Second Sons and the Spanish Empire

© Fernando Caracena, 2017

When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain from his first contact with the New World, many young Spaniards rushed out to get there. As emigration increased, colonist accumulated abroad as a population of Americanos. Who were these early migrants and what motivated their exit from Spain? Some of them were pushed out, and others were pulled out. One push came from the (un)Holy Inquisition that wanted individuals for real or made up crimes. People of Jewish ancestry wanted to escape and get as far away as possible from the reach of the Inquisition. Some Spaniards were drawn to make a lot of money, either by finding gold in the New World, or by establishing profitable trading centers and networks there. Appointees of the king (usually from noble families) went abroad as administrators for the crown. They were often accompanied by a large entourage of family. Some of the emigrants who had been abroad, returned to Spain for various reasons and under various conditions. They came back to Spain for their family, to move it abroad to share in their wealth-building efforts. Spaniard who had been to the New World were called Indiados. One way that they offset the cost of the trip back to the New World was to organize a party of sponsors, called criados, who paid them for their guidance and experience in the New World. In modern Spanish, the term, criados, no longer has the same meaning as then. This term now means a household helper, such as a butler or maid (criada). Among the early emigrants were also men of the church of various levels, who went to the New World to evangelize and establish missions and churches.

There was a prominent group of young men, who were drawn strongly by the lure of the New World. These were the younger sons of noble families, called second sons: the Grandes de España (Grandees, or high nobility) and hidalgos (lower nobility, such as knights). These families practiced a primogeniture form of inheritance, in which the entire family estate went to the first-born son. The younger sons, having grown up in wealth and privilege, suddenly found themselves penniless and powerless. They had to scramble to find a means of continuing the lifestyle. There were only a few options opened to them before Columbus: marry a wealthy, high-born lady, get a high-level appointment in government, become an officer in the Spanish army, become a priest. The opening up of the New World, presented another choice: go to the Americas and acquire great wealth and power. Perhaps their older brother could help here to use family influence and money to fund such an adventure.

The early days of Spanish diaspora, called the Age of Discovery (or Exploration), was very dangerous for the individuals involved. Many an Indiado came back to Spain in a coffin. The lucky ones came back to Spain loaded with wealth hoping to find a young wife to take back to the Indies with them. Others decided to just stay in the homeland and network with their relatives abroad by way of floatilla mail, which took months to transact. But there were huge profits to be made by organizing commerce between the mother country and its colonies.

File:Tower of Gold.jpg

Photograph of the Tower of Gold in Seville, Spain by Monty Ramone, placed in the public domain. From Wikimedia.

Ships heavily loaded with silver and gold returning to Spain attracted the attention of pirates from various other nations. To protect its valuable cargoes, Spain sent out two flotillas of cargo ships accompanied by man-of-wars. An early Spring, the one called la flota, sailed to New Spain and a second, the galion sailed in August, ref.. These fleets at first were sent out from Seville and down river on the Guandalquivir, but later they were sent out from Cadiz, which is on the Atlantic Coast itself. The area around Seville and this part of the Guandalquivir river were a focal point for resettlement by Spanish nobility after the reconquest. We quote the following from a Wikipedia article on Seville:

After the Reconquista, Seville was resettled by the Castilian aristocracy; as capital of the kingdom it was one of the Spanish cities with a vote in the Castilian Cortes, and on numerous occasions served as the seat of the itinerant court...

After the discovery of the Americas, Seville became the economic centre of the Spanish Empire as its port monopolised the trans-oceanic trade and the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) wielded its power, opening a Golden Age of arts and letters. ”

The concentration of Castilian nobility in the area of Seville, which existed before Columbus, contained the elements that fueled its development as an economic center of the Spanish Empire. The eldest sons stayed behind in this capital and politically anchored and secured their overseas business. Meanwhile, second sons went out and developed new markets.



This entry was posted in History, Spain. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *