Spain – General Aspects

THE Iberian peninsula, Spain and Portugal, must be looked upon geographically as one. Differences of soil, climate, and language may have justified its division into two states, but in the organ-ism of Europe these two constitute but a single member, having the same geological history, and exhibiting unity in their physical configuration.

Compared with the other peninsulas of Southern Europe, viz. Italy and that of the Balkans, Iberia is most insular in its character. The isthmus which attaches it to the trunk of Europe is comparatively narrow, and it is defined most distinctly by the barrier of the Pyrenees. The contour of the peninsula is distinguished by its massiveness. There are curving bays, but no inlets of the sea penetrating far inland, as in the case of Greece.

It was said long ago, and with justice, that Africa begins at the Pyrenees. Iberia, indeed, bears some resemblance to Africa. Its outline is heavy, there are hardly any islands along its coasts, and few plains open out upon the sea. But it is an Africa in miniature, only one-fiftieth the size of the continent upon which it appears to have been modelled. Moreover, the oceanic slope of the peninsula is quite European as to climate, vegetation, and abundance of running water ; and certain features of its flora even justify a belief that at some remote epoch it was joined to the British Islands. African Hispania only begins in reality with the treeless plateaux of the interior, and more especially with the Mediterranean coasts. There we meet the zone of transition between the two continents. Its general aspect, flora, fauna, and even population, mark out that portion of Spain as an integral part of Barbary ; the Sierra Nevada and the Atlas, facing each other, are sister mountains ; and the strait which separates them is a mere accident in the surface relief of our planet.

Spain, though nearly surrounded by the sea, is nevertheless essentially continental in its character. Nearly the whole of it consists of table-lands, and only the plains of the Tajo (Tagus) and of Andalusia open out broadly upon the ocean. The coast, for the most part, rises steeply, and the harbours are consequently difficult of access to the inhabitants of the interior, a circumstance most detrimental to the development of a large sea-borne commerce.

Ever since the discovery of the ocean high-roads to America and the Indies, the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula has taken the lead in commercial matters, a fact easily accounted for by the physical features of the country. Spain, like peninsular Italy, turns her back upon the east. The plateaux slope down gently towards the west ; the principal rivers, the Ebro alone excepted, flow in that direction ; and the water-shed lies close to the Mediterranean shores.

Spain must either have given birth to an aboriginal people, or was peopled by way of the Pyrenees and by emigrants crossing the narrow strait at the columns of Hercules. The Iberian race actually forms the foundation of the populations of Spain. The Basks, or Basques, now confined to a few mountain valleys, formerly occupied the greater portion of the peninsula, as is proved by its geographical nomenclature. Celtic tribes subsequently crossed the Pyrenees, and established themselves in various parts of the country, mixing in many instances with the Iberians, and forming the so-called Celtiberians. This mixed race is met with principally in the two Castiles, whilst Galicia and the larger portion of Portugal appear to be inhabited by pure Celts. The Iberians had their original seat of civilisation in the south ; they thence moved northward along the coast of the Mediterranean, penetrating as far as the Alps and the Apennines.

These original elements of the population were joined by colonists from the great commercial peoples of the Mediterranean. Cadiz and Malaga were founded by the Phoernicians, Cartagena by the Carthaginians, Sagumtum by immigrants from Zacynthus Rosas is a Rhodian colony. and the ruins of Ampurias recall the Emnporife of the Massilians. But it was the Romans who modified the character of the Iberian and Celtic inhabitants of the peninsula, whom they subjected after a hundred years’ war. Italian culture gradually penetrated into every part of the country, and the use of Latin became universal, except in the remote valleys inhabited by the Basques.

After the downfall of the Roman empire Spain was successively invaded by Suevi, Mani, Vandals, and Visigoths, but only the latter have exercised an abiding influence upon the language and manners of the Spaniards, and the pompous gravity of the Castilian appears to be a portion of their heritage.

To these northern invasions succeeded an invasion from the neighbouring continent of Africa. The Arabs and Berbers of Mauritania gained a footing upon the rock of Gibraltar early in the eighth century, and very soon afterwards nearly the whole of Spain had fallen a prey to the Mussulman, who maintained himself here for more than seven centuries. Moors immigrated in large numbers, and they substantially affected the character of the population, more especially in the south. The Inquisition expelled, or reduced to a condition of bondage, hundreds of thousands of these Moors, but its operations only extended to Mussulmans or doubtful converts, whilst Arab and Berber blood had already found its way into the veins of the bulk of the population. Castilian hears witness to the great influence of the Saracens, for it contains many more words of’ Arabic than of Visigothic origin, and these words designate objects and ideas evidencing a state of progressive civilisation, such as existed when the Arabs of Cordova and Granada inaugurated the modern era of science and industry in Europe.

During the dominion of the Moors the Jews prospered singularly on the soil of Spain, and their number at the time of the first persecution is said to have been 800,000. Supple, like most of their faith, they managed to get a footing in both camps, the Christian and Mohammedan, and enriched themselves at the expense of each. They supplied both sides with money to carry on the war, and, as farmers of taxes, they oppressed the inhabitants. The Christian faith triumphed in the end; the kings, to pay the cost of their wars, proclaimed a crusade against the Jews ; and the people threw themselves with fury upon their hated oppressors, sparing neither iron, fire, tortures, nor the stake. A few Jewish families may have escaped destruction by embracing Catholicism, but the bulk of that people perished or were driven into exile.

Far happier has been the lot of the Gipsies, or Gitanos, who are sufficiently numerous in Spain to give a special physiognomy to several large towns, These Gipsies have always conformed outwardly to the national religion, and the Inquisition, which has sent to the stake so many Jews, Moors, and heretics, has never interfered with them. The Gipsies, in many instances, have settled down in the towns, but they all have traditions of a wandering life, and most highly respect those of their kinsmen who still range the woods and plains. These latter are proud of their title of riandantes, or wayfarers, and despise the dwellers in towns. These Spanish Gitanos appear to be the descendants of tribes who sojourned for several generations in the Balkans, for their lingo contains several hundred words of Slav and Greek origin.

M. de Bourgoing has drawn attention to the great diversity existing amongst the population of Spain. A Galician, for instance, is more like an Auvergnat than a Catalonian, and an Andalusian reminds us of a Gascon. Most of the inhabitants, however, have certain general features, derived from a common national history and ancestry.

The average Spaniard is of small stature, hut strong, muscular, of’ surprising agility, an indefatigable walker, and proof against every hardship. The sobriety of Iberia is proverbial. ” Olives, salad, and radishes are fit food for a nobleman.” The physical stamina of the Spaniard is extraordinary, and amply explains the ease with which the conquistadores surmounted the fatigues which they were exposed to in the dreaded climate of the New World. These qualities make the Spaniard the best soldier of Europe, for he possesses the fiery temperament of the South joined to the physical strength of the North, without standing in need of abundant nourishment.

The moral qualities of the Spaniard are equally remarkable. Though careless as to every-day matters, he is very resolute, sternly courageous, and of gnat tenacity. Any cause he takes up he defends to his last breath. The sons always embrace the cause of their fathers, and fight for it with the same resolution. Hence this long series of foreign and civil wars. The recovery of Spain from the Moors took nearly seven centuries ; the conquest of Mexico, Peru, and South America was one continued fight lasting throughout a century. The war of independence which freed Spain from the yoke of Napoleon was an almost unexampled effort of patriotism, and the Spaniards may justly boast that the French did not find a single spy amongst them. The two Carlist wars, too, would have been possible nowhere else but in Spain.

Who need wonder, after this, if even the lowliest Spaniard speaks of himself with a certain haughtiness, which in any one else would be pronounced presumptuous? ” The Spaniard is a Gascon of a tragic type ; ” so says a French traveller. With him deeds always follow words. He is a boaster, but not without reason. He unites qualities which usually preclude each other, for, though haughty, he is kindly in his manners; he thinks very highly of himself, but is considerate of the feelings of’ others; quick to perceive the shortcomings of his neighbours, he rarely makes them a subject of reproach. Trifles give rise to a torrent of sonorous language, but in matters of importance a word or a gesture suffices. The Spaniard combines a solemn bearing and steadfastness with a considerable amount of cheerfulness. Nothing disquiets him ; he philosophically takes things as they are ; poverty has no terrors for him ; and he even ingeniously contrives to extract pleasure and advantage from it. The life of’ Gil Blas, in whom the Spaniards recognise their own likeness, was more chequered than that of any other hero of’ romance, and yet he was always full of gaiety, which even the dark shadow of the Inquisition, then resting upon the country, failed to deprive him of. ” To live on the banks of the Manzanares,” says a Spanish proverb,” is perfect bliss ; to be in paradise is the second degree of happiness, but only on condition of being able to look down upon Madrid through a skylight in the heavens.”

These opposites in the character of the Spaniards give rise to an appearance of fickleness which foreigners are unable to comprehend, and they themselves complacently describe them as cosas de E Espana. How, indeed, are we to explain so much weakness associated with so many noble qualities, so many superstitions in spite of common sense and a keen perception of irony, such ferocity of conduct in men naturally generous and magnanimous? A Spaniard, in spite of his passions, will resign himself philosophically to what he looks upon as inevitable. Lo que ha de ser no puede faltar, ” What is to be will be,” he says, and, wrapped up in his cloak, he allows events to take their course. The great Lord Bacon observed, three hundred years ago, that the ” Spaniards looked. wiser than they were ; ” and, indeed, most of them are passionately fond of gambling, and their apathetic fatalism accounts for many of the ills their country suffers. The rapid decay which has taken place in the course of three centuries has led certain historians to number the Spaniards amongst fallen nations. The edifices met with in many towns and villages speak of a grandeur now past, and the despoblados and dehesas, which we encounter even in the vicinity of the capital, tell of once fertile fields returned to a state of nature.

Buckle, in his ” History of Civilisation,” traces this decay to the physical nature of Spain and to a long succession of religious wars. The Visigoths defended Arianism against the Franks, and when the Spaniards had become good Catholics their country was invaded by Moors, and for more than twenty generations they struggled against them. It thus happened that patriotism became identical with absolute obedience to the behests of the Church, for every one, from the King down to the meanest archer, was a defender of the faith rather than of his native soil. The result might have been foretold. The Church not only took possession of most of the land won from the infidels, but it also exercised a baneful influence upon the Government, and, through its dreaded tribunals of the Inquisition, over the whole of society.

But whilst these long religious struggles tended to the moral and intellectual abasement of the Spaniards, there were other causes which operated in an inverse sense, and these Buckle does not appear to have properly appreciated. The kings, in order to secure the support of the people in their wars against the Mussulmans, found themselves compelled to grant a large measure of liberty. The towns governed themselves, and their delegates, as early as the eleventh century, sat with the nobility and clergy in the Cortes, and voted the supplies. Local government conferred advantages upon Spain then enjoyed only in few parts of Europe.

Industry and the arts flourished in these prosperous cities, and a stop was even put to the encroachments of the clergy long before Luther raised his powerful voice in Germany.

A struggle between the supporters of local government and of a centralized monarchy at length became imminent, and no sooner had the infidels been expelled than civil war began. It terminated in favour of King and Church, for the comuneros of the Castiles met with little support in the other provinces, and their tons were ravaged by the bloodthirsty generals of Charles V.

The discovery of the New World, which happened about this period, proved a disaster to Spain, for young men of enterprise and daring crossed the Atlantic, and thus weakened the mother country, which was too small to feed such huge colonies. The immense amount of treasure (more than £2,000,000,000 between 1500 and 1702) sent home from the colonies contributed still further to the rapid decay of Spain, for it corrupted the entire nation. Money being obtainable without work, &I honest labour ceased, and when the colonies no longer yielded their metallic treasures the country saw itself impoverished, for the gold and silver had found their way to foreign lands, whence Spain had procured her supplies.

History affords no other example of so rapid a decadence brought about with-out foréign aggression. The workshops were closed, the arts of peace forgotten, the fields but indifferently cultivated. Young men flocked to the 9,000 monasteries to enjoy a life of indolence, and “science was a crime, ignorance and stupidity were the first of virtues.” Population decreased, and the Spaniard even lost his ancient renown for bravery. If the Bourbon kings placed foreigners in all high positions of state, they did so because the Spaniards had become incapable of conducting public business.

But if we compare the Spain of our own days with the Spain of the Inquisition, we cannot fail to be struck with the vast progress made. Spain is no longer a ” happy people without a history,” for ever since the beginning of the century it has been engaged in struggles, and during this period of tumultuous life it has done more for arts, science, and industry than in the two centuries of peace which succeeded the dark reign of Philip II. No doubt Spain might have done even more if the strength of the country had not been wasted in internal struggles. Unfortunately the geographical configuration of the peninsula is unfavourable to the consolidation of the nation. The littoral regions combine every advantage of climate, soil, and accessibility, whilst the resources of the inland plateaux are comparatively few. The former naturally attract population ; they abound in large and bustling cities, and are more densely populated than the interior of the country. Madrid, which occupies a commanding position almost in the geometrical centre of the country, has become a focus of life, but its environs are very thinly inhabited.

This unequal distribution of the population could not fail to exercise a powerful influence upon the history of the country. Each of the maritime provinces felt sufficiently strong to lead a separate existence. During the struggles with the Moors common interests induced the independent kingdoms of Iberia to co-operate, and facilitated the establishment of a central monarchy , but, to maintain this unity afterwards, it became necessary to have recourse to a system of terrorism and oppression. Portugal, being situated on the open Atlantic, shook off the detested yoke of Castile after leas than a century’s submission In the rest of the peninsula political consolidation is making progress, thanks to the facilities of intercommunication and the substitution of Castilian for the provincial dialects ; but it would be an error to suppose that Andalusians and Galicians, Basques and Catalans, Aragonese and Madrilenos, have been welded into one nation. Indeed, the federal constitution advocated by Spanish republicans appears to be best suited to the geographical configuration of’ the country and the genius of its population. The desire to establish pro% incial autonomy has led to most of the civil wars of Spain, whether raised by Carlists, or Lttw naigel1t’B_ It is therefore meet that, in our description of Spain, we should respect the limits traced by nature, bearing in mind the fact that the political boundaries of the pro ince do not always coincide with water-sheds or linguistic boundaries.