Admiral Jose de Mazarredo
The Myth of the Spanish Decline The dominant historiography tends to consider modern history through the lens of Anglo-French antagonism. Other countries are implicitly dismissed as insignificant. It is, perhaps, true of the Italian states, where navies were virtually non-existent, even if the kingdom of Naples tried to build one in the second half of the eighteenth century. Austria had no navy, except for a brief attempt during the reign of Charles VI. In 1739 the fleet was disbanded and the ships sold to the Republic of Venice. Venetian seapower was declining, even if it had peaks in strength as late as 1780, and was clearly a second-rank power. During this period Malta was an emporium which tried to preserve its independence between France and Naples with some echo of its ancient glory in such events as the great cruise of the Marquis de Chambray (‘the Rogue of Malta’) against the Turks in 1732.
This was not the case with Spain. The image given by Anglo-Saxon historians suggests a chronic decline from the loss of Gibraltar until Trafalgar. Spanish historians called it la leyenda negra de la Armada española (‘the black legend of the Spanish Armada’). Recent research corrects this view. During the eighteenth century ‘Spain again became, if briefly, a dynamic seapower’. Under Kings Felipe V (1700–46) and Carlos III (1759–88), with the great minister the Marquis de Enseñada, there was shipbuilding of high quality and there were able leaders, such as Admiral José de Mazarredo, one of the finest seamen of his time, and Luis Córdoba y Córdoba, who captured two British convoys, taking a total of 79 merchant ships during the American War of Independence. The Spanish Navy was able to recapture Minorca, which the British had recovered in the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years War in 1782. After the failure of the Spanish expedition to Sicily in 1718 the Mediterranean area was not the center of gravity for Spanish strategy, but rather the line of communication across the Atlantic to the Spanish Empire in America. The decline in its importance occurred in the last decade of the century, mainly for political reasons.