Sunday, June 30, 2013

An empire on which the sun set

There are a lot of Indian restaurants in the UK. In France they are Lebanese. I decided years ago that this was to do with Colonial links. For years and years we Britons were top dog in India and so Indians, looking for a better life, headed for the motherland. It's a theory open to question but it explains all those Moluccan restaurants in Amsterdam.

European history is a series of wars, alliance, marriages and territorial gains and losses. We Britons were big players, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Austro-Hungarians too. And the Spanish. This is a potted and not complete history of the Spanish Empire.

Think of the Spanish Empire and my guess is that you think of the Americas – from San Francisco and Los Angeles down to Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas drew a line on the, as yet, incomplete map of the New World. Everything to the East of the line belonged to Portugal and everything to the West to Spain. That's why Brazil speaks Portuguese and most of the rest of the Americas Spanish.

Surprisingly, or it was a surprise to me anyway, the Spanish also had other far flung possessions. They had Equatorial Guinea in Africa through till 1968. The Philippines were Spanish too and, along with Cuba, they were the last remnants of the Empire principally forged in the 15th and 16th Centuries which disappeared when Spain lost a quick war with the United States in 1898.

But Belgium and Holland? Well between 1556 and 1714 The Spanish controlled a good proportion of the Low Countries including Luxembourg, Flanders and the area around Brussels. That was where Medina Sidonia was heading with his Invincible Armada in 1588 to pick up an army to invade Britain before Elizabeth's navy and the weather changed his plans.

In 1870, after Isabel II had been deposed, Amadeo of Savoy was invited to rule Spain by the Spanish parliament. They chose an Italian because Spain had a long history of controlling several of the states which now make up the south of modern Italy. Generally this part of the empire came about through royal marriages rather than by sending men with big swords though there was plenty of fighting along the way. Amadeo by the way never took to the chaos in Spanish politics and abdicated after three years.

In Africa I've already mentioned Equatorial Guinea. The Canary Islands are geographically African but very Spanish in character. The conquest of the islands by Spain began in 1402 but full control wasn't gained till 1495 a couple of years after Columbus passed through on his way to “discover” America.

The cities of Ceuta and Melilla came under Spanish control around 500 years ago. The original inhabitants of present Morocco were basically nomadic and never organized a formal state. Spain didn't conquer the area they just occupied the land and built the towns. Much later, when the European powers started to carve up Africa what is now Morocco was originally overlooked but at the beginning of the 20th Century France and Spain divvied up the region. Morocco became an independent state in 1956 but the Spanish didn't leave easily. They refused to leave the towns of Ceuta and Melilla and they still do. They also hung on to a big region now called Western Sahara which was outside the agreed borders of the new Morocco but which Morocco now claims as its own. After a lot of sporadic fighting and UN pressure the Spanish finally abandoned Western Sahara in 1975 leaving a political vacuum there which remains to this day. It was also the end of the Spanish Empire.

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