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Apogee of Empire: Spain and the New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789.

Apogee of Empire: Spain and the New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789, by Stanley J. Stein and Barbara H. Stein. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. ix, 464 pp. $52.00 US (cloth).

At the middle of the eighteenth century, three empires--Spain, France and England--contested the territories of the western Atlantic. Although Albion would emerge triumphant by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Spain actively fought to preserve its colonies and influence throughout the eighteenth century. Apogee of Empire examines efforts by Bourbon Spain to launch reforms and compete against its maritime and colonial rivals, and explains the results of these innovations. This excellent book characterizes the "defensive modernization" of the Spanish state as a serious, although ultimately flawed, effort to maintain in the eighteenth century an empire which had lost its force in the seventeenth. Internal domestic reforms, changes in colonial management, alliance with France, and revenues from American silver offered the possibility that Spain might reverse what contemporaries viewed as decadence and decline. Although most of the Spanish empire did slip away in the early nineteenth century, the authors demonstrate that these changes did not result from a failure to attempt modernization, but from the underlying vulnerability of Spain to external events, culminating in the collapse of the French alliance in 1789.

The first section of this book, "Stalemate in the Metropole," examines efforts by the Spanish government, under King Charles III and his principal adviser, Leopoldo di Gregorio (later the marques de Esquilache), to strengthen the government in Madrid and the overseas empire. The monarch hoped to revive the economy, increase tax revenues, curtail medieval anachronisms, and limit the financial independence of the church. The highest priority during the early phase of reform--1759 to 1766--was improving the state bureaucracy. Over the previous two hundred years, Spain's civil service had ossified into a self-replicating caste of hereditary bureaucrats. Esquilache attempted to reform this system by introducing merit promotions, as well as recruiting military officers into the system, often into positions previously reserved for the bureaucratic elite.

Another major attempt at reform concerned the Catholic Church, whose privileges threatened the efficient operation of the state. In particular, the church's use of its tax exemption to invest heavily in real estate undermined property tax revenues. To redress this issue, the Spanish monarchy issued new regulations which taxed most church lands acquired after 1737. To improve revenues in other areas, Esquilache reduced tax farming and tax exemptions, which succeeded in increasing state coffers and the predictability of income. However, these and other reforms were unpopular among the old elites--clergy, grandees and high civil servants--who together organized a conspiracy, which used popular resentment against rising taxes and food shortages to oust Esquilache from his position as Finance Minister in 1766. From this date forward, Charles III continued to support domestic reform, but did so in a more cautious and less effective manner.

The second section of the text, "The Colonial Option," studies the extensive reforms undertaken by the Bourbon monarchy in Spain's colonies to boost revenue, improve defenses, increase trade, and link the empire more closely with Madrid. English occupation of Havana (1762-63) and the collapse of the French Atlantic empire in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) had convinced Spain that it had to make its colonies more beneficial to the metropole, as well as more defensible, or risk losing them to insurgent Britannia. In 1765, Esquilache had ended the monopoly of Cadiz in colonial trade. In 1778, Charles III decreed free trade with Spain's colonies, allowing traders from most Spanish ports to conduct commerce with the nation's colonies in the Caribbean and most of South America. Thirteen Spanish ports could now conduct trade with every port in the Americas, except those of Veracruz and Venezuela. These two remained under the dominance of powerful shipping interests from Cadiz, which insisted on the exceptions. Certain classes in Spain, especially Catalonian manufacturers and landowners in Andalusia, benefited greatly from increased exports, as did Spanish government coffers.

Despite these gains, the Spanish government was unable to stimulate industrial growth, and in the colonies Spain's exports were swamped by superior and more abundant British and French products. Even economic growth, improved revenues, and rising agricultural production in the colonies could not make up for Spain's delay in modernization and industrialization. Unrealistically dependent on several vulnerable pillars, most notably the French alliance, Spain made modest reforms under Charles III, but these changes proved unable to redress the preexisting structural weakness of Spain, which was never to recover the glory of the early Hapsburg dynasty.

This is a very well-written book, with a clear and accessible style. More importantly, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of early modern Spain, European history, and colonialism. Specialists will find its exhaustive research, conducted on three continents, valuable for future work. In addition to the shelves of libraries of colleges and historians of modern Spain, this text should also find a place in the personal collections of educated general readers interested in the eighteenth century and Spanish history. Fortunately, the Steins have produced a volume which is useful and interesting, an achievement all too rare among academic works.

Wayne H. Bowen

Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas
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Author:Bowen, Wayne H.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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