Spain’s maritime decline

How did Spain degenerate from the maritime power that conquered a continent, to the owner of a ramshackle collection of rusty boats that the Americans easily destroyed in the war of 1898?

Spain boasted the most powerful maritime force in the world during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Having discovered the New World, its ships served a growing empire in the Americas, escorting galleons laden with goods back and forth across the Atlantic. Yet by the middle of the 17th century the strains wrought by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) led to the neglect of the country’s navy.

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When the Bourbons came to power in 1714 they set about restoring it, recognising the importance of naval strength to global power. “Under Ferdinand VI, one fifth of state income was invested in the navy,” says Simon Barton, author of A History of Spain (2009). “But from around the 1780s onwards, things started to go wrong. A lot of ships were destroyed in heavy defeats and investment in the navy began to wane, largely due to expensive wars against France and Britain and political strife in Spain itself.”

The British blockade of the main Spanish fleet at Cadiz during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802), and defeat at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – in which only six of 15 Spanish ships made it back to Cadiz – crippled Spain as a maritime force. With its fleets diminished, trade disrupted and its colonies in South and Central America fighting for independence, Spain no longer had the economic might to restore the navy. Neither did it retain the same pretensions to project power beyond Spanish shores.

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Instead, Spain’s 19th century began with military troubles at home – Napoleon’s invasion in 1808 and the Peninsular Wars – and continued with a series of internal political struggles. What money there was went to the army, and Spain’s naval power, like the empire it had built, was in terminal decline. By the time it attempted to defend Cuba and its colonies in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain’s collection of run-down, under-equipped warships was no match for the state-of-the-art vessels at the disposal of the US.
Answered by: Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin at War (Bodley Head, 2010)