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. Commented Oct 18, 2011 at 17:26
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    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
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 6:47
  • @Relaxed 2nd wave for the Spanish. 3rd for the Portuguese. Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 6:29
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo French historiography tends to distinguish only two big waves, which also happen to be roughly divided by the French revolution (15th to 18th century vs. 19th century; the Louisiana purchase takes place in 1803) but that applies more readily to French colonization than others. What would be the 1st and 2nd wave of Spanish colonization?
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 7:56
  • @Relaxed I am not Spanish. I was sort of guessing. I know that the Portuguese Empire had 3 waves: 1st wave was maritime and commercial dominance in the Indian Ocean (eventually lost to the Dutch), 2nd wave was exploring and colonizing vast swathes of land in Brazil, 3rd wave was the post-Napoleonic (and somewhat sad) colonization of Africa. Yet, the number of Portuguese settlers in Angola in 1920 was ridiculously small — just a few thousands. The Portuguese preferred to emigrate to (independent) Brazil. Without too much exaggeration, Angola was viewed as a bit of a penal colony. Commented Apr 24, 2020 at 8:14

8 Answers 8


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.
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Oct 27, 2011 at 9:28
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    @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? brazil.org.za/independence.html
    – Tom Au
    Commented Feb 10, 2012 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
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 10:42
  • The culture around science in the 16th and 17th century greatly influenced the emergence of the industrial revolution. After the Plague, the environment for discussion and development of science and experiments shifted from Italy to France and England. Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 10:52
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    While this answer is interesting. It is worth to note that Spain was already a secondary power by the begenning of the 18th century. Inflation, corsairs, loan from italian states and wars were the main reasons their demise. Particularly the wars against protestants and France are majors reasons. Colonies were great, but the huge demographics of France was really hard to overpower for long up to the benning of the 19th century
    – xrorox
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 15:54

"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.

  • 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.
    Commented Apr 16, 2012 at 15:10

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? Commented Dec 1, 2013 at 22:00
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    I absolutely should have linked the definition to the term. Sorry about that.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 12:21

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.


The great difference are the political regime. In order to stablish the industrial revolution the country need a regime favourable to make it. Spain and Portuguese until the Second half of XIX hadnt a parlamentary and liberal regime, in contrast, to UK (1715), France (1815) and Germany (1812). For Germany and France, Napoleon, change their regime while UK built its parliament after civil war.

Spain, before XIX. century, had developed the textile and armament industry. The Shipbuilding was as the same level as any european country but not the mining industry. For Spain, The Napoleonic Wars, ended diferently, economically and demographicaly exhausted, while in Germany and France accepted to liberalism and parlamentarism, the country, started a civil war (parlamentarists (liberal-Centralist) vs Absolutist (Conservative-federalists)). Finally, Spain stablished parlamentary in 1878.

With the Parlamentary monarchy between 1878-1931 was established commercial alliance with UK for the Mining industry (whole north of Spain was benefit). But also started the electrical campany (Iberdrola), automotive (First, La Cuadra, Later, renamed as Hispano-Suiza), aeronautic (CASA). That period achieved the surge of Spanish Inventors but with private initiative, the politicians (corruption and bad manage) not supported enough them, provocking a slow and local devolepment. The consecuence was the disaster of 1898 (spanish-american war) and the disaster of annual (repaired by military leader expelling politicians). The spanish military caused spanish isolation. However, the military leader managed correctly, drived the economy better. (more security, more industrial companies, better infraestructure and the expansion of the railway). Even the planned the rebuilt of the Spanish Armada (5 battleships, 2 aircraft carriers and many heavy cruisers).

Again, The Crisis 1929, the exile of Alfonso XIII and the Spanish Second republic provocked a big change of economy development that favoured a bid rivalry and competitive fight between conservatives and Labourism (allied with communists), liberals in the middle were divided and broken. The left republican decided to support only the industrial companies but a great budget cut on military spending, revalry with the Church etc.. provocking a great political tension, Spain was a divided country. Another Civil War was inminent.

Franco arrived to the power in a weak situation. The majority of his supporters wanted the return of the king but he didnt wanted. His fervent supporters, the fascist, was given a great influence in a conservative dominant parliament. After, the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, and spain in weak situation, decided to interview with the king pressured on the parliament. Franco had no option, if he wanted to continue at the power. He expelled, the fascist sector and drived a liberal-conservative government, fulled of economists. Between 1955-1975, spanish economy development increased enourmously. 4 Spanish car manufactures, 2 aeronautical companies, 4 petrol companies, Nuclear energy, Modernized the Shipbuilding, Quemistry big companies etc... At the end, he gave back the power to the king.

  • Upvote for an interesting thesis.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 6, 2015 at 17:23

To the courioser. 1º They were more spaniards in Latinamerica in XIX century than at the moment of Colonial period. the colonial population until XVIII 750.000 spaniards. Between 1857-1930 was the period of the great spanish colonization of america, in numbers, 4,6 million spaniards colonized america.

2º Spain only received a fifth of American richness every year in a concept of a Tax. The American natives were protected under the law edicted by the Catholic queen Isabella.

Until XIX, spain main economic industry was the textile and armament. Even there were shipbuildings in Latinamerica, commercial ports. The great problem was the abusive power of the White spaniards at the government of American lands.

3º The natives, like mestizos were accepted in the Spanish Army.

4º The main latin-american revolutionary leaders were spaniards. Majority of them dissapointed because the Spanish Constitution of 1812 was not stablised, due to France intervened in Spain when the King was forced to accept it.


Well, the answer to this question is somewhat complex and several pages can be-(and have been) written on this topic; however, I will try to provide an answer that is historically detailed, though not overly pedantic.

If one looks at the history of Empires or Great Powers, there has NEVER been an Empire in history that has ruled for an indefinite period of time. Significant factors have often contributed to an Empire's downfall, though even petty and seemingly inconsequential events have either directly or indirectly precipitated or accelerated an Empire's downfall as well. The Iberian Empires-(that is to say, Early Modern Spain and Portugal), as well as the North European Empires-(Britain, France, Holland and Austria), were no exception, but rather, very much a part of the historical norm-(regarding the longevity and lifespan of Empires).

There is no single reason as to why Britain became the Most Powerful Empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Britain's ascendancy to the world historical stage, is due to a number of possibilities, ranging anywhere from its island status, to its sterling navy, to helping pioneer and ushering in the Industrial Revolution, to its early pioneering-(along with the Dutch) of Institutional Capitalism, to its unique geography whereby it is in fairly close proximity to the European mainland, as well as in close proximity to the Atlantic or in all likelihood, a combination of these reasons.

The Spanish and Portuguese Empires were certainly quite extensive in terms of land mass and both empires-(especially the Spanish), helped to dramatically transform the cultural identities of many of its colonial lands. However, by the time Britain was rising on the world historical stage-(due to the above mentioned reasons), the Spanish and Portuguese Empires were becoming anachronistic and falling behind the times when compared with the increasingly modernized and globally Industrial, Naval and Capitalistic systems pioneered by the British.

Essentially, the British, had designed their own technological advantage through industrialism and had accumulated their own wealth advantage through capitalism, both of which were militarily and commercially exported on a truly global and historically unprecedented scale. (To my knowledge, no other Empire ever matched the territorial diversity and immensity of the British Empire). By the time Britain reached its imperial zenith, Spain's imperial power was collapsing into historical oblivion and Portugal wasn't too far behind.


At the end of XVIII:

British population: 9.000.000

Spanish Population: 10.300.000

French Population: 27.000.000

German Population: 25.000.000

At the early XX(1900):

British population: 38.238.000

Spanish Population: 18.600.000

French population: 38.961.000

German population: 56.000.000

The XIXth century was catastrophic, even you look that Spain didn't grow at the same rate as other European powers.

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