Spain and Britain’s Informal Empire, 1808 to 1936

The Rio Tinto Company’s original copper operations in southern Spain c.1900 []

The Rio Tinto Company’s original copper operations in southern Spain c.1900 []

For a century and a half after its defeat in the Napoleonic Wars Spain lay in the shadow of Britain’s Empire and its industrial revolution.  Like many other parts of the world, notably East Asia and South America, it was never part of the formal Empire but like them, it was subject to Britain’s hegemonic domination of world trade, finance and investment. 

In the attached paper I argue that seeing Spain’s development in terms of informal empire and colonial domination helps to explain both its fitful path to industrialisation and the contested forms of nationalism that were to end in the bloody catastrophe of Civil War.  We can also see many parallels with the relationships that have developed in the post-World War Two period between dependent nations and the ‘informal empires’ of the US and European Union. 

The type of distortions in Spain’s uneven industrialisation process created by the largely uncontrolled foreign exploitation of its mineral resources still goes on in the unbalanced economies of many African and South American countries.  Similarly the role of financial markets in controlling governments’ domestic and foreign policy has become ever more evident in the successive post war sovereign debt crises, most recently and spectacularly in Argentina’s 2001 default and subsequent restructuring.  As in nineteenth century Spain, the price is often the large scale privatisation of the country’s key assets.

From Peronist Argentina to contemporary Hungary, strong nationalist movements have tried to insulate their country from foreign economic competition in the name of self-sufficiency (though, like Franco’s autarkist policies these have sooner or later run into serious contradictions).  In these and other countries, we can also see the same schizophrenic reaction to foreign investment as in Spain, welcomed on the one hand as the route to modernisation, reviled on the other hand as an attack on national sovereignty. 

It is the range of these parallel experiences that suggests the concept of informal empire remains as relevant to the more globalised world of the twenty first century as it was to the Spain of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Download the full paper “Spain and Britain’s Informal Empire, 1808 to 1936” here.

Nick Sharman is a PhD student at the University of Nottingham whose area of research is Anglo-Spanish economic relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.