages of ten and seventeen, to the galleys for life; if older, to the punishment of death.

The dispersal of the Moriscos of Granada, while cruel to them, proved of the greatest benefit to Spain. Wherever they went the effects of their superior skill and industry were soon manifested. They were skilled not only in husbandry, but in the mechanic arts, and their industry gave a new aspect of prosperity to the provinces to which they were banished, while the valleys and hill-sides of Granada, which had flourished under their cultivation, sank into barrenness under the unskilful hands of their successors.

Yet this benefit to agriculture did not appeal to the ruling powers in Spain. The Moriscos were not Spaniards, and could not easily become so while deprived of all civil rights. While nominally Christian, there was a suspicion that at heart they were still Moslems. And their relations to the Moors of Africa and possible league with the corsairs of the Mediterranean aroused distrust. Under Philip III., a timid and incapable king, the final act came. He was induced to sign an edict for the expulsion of the Moriscos, and this quiet and industrious people, a million in number, were in 1610, like the Jews before them, forced to leave their homes in Spain.

It is not necessary to repeat the story of the suffering which necessarily followed so barbarous an act. What has been said of the circumstances attending the expulsion of the Jews will suffice. That of the Moriscos was not so inhuman in its consequences, but it was serious enough. Fortunately, in view of the intense impolicy and deep intolerance indicated in the act, its evil effects reacted upon its advocates. To the Moriscos the suffering was personal; to Spain it was national. As France half-ruined herself by expelling the Huguenots, the most industrious of her population, Spain did the same in expelling the Moriscos, to whose skill and industry she owed so much of her prosperity. So it ever must be when bigotry is allowed to control the policy of states. France recovered from the evil effects of her mad act. Spain never did. The expulsion of the Moriscos was one of the most prominent causes of her decline, and no indications of a recovery have yet been shown.

The expulsion of the Jews and Moriscos was not sufficient to satisfy the intolerant spirit of Spain. Heresy had made its way even into the minds of Spaniards. Sons of the Church themselves had begun to think in other lines than those laid down for them by the priestly guardians of their minds. Protestant books were introduced into the ever-faithful land, and a considerable number of converts to Protestantism were made.

Upon these heretics the Inquisition descended with all its frightful force. Philip, in a monstrous edict, condemned all to be burned alive who bought, sold, or read books prohibited by the Church. The result was terrible. The land was filled with spies. Arrests were made on all sides. The instruments of torture were kept busy. In all the principal cities of Spain the monstrous spectacle of the auto-de-fé  was to be seen, multitudes being burned at the stake for having dared to read the books or accept the arguments of Protestant writers.

The total effect of this horrible system of persecution we can only epitomize. Thousands were burned at the stake, thousands imprisoned for life after terrible torture, thousands robbed of their property, and their children condemned to poverty and opprobrium; and the kingdom of Christ, as the Spanish monarchs of that day estimated it, was established in Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition proved an instrument of conviction which none dared question. Heresy was blotted out from Spain,—and Spain was blotted out from the ranks of enlightened nations. Freedom of thought was at an end. The mind of the Spaniard was put in fetters. Spain, under the sombre shadow of this barbarity, was shut out from the light which was breaking over the remainder of Europe. Literature moved in narrow channels, philosophy was checked, the domain of science was closed, progress was at an end. Spain stood still while the rest of the world was sweeping onward; and she stands still to-day, her mind in the fifteenth century. The decadence of Spain is due to the various causes named,—the weakness of her rulers, lack of just and advantageous ideas of political and commercial economy, suppression of freedom of thought and opinion on topics which were being freely handled elsewhere in Christendom, and a narrow and intolerant policy which, wherever shown, is a fatal barrier to the progress of mankind.