Long before there was a Britain to have an empire upon which the sun never set, Spain established a presence that spanned the globe. From the Caribbean and Central America to the Philippines, the Spanish empire thrived as the first expression of European global dominance — an achievement even more remarkable when set against the unpromising circumstances from which it started. How Spain achieved this is the subject of Henry Kamen's book. A longtime scholar of Spanish history, Kamen marshals a career of study to explain the nature of Spain's dominance, one that he reveals is all too often misunderstood.
At the core of this misunderstanding is the nature of Spain itself. Kamen begins by highlighting the often-overlooked fact that in the 15th century "Spain" was an abstraction consisting of a collection of Iberian territories united only by a common monarchy. Because of this, the monarchs were constrained in their ability to deploy Spanish resources to achieving their goals. Fortunately for them, their resources were not confined to Spain alone. One of Kamen's main contentions is that the "Spanish" empire was actually more of a pan-European one, as Spain's leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries frequently drew upon the resources of their extended empire —including Italy, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire —to finance and staff their presence throughout much of Europe
While this mobilization was key to Spain's presence in Europe, their overseas empire was more of a purely Spanish operation. Because of this, as Kamen makes clear, their control was far less secure than their cartographic assertions made it appear. Spain's "empire" in the New World was concentrated mainly in the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, and a few other coastal regions, while their control over the Philippines was limited mainly to their outpost in Manila. Much of this depended upon cooperation with (or co-option of) local elites, further underscoring the non-Spanish nature of Spanish control. While effective and profitable, this structure came under increasing strain as European competitors emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, first to displace Spanish dominance in Europe, then to undercut Spain's presence in the wider world. Though the Spanish fought back against this, Kamen makes it clear that their efforts were ultimately unsustainable with their traditional imperial structure, forcing them to follow the example of their competitors and establish more of a truly "Spanish" empire by the 18th century.
Kamen ends his book short of Spain's loss of their Latin American empire early in the 19th century. While he makes it clear that the writing was on the wall by that point, it is unfortunate he did not carry his analysis forward to that point, for he has provided a superb overview of the rise and decline of Spain's empire in Europe and elsewhere. It does so by blending the political, social, cultural and economic history together, showing the multifacted interactions that defined Spain and the Spanish presence in the world. While this comes at the understandable cost of a lack of coverage of events within Spain itself, supplementing this book with a national survey covering these years (such as J. H. Elliot's classic Imperial Spain or Kamen's own Spain, 1469-1714 fills this gap nicely, giving readers a good understanding of Spain and its "Golden Age" of global preeminence.