When it comes to language, more than 430 million people speak Spanish as their first language and you might be surprized to know that Spanish is second only to Mandarin as the most spoken first language in the world.

Besides Spain, the majority of countries in South and Central America and also the Caribbean all speak Spanish as a first language – around 20 countries in all.

While English is the dominant written and spoken language in the USA, Spanish is the clearly the second most spoken language with around 40 million Americans speaking Spanish as their first language and many more Americans speaking Spanish as a second language.

The Spanish brought their language, culture, trade, architecture, laws, art, weapons, horses, cattle, agricultural skills, crops, building styles, religion and lifestyle from Spain to the Americas in the 1500’s, 1600’s and 1700’s following on from the ‘New World’ voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus –his first voyage being in 1492.

The Spanish Empire’s power, influence and colonization of the ‘New World’ was then felt for the next 300 years and while in the late 1800’s the Spanish Empire collapsed as former colonies declared themselves independent of Spain, the Spanish influence still remains today in all parts of what was once the Spanish Empire as well as in the United States.

Within Spain itself there are four main languages – Castilian (Castellano), what the world knows as simply Spanish; Galician (closer to Portuguese and spoken in the far north-west of Spain); Basque (Euskarian)in the north; Aranés in the Pyrenees Mountains and Catalan, which is spoken in and around Barcelona on the Mediterranean Coast.

No doubt you have heard of the Basque Separatist movement making the news over the last number of years and also of the Catalan protests in Barcelona that led to a Referendum in October 2017 seeking the independence of Catalonia from Spanish rule. This was rejected by the Spanish Parliament and the Spanish King, but no doubt these movements by Catalonian separatists will continue to simmer over the years to come. The Basque Separatist movement was declared at an end in May, 2018 after 50 years of fighting.

The former President of the Catalan Regional Government, Carles Puigdemont, went into self- imposed exile in Belgium after the October 2017 Referendum. In March 2018 he was arrested by German Police.

The Spanish Government authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest on the basis of charging him with sedition. Other charges followed.

Politics can be very volatile and dirty game with Sedition being a serious charge for inciting people to rebel against the authority of the state carrying a penalty of up to 30 years imprisonment. Other members of the Catalan Regional Government were also charged for sedition.

These separatist movements are not new, dating back to around 1890 to 1900, but the Spanish people also endured many years of civil war in the 1930’s and many difficult and violent years under the rule of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) who ruled over Spain for 39 years from 1939 until his death in 1975.

People remember those times, and there is great resistance to any change that could bring about a civil war or confrontation within Spain.

Spain itself has a population of around 46 million people and it covers an area of around 550,000 square kilometres, just a little smaller than France which covers an area of 644,000 square kilometres.

What is the history of Spain?

The history of Spain goes back to the times of the Phoenician Empire around 1500AD when the Phoenicians sailed to the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish Coastline) establishing trading bases here around 1000BC, the main base being the port of Cádiz. The Phoenicians were then followed by the Greeks, then by Carthaginians in 220BC and then by the Romans in 218BC following the Roman Punic Wars with the Carthaginians.

Romans ruled over the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania, today’s Spain) for around 600 years and the best place to see some of the ancient ruins from that time are in the cities of Cadiz and Cartagena where you can still see a Roman Amphitheatre and other ancient Roman ruins.

The Roman Empire brought the Christian Roman Catholic religion to Spain, with the Pope and Vatican and Holy Roman Emperor being head of church and state.

When the Roman Empire eventually crumbled, the Spanish Peninsula came under the control of the Frankish and Visigoths Germanic tribes from the north, holding control over the Peninsula from the 4th to the 7th century, until they too were defeated by the Moors from North Africa in the Battle of Poitiers in 732AD.

The Arab Moors invaded from North Africa, bringing with them the Muslim religion, architecture, customs and way of life. The Moors and Berbers would then rule over the Iberian Peninsula for the next 800 years, the country divided into a number of Kingdoms and rulers.

The population at the time was made up of Christians, Jews and Muslims, and in 1249 the Muslims were expelled from Portugal. In 1492 the Jewish (the same year as the voyage to the New World by Columbus) were also expelled from Spain and then in 1500 the Muslims were expelled from Spain under the rule of the Catholic Queen Isabella the 1st of Castile and her Husband Ferdinand of Aragon who financed the voyages of discovery of Christopher Columbus.

In what became known as the Spanish Inquisition, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, heretics and non-believers were forced to either convert to Catholicism, face expulsion from Spain or face torture or almost certain death. The Spanish Inquisition that began in 1478 under the ‘Edict of Expulsion’ lasted until 1834 and was imposed in Spain as well as throughout the Spanish Empire.

The 1500’s, 1600’s and 1700’s was a time of great trade and wealth for a united Spain, with Spanish Galleons transporting Aztec and Incan gold, silver and other treasures from the Americas back to Spain and the Spanish establishing a vast trading Empire in South and Central America as well as the Philippines.

This was an ‘Age of Empires’ with great rivalries between the Colonial powers of Portugal, Spain, the Dutch, French and British. The Spanish Empire was proclaimed as “The Empire on which the sun never sets”, though eventually the sun did set and the Empire began to fade.

The American War of Independence that began in 1775 and the French Revolution in 1789 both influenced many of the Spanish Empire Colonies to proclaim independence from Spain. Haiti was the first to declare independence from Spain in 1791 and gained its independence in 1804, with others Colonies (Countries) following.

Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico all gained independence during the 1820’s, while others would remain part of the Spanish Empire for almost all of the 1800’s, with Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico being lost to Spain in 1898 following the Spanish American War that year.

In Spain, the country was under the control of a Hapsburg King and Cortes (Aristocracy) and it was only in 1812 that the first Constitution of Spain was proclaimed in Cádiz. Absolute Monarchy returned two years later, but over the years that followed Spain transitioned into a Republic with Unicameral (1 level) and Bicameral (2 level) Parliamentary systems of government at various stages.

Regional power plays and rivalry between the competing agendas of the Regional powers, the Pope, Church, Monarchy, Military, Senate, Cortes General Parliament and loss of Empire all resulted in a fragmented Spain and even assassination of leading political figures.

These divisions would eventually lead on to the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936. The Civil War with competing rivalries between the two main competing Political Parties - the Nationalists and Republicans resulted in a bloody war with an estimated 150,000 to 500,000 Spanish people dying as a consequence and the country more divided than ever.

While the Spanish had not been involved in World War One, they also suffered in the aftermath of that war and the Great Depression. The 1930’s was also the time of great turmoil within Europe with the rise of Hitler and his Nazi Party, Fascism in Italy and the Russian Bolsheviks, all adding to the turmoil within Spain.

The end of the Spanish Civil War saw the triumphal rise of the Nationalist Party movement with Army General Francisco Franco, in March 1939 becoming the head of the army and state and dictator of a united Spain, a position he was to hold until his death in 1975.

General Franco is a highly contentious person in history.

Many credit him bringing an end to the Civil War and uniting Spain. Others charge him with a ruthless, indeed murderous rule over the country and the persecution of all opposition to his rule.

As a dictator, he maintained order within the country and promoted Spanish culture and traditions, and also, in contrast to other revolutionary movements, he maintained the role and importance of Spanish Royalty. On Franco’s death, Spain became a Parliamentary Democracy, and a number of liberalised laws were enacted in line with other European countries.
The new Spanish Parliament took a view called ‘El Pacto del Olivado’ – ‘the Pact of Forgiving’, a decision to forget about any past atrocities that happened under the rule of Franco and look forward. Again this was highly contentious decision at the time and still today for those people and families who suffered under his rule. It remains a very sensitive issue.

Spain is part of the EU using the Euro as its currency, and the country has built its economy through agriculture, industrialisation and tourism, with Barcelona one of the most popular cities in Europe to visit.

While the country still has its share of economic and social issues, the financial crisis in the 1990’s leading into the 21st century which saw unemployment reach levels of up to 26%, have largely but not totally been mollified.

There is now a large ex-pat community of British, Germans and other Europeans who now live permanently in Spain, moving to Spain on the basis of the perceived lower cost of living, warmer climate, Spanish culture and beaches.

Spain is still a distinctly different country to other countries in Europe and is renowned for its architecture, art, fashion and heritage. With fast modern trains and great food, wine and a joy of life, Spain is a country that should be high on your list to visit.

Happy travels

Geoff Stuart

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