Jane Landers


Scholars have dubbed the seventeenth century Spain's "Century of Depression." European wars and a cycle of disastrous droughts and epidemics (1597-1602, 1640s and 1680s) followed by famines severely strained Spain's financial and administrative resources. The general crisis was exacerbated by declines in American silver revenues caused by the demographic collapse of the native labor pools in New Spain and Peru. These multiple disasters combined to bring low the once glorious Spanish empire. After a series of bankruptcies Spain resorted to devaluing its currency. To prop up the enfeebled state, it impounded private silver, refused to pay debts, and finally was forced to pay usurious interest on foreign loans. In desperation the Crown also increased taxation on the already miserable peasants, triggering a mass migration from the countryside to ever-more crowded Spanish cities. Sensing their moment, peripheral regions such as Catalonia, the Basque Provinces, Portugal, Sicily and Naples made a bid for autonomy. When the last Spanish Hapsburg king, Charles II (nicknamed the Bewitched for his mental and physical deficiencies), died without an heir in 1700, Spain's Minister of the Indies,Jose de Galvez, noted "Spain was hardly less defunct than its dead master." Galvez was not alone in his assessment. Domestic critics, or arbitristas, decried Spain's endless and embarrassing problems and their writings added to a sense of general disillusionment. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in this spirit. Many of the desperate Spanish poor sailed for the Americas, imagining that they would improve their fortunes in the New World, but sadly, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, Spain's problems were mirrored in its colonies, including Spanish Florida.