Alfons VII, King of Aragon and Sicily
10) Alfons VII (1578-1605)
Alfons was the young brother of Ferran and Joan and might reasonably enough have expected not to take the throne. Nevertheless he was plucked from the easy life of an Aragonese baron and thrust upon the throne.
After the great wars of his brothers reigns Alfons came to power with heavy (if unglamorous) task of assimilating the Incas into the Aragonese Empire. While he was willing to do his duty in this area the King would have been less than human had he not looked for opportunities for personal glory abroad, especially in the later years of his reign.
South America, 1605
Faith and Gold
The initial war with the Incas had (at least partially) been waged to bring the word of God to the unfortunate heathens. However, despite the best efforts of the Church, progress was slow, not helped by the frequent revolts that passed through the conquest.
Resources supposedly earmarked for preaching to the natives instead were increasingly pumped into the so called 'Race for the Cape' (i.e. Cape Horn). Alfons wanted to make sure that the bulk of South America was Aragonese (even if he was unwilling to risk war with Britain or Castile - the other interested powers).
By 1605 Alfons South American policy had produced mixed results. On the one hand the Church had made some progress - most notably in Cusco, the Inca capital where the populace had converted to the true faith. Serious revolts had been put down and in territorial terms at least four fifths of the continent had passed into the Aragonese Empire. Yet the bulk of the natives remained recalitrant and the great extent of Aragonese posssions disguised the reality that Catalan settlers remained a distant third behind the Incas and Portugese in the Americas...
New Cities, new hopes
During Alfons reign the old Aragonese settlements of South Africa, Cuba and the Bahamas continued to attract Catalan immigrants, who reckoned them a safer bet than than thinly held Catalan South America or distant Australia. By the end of his reign all three colonies had established chartered cities in all their provinces and had, essentially, become self sustaining overseas territories.
South Africa, the biggest Catalan colony was beginning to become quite distinctive. A growing proportion of the population was made up of creoles (people of European descent born in South Africa) and mestizos (mixed European and African). Under Alfons VII they as yet remained the minority but the potential for South Africa (and Cuba and the Bahamas) to find its own voice was there.
The conquest of Benin, 1584
Aragon went to war twice under Alfons VII: successfully against Benin (in 1584) and, less successfully, against Tranvanacore (from 1601 to 1605). The first was a relatively straightforward attempt to secure a foothold on the route to South Africa, if spurred on by Alfons desires to equal his forebears in imperial adventure. Benin fell swiftly to the Aragonese conquistadors - more soldiers died from the unfamiliar climate than enemy weapons. The missionaries did their work - and did it well: by 1596 the entire country had become Catholic.
If Benin was a shining triumph of Aragonese ability and good fortune Tranvanacore was a sordid and unheroic failure, brought about by incompetence and simple bad luck. The East India Company had pushed for a foothold in India itself and in 1601 they finally got their way. Unfortunately they had decidedly underestimated the opposition. Besides Tranvanacore itself the prince of neighbouring Vijayanagar applied his considerable forces against the Aragonese. While Aragon won most of the battles the vastly superior numbers of the Indians prevented any ability to capitalise on battlefield victories. By 1605 it was clear the war could not be won and Ferran IV, the new King agreed to a white peace. Some harsh lessons had been learned.
Passing the Torch
Having ruled for twenty seven years Alfons died in his sleep on 1 July 1605, to be succeeded by his son Ferran. He had not perhaps been as capable as his brothers and his reign even ended on a touch of failure, but in the greater sense he had left Aragon stronger at his death than when he had found it: what more can be asked of a king?