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The Catholic Monarchs: 1469-1481

A wedding of 1469 proves of profound significance in the history of Spain. Isabella, aged eighteen, marries Ferdinand, a year younger than herself. Five years later, in 1474, she inherits the throne of Castile. Her husband argues (on the grounds of masculinity rather than seniority) that the crown should be his, but the nobles of Castile support Isabella. It is agreed that the young couple shall rule jointly.

After another five years, in 1479, Ferdinand inherits the throne of Aragon. At first he keeps it to himself, but the habit of partnership has become engrained. In 1481 he shares this crown too with Isabella. They become known as Los Reyes Católicos, the Catholic Monarchs.

Castile and Aragon remain for the moment separate kingdoms, with their own laws and governments. But the shared rule of the Catholic Monarchs means that most of Spain is now finally reunited (Navarre will not be formally annexed to Castile until 1515). The Iberian peninsula is not quite a single kingdom - the old Visigothic concept of the Reconquista - for Portugal has long been independent. But the later ideal of reconquest, for Christianity, is almost complete.

Only the Moorish kingdom of Granada stands in the way - together with what is perceived to be an internal threat to the purity of the Christian religion.

The Spanish Inquisition: 1478-1834

In 1478 the pope, Sixtus IV, allows Ferdinand and Isabella to establish a special branch of the Inquisition in Spain. There is believed to be a danger to the church from Jews masquerading as Christians.

Such Jews are referred to as marranos ('swine'). Their conversion is the result of anti-Semitic violence during the previous century. To escape the likelihood of death at the hands of Christian mobs, many Jews (probably about 100,000) accept baptism. But a considerable number continue to practise their Jewish faith in secret. The concept of secret groups of heretics particularly alarms the church; and the remarkable tenacity of the Jews of Belmonte, in maintaining their faith behind a Catholic facade, proves that there is good cause for the inquisitors' suspicions.

The first Grand Inquisitor is appointed in 1480. He is Tomas de Torquemada, who himself comes from a family of converted Jews. His dedication to his task will become legendary. And the public much appreciates the great ceremonies which he stage-manages - the famous auto-da-fés.

The auto-da-fé (Spanish for 'act-of-faith') is a solemn religious ceremony in a tradition going back to the inquisition against the Cathars. The inquisitor and those accused of heresy process into a public place, such as the main square of a town. After the holding of a mass, the verdicts on the accused and the sentences on the guilty are announced.

In 1492 Torquemada persuades Ferdinand and Isabella to expel from Spain all Jews who are unwilling to convert to Christianity. About 160,000 of them leave the country. Ten years later the same demands are made of the Spanish Muslims. From being one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, in the heyday of Cordoba and Toledo, Spain becomes the most intolerant. The Inquisition extends its sway to Latin America, to Portugal and to the Spanish Netherlands. It is not finally suppressed until 1820 in Portugal and 1834 in Spain.

The expulsion of the Jews in 1492 coincides with the completion of the Reconquest. Muslim power in Spain is at last brought to an end with the fall of Granada.

The fall of Granada: 1492

Granada is difficult to subue by military means alone. While steadily capturing outlying strongholds of the Muslim kingdom, the Spanish also meddle in a dispute between members of the ruling family. Their chosen prince, Boabdil, agrees under duress to surrender Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella when he is in a position to do so. In 1491 they call in their pledge. When Boabdil refuses to deliver, they besiege the city of Granada. It falls to them in 1492.

The reconquest of Spain is complete.

The long Spanish tradition of tolerance between Muslim and Christian survives briefly after this final Christian victory. The Moors of Granada are promised religious freedom. The promise is honoured for only a few years.

In 1495 Queen Isabella's strict confessor, Jiménez de Cisneros, becomes archbishop of Toledo. He decrees that Muslims must convert to Christianity. The result is a Moorish uprising in 1499, after which the choice becomes even more stark. From 1502 the Muslims of Granada must convert immediately or leave Spain. This is the dilemma already imposed by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 on the Jews. Identifying fraudulent conversions, whether from Judaism or Islam, will keep the inquisitors busy for years.

Columbus and the Catholic monarchs: 1492

In Santa Fe, a royal encampment from which the siege of Granada is conducted, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella debate whether to accept a proposal put to them by a visionary explorer, Christopher Columbus.

For eight years Columbus has been pestering European courts, particularly those of Portugal and Spain, to sponsor him in an undertaking which obsesses him. The Portuguese explorers have had notable success in their attempts to sail east round Africa towards India and China, but Columbus has become convinced that he can achieve the same more easily by sailing west.

It has long been the accepted view, deriving from Ptolemy, that nothing but sea separates Europe from India and China round the back of a spherical world. During the 15th century the notion has developed that the unseen distance by sea is much less than the known distance between Europe and China by land.

Columbus believes that he has found mathematical proof of this in an apocryphal text of the Old Testament where the prophet Esdras states that the earth is six parts land to one part sea. Columbus argues, first to the king of Portugal in 1484 and then to the Spanish monarchs, that India is therefore within reach of a caravel sailing west from the Canaries.

The Portuguese court rejects his argument. The Spanish monarchs delay for years while a commission investigates his claims. Finally, in the camp near Granada, they accept his somewhat exorbitant terms regarding the honours which will be heaped upon him if he reaches India or China, and his share of whatever is found.

Once agreement is reached, after so many years, Columbus moves fast. With his partners (brothers from a Spanish ship-owning family named Pinzón) he prepares vessels for the great adventure.

Santa Maria, Pinta and Niña: 1492-1493

On 3 August 1492 a little fleet of three vessels sets sail from the small Spanish harbour of Palos. Columbus is in command of the largest, the Santa Maria; the captains of the other two, the Pinta and the NiÑa, are the brothers Martin Alonso and Vicente Yañez Pinzón.

Three weeks are spent loading stores in the Canaries until, on September 6, the three ships sail west into the unknown. During the next month there are several sightings of coastlines which turn out to be illusions. At last, on October 12, a look-out on the Pinta spies real land.

San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola: 1492-1493

Columbus and the Pinzón brothers step ashore on 12 October 1492 on an island in the Bahamas. They plant in the ground the royal banner of Spain, claiming the place for Ferdinand and Isabella. They name it San Salvador, after Jesus the Saviour. (It is not known which island they landed on, though one in the Bahamas now bears the name San Salvador.)

These are not the first Europeans to reach the American continent, but they are the first to record their achievement. Columbus believes that he has reached the East Indies. Greeted by friendly inhabitants of San Salvador, he therefore describes them as Indians - an inaccurate name which has remained attached to the aboriginal peoples of the whole American continent. By the same token this region becomes known to Europe as the West Indies.

A few days later the explorers sail on. They pass many more islands, giving each a new Spanish name, until they reach during November the most important landfall of their expedition - the large island of Cuba, which Columbus convinces himself to be Cipango. This is a place of marvels described by Marco Polo at the eastern extremity of Asia, usually now assumed to be Japan.

Beyond Cuba the next significant landfall is another large island which Columbus names after Spain itself - Española, or Hispaniola. On its shores the Santa Maria runs aground and is wrecked. Columbus decides to leave here a small colony of some forty men, with food and ammunition for a year, while he sails back to Spain with news of his achievement.

Returning with Vicente Yañez Pinzón in the Niña, Columbus reaches Palos on March 15 (amazingly the Pinta arrives in Palos later on that same day, after losing contact with the Niña a month earlier in an Atlantic storm). Columbus makes his way to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in Barcelona, where he is received with every honour. He presents the monarchs with a few captured natives of the Bahamas and some gold treasure.

This is the high point of Columbus's career. Three more voyages to America lie ahead of him, and great achievements. But from now on misfortune, often deriving from his own inadequacy as a colonial administrator, increasingly blights his endeavours.

The three last voyages: 1493-1504

Columbus sails west again five months after his audience with Ferdinand and Isabella. This time the expedition is on a much larger scale, with the intention of establishing colonies. Seventeen ships, carrying between them almost 1500 people, leave Cadiz. Their first landfalls yield new discoveries - Guadalupe and Puerto Rico - but on arrival in Hispaniola they find that the garrison left there earlier in the year has been massacred by the natives.

News of this disaster, reaching Spain, raises the first doubt about Columbus's judgement. It will not be the last, as discontent grows among the Spanish colonists in the New World.

Columbus returns to Spain in 1496 to confront his critics at the court, which he does with some success. He is able to sail west again in 1498, on a third voyage, with his position of authority confirmed. But further troubles lead to the arrival in 1500 of a governor sent out by Ferdinand and Isabella with authority over Columbus. On Columbus's refusal to accept the situation, the governor arrests him and has him sent back to Spain in chains.

The king and queen receive him with sympathy. They continue to reward him for his achievements, but they will not allow him to return to the valuable colonies which he has discovered for them. They agree, instead, to a new expedition in which he will search for a further sea passage westwards.

The explorer departs on his fourth and final voyage in May 1502. It is an almost unmitigated disaster, of storms, mutinies, rotting ships’ timbers. But somehow he limps home, yet again, to reach Spain in November 1504. Since 1492 he has spent half his time in the transatlantic places he so passionately believed in long before he found his way to them.

Even more significantly, he has made the Atlantic crossing seem just an arduous journey rather than a terrifying step into the unknown. Other navigators, sailing for other monarchs, are fishing now in his waters. It is a measure of this change that Columbus himself crosses the Atlantic successfully no fewer than eight times. In a few short years the New World has become linked to Europe in what is unmistakably a new era.

The Tordesillas Line: 1493-1500

When Columbus returns to Spain in 1493, with the first news of the West Indies, Ferdinand and Isabella are determined to ensure that these valuable discoveries belong to them rather than to seafaring Portugal. They secure from the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, a papal bull to the effect that all lands west of a certain line shall belong exclusively to Spain (in return for converting the heathen). All those to the east of the line shall belong on the same basis to Portugal.

The pope draws this line down through the Atlantic 100 leagues (300 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands, Portugal's most westerly possession.

The king of Portugal, John II, protests that this trims him too tight. The line cramps the route which Portuguese sailors must take through the Atlantic before turning east round Africa.

Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors, meeting in 1494 at Tordesillas in northwest Spain, resolve the dispute. They accept the principle of the line but agree to move it to a point 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. The new line has a profound significance which no one as yet appreciates. It slices through the entire eastern part of south America from the mouth of the Amazon to São Paulo.

The east coast of south America is first reached by Spanish and Portuguese navigators in the same year, 1500. The agreement at Tordesillas gives the territory to Portugal.

Thus the vast area of Brazil, the largest territory of south America, becomes an exception in the subcontinent - the only part not to be in the Spanish empire, and the only modern country in Latin America with Portuguese rather than Spanish as its national language.

Spaniards in a new world: 16th century

The half century after Columbus's voyage sees a frenzy of activity in the new world (part exploration, part conquest, part colonization) as the Spanish scramble and struggle to make the most of their unexpected new opportunities.

By 1506 the entire continental shore of the Caribbean Sea has been explored from Honduras to the mouth of the Orinoco. Known at first as Tierra Firme (a phrase applied to the isthmus of Panama), it is believed to be part of the coast of Asia - until Vespucci's furthest journey south gives him a different impression, which becomes gradually accepted.

During the first decade of the century the only secure Spanish settlement in the new world is Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola, established in 1496 by Diego Columbus, brother of the explorer. An equivalently stable settlement is not achieved in continental America until 1510, when Balboa founds Santa María la Antigua del Darién (the site from which, in 1513, he makes his expedition to the Pacific).

Thereafter the speed of Spanish expansion and consolidation over a vast region is astonishing. By 1515, with the conquest of Cuba and the founding of Havana, the islands of the Caribbean are under Spanish control. They become the launch pad for further adventures.

The legacy of Ferdinand: 1516

Ferdinand II dies in 1516. During his reign (and that of Isabella until her death in 1504) a new Spain has emerged.

The reconquest has been completed with the capture of Granada. A religious severity has been introduced (seen first in the persecution of Jews and Muslims), which later will make Spain the secular spearhead of the Counter-Reformation. New wealth and territory has been found overseas, in the Americas, shifting the entire centre of gravity of Europe from the Mediterranean to the coast of the Atlantic.

The balance within Europe is also drastically affected by a marriage into the Habsburg dynasty which Ferdinand arranges in 1494 for his daughter Joan. This alliance has major but unintended consequences.

Against all probabilities, Joan becomes her father's heir. As a result Spain, after Ferdinand's death, is the jewel in the Habsburg crown. Ferdinand is succeeded in 1516 by his 16-year-old Habsburg grandson, Charles, who becomes Charles I of Spain (later, from 1519, he is also the Holy Roman emperor Charles V). Charles has a 13-year-old brother, named Ferdinand after their Spanish grandfather. He gives Ferdinand responsibilty for the German-speaking Habsburg territories.

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