Carlos III’s Reign

Portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1761

Though Fernando VI’s reign saw the end of French tutelage, the latest intellectual currents from France and elsewhere circulated among the Spanish elite and characterized Spain’s version of the Enlightenment. Spain adopted the enlightened passion for scientific investigation, governmental reform, and social justice that affected much of the rest of Europe. However, Spanish intellectuals rejected the anti-religious and anti-Spanish stance that marked the writings of Voltaire and others. These characteristics of the Spanish Enlightenment would continue into the reign of Fernando’s successor, though Spain’s foreign policy would change dramatically.

Fernando’s half-brother Carlos had spent all of his adult life in Italy, first as duke of Parma and Piacenza (1731–5) and then as king of the Two Sicilies (1735–59). Nonetheless, it had been obvious for some time that he was the most likely successor to the Spanish throne, given that Fernando VI and Barbara of Braganza had no children. Carlos and his queen, María Amalia of Saxony, whom he married in 1738, left Naples for Madrid with mixed feelings. The kingdom of the Two Sicilies boasted a huge and elegant capital city, a strong economy, and a manageable size. The Spanish capital at Madrid was presumably much less attractive – even though Carlos had been born and raised there – and carried with it the burdens of a global empire.

Groomed to be a ruler by his father Felipe V and his mother Isabel Farnese, Carlos had received an excellent education and knew Spain well because of the wide travels of his parents’ court. He remained in close touch with the Spanish court after he moved to Italy, and he presumably did not agree with the neutral foreign policy that Fernando and his advisers pursued. From Carlos’s point of view, England was the enemy. Quite apart from England’s continued possession of Gibraltar and the island of Menorca, English forces posed the greatest threat to Bourbon interests in the Mediterranean and to Spanish interests in the Americas. When he left Naples to take up the crown of Spain in 1759 as Carlos III, he moved Spain away from neutrality and toward an active foreign policy aimed at thwarting English ambitions.

The world war that began in 1756 had seen Spain on the sidelines, anxious to avoid taking part. In 1761, however, Carlos’s government signed a third so-called “Family Pact” of alliance with Bourbon France and entered the fray, in what Spaniards would call the First Maritime War against England. The timing could not have been worse. After more than a decade of relative inactivity, Spanish naval forces were not prepared to confront the English. They failed to regain Gibraltar at home and lost Havana and Manila overseas, two of the key ports of Spain’s global empire. However, in the complicated negotiations that ended the war in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, Spain regained Manila and Havana and gained Louisiana from France, while losing the colony of Sacramento in Uruguay to Portugal and Florida to England. The settlement of the war saw France defeated and left England in effective control of the eastern part of North America, but Spain’s American empire remained largely intact. Analysts at the time and thereafter credited that outcome less to Spanish diplomatic efforts than to the bungling of the English Foreign Minister and to general misgivings about England’s power. Carlos of Spain certainly shared those misgivings and spent the rest of his reign working to blunt English power, especially in the Americas.

At home in Spain once again, Carlos would continue the personal style and policies that had made him revered in Italy, extending the enlightened reforms of Fernando VI in Spain. Carlos was devoted to his wife and family, and did not remarry after María Amalia’s premature death in 1760, just a year after they moved to Spain. Like many other monarchs, he was fond of hunting, both as exercise and to escape the formalities of court life. In his case, hunting also served a therapeutic purpose, helping to relieve the melancholy that ran in the family. The great Spanish artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes painted Carlos in a hunting pose early in his career, and it remains one of his most engaging portraits, with the king smiling shyly and guilelessly at the viewer. Despite the necessary trappings of monarchy, he seems to have been a man of modest and unpretentious demeanor, highly intelligent, pious, and hardworking.

Modern Spaniards continue to rank Carlos III as one of the best rulers that Spain has ever had – a king conscious of his power, but determined to use it to further the well-being of his subjects. Many historians agree with that assessment and consider him the most genuine and effective enlightened ruler in all of eighteenth-century Europe. When he took up the crown of Spain, Carlos announced to the president of the Council of Castile, “I want to apply the law so far as possible to favor the poor,” and in many other ways he exemplified the movement of enlightened reform sponsored by a powerful monarchy. At the same time, the king’s conservative habits and sincere piety helped to deflect criticism from Spaniards who feared reform as detrimental to their interests.

Among his other virtues, Carlos III was an excellent judge of character. He chose his ministers for their ability rather than their lineage or political connections, though several of his best appointees came from distinguished families. He brought the marquis of La Ensenada, who had already served the first two Spanish Bourbons, back into royal service. He retained Ricardo Wall as Secretary of State (1759–63), even as he shifted Spain’s foreign policy away from Wall’s pro-English stance. He also fostered the careers of a number of men who distinguished themselves in the various branches of government. An astute diplomat, the count of Aranda (Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea) became the architect of Spain’s newly active foreign policy. The count of Campomanes (Pedro Rodríguez Campomanes) specialized in economic policy, tackling the difficult issue of agrarian reform. Perhaps the greatest among them, the count of Floridablanca (José Moñino) shaped overall domestic policy during the last half of the reign.

Carlos III and his ministers aimed at a thorough overhaul of Spain’s economic structures, in order to foster a growth in production and trade that would support the rising population. All over Europe, the eighteenth century saw an increase in the number of inhabitants, both rural and urban, and every state faced the challenge of feeding them. To fail that challenge could easily lead to social unrest, as public officials well knew. The problem was particularly acute in Spain, where even now only one-third of the land is suitable for farming on a regular basis. The scarcity of arable land was one reason for the great importance of migratory herding in Spain. Since the Middle Ages, flocks of sheep totaling several million animals grazed on land unsuitable for agriculture, and shepherds moved them around seasonally, both to take advantage of optimal conditions for winter and summer forage and to lessen conflicts with farmers during the growing season.

Conflicts nonetheless arose and became particularly acute when population growth necessitated an expansion of cropland. At those times, notably in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the organization of flock owners known as the Mesta faced pressure from farmers and from the government to yield some of their traditional rights to grazing lands. Like other modern bureaucrats, Carlos III’s reform-minded ministers viewed agriculture as the basis for a prosperous economy and used government power to expand farming at the expense of herding. They viewed the traditional privileges of the Mesta, as well as the privileges of other corporate bodies, such as artisan guilds, as no more than obsolete impediments to economic growth. Government ministers were not alone in urging reforms and were joined by a wide swath of educated Spaniards well versed in the best new ideas. To encourage elite opinion in favor of the reform program, the government supported universities and philanthropic societies such as the Amigos del País (lit., friends of the country), a movement founded in the Basque country with enthusiastic groups of local reformers all over Spain. Like similar movements throughout enlightened Europe, the Amigos met to discuss the latest books about agriculture, commerce, science, and culture. With royal support, the Amigos also established schools for both boys and girls, with comprehensive curricula that included artisanal skills as well as standard academic subjects. A few of the societies also decided to admit women.

On balance, it is fair to say that the economic reforms had a salutary effect on the population as a whole, but they were not without cost. For example, whereas the government founded hospitals, schools, asylums, and almshouses all over the country, it also clamped down on vagrancy and begging, in effect restricting the movement and activities of thousands of impoverished citizens. In order to increase peasant landownership, the government attacked the Mesta and large landowners, and reforestation plans and irrigation schemes inevitably overruled traditional uses of Spain’s natural resources at the local level. In some of the most visible initiatives, the government brought in foreign artisans and businessmen to found factories for the production of luxury goods that were formerly imported. These included factories for fine glass at the palace of La Granja, and for porcelains at the palace of the Buen Retiro in Madrid; cotton velvet in Ávila, leather goods in Seville and Córdoba; and a variety of fine machinery, watches, optical instruments, and other items. Some of these efforts were profitable, others were not, and they went hand in hand with government efforts to restrict the power of traditional artisan guilds.

Not surprisingly, the reform program faced opposition from everyone affected adversely by these initiatives, not only the large flock owners of the Mesta and officials of guilds, but also ordinary people who relied on custom and traditional privileges to earn a living. Also in the economic sphere, the government sponsored savings banks and benefit societies to update traditional forms of savings and insurance. In order to pay for the array of new initiatives and reduce government debt, Carlos and his ministers organized the Bank of San Carlos, which sold bonds that traded at face value.

In the cultural sphere, in addition to traditional activities such as sponsoring art and music, the crown reformed education and added to the university curriculum new scientific developments, such as the physics of Sir Isaac Newton. The king and his ministers also worked to raise the educational level of the clergy and to curb the remaining power of the inquisition, which was increasingly anachronistic by the eighteenth century.

Taken together, the changes in the first years of Carlos III’s reign moved forward rapidly on a broad front and aimed to bring about a thorough restructuring of Spanish life. Not surprisingly, the changes generated considerable opposition on a broad front as well. The pace of reform approached a crisis after the government eliminated ceiling prices on grain in July 1765. In the traditional economy, ceiling prices shielded the poor from the rising cost of food in times of harvest shortages. As bad luck would have it, the harvest of 1765 came up short. With price ceilings removed and the population rising, the harvest shortfall led to exponential increases in the cost of food in the ensuing months, affecting poor city dwellers above all. Sermons against artificially inflated prices in Madrid and other cities added to the dangerous mood of the people in the spring of 1766, particularly among the working classes.

Matters came to a head over a seemingly minor incident. In an ill-timed move to discipline the rabble, the king’s Minister of the Interior, the Italian marquis of Squillace (Sp. Esquilache), decided to ban the long capes and broad-brimmed hats favored by the street toughs of Madrid. These majos had long preoccupied the forces of law and order, who argued that their hats could mask their identities and that their capes could conceal weapons and stolen goods. Following the decree on March 10, 1766, Squillace ordered a table set up in the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid, on Palm Sunday. Officials stationed at the table stopped men in the prohibited costume, cut off their capes, and pinned up their hats in the three-cornered style fashionable among the well-behaved classes. Not surprisingly, this set off a riot in Madrid, and disturbances soon spread to cities and towns throughout Castile. The twentieth-century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla immortalized the incident, known to Spanish history as the “Mutiny of Esquilache,” in his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, which neatly captures the complex nature of the uprising.

Another element in the unrest was the crown’s religious policy. The king and his ministers were pushing beyond the Concordat of 1753 to assert royal authority, known as regalian rights, over the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, in opposition to the power of the pope. In Spain and elsewhere, the Society of Jesus led the defense of papal authority, which challenged royal authority. Carlos III and other contemporary monarchs viewed the Jesuit opposition as disobedient at best and potentially traitorous at worst. In the aftermath of the “Mutiny of Esquilache,” royal officials blamed the Jesuits for inciting the riots, and Carlos III expelled the order from Spain and its empire in 1767. The Spanish action was part of a broader assertion of royal authority all over Europe that induced the pope to abolish the order in 1773. They would not be reinstated until 1814.

In the short term, government forces put down the riots and restored social peace. The king dismissed Squillace in April and appointed the count of Aranda to oversee the broad program of agrarian reform. The defenders of tradition in the countryside had opposed Squillace, and presumably cheered his dismissal. They fared even worse, however, under Aranda, a freemason steeped in the principles of physiocracy, which held that a country’s prosperity depended on the well-being of small farmers. Aranda drafted a royal decree of May 2, 1766, that gave the government authority to sell municipally held lands in Extremadura that were not cultivated, in order to make them available to land-hungry farmers. The decree applied to other areas in Castile in the next few years. Although small farmers often lacked the resources to purchase the lands put on the market, and herding interests suffered, there is no question that the decree increased the supply of available farmland and set a precedent for other reversals of traditional patterns of landholding.

After the “Mutiny of Esquilache” the pace of internal reforms slowed in Spain, which some historians have attributed to royal wariness. Carlos III and his ministers had realized that too much change, too fast, could lead to dangerous social instability. Given the continued activism of Spanish foreign policy, internal peace was essential. Hostile diplomatic negotiations with Great Britain (1766–71) over the Falkland Islands (Sp. Malvinas) off the coast of Argentina brought the countries to the brink of war, and Spain did go to war with Portugal in 1776–7, winning back Uruguay. By then England was fighting to retain her colonies in North America in the face of a rebellion that began in 1776. Although Carlos III was pleased to see England in a difficult situation, he was reluctant to support the rebels openly, given the danger of inspiring rebellion in the Spanish colonies. France had less to fear from aiding American rebels, however, and poured considerable resources into that effort. Spain entered the war against England in 1779 as an ally of France, in what Spanish historians call the Second Maritime War (1779–83).

The man in charge of Spanish operations in Louisiana, Bernardo Gálvez, led three regiments of soldiers and militiamen against British forces on the Gulf coast, winning a victory critical to the success of the American rebellion. He also organized the Spanish naval victory at the battle of Pensacola Bay in Florida. Because of these successes, Spain was able to demand the return of Florida and the Mediterranean island of Menorca from the British when the war ended in 1783. King Carlos had also hoped to regain Gibraltar, but Britain would only trade that piece of territory for all of Spain’s other gains, a trade that the Spanish government could not accept. Bernardo Gálvez became the count of Gálvez for his efforts in the war, and thereafter served as the Spanish governor of Florida and as viceroy of Mexico. Galveston Bay on the Texas Gulf coast was named after him.

The count of Aranda negotiated the Treaty of Versailles (September 3, 1783) that ended the successful American Revolution and the war that it engendered. Despite Spain’s support for the revolution, Aranda had no illusions about the likely future of the former British colonies. As he wrote to Carlos III in 1783, “This Federal Republic was born a pygmy and needed the support of Spain and France to achieve independence. The day will come when it will grow into a giant and forget the benefits received from the two powers and will think only of its own enlargement…Then it will aspire to the conquest of New Spain.”

Aranda was not far wrong. Nonetheless, the last years of Carlos III’s reign saw the Spanish Empire in the Americas at its apex, with territorial claims running from Tierra del Fuego to the Bering Strait. In the far west of North America, Carlos’s government continued to sponsor an active program of expansion and settlement to add substance to those claims. Moving north from New Spain, soldiers, citizens, clerics, and bureaucrats founded a series of fortified presidios, towns, and missions in the king’s name. Every major city in California, and many cities and towns in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, owe their origins to those foundations. The history of the United States has traditionally neglected the Spanish legacy of law and settlement across the southern tier of the country, although these so-called “Spanish borderlands” are increasingly finding a place in that history, as new generations of historians revisit and revise old views.

Back in Europe, Spain experienced an upsurge of piracy in the western Mediterranean at the end of Carlos III’s reign, sponsored by the leaders of Algiers and Morocco. Although Spanish fishermen, merchants, ship owners, and even coastal farmers had suffered from such piratical attacks for centuries, the activity increased in the late eighteenth century, perhaps related to population pressures in North Africa. The Spanish crown had to spend large sums to combat it, and even sent expeditionary forces against Algiers in 1784 and 1785, to little effect. Nonetheless, by the end of Carlos III’s reign, there is no question that Spain stood higher in prestige and economic clout than it had in the late seventeenth century. That is the legacy of the Bourbon reforms and of the active foreign policy pursued by Felipe V and Carlos III.