What caused the gradual decline of the Spanish colonial empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? A post I read claimed that the Spanish overestimated their wealth, and my teacher pointed out to me that "nobody liked them". To what extent are these claims true, and what were some other reasons? Thanks!

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    Not to my knowledge, but search works quite well ...
    – Drux
    Jun 25, 2013 at 4:30
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    I think you meant this one: history.stackexchange.com/questions/9060/… @Drux: But tags work even better! :) Jun 25, 2013 at 9:16
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    What period are you asking about? Usually, when people speak about the decline of the Spanish Empire, they mean some period after the loss of the Armada and before Napoleon. On the other hand, the colonies were lost later. So which one do you mean? Jun 25, 2013 at 14:08
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    This question is way too broad and as such I feel that it needs to be closed. I would recommend that anyone interested should look for books on the subject. I came across this one (goodreads.com/book/show/…) during a quick google search. I'm sure that more can be found with the aid of a librarian. Jun 26, 2013 at 0:35
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    While I still feel that the question is poorly phrased I think the answers provided are both of high quality and diverse enough to warrant re-opening. I would recommend to @Ovi that they ask more specific questions. Jun 28, 2013 at 19:50

5 Answers 5


It is commonly accepted that the Spanish Empire, which rose to the pinnacle of its strength under Charles V/I and Philip II was in decline by early seventeenth century and, in spite (or perhaps because?) of strenuous efforts to arrest and reverse that decline during the early 17th century, it declined and by 1643 or 1659 (not random dates..) it was a shadow of its former self.

This view was developed and greatly popularized by John Huxtable Elliott in an influential 1961 paper whose first paragraph I cannot resist reproducing:

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This has been the standard approach in modern historiography, as far as I can tell; it and in fact it was espoused already in the 17th century by contemporary pundits and columnists who were then called Arbitristas.

Of course this paradigm found an able challenger in Henry Kamen who argued in an interesting paper that paradoxically, Spain did not decline because it never actually rose economically. Instead, he asserted:

Spain thus remained a dominated colonial market at whose expense other European nations progressed towards industrial growth.

Kamen's paper is great reading but I personally am more convinced by J. Israel's rebuttal that re-asserts the traditional picture I have outlined above.

A recent paper ("The decline of Spain (1500–1850): conjectural estimates") proposes quantitative measurements of Spanish economic performance and arrives at this conclusion:

In a comparative perspective, our findings support the view that when Spain colonised America and built a worldwide empire it was not a poor country of warriors but a relatively affluent nation and, by the end of the sixteenth century, when it had achieved ‘the political hegemony of Europe’ (Hamilton 1938, p. 168), Spanish per capita income was among the highest in Europe, second only to Italy and the Low Countries. Since the 1590s Spain experienced an absolute decline that only became relative in the early nineteenth century. Spain’s decline has its roots in the seventeenth century while its backwardness deepened in the first half of the nineteenth century.

While couched in mild language, their view is compatible with the standard thesis.

As for the dates, 1643 is the year of the battle of Rocroi which not only wiped out a veteran Spanish army but also Spain's enduring reputation for having the finest military tradition in Europe. 1659 is the year of the Peace of the Pyrenees which showed up Spain's great weakness relative to its chief opponent of the time, France.

Now to the possible causes. First of all, your teacher had two good points. I'll try to expound on them and also on what I think are other possible causes of Spanish decline. One must bear in mind, however, that no one cause can be singled out as the cardinal reason for decline; rather, it was a combination, often mutually reinforcing, of these causes that brought Spain down. The list below is my own and I take full responsibility for its errors and misconceptions:

  1. The expulsion or persecution-induced-emigration of Jews, Marranos and Moriscos. These measures sapped the Spanish demographic base - perhaps not so much numerically as qualitatively. What I mean is that the expulsion of these populations deprived the Spanish kingdoms of precisely the kind of people they were so sorely to lack in the 17th century: artisans, traders, professionals, etc. A parallel can be drawn here with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV which cost France its Huguenot population and had a similar adverse long-term effect.

Another relevant point - and I am going on a bit of a limb here - is that it took a number of generations for the deleterious effects of the expulsions to be truly felt. This reminds me of Stalins's purges (in the wider sense) in the 1920s-1950s which deprived Russia of its best and brightest - it can be argued that the modern-day problems of Russia can be traced back to that qualitative and quantitative dent Stalin made. But let's return to Spain.

  1. The Mesta. I'll just quote Britannica here:

So profitable were the activities of the organization that Spain’s nascent industry tended to be neglected in favour of stock breeding, and the country continued to export raw materials and import manufactured goods well into the 19th century. Some historians blame the Mesta for Spain’s lack of industrial development in comparison to that of the rest of Europe. The Mesta reached the height of its power in the 16th century and thereafter declined in importance.

In other words, Spain fell into a sort of Dutch Disease (the ironies of history). Of course, this is also true for American silver and gold - this matter was touched on in the post you mentioned. With bullion flowing from the colonies, Spain had little incentive to develop its industry and commerce and to create a solid and healthy taxable base.

  1. Poor finances. The Spanish crown defaulted on its debts four times: 1557, 1560, 1575, and 1596. This was due to poor management, constant warfare which cost a lot and brought meagre returns at best, over-reliance on New World bullion etc (see n. 2 above).

This is a huge subject so I'll restrict myself to one eloquent quote by from Robert Walpole: (taken from here):

It is true that all that treasure is brought home in Spanish names, but Spain herself is no more than the canal through which all these treasures are conveyed over the rest of Europe.

  1. The war with the Dutch. Henry Kamen's excellent book Spain's Road to Empire shows that the Spanish Empire was in fact a multi-national project in which the King of Spain drew on the resources of many countries, with the contribution of Spain (or Castile, for that matter...) often being surprisingly small. The muscle - the famed and feared Spanish armies - often consisted of a relatively small number of Castilians, together with German, Italians and Flemish soldiers. The sinews - the money and credit came from Italian and German bankers.

Such a world-hugging enterprise was nearly invincible when operating in concord. But with the Dutch Revolt a crucial leg was sawed from under it and the empire lost a great proportion of its best merchants, artisans and soldiers. Even worse, they became its worst enemies and from that point on the continuous futile attempts to reconquer the Dutch consumed most of the Empire's attentions and resources. Since the latter were usually borrowed (see n.2 and n.3) they were wont to fail at the crucial moment. For example, time after time the Spanish victories in the Netherlands were squandered as a result of mutinies which occurred when the King could no longer pay. Of course, the ready expedient of letting them plunder and pillage just served to stiffen the Dutch resistance.

To sum it up: to me it seems that as soon as the Dutch Revolt broke out, the empire became a house divided against itself - and it could not stand.

What is perhaps less well-known is that the 80 Years War included a twelve-year respite during which Spain and the Dutch were at peace. Possibly the decision to renew the war in 1621 was the single worst decision Spain took - the King and his advisers did not realize that by this point they could no longer win.

Ironically, the truce served to highlight just how much economically dependent was Spain on the Netherlands. A quote from Israel's article also ties this up with the other points given above:

Castilian wool exports were much diminished during the I620s, largely due to the absence of Dutch shipping which had previously carried most of the wool, but the Castilian manufacturing towns proved unable to profit from the situation.

  1. Over-expansion and hubris. This needs almost no elaboration. One point will suffice. The 30 Years War pitted Catholics against Protestants; but it is illuminating to recall that the Protestant cause was supported and seconded by Catholic France, led by Cardinal Richelieu; more strikingly, the Pope himself was giving covert support to France against the Catholic champions, the Spanish & Austrian Habsburgs. This is not really surprising as the Pope was also a temporal prince, hemmed in from all directions by Habsburg dominions in Italy and anxious to diminish their preponderance.

So, if even the Pope was against the Spanish Empire, are we to wonder that it aroused so much hostility, just because it was so big and menacing?


A proximate cause of the Spanish empire was the Netherlands War of Independence (which lasted 80 years), and other revolts against Spain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighty_Years%27_War

The Spanish Empire had been "cobbled" together in the late 15th and early 16th centuries by the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose daughter Juana married Philip, the son of Maximilian of Austria and Marie of Burgundy (who lost that province to France, but kept the Netherlands including modern Belgium). Charles V, the son of Juana and Philip, inherited Spain, the Netherlands and Austria. But when he subdivided it, the Netherlands went together with Spain to Charles' son Philip, instead of to Charles brother Ferdinand, who got Austria and Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire.

The Netherlands rebelled against Philip and later Spanish rulers, so it became a major liability, instead of a major asset, especially since the war dragged on for 80 years, (with some breaks), during which Spain went bankrupt several times. Philip had annexed Portugal in 1580, but that rebelled in 1640 and broke away. Even Catalonia (part of the old Aragon) rebelled in the middle of the 17th century, although Spain managed to hang on to it. But fighting all these wars, plus a short but costly "Armada" war with England set Spain on a downward spiral through the 17th and 18th centuries.


One of the main reasons was that Spanish empire was too large to control. After Napoleonic wars (and earlier against England) the Spain had lots of interior problems and this was more important than colonies. That's why most of them gained independence.

I totally disagree that "nobody liked Spanish". It might have been in 16th or 17th century, but not in 19th. Spain was Great Britain's ally against Napoleon. The Ostend Manifesto ended in great scandal and was denounced by Powers.

In Anglo-French treaty of 1904 (Spain was of course absent) both parties agreed that the Morocco issue should not alter Spanish possessions in Africa, eg. article 7:

In order to secure the free passage of the Straits of Gibraltar, the two Governments agree not to permit the erection of any fortifications or strategic works on that portion of the coast of Morocco comprised between, but not including, Melilla and the heights which command the right bank of the River Sebou.

This condition does not, however, apply to the places at present in the occupation of Spain on the Moorish coast of the Mediterranean.

and article 8:

The two Governments, inspired by their feeling of sincere friendship for Spain, take into special consideration the interests which that country derives from her geographical position and from her territorial possessions on the Moorish coast of the Mediterranean. In regard to these interests the French Government will come to an understanding with the Spanish Government.

The agreement which may be come to on the subject between France and Spain shall be communicated to His Britannic Majesty's Government.

This was after Spanish defeat during the war against the USA (you might want to read my answer to similar question). I think this last article was put on British demand.


In order to understand what happenned to the Spanish empire is one word "the economy".

At the end of the Reconquista in 1492, while the kingdom of Aragon was still a medieval country, the kingdom of Castille had just made new innovations in medicine and in technology, such as the arquebusier and cannon. After, Granada fall, spain introduce the Inquisition in order to be safe from Islam, furthermore, columbus had just discovered america so the commerce drived the economy enormously.

In the early XV. century, France invaded Italy, The king fernando of Aragon sent an army to avoid the french conquest of Italy, despite that Isabella was against the fight against Christians decided to send his best commander, The great captain. This general introduced the new castilian innovations, organized an army, building, for the first time, the Elite tercios. This army rejected a big medieval french army that was confident in his cavalry easily. So, in the end of XV. century with the most advanced army of the Christian Europe.

XVI. century, Once the Spanish royal family was changed by an Hasburg royal family, a very conservative Kingdom was established and loyal to the Austrian/German family helping in every conflict they have. In this period, was never introduced any innovation, not any economy development, only based on military policy. The hasburg Fhilip II received twice two alerts of risk of bankrupt but never made anything. It was not until the second half XVII. century when Spanish economy say "no, more" and made a big "crack".

The arrived of French bourbon on XVIII century, was a great hope because introduced the textile industry and spanish economy was recovered. Even spain recovered italy easily defeating Austrian Royal family or even the UK was defeated two times . Nevertheless, the french revolution was seen by surprise.

Napoleon with very audacious tricks forced Spain to be an "ally", but it was, in reality, a plan to conquest Spain. While the civilians were fighting house by house, town by town, the spanish army was without a head until the "Duke Wellingtom" arrived. While for the british was a great victory over napoleon spain ended in a big disaster. Factories destroyed, so many civilians killed by French soldiers, spain loses between 2-4% of the population in that war.

In early XIX. century, spain ended the war complete in ruins. People and Army demanded , like in UK, to stablish a parlamentary monarchy and embraced liberalism. The king accepted but forced, nevertheless, he called for help to the new kingdom of France to reestablish the absolutism, I mean, a conservative monarchy. With this problem spain started in a Civil War that provocked the independent movements in America. This war ended and liberalism was stablished in 1876.

Finally, with most of Spanish empire in America lost, between (1876-1929) introduced fastly the industrial revolution in order to recovered the time lost. The new innovations and the recover of the economy was not feel until 20s. So 1898, even with new innovations such as modern rifles, howitzers, submarines,machineguns, destroyers etc...not all the innovations werent introducers until XX.century, so was not prepared to the war with a big power so in 1898, the spanish navy was destroyed easily by US navy. And the army was not really well-equipped they do as much as they could to resist the position. The example was the first spanish battleship "Pelayo" (1888) that was not in time to used in Spanish-American war, used in 1911, or the Submarines created in 1888 but werent used until 1915 (Isaac Peral, great spanish inventor but misunderstand by politicians). The first spanish tank in 1925 or Air Fighter in 1913.

In 20s, with the introductions of new warships in navy, or air-fighters in Air force or even tanks spain was prepared (1st World war technology), Rif War (1911-1927) represented the transition between Imperial army to the industrial army. Despite of spanish recovery another Civil war ruined spain.

With General Franco in power, spain was a third world country, despite of having industrial factories in some parts of the country. In 50s. with USA decisive arrive and agreement, General Franco drived and change his economy policy to the liberalism and with big industrial investments put Spain in 8th most important economy of the world. Without any shoot USA won ally.

P.D: The Spanish economic problems is due to bad manage of the politicians. The matter of Catalonia and Basque Country were as a consecuences of the Conservatives politicians favourable to a centralised spain. Thats why these regions are absolutely anti-conservatives and its a battle between liberals and moderate Socialists while pro-independence parties appeared in the Second republic with small support and now are instead stronger due to the "Franco and his conservatives".


The story of the collapse or sudden decline of the Spanish empire in the 17th century is often greatly exaggerated. It's true that Spain's European leadership did fade in the second half of the century as France and other lesser powers increasingly asserted themselves but the economic and demographic problems were bad or worse in many other parts of a war torn Europe. Spain was still a great empire the following century and its place in the European political and economic scene was still significant. Christopher's Storrs' study "The Resilience of the Spanish Monarchy: 1665-1700" (2006) demonstrates this clearly.

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    Welcome to History:SE. Sources to support your assertions would greatly improve this answer. Jan 1, 2019 at 23:46
  • I'm trying to get people to re-read general history more carefully themselves and not simply accept this "decline" or "collapse" line of thinking without question like the questioner here at the beginning assumes. Even though this has been my long time opinion from my own reading of history (let alone just from looking at maps, now there's a clue), interested parties could have a look at the work of Christopher Straw, in particular his book "The Resilience of the Spanish Monarchy, 1665-1700".
    – Chris
    Jan 2, 2019 at 0:18
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    Please edit that into the answer. Comments are not for discussion.
    – MCW
    Jan 2, 2019 at 0:23

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