When did the Britain eclipse Spain (and their respective empires also) in various aspects?

When do you think the Britain and its empire became
-more powerful militarily
-larger in territorial extent

than Spain and its empire?

Also, do you think England could have conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires in the 16th century? (if Spain had for whatever reason chosen to establish friendly and peaceful relations with the Aztec and Inca rather than conquering them instead); i.e. Queen Elizabeth and Francis Drake doing what Cortes and Pizarro did? They were able to defeat the Spanish Armada, so would it be a stretch to say that England could have defeated the Aztec and Inca Empires also?

There is a difference between havining a superior navy and having an effective army. A navy can clear the seas of opponents, but it is very difficult for ships ans sailors to conquer an empire. I don’t even believe the Native American principalities did much trading by sea, so a blockade would not be an effective tool.
That being said, I don’t think the British would have conquered the Aztecs or Incas in any way similar to how the Spanish did. I like to think they would have instituted a similar Imperial colonial administration system to what they eventually adopted in their African and Indian colonies.

For what it’s worth, I believe the defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the start of the rise of Britain, with the Napoleonic Wars being the beginning of her dominance.

In order to do what Cortés did, Elizabeth II would have needed a dick… I don’t think Doña Marina leaned that other way. Then again, most regnants of the time didn’t bother with a hands-on approach to conquest.

Would a different person have been able to join forces with the Malinche, conquer the Aztec, etc.? Probably, but not anybody; many other conquistadores wouldn’t have been able to do what Cortés did, being too bloodthristy or too obsessed or too…

As DrFidelius said, the point where Spain’s territory shrunk to a tiny fraction of what it had been until a very short time before was the Napoleonic wars; for much of the two previous centuries the domination game had Spain, England and France (which for some reason the OP doesn’t name) as the biggest players.

The ‘defeat’ of the armada didn’t make england big.
I would think it started with Samuel Pepys reorganistaion of the fleet.

As a result of those reforms they were able to defeat the 2nd top-dog, Holland.

It wasn’t until after the English-Dutch wars, during the 17th century, that England really started to grow.

Richer? 1763. By the end of the 7 years war, the British had control of the lucrative India trade, North American trade, much of the Caribbean trade, and had even forced some trade rights on the Spanish. They lost their attempt to conquer portions of the Spanish main. But they were by this point eclipsing Spain. Spain in contrast had been slowly losing territory and prestige both in and out of Europe. The British, Dutch and French alike were all picking away pieces in the Caribbean. 1783 was a setback for the British, but not so much that Spain ever caught back up.

More powerful? 1720s, maybe later but definitely by 1760. In the war of the Quadruple Alliance Britain needed allies to defeat Spain. But it could invade Spanish Iberia and Spanish colonies alike. While Spain was repulsed in the Bahamas. By the 1750s the roles had been reversed. When they fought, Spain had to have allies to compete. And they were increasingly the junior partner in these alliances (usually with France).

Larger? 1810s or 1820s. Depending on when you want to consider Spain’s American colonies lost. But sometime in this period Spain lost most of its territories. And it was only in this period that the British really started to gain large chunks of actual administered territory. Their North American claims were largely unsettled and theoretical. And most of their other claims were small stations rather than actually ruled territory. But by 1800 they were starting to really get serious about conquering India, Australia was getting going, and actual settlement in Canada was starting to pick up.

England could have easily defeated the Incas and Aztecs. They may not have been able to hold them… but defeating them was a fairly straight forward. Any European county that could put together a dozen ships and 1000 men could have done it. As Jared Diamond would put it “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” and I would add horses, gave the Europeans immeasurable advantages over the native Americans.

The British* did not become a maritime power until the late Tudors, did not become the prime naval power until 1692 and the dominant until 1805. So no, they could not have conquered the Inca’s they did not have the naval capacity to do it.

*I count Scotland in Britain as well, for after the Union of the Crowns, they were for the sake of forign policy,one and the same.

Agreed, with a few caveats:

  1. Spanish dominance had been slipping long before Napoleon - it could be argued that Britain was more powerful than Spain by end of the War of Spanish Succession… say, 1720. Britain surely had a better record of working her will over Europe than Spain did in this century, so while her overall power might not have been greater than Spain, Britain use of her power was far more effective than her rivals.

  2. Richer? Hard to say, but also during the 18th century. Spain blew a lot of its wealth in this time, while Britain tended to be more prudent. The UK spent a lot of money on wars, but they also tended to win them… except in 1783, of course. :wink:

  3. Larger? Possibly by 1763 at the end of the Seven Years’ war, definitely by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Part of this depends upon when you consider India to have effectively entered the Empire.

Interesting question. I think that GB eclipsed Spain very early on…probably by the 1600’s. The reason was that Spain viewed its empire as a cash cow-there was no effort to support large scale colonization. Also, Spain never evolved into a manufacturing power-it was dependent upon the more industrious parts of its empire for manufactured goods. Because of this, by the time of the Spanish-American War, Spain had to have its warships made in the UK, its weapons in Germany, and just about everything else (outside of wool and foodstuffs).
Spain had a pretty backward economy until the 1960’s.

I read years ago that England (English companies) sent men and women colonists to the New World to settle and Spain sent male conquerors.

The English aim was to grow food, gather raw materials, and start a thriving trade; the Spanish aim was to acquire instant riches.

English settlers were strongly motivated by political and religious freedom issues, the Spanish by power and greed.

Ultimately the British thrived and the Spanish did not.

I doubt England’s ascendancy could have happened without Henry VIII throwing off the shackles of the Catholic Church.

Sure they did. In 1519 Cortez landed in Mexico with 11 ships, ~500 soldiers, and a few hundred slaves etc. Those are the total resources he used to conquer them. Everything else came from alliances with other non-Aztec Native Americans. In 1512 The English channel fleet consisted of of 18 ships and 5,000 men, including large ships the equal of anything in Europe (like the Mary Rose, the Henry Grace à Dieu, Peter Pomegranate, & the Regent). And the total fleet strength was around 30 ships.

The English had more that enough power to conquer the Aztecs via the exact same method Cortez did. It would have been a huge undertaking. It would have been a massive investment for Henry VIII. And they couldn’t hold it. Spain or France could have taken it from them. But to conquer the Aztecs was within English naval capacity in 1519.

Thery could have sent 11 ships and they would have never been heard from again. English sailors were like pretty much all sailors up to that point, following the coast, staying as much as possible within sight of land and not straying too far from known waters. Only the Iberians and some Italian states had the technical skills required to make a many months long sea voyage in the open ocean, it required navigational prowess, seamanship abilities and knowledge of currents that the English lacked at this stage,

Spain’s plan was to acquire spices, gold, silver, and jewels. And it actually worked. The problem was that nobody had foreseen the consequences of that plan working. Economics hadn’t been invented yet.

Nobody really understood the idea of supply and demand. Gold was valuable. It always had been valuable. So having gold was good. And having more gold was better. Nobody understood that part of the value of gold was its scarcity. Spain essentially flooded Europe with American gold (and they flooded China with American silver). And they kept thinking that with all that silver and gold they were spending they should somehow be richer than they were. Sure they had a lot of nice stuff but it didn’t seem like all that much in comparison to how much gold and silver they had paid for it. And if they didn’t seem to be rich enough, the obvious solution was to get more gold and silver to spend. Which of course didn’t help the problem.

So Spain basically made a whole bunch of money and spent it buying stuff from other countries. And in the end, those other countries ended up with all the money the Spanish had paid them. Plus those other countries had had to earn their money - they had built factories and workshops and studios and farms to make products for Spain to buy. And even after Spain ran out of money to buy those products, the factories and workshops and studios and farms were still there.

Because a Catholic England would have respected the Treaty of Tordesillas and limited their colonization? It’s possible, but I doubt it. France was Catholic but that didn’t keep them from putting colonies wherever they thought they could get away with it. (“Show me Adam’s will”) The rewards for ignoring the treaty for states other than Spain and Portugal were just too great to accept it.

Nonsense. John Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, was a English ship crewed by Englishmen that discovered North America in 1497. Cabot himself was Italian. But he hardly crossed the Atlantic alone. And there is plenty of evidence that sailors from Bristol were regularly crossing to the Grand Banks to fish and had been doing so for a century or more… part of the reason Cabot choose Bristol as his embarkation point. They had astrolabes, used great circle sailing, had a locally powerful “Society of Merchant Venturers” which was actively commissioning explorers. Records as to who they commissioned are spotty but at least Cabot and Lavrador. England was all very modern and competitive in 1500. It wasn’t cutting edge like Portugal, but they were building caravels just like the Iberians and using the same basic technologies and techniques to sail them.

The English were a step behind the Iberians. But to claim they couldn’t do a multi-month trans-oceanic voyage in 1520, when they were doing them for decades to a century before that… well that’s just wrong. It was both technologically and economically possible for the English to conquer the Aztecs. Of course the fleet could have been lost at sea. So could have Cortez’s. The Age of Exploration is filled with failed attempts to do anything. But it was within England’s capabilities at the time.

Firstly, fishermen are… a different kettle of fish from explorers, or long range naval operations to occupy a hostile area. Secondly, fishermen from Bristol did do deep ocean fishing, towards Iceland and Greenland and that has led to speculation that they were fishing off the coast of N America. There is no direct evidence of that anywhere and it is just that, speculation. Lastly you underestimate just how much of an advance it was to sail to America and back especially the return journey and the skills of the Iberians were needed for that, skills which the English clearly did not have. Lets not remember, it is still not certain that John Cabot landed in Newfoundland at all and the first settlements were made by the Portuguese, the English not taking over till 1583.

I think Spain was already a second rank power long before the Napoleonic wars. I would say it had been so for a century. Spanish dominance ends for me somewhere in the begining of the 17th century (the invincible armada being destroyed during the late 16th century, and the equally invicible tercios beaten in the middle 17th century being somewhat arbitrary but significant events). After that, no offence intended but I think that Spain begins to go down the toilets and that by 1700 it’s no more what it used to be.

Also, if you intent to list majors European powers, you forgot the Austrian empire and latter Russia.
However, regarding the OP, during this period of Spanish decline, Britain is on the rise but doesn’t have yet reached a dominating status. The British army isn’t very relevant (and in fact mostly never has been until the 20th century, American beliefs about their revolutionary war notwithstanding ;)), even her main asset, her navy, isn’t yet “ruling the waves” (before 1700 the British navy is only roughly on par with France and…Holland) and technical improvements (that would be the main cause of British power. You don’t get to be the big guy on the block without a strong economy) only begin to be noticeable in the mid 18th century (noticeable in the sense that it already appears a bit more advanced than other European countries. This advance will become quite strinking during the early 19th century).

I agree with a previous poster. The “British era” could be dated from the Napoleonic wars until WWI, so, essentially, the 19th century, by which time Spain was a quite backward country in Europe.

Generally, I’d say that European dominance begins with the Renaissance and ends with WWI. And in very rough terms I’d divide this era in the following way :

1500-1650 : Spanish dominance (arbitrary dates : 1516-1643)
1650-1800 : French dominance (arbitrary dates : 1643-1815)
1800-1900 : British dominance (arbitrary dates :1815-1918)

Britain’s still behind on cuisine.

No, it used to be for a long time, probably due to the hangover from war rationing.

But nowadays we have a serious “foody” culture and British cuisine ranks equal with the best of the best in the world.

That aside, IMO the reason that the U.K. gained ascendancy was mostly to do with trade, followed by a deep interest in science.
The Empire was constructed almost by accident, we aquired a lot of territories, including India and parts of the Caribbean from fighting the French, parts of Africa from fighting the Germans, and establishing coaling/provisioning stations at various times to enable trade to happen.

Of course we conquered other territories for other economic reasons but it was never the intention to establish a global empire.

A deep interest in science also helped to establish British ascendancy, after all the Industrial Revolution started there, and bearing in mind that the British Isles are tiny in comparison with many, if not most, countries, and had a very small population, the scientific discoveries and original significant inventions are out of all proportion to the area that they came from.

But really speaking it all boils down to one word.


Toad in the Hole.
Blood Sausage.
Baked Beans at Breakfast.
Boiled Bread.
Good G-d.

You have had a magnificent influence on world history and culture, but Sir, your culinary skills fellate with great alacrity.