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Some of the first European countries to acquire colonies in the "New World" (and elsewhere) were Spain and Portugal. They "discovered America" (as the euro-centric interpretation goes), and had several colonies all over the globe (Americas, getting to Japan before others, India, East Africa, etc.). It would seem obvious to conclude that in the 15th/16th centuries Spain and Portugal were some of the richest (and hence most powerful ountries in Europe, right?

However, by the start of the 20th century, UK, France, Germany, and others were now very powerful. The British Empire was massive, the French Empire included a lot of Africa, etc. So it would seem only obvious to conclude that they were now very rich and powerful countries.

What factors caused this to change? It seems obvious to think that once you're big, rich and powerful, that it's easy to stay big, rich and powerful. What factors prevented Spain & Portugal from remaining big & powerful? What prevented them from acquiring African colonies? What prevented them from becoming big players in WW1 (a war among powerful European states)?

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You bring up convincing evidence that colonies don't make either rich or powerful, at least not for long. ;) It isn't about colonies and all countries abandoned colonies in the 20th century because they gave them no advantage. The driving force was trade and that's where UK got big. –  Wladimir Palant Oct 18 '11 at 17:26
France was already big, rich and powerful in the 15th Century but its attention was focused on Italy or the Mediterranean. It started a bit later but it also had a large colonial empire by the 17th century (in North America, India, bits and pieces in South America), lost it almost completely and then started anew. The notable fact is that Spain or Portugal got very little (Angola, Mozambique, Spanish Morocco) in the second wave of colonisation. –  Relaxed Jul 25 at 6:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The most important "paradigm shift" of the early 19th century was the Industrial Revolution. That was the harnessing of the steam, and later, internal combustion engines, for manufacturing advances that led to an "order of magnitude" gains (five to ten times) in the standard of living. The great powers of the time were also among the earliest beneficiaries of this industrial revolution; the U.K., France, and Germany.

Spain and Portugal had been the beneficiaries of an EARLIER paradigm shift, the acquisition of colonies, from which to import raw materials, and to which to exported finished goods. That's why they became world powers in the 16th and 17th centuries. But their rising to the top during this period did not help, and may have hurt their ability to adjust to the later wave.

Another reason is that the colonies all rebelled, and became independent, and some of them became world powers in their own right. Brazil and India are now two of the "BRIC" nations. So is China, formerly a "semi-colony" of the European powers that enjoyed spheres of influence. Another former colony of comparable size and population to the BRIC countries is, of course, the United States. These countries managed to establish modern industrial states over larger areas and populations than the Europeans.

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Just for the record, Brazil did not rebel. –  Joze Oct 27 '11 at 9:28
@Joze: It is a rare independence movement that is led by the Crown Prince of the home country. But if Brazil did not rebel under Dom Pedro, what did it do? –  Tom Au Feb 10 '12 at 19:38
@TomAu Yes, Dom Pedro I declared independence of Brazil. But Dom Pedro I acts respect to Portugal hardly fulfils any associated definition of rebel. In Brazil, it is hard to listen someone say that Dom Pedro rebelled against Portugal. Not just because of the way the independence happened, but also how his life followed, as my answer to another question summarizes –  curiouser Jul 25 at 10:42

That book Hugo Chávez gifted Barack Obama (Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by Eduardo Galeano) explains part of it. It starts with the differences between the Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) Colonization versus English/British Colonization on North America. As the idea of Portugal and Spain was to extract the most they could carry out from their colonies it corroborates the aspect of the Dutch Disease.

On the other hand, England and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty in 1703. This treaty basically opened England to Portuguese wine and opened Portugal to English textiles, which inevitably created a favorable trade balance to England. Besides, it helped to boost its following Industrial Revolution.

In any case, compare Spain or Portugal with UK, France or Germany can be tricky because the latter are way more populous than the former. For example, in 1703, probably there were much more people living in England than in Portugal, so every decision should consider the militar potential. That does not justify a bad move, but plays a role to contextualize it.

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I believe (although I can't cite a source right now), that Spain and Portugal's colonies were organized around resource extraction - the Spanish grants didn't even specify land, but rather the labor.

The English Colonies were organized around building new infrastructure. Although they didn't have the terminology to discuss it, England and France performed "capital deepening", while Spain and Portugal were victims of the Dutch Disease.

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What! Were they Elm trees? What's the relevance of Dutch disease here? –  Pieter Geerkens Dec 1 '13 at 22:00
I absolutely should have linked the definition to the term. Sorry about that. –  Mark C. Wallace Dec 2 '13 at 12:21

"The nail that sticks out gets hammer down" While a Japanese saying, it holds true for all the super powers. Be their outside enemies, inside corruption, or just economic bad luck, the hammers are numerous indeed.

Spain in particular, was cripple by mega inflation due to all the gold coming from the Indies. Portugal was assimilated into Spain and then broke free -- thus cause strive. Spain's war in Flanders were costly in both money and lives. Everyone hated Spain and attacked it either directly or indirectly. Then a series of wars (Spanish succession to name but the last one) happened that crippled Spain allowing England and France to take over.

The French revolution and Empire caused enough trouble to set the stage for future empires: France, England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Colonies started to become more and more expensive to run and the first world war did cripple the economies of Europe. In addition the crash of 1929 put the final nail in the coffin and the depression gave rise to Nazi. One war later, only two super power were left: the USA and the USSR. Enter the cold war... Now, that this is over we have the USA all by itself. Maybe India or China or the EU or something else will happen. Too early to tell.

Source: Spain and its World 1500-1700, by J. H. Elliott, The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning and Europe: A History by Norman Davies are all good books to pick up if you are interested in more in depth details.

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A lot of this answer goes way too far afield. However, you get a +1 for honing in on Spain's inflation rate. I believe this was key. –  T.E.D. Apr 16 '12 at 15:10

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