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Roots of Empire: Forests and State Power in Early Modern Spain Review


Any navy requires ships for it to exist, and up until the 19th century and the age of iron and steel, this meant ships of wood, and men of iron to man them. Procuring the timber for ships was a tremendously difficult process, requiring massive quantities of wood, often of specific high quality types such as old growth oak, notably different than the wood for use in other sectors of the economy. The state had both a vested interested in ensuring sufficient quantities of naval supplies for the navy, and a necessity to involve itself in the timber supplies in order to ensure that its interested were looked afterward. In Spain, the Spanish royal government, be it under the Hapsburgs or the Bourbons, would involve itself from an early date, as is shown in John T. Wing's book Roots of Empire: Forests and State Power in Early Modern Spain which looks at the various state interactions with local authorities, laws, and royal concern for timber administration which aimed to ensure the health of Spanish forests and their availability for the navy. There is a great degree of detail present in Wing's book, but unfortunately it lacks significantly in synthesizing these elements and making for a readable and understandable story of the evolving nature of forest administration in early modern Spain.

The introduction of the book begins with the anecdote of an oak tree being cut down in Cantabria, which led to to action from the highest level in the naval junta in Madrid, showing the fault lines of competing interests for forest usage and the intense importance attached to forest preservation for naval usage in Spain, since an early age. Focus on control over forests led to the imposition of state power in Spain, and to an increase in the bureaucratization of the Spanish government. The procurement of timber was heavily impacted by Spain and its colonies geography (with an extensive amount of the chapter discussing the natural geography of Spain and human influence and relationship with it, ranging from Roman descriptions of abundant forests to Visigoth customary law's introduction) and by the resistance of the people called upon to harvest timber for the navy and the nature of land rights. This was a common theme across the world as increasing naval construction led to state efforts to preserve forest lands.

Chapter 1, "A New State Forestry for the First Global Age" covers Spanish state-forest relationships up until the period of Ferdinand and Isabel, around 1500, and after under the early Hapsburgs. These famous rulers had to balance the competing interests of the navy, herdsmen, farmers, artisans, and townspeople, coming up with ordnances that sought to regular forest usage. This forest usage took place in a rapidly changing environment, as the Reconquista demonstrated the differences between Christian and Islamic land practices, particularly Christian herding and its structure. Islamic Spain had its own extraction of timber and heavy exports, serving as a vital part of the timber trade in the Islamic world, and the fall of Islamic Spain dramatically shifted the balance of power in the Mediterranean. Islamic Spain was based upon intensive agriculture and extensive usage of irrigation, while Christian Spain had much more in the way of herding and was more rural. Regulations interacted with municipalities, for all land in Christian Spain was divided into municipalities and managed by them in some way, and these municipalities defended their own rights over forest exploitation and competed with others. By the 1550s, Crown forest regulations were explicitly intended to enable sufficient wood to be available for shipbuilding, reflecting the importance attached to naval power, and there was an increased bureaucratization of timber information as the Hapsburg crown sent out questionnaires to collecta data about timber and forests, both in Spain and in the Americas, as well as mapping the forests: these efforts were intensified after the failed Spanish Armada of 1588 in an effort to rebuild the Spanish navy.

Chapter 2, Forests of the Ultramar" takes a look at Spanish overseas forestry, noting that just like in Spain, the Crown attempted to gain information about the resources and land. Many of the practices for ship construction and preparing timber would be the same as in the motherland, and the book focuses particular detail on the Spanish shipyards of Guayaquil in Ecuador, Realejo in Nicaragua, Cavite in the Philippines, and Havana. Different timber qualities and supplies, geographic locations, and trade routes would define and differentiate these shipyards, as well as the people - especially the Philippines, where Chinese shipbuilding experience was incorporated due to the lack of Spanish personnel. Common to all however, was usage of slave labor and forced requisition of indigenous labor. In their exploitation of overseas timber and shipbuilding supplies, the Spanish were similar to the other colonial empires, which also intensified or developed their usage of overseas resources in this period.

Chapter 3, "The Struggle to Stay Afloat in the Seventeenth Century" catalogues the nadir of Spanish naval power in the late 17th century, which nevertheless coincided with continued intensification of Spanish efforts to protect timber resources and ensure their availability for the navy, guaranteed by the spread of naval intendants (who would form important naval dynasties). This was paired with an effort to deny timber supplies to rivals through commerce raiding and blockade, which even if it failed still demonstrated the importance attached by the Crown to timber supplies and naval warfare. In Spain itself, it sought to intensify its exploitation of sources, and the naval intendants were often in conflict with local authorities in an effort to expand the Crown's interests for naval supplies: the same could be said of Cuba, where stricter control and oversight went along with the growing importance of Havana as a shipyard, and in various other Spanish New World shipyards.

Chapter 4, "Bottoming Out and Revival under the First Bourbon, 1700-1746" shows that Spain's interest in protection of forests to provide for its naval power continued and accelerated under the new Bourbon kings of Spain, as further reconnaissances and efforts were made to find new supplies of timber, the navy was rebuilt, and naval departments were established. As was typical in Spain, this was married to an increased utilization of American resources.

Chapter 5, "The Triumph of State Forestry" concerns the most ambitious and highest level of state involvement in forestry, with the issuance of a forestry code in 1748 which enhanced inspection, established a territorial division of trees, and established forest planting by villagers to provide for a steady supply of trees: as with other edicts, it emphasized the benefits which the population would draw from healthy and extensive forests. But as with other edicts there was resistance from the population to the burdens and limitations it created. Nevertheless, the result of these efforts was that the Spanish fleet was able to build the second largest fleet in Europe by the 1780s.

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The conclusion looks back at the role of cartography and information as tools of state power, and the inherent limitations on any state from full control and full knowledge, before recapping the events and developments associated with forestry, naval power, and state power in Spain.

Roots of Empire is one of those books which can give a massive amount of information, many detailed individual examples, and yet fail to provide much in the way of points and narrative beyond the obvious, singular ones which if focuses on as its core. This central idea is that the Spanish government, be it under the Hapsburgs or the Bourbons - or even earlier, as even in the 15th century there was state concern over forest resources - had an active role which it exercised continuously in regards to forest management. This is well shown, and along the way it also looks at the balance between state and local power. Unfortunately, this is only a very small element to look at, and there is much more which could have been worked in. For example, how did this state focus on its timber industry impact the navy? How did the growing importance of alternate, industrial, uses for timber, impact the attempt to secure forest resources for the navy? How did the growth of science and rationalism impact timber management? How did Spanish import of timber, if it happened, relate to the internal growth of timber? Wing's study develops curiously in a vacuum, where only occasional references are made to the changing world around it, and rarely to relate the two.

While the work starts out very strongly with its inclusion of the Spanish overseas empire, by the 18th century this theme drops off and the book is almost purely devoted to metropolitan Spanish laws and timber concerns. This is an unfortunate omission, since it leaves the reader the appearance of a Spain disconnected from the broader international economy - while at the same time Spanish arsenals at Havana certainly, were churning out large components of the Spanish fleet. It raises the question of whether there really was a diminished ideological focus on the empire and a turn to internal resources - not unprecedented, for neighboring France placed excessive importance on its own timber and did little to develop its colonial supplies - or whether it is just that the book narrows its focus at this crucial moment.

There are other omissions, since the book does little to look at changing structures and development in Spain or its colonies beyond the state's own evolution. As mentioned above, there must have been increasingly competing demands for the usage of forest resources, which was happening all across Europe at the time, as production of industrial goods, building, and heating for growing populations placed increasing demands on forest resources. In France during the 18th century, this resulted in the state diminishing its protection of forests to encourage economic and industrial development. Did the same happen in Spain?

But of course, all of this has to be moderated with the definite triumph of the information that the book provides. Be it about its principal subject of woodlands management and forestry practice, or key details of Spanish imperial defense and its requirements, or the nature of forestry exploitation in Spain, it always has intriguing details. There is a vast amount of research and exploration which went into the book.

Although certainly convincing in arguing that Spain developed from an early stage powerful government oversight over its forests, and in providing a panoply of detail, the lack of examination of the practical sides of this exploitation, the broader facets of its ideology, and a shortage of interpretation of the effects that it describes makes it much more limited and less useful than it could have been - which is a dreadful shame, since it really does have some excellent information, such as about the alternate land usage of Christian and Islamic civilization in Spain and their development over time. Indeed, the introduction of the book is probably the best part of it, giving a very fascinating picture of the history of Spain's relationship with its forests, giving an admirable narrative and without getting bogged down in petty details like other parts of the book. Hopefully one day it will serve as a base of departure, utilizing its admirable collection of historical information, to create a more integrated and incisive work which will combine together the points made in Roots of Empire into a cohesive theory which critically examines the points left untouched in this volume.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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