A GAME AT CHESS:
A BLUEPRINT FOR BUILDING AND KEEPING AN EMPIRE.
Luis Francisco Martínez Montes
Battle of the Terceira Island, 1582, fresco by Niccolo Granello in the Gallery of Battles, El Escorial.
For the historian as well as for the practitioner of foreign policy with a penchant for things past, empires long defunct provide an endless source of lessons and analogies, of trials and errors already experienced, though in most instances already forgotten. Few in our times think, though, that empires are a form of political organization suitable for solving the tribulations of the present. After all, recent attempts at recreating some sort of formal or informal empires have ended up in utter failure. So we keep on living in a world that is parcelled among a myriad of small and medium sized states, some of them in a worrisome stay of decay, a few number of polities with the means and maybe the will to fall into the traditional category of great powers and an even fewer and frail-looking examples of supranational entities. Then, there are those multilateral organizations, regional or universal in scope, where all or some of the above meet, talk and sometimes agree about how best to respond to the most pressing challenges and threats. Empires, then, do not seem to fit in the current political taxonomy. But we would be wrong to consider them the dinosaurs of the political ecosystem, only to be contemplated in awe as they lay with their bones inertly exposed in museums, never to see their likenesses alive again and roaming among us.
In fact, empires have been the rule rather than the exception in history. Throughout the ages, the globe and a majority of humans in it have been mostly ruled by empires and not by states, federations, confederations, tribes or hordes.
And the case can be reasonably made that under empires humankind have known some of the most extended periods of material and intellectual productivity, religious insights and even peaceful political coexistence among diverse peoples and cultures. So, why should it be different in the future? Is it truly impossible to envision a variation of empire, and even of World Order, that allows for democratic representation and accommodates plurality in its different expressions? All that it takes is political imagination, something our times does not seem to allow, except in some bold science fiction novels or movies. Constrained as we are by forms of political organization bequeathed by our forebears, we have settled for comfortable formulas – our current variation of democracy is the best system for lack of anything better, says one of them – that preclude any form of experimentation so common in any other field of human activity. Besides, contrary to what many people think, empires did not have the monopoly of political violence and economic exploitation. Not by chance, when we use the term Pax to define a period of extended order, safety and even relative freedom, we always qualify it by evoking one empire or another: Pax Romana, Pax Sinica, Pax Britannica and so on. And let us not forget that some of the most atrocious genocides in the XX century have been conducted either by totalitarian states, or by those states of any form that have tried to suppress dissent or ethnic plurality within their borders. Was Rwanda in the early 90´s or Pol Pot’s Cambodia empires? In fact, those were dramatic examples of what can happen due to the inexistence of a Power seated beyond the state and endowed with a more effective capacity than the current multilateral arrangements to impose peace and order when needed.
The Arcadian or Pastoral State by Thomas Cole, at the New York Historical Society. The painting is a part of a cycle on the Course of Empire painted between 1833 and 1836 and inspired by Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18): “There is the moral of all human tales;/ ‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past./ First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,/ Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last./And History, with all her volumes vast,/Hath but one page… “.
In any case, given their prevalence in history and the current state of world affairs, the doubt is not if, but when a new kind of empire will emerge, alone or in competition with others.
The Age of Empires would be then not just a fanciful name for a successful videogame but also a very tangible reality for our descendants. And so, for those bold enough to try, the following question will have to be asked: where to find the best blueprint on how to build and keep a successful empire. For sure, there will be those who will always point to the Roman and to the British empires, maybe also to the Chinese for its endurance or to the Dutch for its commercial prowess. But I will dare to get off the beaten track and offer another example, though it might seem counterintuitive for many, particularly in the Anglo-American world: the Spanish empire. Once we have dared to glimpse into the future, let us take a look at the past and try to learn its lessons, even from unsuspected masters. This is, after all, one of the ideas inspiring this magazine: to recover the past in order to understand the present and try to illuminate the future, and to do so with a free mind and a liberal disposition of spirit.
For those sceptics about our chosen reference, there is a hard fact: from the early 1500s until the independence of most of its American territories in the 1820s, for more than three centuries and under three different dynasties – the Trastamaras, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons- Spain ran what at that prolonged period of time was the largest and most diverse empire ever formed by a Western European polity. It was only to be surpassed by the British empire at its zenith, which, in comparison, only lasted from the mid XIX century until the 1920s and collapsed a few decades later as a result of a complex decolonisation process.
The Consummation of Empire, by Thomas Cole, 1833-1836.
Apart from the belated case of Great Britain, all other modern Western European empires either controlled fewer territories or existed continuously as major geopolitical entities for a lesser period of time than the Spanish Monarchy did. According to some popular narratives, the Dutch Empire, depending more on a spanning web of trade posts than on the effective occupation of large portions of land, was supposed to be if not bigger, at least more efficient than Spain’s. But the fact is that its main agent, the East India Company, or VOC, founded in 1602, perished by corruption in 1800 and both its declining assets and growing liabilities were from that point on taken over by the Batavian Republic and later by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which held its grip on Indonesia and a few other smaller territories for just a century and a half, until the end of the Second World War. France, which struggled to establish a presence in North America and the Caribbean and a foothold in India during the XVII century, lost most of its gains in 1763, after the Seven Years War with Great Britain. After the end of the brief Napoleonic adventure, the second reincarnation of the French empire started in the 1830s with the occupation of parts of Northern Africa and ended up covering many lands in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Pacific, but even at its peak was territorially smaller than the Spanish empire at its long apogee and, again, broke apart roughly a century and a half after its inception amidst messy decolonisation wars. As to the Portuguese empire, the pioneer of them all, it was a combination of the Spanish and the Dutch models, but it was smaller than the former and less profitable than the latter, though culturally it left a far more extended legacy when compared with the Dutch overseas experience. After all, no one can deny the remarkable expansion of Portuguese as an international language, usually one of the main cultural markers of a successful process of extroversion.
Even if we restrict the terms of comparison to Western Europe, Spain’s ascendancy over the continent’s early modern international politics compares quite favourably with that of its main neighbours and rivals. From 1495 until about 1650, during a century and a half, the Spanish Monarchy was the single most powerful, which of course does not mean omnipotent, European state both diplomatically and militarily. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a time of generalised conflict in Europe, none of its main opponents, either alone or in variable combinations, was capable to master enough resources to deal a definitive blow to the Spanish Monarchy that would have meant its disintegration, simultaneously, as a major continental and overseas polity. Even though since the late XVI century Spain was immersed in a protracted war in the Netherlands and had suffered the defeat of the Armada against England in 1588, neither country was able to crush once and for all the might of Spain and, in particular, to force it to part with the bulk of its overseas empire, no matter how hard they tried.
The Defence of Cadiz against the English, by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1634-1635. Museo del Prado, Madrid. The canvass depicts the defeat of an English expedition led by Henry Cecil, Viscount of Wimbledon, against the Spanish Southern port of Cadiz in November 1625.
Though less known in history books than the episodes of the Dutch revolt and the Armada the truth is that both the Dutch and the English suffered repeated defeats in their attempts at exploiting their initial victories: a year after the Armada, a similar English expeditionary force commanded by Drake and Norris failed in its simultaneous goals to annihilate the remnants of the Spanish sea power, separate Portugal from Spain and break up the system of Treasure Fleets by capturing their base in the Azores islands. Additional expeditions by Drake in 1595 and Raleigh in 1616 were defeated when trying to seize strategic American territories from Spain. Both seadogs died as a result of their temerity. As to the Dutch, when they tried to expel Spain from the Philippines, they were severely beaten twice in the Battles of Playa Honda, in 1609 and 1614, and even more decisively in the 1646 Battle of La Naval de Manila. In America, a combined Spanish and Portuguese force regained San Salvador de Bahia in 1625 just a year after a Dutch army had taken it. And this at a time when most Spanish forces were concentrated in the struggles of the Thirty Years War in Europe and the Dutch Republic was supposed to be at its height as a maritime power.
More tellingly, when Spain finally lost its preponderance in European affairs after the 1659 Peace of the Pyrenees, its successor as the main continental power, France, was only able to maintain, uneasily, its rank for roughly just half a century, for in fact the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht after the War of Spanish Succession put an end to France’s hegemony in favour of a more complex and fluid balance of power, meaning that no single country could occupy in the future the prominent place Spain had held in the past. During the rest of the XVIII century, though it is customary to refer to Great Britain and France as the two major powers of the epoch whilst Spain was supposed to be relegated to a secondary or even tertiary status, the fact of the matter is that Madrid kept on running and defending an overseas empire whose size dwarfed those of its main Western rivals and actually was to reach its maximum territorial expansion during the last decades of that century. The effective colonisation of California and large parts of the Southwest in the current United States of America; the exploration of much of the North-western coast of America up to Alaska or the establishment of a Spanish base in Nootka, off the island of Vancouver, in current British Columbia, all took place during the second half of the XVIII century.
If by land the Spanish empire proved to be a very hard nut to crack it was even more so by sea.
In all the 250 years history of the Spanish trans-Pacific fleets, the English only managed to capture four Manila galleons and the Dutch none. As to the Atlantic fleets not even one was captured on the open seas in their entire existence. On the only four occasions when the Dutch or the English were able to disrupt a whole Atlantic fleet, they did it when their prey was close to a port and only once, in the case of the Dutch admiral Piet Hein in 1628, were they able to seize an entire cargo with its intact treasure, an exceptional occasion that was triumphantly celebrated by Protestant propagandists but was never to be repeated. Even when its naval power was supposed to be at its lowest, between 1680 and 1695, when French, Turkish and Berber warships seemed to have a free rein in the Mediterranean to the extent of blockading and bombarding both Spain’s eastern ports and its Italian possessions and when even the Caribbean and Mesoamerican fortresses and ports seemed vulnerable to piratical depredations, Spain, either with its occasional English and Dutch allies in the anti-French coalitions or, more frequently, relying on its own staggering maritime strength was capable of maintaining most of its naval operations and even of recapturing and buttressing some of the territories temporarily lost or endangered both in Europe and overseas.
The Relief of Genoa by the second Marquis of Santa Cruz, by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado 1634. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Genoa had been besieged by a French army led by the Constable Lesdiguières and Charles Emmanuel I, the Duke of Savoy.
The Spanish Capture of Saint Kitts by Don Fadrique de Toledo in 1629, by
Félix Castelo, 1634. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Actually, Spain’s scattered naval forces were able to be present in practically all the major strategic theatres of the world simultaneously and almost uninterruptedly. Though less numerous and probably less technically advanced than its rivals, the Spanish navy in the late XVII century was still a formidable force. Even after the defeat at The Downs in 1639, which is usually considered to be the maritime equivalent of the defeat of the Tercios at Rocroi in 1643 in that both would have signalled the definitive end of Spain’s position as a great power. At sea, Spain could master quite an impressive show of force. While, for instance, the French navy, at the peak of its power from 1660 to 1690 had just the Mediterranean and the Channel as its main battlegrounds and was only able to send sporadic forces to the Caribbean and the Indian ocean, the Spanish Armadas were deployed globally: in the North Atlantic there were the Armada del Mar Océano and the Armada de Flandes-; in the Mediterranean there was the Mediterranean Galley Fleet; the Armada de la Guardia was entrusted with escorting the vital Atlantic Fleets that transported silver, people and goods to and fro Spain and America; the Armada del Mar del Sur protected the Pacific coasts off Peru and the Armada de Barlovento was entrusted with the defence of the pirate-infested Caribbean. Apart from those naval forces, we should not forget that the legendary Manila Galleons, which ensured the communications between the Philippines and New Spain across the Pacific, were formidable sailing fortresses, as many a Dutch or English commander was to experience first-hand. As a result of both its terrestrial and maritime resilience, even at the time when it was assailed from so many different quarters and confronted by a deep dynastic crisis at home, the Spanish overseas empire under the last Habsburg monarch remained essentially intact – minus the Portuguese additions that had been lost in 1640- and was even growing at his death, a trend that would be continued for most of the following century.
A cursory glance at the maps below showing the extension of the main modern Western European empires at their respective apogees will offer the reader a clear and dynamic visual evidence of what has been said before.
The Spanish empire during the reign of Philip II. In yellow are the Portuguese territories that were incorporated into the Hispanic Monarchy from 1580 to 1640.
Map showing the territories that at different points were held by the Spanish Monarchy. The bulk of the Spanish territories in America and Asia were maintained continuously under Spanish control for more than three centuries.
The British empire after the Napoleonic wars, before its mid XIX century expansion.
The apex of Great Britain’s reach was to be attained between the mid XIX to the mid XX century, with its peak in the 1920s.
Territories under the Dutch Colonial empire at its maximum extension.
Territories under the different incarnations of the French colonial empire. Those coloured in light blue were incorporated during the XVII century and mostly lost in 1763.In dark blue are depicted those territories that became part of the second French empire, acquired from 1830 on and lost by the 1960s.
Territories held by Portugal at the zenith of its power.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in many comparative accounts of modern European imperial experiences the name of Spain is still associated with the terms “decline” or “failure”. For some historians, Spain’s decline would have started immediately after the 1588 episode of the Spanish Armada. For others, Spain’s demise as a great power was evident and irremediable since the mid XVII century or, at the latest, by the time of the last Spanish Habsburg’s death in 1700. Curiously enough, the fact that the first king of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain was able to rule over basically the same extra-European territories as the last Habsburg did and even managed to recapture some of the lost Spanish territories on the Italian peninsula is not always taken into account when it comes to acknowledging the remarkable capacity for survival and adaptation of the Spanish empire in the midst of the most challenging circumstances.
The contrast between the enduring myth of decline and the factual evidence available contradicting it is so startling that even the most rigorous historians find it difficult to reconcile both terms, leading to some awkward pronouncements. A case in point is the lengthy, detailed and influential essay on The Grand Strategy of Philip II, published in 2000 by Geoffrey Parker. We can find in its pages an archetypical exposition on the topic of Spanish decline accompanied by evidence that points to the exact opposite direction, for instance when Parker states that Philip II “achieved most of his political goals in the Mediterranean and America, but not in the Low Countries and England, which meant the beginning of Spain’s decline as a great power. It is important to understand the reasons behind this failure”. Well, one may wonder, if Spain under Phillip II was able to contain the Ottoman assaults in the Mediterranean and managed not only to preserve most of its European territories but also to enlarge its overseas possessions, including those in Asia, what kind of decline or failure are we talking about? Besides, though the goals of cutting in the bud the rebellion in the Low Countries and preventing England from remaining a nuisance by sending the Armada were not attained, it can also be said that neither country was able to eliminate Spain as an obstacle for their respective overseas designs. It is simply not credible to affirm that in the next two centuries, either or both countries surpassed Spain as great powers when their respective worldwide expansions were, in territorial, political and cultural terms, quite limited when compared with the global position attained by Spain during that period of time.
The Knight’s Dream by Antonio de Pereda, circa 1650. Museo del Prado, Madrid. A Baroque Memento Mori about the ultimate evanescence of riches and glory.
Typically, Parker devoted a great part of his essay on Philip II to analysing the causes that provoked the fiasco of the Armada but failed to mention the 1589 Drake-Norris expedition, also known as the English Counter-Armada. The latter had greater strategic implications than the former both for the survival of the Spanish Monarchy as a world power and for England’s lasting failure to create an overseas empire that could rival that of its bitter enemy, a feat that was only achievable in the mid XIX century. Besides, Parker’s approach to examining and judging a crucial, but temporally limited, period in the evolution of the Spanish empire suffers from two shortcomings that are very frequent in the work of many historians devoted to the topic of imperial Spain. The first one is trying to evaluate the totality of the Spanish imperial venture by focusing their attention on a particular figure or on a limited span of time- the Spanish empire at the times of Philip II, Philip III or Charles III, to give some examples- neglecting the larger chronological perspective, which should take into account the complete temporal arch dating from the late XV to the XIX centuries. The second mistake is that they usually concentrate their studies on the position of Spain in Europe instead of considering the Spanish European policy as a piece in a larger puzzle which, necessarily, has to include a geopolitical reality that was worldwide in scope from its inception to its very end.
We can examine another instance of both shortcomings in another scholarly essay on imperial Spain. In his work on Phillip III and the Pax Hispanica, characteristically subtitled as The Failure of Grand Strategy, Paul C. Allen devoted his considerable energy and skills to demonstrate how after Philip II´s death in 1598 his successor tried and failed to implement a strategy which for tactical reasons was based on a policy of appeasement with the enemies of the Monarchy, despite its hidden goal aimed at achieving supremacy over them. Again, while magnifying the many obstacles that such a dual policy had to confront, the author failed to take into account that Spain managed to keep many of its positions in Europe for yet another century and to preserve practically intact the bulk of its overseas empire for two additional centuries. Where then is the big failure of the Grand Spanish Strategy, paraphrasing Allen´s title, to be found? Did the reign of Philip III entail the demise of the Hispanic Monarchy both in Europe and beyond? The answer is a resounding no.
In fact, when examined as a whole, the overarching themes that run throughout the history of the Spanish empire are not decline or failure, but resilience and, to a large extent, success.
A success that, as mentioned, becomes more evident when comparing the Spanish experience with the European policies and worldwide overseas expansions undertaken by other Western countries from early modern history to the full swing of the Industrial Revolution in the XIX century.
To put forward an impertinent question, which is the way to get a pertinent answer, why was Spain able to succeed in the face of so many challenges? How did Spain manage to hold together such a disparate and large trans-oceanic and trans-continental polity for so long? Just by serendipity? Was it due to the incompetence of its enemies? Or was it, as some historians would like us to believe, because those same countries that seemed so eager to bring down the Spanish empire were in fact labouring behind the scenes to keep it alive in the hands of a chronically enfeebled country so that its protracted survival would prevent the rise of a stronger power? Though some of those hypotheses could have had a degree of verisimilitude at some given point in time, they are not consistent enough to provide an explanation to the conundrum of the long- term success of Spain as an imperial power.
Typus Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, 1570.
Where then should we look to find a credible solution to the riddle? The answer offered in this essay could seem counterintuitive to many readers familiar with the customary views on great power politics held by some influential historians. Ever since in his best-selling book on the Decline and Fall of the Great Powers Paul Kennedy put forward the theme of overstretching as the most important factor explaining the ultimate failure of most, if not all, imperial constructions, the case of Spain became a paradigmatic example to test and ultimately, or so it might seem, to corroborate his hypothesis. Was not the attempt, against all odds, by the Spanish Habsburgs to cling to their hereditary domains in Europe the cause of their final defeat despite the enormous expenditures incurred in endless wars financed by a fluctuating flow of American silver? Was it not that same stubbornness, or foolishness, in pursuing the quixotic goal of achieving a Universal Monarchy the main factor behind Spain’s decline as a world power? For those adept at Paul Kennedy’s mono-causal explanation, these are merely rhetoric questions, since the answer, for them, is crystal clear. But if we turn the received wisdom upside down and start from the premise that far from being defeated as a world power already at the end of the XVI century or at the latest in the mid XVII century, Spain kept its status for a longer period of time than most, if not all, other great modern Western powers, then the issue of overstretching acquires a completely different tonality. In fact, it can be argued that
it was its worldwide extension and its intrinsic diversity – based on Spain’s amazing capacity to overstretch itself, to use Kennedy’s admonitory term- the main reason behind the remarkable endurance of the Hispanic Monarchy.
Obviously, keeping together such a disparate and enormous polity was not an easy task. It required a constant mobilisation of resources and, above all, a permanent disposition to watch on and the capacity to respond to shifting geopolitical conditions on a global scale. But size also had another side to it. In terms of modern imperial politics, Big rather than Small was beautiful as well as effective. For a lesser political entity, the loss of access to a single source of strategic resources or a major defeat in just one theatre of operations could imply an existential catastrophe or, at least, a definitive blow to the dream of attaining great power status. Sweden is a case in point. Despite the strenuous and at times successful efforts made by its king Gustavus Adolphus to position Sweden as the leader of the Protestant camp and ultimately as the main power broker in Europe within the context of the Thirty Years War, it sufficed the victory of the Imperial army – with the Old Spanish Tercios at its core- over the combined Saxon and Swedish troops at the 1634 Battle of Nördlingen to confine the challenger to its natural position as just a regional power constrained to remain in constant competition with Russia in and around the Baltic region.
The Victory of the Two Ferdinands, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1635 at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The painting commemorates the victory of the Spanish and Imperial armies over the Protestant coalition led by Sweden at the battle of Nördlingen, 1634.
On the contrary, for a global empire like Spain, a defeat in a French plain or a Swiss valley or the loss of a Caribbean island could be easily compensated by obtaining a victory in another military front or just by effectively defending most of its overseas territories, as it was the case more often than not. To give an example, the Anglo-Spanish War waged between both powers from 1654 to 1660 (though usually narrated from the point of view of the then enemies of Spain as just another step in the downward march of the Hispanic Monarchy), actually tells us a very different story. To start with, Protestant England under Cromwell was unable by itself to challenge Spain, hence the necessity for England to forge an alliance with Catholic France in 1655 so that only by combining the strength of both nations could they have any hope of succeeding. The need for such an odd alliance between two traditional enemies demonstrates that even when at its weakest, no nation alone was able to confront Spain’s still formidable power. Secondly, though England successfully opened several fronts to divert Spain´s resources, for instance by helping French forces in their attempt at dislodging Spanish garrisons in Flanders or by blockading Spanish ports in Andalusia and the Canary islands, Cromwell’s main war aim was to expel Spain from the Caribbean and ultimately to invade Central America, thus gravely damaging Spain’s overseas position. But the so- called Western Design, ambitious as it was, was a failure.
Henry Morgan’s attack on the Castillo de San Jerónimo, Porto Bello, 1669, in Esquemelin, John 1684: The Buccaneers of America: A True Account of the Most Remarkable Assaults Committed of Late Years Upon the Coasts of the West Indies by the Buccaneers of Jamaica and Tortuga, page 84.
Again, in standard history books the episode is told as an English success as exemplified by the conquest of Jamaica, which was to remain in English hands. But the fact of the matter is that Jamaica and other smaller islands were just the minor prize with which England had to console itself after having being defeated in all the other Caribbean fronts. The major Spanish victory took place in April 1655, when a formidable naval force led by Robert Venables and William Penn was routed by Spanish defenders when trying to capture Santo Domingo, in the island of Hispaniola, one of the strongholds of the Spanish West Indies, together with Cuba. Cromwell was so enraged that both Penn and Venables were imprisoned for incompetence in the Tower of London upon their return to England. Finally, with the death of Cromwell and the subsequent political crisis leading to the Restoration, and with its maritime trade badly damaged due to devastating Spanish raids, England had to sign the 1670 Treaty of Madrid with an equally exhausted Spain that nevertheless had succeeded in preserving one of the strategic cores of its overseas empire. This is one among many other instances when, contradicting Paul Kennedy’s hypothesis, an overstretched Spain, though facing simultaneous threats on at least four fronts during the war with England and France – Flanders, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Caribbean- was able to keep its head above the rough waters thanks to its capacity to compensate the losses suffered in some local battlefields with the gains obtained or the positions maintained in many other places of its vast empire.
The Libro de los Juegos, (“Book of games“), or Libro de axedrez, dados e tablas, (“Book of chess, dice and tables”) was commissioned by king Alfonso X and completed in his scriptorium in Toledo in 1283.
But overstretching is just one side of the coin. As any chess player knows, extending one’s lines is an invitation for the adversary to take the weakest and most isolated pieces one by one. Unless, of course, overstretching, which in this context means occupying more space than your adversary in order to have more options during the game, is backed up by a solid defence of the core, which in chess means controlling the centre squares of the board.
This was, precisely, the key to the Spanish success: its amazing capacity to preserve the core of its power,
meaning the nucleus of the Iberian Peninsula and the main mining regions of America as well as the terrestrial and maritime networks linking the different parts of the empire. Actually, the game of chess offers some of the best metaphors helping to explain the deployment of Spain´s imperial strategy in the longer term. Not by chance it was in Spain where chess first adopted its modern form. The prominence of the Queen on the chessboard was most probably a Spanish invention linked to the instrumental role of Queen Isabella at the end of the Reconquest and at the inception of a composite Spanish Monarchy. Spanish was also the first known printed book devoted to the game, published in Salamanca in 1497 by Luis Ramírez de Lucena and entitled Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess, with 150 Chess games. As it would happen during the Cold War and the titanic clashes between American and Soviet masters in early modern Europe, chess championships were also conceived of as contests for supremacy by proxy. In 1560, coinciding with the coronation of Pope Pius IV, a match was arranged between Spanish and Italian maestros. The winner was Ruy López de Segura, considered the first modern chess champion and also author of another influential manual about the game named Book of the Liberal Invention and Art of the Game Chess, printed in Alcalá de Henares in 1561. In his essay, Ruy López devoted particular attention to the first movements in a game, their variations and developments, with such a lasting success that even today one of the most popular chess openings, also known as the Spanish Gambit, is named after him.
Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess, with 150 Chessgames, 1497, by Luis Ramirez de Lucena, the oldest existing printed book of chess.
Consistent with the chosen metaphor,
it is possible to follow the successive phases of the Spanish imperial strategy as if they would correspond to the deployment of a master´s chess game played over several centuries and over several chessboards.
The opening movements of the recently unified Spanish Monarchy– the Spanish gambit- were played in the battlefields and political corridors of a fragmented Italian peninsula. By mastering the newly created instruments of Renaissance diplomacy and by organizing a brand new army organized in Tercios, an innovation which in fact inaugurated modern warfare giving prevalence to the socially mobile infantry over the mediaeval aristocratic cavalry, Spain was able to defeat the attempts by France to impose its hegemony on the Italian city- states at the beginning of the XVI century. Once it had consolidated its Italian positions and denied that vital space to its main rival France, Spain’s hand at the game was reinforced by a coincidence that at times can seem as a double stroke of luck but in fact was the result of a series of deliberate decisions and crafty diplomatic combinations: the “discovery” of the New World in 1492 and the accession to the Imperial title by Charles V, a grandchild of the Catholic monarchs, in 1519. Suddenly present everywhere, Spain was propelled at the head of an enormous and motley collection of territories and therefore was confronted with the fact that from then on the diplomatic and military game at chess, instead of being played against just one adversary in a geographically limited space had to be fought against several players in a constantly expanding chessboard. Far from recoiling, Spain accepted the challenge by deploying its pieces faster and more effectively than its main rivals. During the XVI century, the Hispanic Monarchy built its core positions and vital lines of communication, both terrestrial and maritime, on a global scale, even though it was subject to assault on several fronts and undermined by internal weaknesses. Mistakes were made along the way – notably in the episode of the Armada and in the protracted conflict in the Low Countries- but they were not fatal enough to roll back the gains already obtained elsewhere. Besides, while both England and the Netherlands were busy confronting Spain on their home turf or close to it, they had less resources to carve up their own overseas positions or to undermine those of Spain. The fact that both Protestant powers were later engaged in lengthy and mutually debilitating wars against each other only played to Spain’s advantage. Recurrent internal dissensions and civil wars in England and France, which Spain did its best to keep alive, as well as the Ottoman empire’s chronic inability or lack of interest for taking its rivalry with Spain beyond the Mediterranean basin were additional bonuses.
Portrait of the Artist´s Sisters Playing Chess, by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555.
The Spanish System thus consolidated and tested during the XVI century was able to withstand several roller coaster cycles of crisis and recovery along the recurrent wars and truces that marked the XVII century. Long considered to be the definitive period on the road to decline that would have inevitably characterized the Spanish imperial trajectory almost from its inception, that period was actually, in chess terminology, a classical mid-game with many variants leading to no major or definitive outcome. Despite the setbacks suffered by Spain in the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, and in the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, it was nevertheless able to preserve many of its European possessions, including those in Italy and the Catholic Low Countries, until 1714 while its overseas empire remained practically intact until more than a century later. As R.A. Stradling affirms, “the reality of Spain’s survival, her continuing ability to defend the empire from attack, is one of the outstanding features of the century” . Was that survival nothing sort of miraculous, as John Elliot at some point wondered? Not in the least. Returning again to the game of chess, it was firstly due to the astonishing capacity of the main player to respond simultaneously to the many different fronts where his positions were under pressure. Spain was able to do so thanks to its remarkably efficient administrative, military and diplomatic machineries, which were able to mobilize resources through worldwide channels of communication that on the whole proved to be sufficiently resilient under conditions of extreme duress. In the words of Ferdinand Braudel, “Historians have paid too little attention to the gigantic tasks demanded of the Spanish administrative machine (…) the Spanish empire (…) expended the better part of its energy in these struggles. And yet, it was better adapted than any other to these necessary tasks and better organized to deal with them. Although much criticized, the Spanish empire was equal or indeed superior to other leading states for transport, transfer and communications”
Another not sufficiently remarked reason why the Spanish Monarchy was able to survive and even thrive as a world power for such a long span of time is that contrary to its main rivals, which had to attend to recurrent and debilitating political and religious crisis at home in the XVI and XVII centuries, both the Iberian and, once consolidated, the American and Pacific cores remained essentially peaceful for most of that period. The only major disturbance occurred in the 1640s, with the revolts in some Italian provinces, Catalonia and Portugal, but even so they were not decisive enough to fatally undermine the imperial edifice and ultimately only Portugal succeeded in breaking loose after a protracted but limited war.
The XVII century mid-game ended with Spain enfeebled in its European positions beyond the Pyrenees but confirmed as a global power, particularly in comparative terms. None of its main European competitors was able to establish at that time an overseas empire that could rival what Spain had already achieved a century earlier. In the 1600s, despite its trading prowess, the Dutch Republic was unable to become a serious contender as a dominant world power. It was defeated several times by Spain in the Philippines and even failed to carve up a meaningful empire in the Americas after being dislodged from Brazil by Portuguese and Spanish forces. A series of wars against its former ally England and internal dissensions further debilitated its stance. Regarding England, during the entire XVII century it was hardly able to extend its reach in America beyond the north Atlantic seaboard and some scattered Caribbean islands whilst in India the East Indian Company remained confined to the margins of the subcontinent. As to France, though during that century it nominally claimed to control large parts of North America, from Quebec to Louisiana, the lack of interest and the limited capacity of the French monarchs and elites for implementing large scale colonial policies meant that the areas of effective French presence remained scattered and fragile. Apart from its limited inroads on the American continent and some small establishments along the West African coast and Southern India, France actually did not count, not even remotely, as a world power at that time. Even at the top of its game between 1659 and 1714, the French monarchy, unlike Spain at its long prime, was simply unable to project and sustain any major colonizing enterprise beyond Europe, a feat that France would only prove capable of achieving from the third decade of the XIX century onwards.
Two Chess players, by Paris Bordone, circa 1545, at the Mailand, Wohnhaus.
The course of the game of chess played by Spain apparently suffered a definitive alteration with the death of the last Habsburg king, Charles II, and the change of dynasty confirmed after the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1713). For many historians, the passing away of Charles II in 1700 without a direct descendent and the instauration of the Bourbon dynasty in Madrid marked the demise of the Spanish Empire and even of Spain as a big power, soon to be surpassed by Great Britain and France. Nothing could be further from the truth. To start with, a change of dynasty like the one undergone by Spain, or, for that matter, a violent change in the constitution of a state in other instances, was a common occurrence during the Ancien Régime in Europe. Just Between 1649 and 1689 England had experienced in rapid succession: the execution of Charles I and the abolition of the House of Stuart; the establishment of a Commonwealth under two Lord Protectors; the Restoration of the Stuarts in the person of Charles II and the revolutionary upheaval of 1688 accompanied by a Dutch invading force led by William III. In the Dutch Republic, the tensions between the Republican and the Orangist (or monarchical) factions led to a state of quasi civil war that culminated in the dreadful year of 1672 when the Republican statesman Johan de Witte was lynched and killed by a mob, paving the way to a further centralization of power. And in France, after a second half of the XVI century plagued by religious conflicts, the mid XVII century was characterised by the civil wars known collectively as the Fronde between the remnants of the mediaeval world represented, on the one hand, by the nobility and the provincial parliaments and, on the other, by an increasingly assertive monarchy that finally was able to impose itself not without difficulty and at a great cost.
Far from introducing a dramatic change in the strategic tenets of the game of chess played on the global board by Spain since the late XV century, the Spanish branch of the Bourbon dynasty did in fact follow the basic blueprint inherited from its Trastamara and Habsburg predecessors minus, to a certain extent, their respective religious and dynastic fixations. Freed from the central European responsibilities acquired with the Imperial title under Charles V and eager to keep the Church at a manageable distance, the Bourbon Monarchy was able to concentrate its efforts on purely geostrategic goals. These basically consisted in revamping the defence of its American and Asian territories, including their vital maritime links, and in regaining some of the positions lost in Italy in order not to lose more influence on the Mediterranean front. The energy spent in the defence of overexposed European lines in the mid-game of the XVII century could from now on be devoted to the reorganization, modernization and, when desirable and feasible, expansion of the core positions of the Monarchy elsewhere.
The Spanish game of chess during the XVIII century was an exercise in realism based on archetypical balance of power calculations and on an extensive programme of economic and military reforms.
Jeu d’échecs, by Juan Gris, 1915.
After a stunning opening game in the late XV and XVI centuries and an exhausting mid-game in the XVII century, the Hispanic Monarchy needed to use more efficiently its remaining resources to hold its rank among the great powers for another century. Again, overstretching, though of a more limited sort than in the past, proved to be an asset more than a liability. With no more territories to defend in Europe, except the recovered provinces in Italy, Spain could now tap into its American territories both for propelling up the economic situation at the metropolis and for buttressing the less profitable and self-sustainable parts of the overseas Empire. The international context was in this regard slightly more favourable than in the past. Among its competitors, the waning of the Dutch Republic as a potential global player and the inability of other Western powers like Austria or Prussia to deploy an extra-European foreign policy meant that Spain, once secured, with some caveats, the dynastic alliance with France, had only Great Britain as its main rival to contend with. And it did so quite successfully on the whole since despite the losses sustained as a result of the belated participation in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the Spanish Monarchy was still the biggest Western colonial power at the end of the XVIII century. As in the past, the key was the effective protection of its core overseas positions by means of a strategy based on the strengthening of the main bases and fortresses that protected Peru and New Spain; the proliferation of colonial militias reinforced with contingents from the Peninsula; the creation of two new Viceroyalties -in the Southern Cone (the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata) and along the axis that linked the Andes with the Caribbean (the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada)- and the control of the vital lines of communications in the Atlantic and the Pacific with a revamped Navy that could compete with the British maritime power in the open seas. The Spanish strategy thus defined was not only defensive. When convenient, normally at the initiative of local decision-making bodies sanctioned by the metropolis, it could adopt a forward- looking stance, usually in response to real or potential threats. This was the case with the establishment of the system of missions and presidios in California and other parts of the North American Southwest or the scouting expeditions along the North Pacific coast up to Alaska, culminating with the foundation of the base of Nootka off the Island of Vancouver as a rampart both against Russian and English encroachments. Other areas of expansion, always within the framework of a strategic deployment of global dimensions, were Africa, particularly in the coast of Guinea and the Pacific. The Spanish participation in the War of Independence of the United States on the side of the rebels was the culmination of this dynamic policy, not only aimed at containing the ambitions of Great Britain, but also directed at exploiting its weakest points.
After the upheavals of the late XVII century and as a result of the new dynasty’s imperial policies, the XVIII century was for the Spanish Monarchy and its ultramarine territories a period generally characterised by reform and growth. Although the diplomatic and military history of the 1700s is usually narrated from the point of view of the rivalry between Great Britain and France, the fact of the matter is that none of both powers was able to surpass the overseas presence of Spain during that entire period. Yet, during the following century, that position of prominence in the chessboard of great power politics would be dramatically reversed with the successful wars of independence of most of the Spanish American territories. Why was it so?
The Reconquest of Buenos Aires, by Charles Fouqueray, 1909, at the Cabildo de Buenos Aires. The painting depicts the surrender of Beresford to Santiago de Liniers during the British Invasions to the Rio de la Plata, 1806.
Standard answers to that question range from the worn out deterministic explanation according to which the Spanish empire was from the beginning a giant with feet of clay bound to collapse to the more contextually- driven hypothesis that take into account the mistakes committed by the Spanish elites under king Charles IV. In particular in their response to the new revolutionary cycle in world politics inaugurated by the Independence of the United States and the French Revolution followed by the brief Napoleonic era. Those events shattered the international framework and the set of alliances within which the Bourbon reformist policies had been implemented. Being closer to the truth, the latter explanation nevertheless fails to take into account the effects of the far-reaching changes brought about by the reformist policies, specifically in the conduct of war and the practice of imperial administration in the American viceroyalties. As part of its renewed grand strategy during the second half of the XVIII century, the Spanish government had gradually given green light to the creation of local militias and stand up military reserves in the Americas, which amounted to a sort of national armies in the making. Their effectiveness was tested several times, usually with excellent results. Apart from defending imperial outposts and borderlands, colonial militias participated in the campaigns conducted against Britain during the War of Independence of the United States. Later on, they proved decisive in the successful defence of Buenos Aires during the 1806-1807 British attempt at conquering the Southern American capital. The victory over a superior British contingent, largely achieved thanks to the mobilisation of local militias turned into an embryonic national army, would later on embolden the Criollos – Spanish- Americans born in the New World- to take matters into their own hands when Spain was invaded by Napoleon and the metropolis had to fight for its own survival. The ensuing processes of independence in the Spanish- American viceroyalties would lead to the fragmentation of the Spanish empire in America into numerous republics. The 1807 battle of Buenos Aires was thus the last significant victory of the Spanish empire as a united geopolitical community against an external enemy and, simultaneously, the herald of a new cycle in the history of the Spanish-speaking nations. The Spanish empire was about to expire and a new Hispanic world was about to be born. But even so,
for the statesman, the military strategist and the diplomat, as well as for future empire- builders, the Spanish experience, far from being the cautionary tale of irremediable decline and failure represents an example of remarkable adaptability and endurance.
At this point, the reader can be thinking that this essay constitutes an apology of empire and, in particular, of the Spanish empire (though the right denomination should be the Hispanic composite Monarchy). It could also happen that among those readers there could be some of them musing right now about the feasibility of recreating an empire of a similar or even greater scope in the XXI century. And even a few of them could seriously be considering starting one for themselves, family and friends, why not? Well, this is intended to be a free space for pondering about everything human and even divine, so any thoughts and criticisms – reasonable, if possible- are more than welcome. Our purpose is to stir up your minds. At this stage, what the author can say is that before going further with your lofty thoughts, please take the time to walk around our imaginary square, look behind other boxes, relax in your favourite armchair, pour yourselves your favourite drinks, mine is Porto by the way, and start playing a real game of chess. For as a serious empire- builder once famously said, the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind. Right, the man who uttered that phrase was Winston Churchill, who else?.
 Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, London:
 Spain still retained its possessions in the Caribbean and in the Pacific until 1898 and some territories in Western and Northern Africa until the late 1960s and mid-1970s.
 The best exposition to this day of the fallacies of the “declinist” paradigm can be found in Stradling, R.A., Spain’s Struggle for Europe. 1598-1668. London: The Hambledon Press, 1994.
 Parker, Geoffrey, La gran estrategia de Felipe II. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1998, p.25. The original in English is entitled The World is not Enough. The Grand Strategy of Philip II, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1998.
 Allen, Paul C. Philip III and the Pax Hispanica, 1598-1621. The Failure of Grand Strategy. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000.
 Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. London: Vintage, 1989.
 On chess strategy we have followed the guidance of the Grandmaster Capablanca, José R. in his Chess Fundamentals. New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1949.
 See Stradling, op. cit., p.p 8,9.
 See Elliot, John, The Revolt of the Catalans: A Study in the Decline of Spain, 1598-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.
 Braudel, Ferdinand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 1972-74, p.372
 Even John Elliot felt into the trap when he wrote the epitaph of the Habsburg Empire affirming that Spain had had it all and had lost it all at the end of the XVII century. See Elliot, John, La España Imperial, 1469-1716. Barcelona: Círculo de Lectores, 1996, p.468.