charles rules america -- 11/24/20

Today's selection -- from Emperor: A New Life of Charles V by Geoffrey Parker. For most of the years after Spain reached the New World, America was part of the dominion of Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), and it was in this period that the first major extractions of gold and silver from the New World occurred, and were used by Charles to finance his wars of empire. His European dominion included areas roughly similar to what we now call the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Charles held more than 60 royal and princely titles, including Holy Roman Emperor, King of Castile and Aragon, and Archduke of Austria. His was the largest territory ever ruled by a European royal, and he was a Hapsburg, a family whose ruling dynasty dates from 1246 when the family took control of Austria. The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was continuously occupied by the Habsburgs from 1438 until their extinction in the male line in 1740 and after the death of Francis I from 1765 until 1806 with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. It was succeeded by a house of distant relatives that styled itself as the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and which ruled the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary until the dissolution of the monarchy in 1918.

The expansion of the Hapsburg dominion under Charles V would not have been possible without the gold and silver of the New World, and one line of thinking holds that much of the wide and long-lasting dominion of the family is owed to those New World riches. Another line of thinking is that those riches were squandered:

"In the dedication to his triumphalist Hispania Victrix (Spain victorious) of 1553, Francisco López de Gómara informed Charles that 'The greatest event since the creation of the world, apart from the birth and death of its creator, is the discovery of America'; and, he added, 'no nation has spread its customs, language and arms, or travelled as far by land and sea, as the Spaniards', especially in such a short time.  The truth -- the second part of Gómara's claim is easily demonstrated. When Charles first set foot on Spanish soil, Castile's transatlantic possessions were confined to a few outposts on the isthmus of Panama and a few islands in the Caribbean, with a total area of some 250,000 square kilometres (about half the size of Spain) and a population of perhaps two million indigenous inhabitants, 5,000 Europeans and a few hundred African slaves. When the emperor abdicated forty years later, his possessions included not only the Caribbean islands but also two million square kilometres on the American mainland (four times the size of Spain), inhabited by perhaps ten million indigenous inhabitants and 50,000 Europeans, all of them incorporated into the Crown of Castile and treated (at least in theory) 'like vassals of our Crown of Castile, because that is what they are' as well as several thousand African slaves.

Map of America Diego Gutiérrez, active 1554-1569

"Government activity also increased rapidly. In the 1540s the viceroy of Mexico issued over 500 orders (mandamientos) each year to officials and individuals, half of them Spaniards, and in the 1550s the annual total approached 800.The church structure of the New World expanded in step from four bishops at Charles's accession, all reporting to the archbishop of Seville, to two independent ecclesiastical provinces at his abdication, with three archbishops and twenty-one suffragans, all of them appointed directly by the Crown, and informal outposts of the Inquisition, reporting to the inquisitor-general in Spain.

"As the Latin American historian Horst Pietschmann observed: 'The construction of a government structure in America proved perhaps the most successful venture that Charles ever undertook: Admittedly, as Pietschmann also noted, 'The emperor's copious correspondence with members of his family and his closest councillors scarcely contain any detailed references to America'; but there were three major exceptions. First came money. A few months after his proclamation as king in 1516, Charles ordered his regent in Castile to send 45,000 ducats 'from the money received from America' to Italy 'so that it can pay for our affairs of state there'; and throughout his reign he used gold and silver from America to pay for his imperial designs, especially expensive ventures such as the Tunis campaign in 1535 and the siege of Parma in 1551-2 (both of them funded in large part by treasure from Peru). A few weeks before his abdication in 1555, Charles's fiscal priorities remained undiminished: he ordered his regent in Castile to ensure that all the gold and silver available in Mexico should be embarked immediately and shipped to Spain to pay for his war against France.

"Charles also displayed a lifelong interest in exotic flora and fauna, perhaps stimulated by those he had seen while growing up in the Netherlands. Thus in 1518, from Valladolid, he thanked the officials of the House of Trade (the Casa de la Contratacion in Seville: the body that supervised all commerce with America) for 'the dispatch of two American turkeys and a parrot that belonged to King Ferdinand, which we have enjoyed', and requested that 'you should send me the birds and similar things that may come from America which, because they are exotic, I will enjoy'. Almost forty years later, from his retirement home in Extremadura, Charles raved about 'two bedspreads lined with feathers' from America sent to keep him warm, and ordered 'dressing gowns and sheets for his bedroom made of the same material'.

"Charles's third abiding interest in America concerned its population. In 1518 he signed a warrant granting one of his Burgundian councillors an eight-year monopoly 'to ship to America 4,000 Black slaves, both male and female, from Guinea or any other part of Africa'. A decade later he signed another contract, granting agents of the Welser company of Augsburg a similar monopoly to send another 4,000 African slaves to America over a period of four years in return for a payment of 20,000 ducats to the imperial treasury in lieu of import and customs duties. The contract specified that the slaves would work in gold mines -- indeed it instructed the Welsers to 'bring fifty German master miners from Germany' -- and the company vigorously prosecuted in the royal courts those who infringed their monopoly. Charles would grant many more licences to ship African slaves to America, in return for cash payments: the total number embarked rose from under 400 in the quinquennium 1511-15 to almost 4,000 in the quinquennium 1516-20, and the total shipped in the course of his reign exceeded 30,000.

"Ironically, this increase in the African slave trade reflected Charles's concern for America's indigenous inhabitants. Three months after arriving in Spain in 1517, he presided over a committee of leading advisers to consider (among other matters) an 'instruction for the well-being of the American Indians' written by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, who boasted extensive experience of the transatlantic colonies first as a settler and then as a missionary. The friar denounced in graphic terms the ruthless exploitation of the New World by those entrusted with its care, and called for major policy changes (including the decision to start shipping slaves from Africa, on the grounds that each one would save a native American from exploitation). He later claimed that his arguments had convinced Charles 'to see to the ordering of certain matters that redounded to the service of Our Lord and Ourselves, and the good of America and its inhabitants.'"



Geoffrey Parker


Emperor: A New Life of Charles V


Yale University Press


Copyright 2019 Geoffrey Parker


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