Spain's Wreck: Ships, Gold and Textiles

Nicholas Buttino

Spain’s Wreck: Ships, Gold and Textiles

Europeans, and the Spanish in particular, embarked in the Age of Exploration in the aftermath of a Hobbesian and romanticized Dark Age. Underdeveloped, but recently united with the expulsion of the Moors and the Catholic marriage of Isabella the Ferdinand, Spain followed the Iberian trend set by Portugal by sending Columbus on his venture to discover a sea route to India (Kamen 35). Following this venture came the colonization of the Caribbean, Mexico and much of South America by conquistadors such as Cortés and Pizarro. The process continued with the Hapsburg succession of Spain in 1516 (Kamen 32).  Spain’s location, cultural motivations for exploration, new seafaring technologies, and luck gave her an early advantage in sea travel and colonization.  However, Spain failed to account for its environment, which includes humans, their resources, impacts and societies, and suffered the consequences. The culture of colonization brought in gold bullion, which stifled the development of textile industry in Spain, causing a long term collapse of economic and military power.

The largely cultural motivations for sailing, traditionally cited as God, Glory, and Gold, much illuminate the home environment of Spain.  The homeland offered few opportunities for many young “adventures,” while America offered the chance of fabulous wealth (Kamen 29).  Indeed, many sailing captains cited their motivations as spices, gold, drugs, and God (Cippola 132).  While God may not have played a large factor for sailors, it may have more greatly influenced the funding powers of the monarchies and the Church.  Europeans also remained weak on land (Cippola 138), constantly battling with Islamic peoples such as the Moors on the West and the Turks on the East.  Sea dominance and colonial outposts that allowed for control of sea-lanes gave competitive imperial advantages against other Europeans (Cippola 143).  The combination of wretchedness at home, riches aboard, and competitive advantages of sea power against both other Europeans and Islamic peoples created a culture in Spain that depended on the ability to escape by navigating the Oceans.

Spain, never an economic power, vaulted to the height of military and trade power in 16C Europe from the windfalls of colonial exploitation. Before the Empire, even Castile, the most powerful Spanish city of the day, could hardly sustain itself with food and depended on its wool trade (Kamen 35).  The luck of discovering and conquering the New World created a flow of treasure ships encouraged that further colonization.  The bullion coming in fell on an underdeveloped Castile, and quickly became isolated in the control of the Crown (Kamen 42).  The flow of gold likely peaked in the 1590’s and dropped dramatically between 1630 and 1640 (Kamen 33). Perhaps because of royal powers, Castile received the damage of this decline later than much of the rest of Spain (Kamen 41). Interestingly, the Spanish did not write much of decadence throughout this time (commonly thought of as a cause of their decline) though they did note the decline of their society in other words (Israel 42). With a steady import of gold and an early dominance in colonial ports and sea-lanes, Spain had little reason to develop further economically, militarily, or technologically. The windfall of gold and a concentration of wealth around the Crown and Castile combined with the traditionalist and religious leanings of Spain to stifle further development. 

While early developments of shipping technology allowed for Spain’s 16C dominance, cultural resistance to technological and industrial development first showed itself in shipping technologies.  The union of cannons and ships produced the sail powered and low sitting galleons that allowed for trans-Atlantic voyages. These galleons made the domination of costal areas and sea-lanes feasible (Cippola 137).   To demonstrate the importance of sea power, consider the importance of the sinking of the Spanish Armada for the histories of both Spain and England.  The technologies of shipping thus made the Spanish rise possible, but the import of gold relates directly to refusal to adopt newer technologies, and this refusal with Spanish decline.  Notably, the Spanish continued to use ships with length to width ratios of three to one when the Dutch and English adopted ships with four to one and later five to one ratios.  The increase of the ratio allowed for larger and more stable ships (Voertman 83).  While one can understand why the Dutch developed such ships with all of their inland waterways; it is not obvious why the Spanish did not adopt them (Voertman 87).  A well funded, unified, isolated and complacent monarchy had little reason to adopt new technologies. In addition to obsolete ships (by the 17C), Spain had to also cope with a lack of committed and experienced sailors (Voertman 78).  The combination of lack of internal resources, a traditional and isolated culture, and a flow of wealth that encouraged lassitude in respect to innovation caused the failure of Spanish sea power.

The final coup to Spain came not from a direct loss of sea power but from the effect of stagnation and the loss of trade lanes on industrial textile development. Spain had a long history with lines that dates from Castile’s early wool economy (Kamen 35) to the imperial trading of silk (Israel 173).  Despite this usage of the sea resources of Spain, the gold influx made setting up an industrial textile industry, such as that seen in England, France and the Netherlands, unprofitable (Israel 172).  Without the development of the textile industry, Spain had few resources to fall back on when inflation value ate away at their remaining value of gold. Their trading routes collapsed from military and technological weakness in the early 17C.  The coincidence of these events created a feedback loop where Spain lacked the investment, which could have come from gold, to bluster its textile industry, and then lacked the payment from textiles to maintain its shipping, and hence trade and gold routes.

The environment and geography of Spain provided the cultural motivation and importation of technologies that allowed for the rapid rise of Spain’s wealth, which caused its eventual decline by stifling its textile industry. The final blow to the ship-gold-textile triangle came with the industrialization of England and the Low Countries.  Many historians, Cippola included, acknowledge that all of the rules for colonization changed with this industrialization because it changed the power structure of countries, the builds of ships and the generation of wealth (Cippola 146). Notably, the industrial revolution took an exhausted Spain unprepared and broke its relative power.  This is not to suggest that other factors, such as repercussions from the Inquisition, did not influence Spain’s fall. On the other hand, a culture that exploited its rich but finite colonial resources without developing new technologies was doomed to collapse.  In this instance, a culture that cared little for the maintenance of ship, gold, and industry (textiles in the initial stage) that supported and could have continued to support its power, failed because it refused to adequately adapt to its position in changing political and natural environments.


Cipolla, Carlo M. Guns, Sails and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700.  Manhattan, Kan. : Sunflower University Press, 1985.

Israel, J.I. 1981. Debate: “The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?”. Past and Present. 91: 170-180.

Kamen, Henry. 1978. The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth? Past and Present. 81: 24-50.

Voertman, Robert F. 1954. The Sailing Ship Complex and the Decline of Iberian Maritime Enterprise: Some Neglected Factors in the Analysis of Cultural Change. American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 14: 77-88.

\ Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 03/08/07