Spain began building a colonial empire even before completing the Recoquista or unification (1492). The first overseas possession was the Canary Islands (beginning 1402) and it served as a template for the counry's future imperial expansion. Spain was formed primarily by the fusion of Castille and Aragon after the marriahe of Isabella and Ferdinand who ruled as joint soverigns. Castille had no maritime tradition, but Aragon did along with a Mediterranean empire. Efforts to establish North African colonies was met with determined resistance by the Islamacized popultion. Efforts in the Indies beginning with Columbus' voyage (1492) met with far greater success. The fact that a Genoan navigator led the expedition attests to the limited maritime tradition of Castille. The Spanish proceeded to build one of the great world empires, the first truly global empire. Previous empires had been either regional or like the Mongol Empire a purely terrestrial territorial expansion. Spain established colonies on all continents except the Arctic and Antarctica. Great wealth from the Americas flowed into Spain, but it did not suceed in building a great world power. After a century of empire building and efforts to destroy the Reformation, Spain began along slow decline. This culminated in a bloody military campaign against French occupation and loss of most of its empire (early-19th century). The Spanish Empire (Imperio Español) comprised territories and colonies arond the globe administered directly by the Spanish Crown. Spanish conquistadores, navigators,and priests founded colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. This resulted from the Age of Discovery launched by the Portuguese. After Ferdinand and Isabella, Under the Spanish Habsburgs, Spain with the wealth flowing in from the new Empire became the superpower of the age with vast, political, military, and economic power. The Spanish overseas expansion began at roughly the same time as the Reformation (1517). Much of the strength of the empire was devoted to a costly and ultimately uncucessful effprt to stamp out Protestantism. The bullion flowing into Spain had massive economic consequemves throughut Europe. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires were established at about the same time with at first little competition from their European rivals. This ushered in the modern global era (globelization in modern parlance) and the rise of Western dominance in global affairs. The Spanish empire Spain's territorial reach beyond Europe spanned five centuries, although it was sharply reduced with the American wars of independemce (early-19th century). The ls mjor possessions were lost as a result of the Spanish-Amerivan War (1898-99). The last African colonies were given independence (1975).
Spain began building a colonial empire even before completing the Reconquista or unification and discovery of the America, both occurring in the same year (1492). The first overseas possession was the Canary Islands (beginning 1402) and it served as a template for the counry's future imperial expansion. Spain was formed primarily by the fusion of Castille and Aragon after the marriahe of Isabella and Ferdinand who ruled as joint soverigns. Castille had no maritime tradition, but Aragon did along with a Mediterranean empire. Efforts to establish North African colonies was met with determined resistance by the Islamacized popultion. The Portuguese led the way south along the coast of Africa and the Spanish soon followed. It is at this time that African slaves began to appear in numbers. The rimry goal was to reach the East (Indi and China), but trading posts were established t deal in a range of goods, including gold, ivory, and slaves. Spain did not, however, attmpt to conquer, Chistianize, or settle Africa Sub-Saharn Africa. They do just than in what would become the first Spanish colony--the Canary Islands. The Canaries wold vecome te template for the vast empire the coutry would build.
The Empire that Spainwould build resulted from the Age of Discovery launched by the Portuguese. The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world. The ballance of power would shift from Eastern to Western Europe and eventualkly to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas, but the Dutch, English, and French were to follow in the 16th century.
Efforts in the Indies beginning with Columbus' voyage (1492) met with far greater success. The fact that a Genoan navigator led the expedition attests to the limited maritime tradition of Castille. Columbus finally sailed west on his First Voyage under the banner of their most Cathlolic magesties Ferdinand and Isabel. Columbus sailed west into the Atlantic hoping to reach the Indies (1492-93). Columbus with his three ships first landed in the Bahamas andf thn proceeded south to Cuba and Hispaniola. He landed along the northern coast of Hispaniola (December 5, 1492). He called the Tainos he encountered "Indians", convinced that he had reached the Indies. He began the settlement of his discoveries on his Second Voyage (1493-95). Columbus of course had found America. It was not until his Third Voyage when he reached the South American continent that he began to realize, but never admitted. that he had found an entire new continent (1498-50). [Bowden] Columbus despite his achievements was a controversial figure in his own era. He was extrodinarily brutal with the Native Americans on Hispaniola from who he demanded gold and then enslaved. Queen Isabella had ordered that he not enslave the inigenous population. He also brutally ruled over the Spanish colonists. He was a failure as a colonial administrtor. He was in fact returned home from his Third Voyage in chains. His final Fourth Voyage ended in disaster and he almost perished on Jamaica where is ship wrecked (1502-04). He finally had to buy his passage home to Spain--a great humiliation
Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) served in the forces of the Portugese crown involved in military campaigns in India and the Spice Islands (1508-12). Magellan conceived of reaching the Spice Islands (Indonesia) via the Atlantic, but King Emanuel was uninterested, causing Magellan to renounce his Portuguese citizenship. Charles I of Spain (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) commissioned Magellan to find a passage through the Americas to the Spice Islands. Magellan sailed from Seville (1519) and explored the Plate estuary (1520) before crossing into the Pacific through the straits at the tip of South America now named for him. He claimed the Philippines for Spain, but was killed there (1521). One of his ships managed to return to Seville, completing the first circimnavigation of the world (1522).
The Conquistadores were the 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and soldiers of fortune who in Columbus' wake conquered the Indian civilizations of New World from Mexico south to the Southrn Cone. They are most notable for conuering the advanced native American empires of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. Their conquests began in tghe Caribbean with Hispaniola and Cuba. These were, however, rather primative groups with limited resources. On Cuba, the Spanish began receiving rumors of immensely wealthy Native American empires on the mainland. This was in part a desire of the Caribean people to encourage the spabish to move on and in part glimers of informztion gleaned from trade contacts. The legend of the Conquistadores began with Hernán Cortés who led only 500 men with 16 horses conquered Mexico's poweful Aztec Empire with thousands of well-trained, but poorly armed wariors. A force from Mexico under Pedro de Alvarado subsequently conquered the Maya and other groups in Guatemala. Francisco Pizarro led an even smaller force into the hear of the Inca Empire, 180 men and 37 horses. His defeat of the Inca led to Spanish control of much of South merica. A companion, Diego de Almagro, led another force south into Chile. Further more limited expeditions expnded Spanish rule over much of South and Central America and the establishment of the cast Spanish Enpire. The Conquistadores were renowned for their bravery, they were also notorious for their avarice and brutality. Military sucess came with a combination of superior world view, weaponry, division among the Native amnericans, and Europeans diseases which would devestate Native American populations. The Spanish monarchy both relied on the Conquistadores for acquiring vast colonial possessions, but at the same time feared that they commit treason and establish independent kingdoms.
The Spanish Empire, like the British Empire, which was to begin on a smaller scale a century later, involved Christianity. The established Catholic Church with the Soabish monarchs as theirmost devoted supporters was at the heart of the developing Spanish Empire. Religion played aminor role at Jmestown (1609), but at Plymouth (1620), it was at the heart of the foundtion--but a very different kind of Christianity. Not only was the Plymouth colony found by Protestants--they were discenting sect that was being suppresed by King James I who was laying the foundation of the established Church of England. In cotrast, Catholic friars accompanied Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadores from the onset of empire. Thus while the British Empire was in part founded by settlers seeking to escape religious orthodoxy at home, a primary goal of the Spanish monarchs, espcially Philip II, was to impose a religious orthodoxy. And Philip's Church was an unreformed, vigorous Catholic Church that was much less tolerant of discent than James' Church of England. The Church had the Inquisition to thorougly imposed religious orthodoxy. The Catholic Church provided an all-embracing ideology for Spanish expansion. The Coquistadores were driven by a lust for gold, but the religious imperative was a very important part of Philip's motivation. At the beginnijng of the Empire, the supreme authority established on the island of Santo Domingo (the firt imporant colony) with authority extending throughout the Caribbean, was vested in three Jeronymite priors (early-16th century). [Thomas]
The Treaty of Tordesillas formally divided the world between the two Catholic maritime powers, Spain and Portugal (1494). Columbus' discovery of the Americas began a potentially dangerous period of international dispute between Spain and Portugal. Some his torians believe thatPortugal hd already discovered Brazil, but kept in secret. It was, however, not secret that that Portuguese navigators had moved down the Atlantic coast of Africa. Bartholomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa (1486). With Columbus' first voyage (1492), Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand acted quickly to make an international claim to all the lands in the area he had discovered. Pope Alexander VI in a decree divided the world outside of Europe into two zones on each side of a line he set at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The lands discovered in the Western Zones were awarded to Spain, and those in the Eastern Zone were awarded to Portugal. The Papal bull 'Inter Caetera' and other related bulls form the basis for this division and the negotiations between Spain and Portugal. At the time there were no Protestants, but with the Reformation (1519), the Protestats were to be kept out of the New World and East. Portugal objected to the original line that the Pope drew. And a new dividing line was drawn for the Treaty of Tordesillas allowing for Portuguese contol of Brazil which was not yet known outside of Portugal (1494). Additional division was made with the Treaty of Zaragoza (1529). This was complicated, because increasing the area to the west in the Americas reduced the area half way around the world in the Indies (meaning modern Indonesia) which was becoming much mkore valuable than the Americas.
The long history of Spanish colonial rule with only a few exceptions an eraof relative tranquility. This was in part because of the coercive power at the disposal of Spanish colonial authorties, power they rarely had to employ. This was in part because of the system of governamce that evolved in the mulyti-ethnic society with developed throughot the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Spanish Hapsburg authorities imposed a complex juridacal and administrative system taking in to account the evolving ethnic communities. The populations include Spanish and creoles (American-born individuals of Spanish abcestry), indios (the indigenous people, mestizos (mixed indio-European ancestry), and Africans imported as slaves (more omportant in Portuguese Brazil than the Spanisg colonies). The Spanish vision was to wekd these different people into an organic whole, both in bothe Vive Royalty of New Spain (Mexio) and Peru. The Spanish saw their colonies as a Christian commonwealth over seen by the ever present Church theough the Inqusition. These people were organozed heierarcically, but each possessed an alotted space with both duties and rights guaranteed by the crown. The indios had their own herediutary elite of caciques (kurakas in Peru). They acted as intermediaries beteen Spanish royal officials and the indio peasantry. Theoretically every indiviudual in the Soanish colonial commomnwealth had the right of appeal up the beaurreacratic chain of commanded to the king himself.
Spain originally founded colonies in the Caribbean (The Spanish Main), but was disappointed with the economic returns. Within a very short period they began to understood that they had not reached the East (Indies). And they also realized that the Caribbean islands laid off a vast mainland and rumors began to circulate of fabulously rich native empires. This launched a period of conquest (16th century). Spanish conquistadores carved out parts of North, Central, and South America and created a vast empire. This included Native Americans at the hunter-gather stage as well as sophistcated empires, inluding the Azetec, Mayan, and Incan Empires as well as smaller Native American kingdoms. The defeat of these empires left the areas conquered in ruin. So the Spanish had to find a way of ruling theie empire and of rebuilding an economy. They chose the repartimiento/encomienda system which had been used by the Spanish after conqueing the Canary Islands. Th 'repartimiento' was the process of dividing up the Native Americans and assigning them in an 'encomienda'. Encomienda comes from the Spanish word 'encomendar' meaning 'to entrust'. It was essentially a trusteeship, a term used by the League of Nations after World war I. The Spanish used the encomienda system in several areas they conquered. It was of special imporance in Peru and Mexico, notably the area of the most sophisticated Native Amercan empires. Under the encomienda system, the Spanish Crown entrusted Conquistadores and prominent Spaniards with the rule over native communities. Many such grants involvd huge areas. It was essentially a recreation of the European feudal system. The Native Americans were tied to the land and provide labor and tribute to the Spanish lord. In return the Spanish lord would provide protection and education. As it developed in reality, it became virtual slavery. The treatment of the Native Americans was horendous, especially those used for mining, but there were many other abuses. The Crown attempted to protect the Native Americans go a degree, but the King was very far away. Some church men like Bartolomé de las Casas (c1484–1566), also attempted to reduce the abuses, but to little affect.
It was the Indio peasantry that supported the entire Spanish colonial system. The peasantry for the most part did not own land, but worked on a lnd owners estate--the hacienda. This was part of the encomienda system justified by right of conquest and in exchange for the protection and conversion to Catholicism. The Indian peasant on a haciensa was allowed to use a small plot of land for subsuistance. The plot had various names. In Ecuador it was known as a huasipungo. The peasantry in exchange for his plot was subject to varios obligations, includung tribute (head tax), the mita, the reparto, and sales taxes. Tribute collection was assigned to the caciques/kurakas, who were susposed to turn over the funds colldcted twice a year to the corregidores. There was consudrable abuse with the peasants charged too much and the Crown received too little. Mit'a was a Quechua (Incan) term for mandatory labor. It was continued after thd Conquest as the mita by Spanish officals. Soanish colonial officials both modified and intensified the obligations. The reparto was the 'reparto de mercancías' was the requirement to purchase commonly unwanted products, such as textiles, often at outrageoudly high prices. Both the caciques and colonial officials at different levels cooperated in raising prices to maximize returns and their share of the profits. [Walker] These various requirements on the Indio pesantry seriously affected their livelihood and prosperity.
The Spanish proceeded to build one of the great world empires, the first truly global empire. Today when we think of empire, we think of the British Empire. But until the 19th century, it was the Spanish Empire that was the great global empire. Previous empires had been either regional or like the Mongol Empire a purely terrestrial territorial expansion. Spain established colonies on all continents except the Arctic and Antarctica. This culminated in a bloody military campaign against French occupation and loss of most of its empire (early-19th century). The Spanish Empire (Imperio Español) comprised territories and colonies arond the globe administered directly by the Spanish Crown. Spanish conquistadores, navigators, and priests founded colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
The Spanish established a massive epire, but it did not produce the wealth that the Spanis crown expected, in part because it was not the wealthy Indies that Columbus expected. The Conquistadores were fixated on gold and despite Atalappa's treasure extorted by Pizzaro and the ongoing search for El Dorado, the Spanish found very little gold.
What they found was silver. The wealth Spain extracted from its empire was primarily silver. The Spanish discovered a huge silver resource hiugh in the Andes at Potosí in what at the time was Peru (modern Bolivia) onl\y a few years conquering the Inca (1545). They eventually opened several thousanf n\mines using enslaved native and African labor. At virtually the same time, an important silver resource was discovered at Zacatecas in Mexico (1546). This Spanish silver is perhaps best known for the annual treasure fleet transporting it and smaller quantities of gold to Spain. The bullion was laboriously transported from Potosí to Lima and by sea to Panama, across the Istmus by mule and then to Portobelo on the Caribbean. There convoys of Spanish caravels would deliver trade good and pick up the bullion for delivery to Spain. ing to Portobelo the European goods needed in the colonies, carry back to Spain the precious bullion with which the colonists The Quinta or 20 percent was paid the the Crown. Less well known was the Pacific treasure convoys (the Manila galleons) ships which delivered even larger quantities of silver to China via Manila in the Philippines. This was made possible by the Single Whip Law or Reform (一条鞭法), a fiscal law instituted during the middle Ming dynasty (early 16th century)--the same time that the Spanish Conquistadores carved out Sapin's Empire. Zhang Juzheng promulgated Law throughout the empire (1580). The Chinese Imperial tax collection unit changed from rice to silver. China at the time had the world's largest economy--the engine for world economic growth. Europeans wanted Chinese products (silk, pprcelin, tea, and other goods), but had little the Chinese wanted to trade. Spanish silver made the all important China trade possible. And the value of the silver was hightened by arbitrage. The silver was worth more in China than in Europe. The annual Spanish treasure was the envy of other European powers. And other European powers from an early point (England and France) contracted privateers to attack it. The attacks became part of the Dutch war of indepencene
The Spanish Sea Dogs, men like Drake, Hawkins, and Raleigh Most of the attacks were in the Caribbean, but Drake famously conducted a Pacific campaign. These attacks would be a major reason that Philip II sent the Great Armada against Queen Elizabeth who was financing the english privateers. The trade was channelled through the Royal Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) created in Seville (1503). This monopoly turned Seville into the richest city in Europe. Of course Seville or even all of Spain could not nd an increase in prosperity from this flow of bullion spreads outwards through Europe. The region of Seville, and indeed the whole of Spain, could not provide all the goods needed by the colonies. Thus raw materials as well as manufactured goods from Europe were shipped to Seville for transport to America. This helped to mpromote economic growth in Europe, but not in Spain irself. Much of the wealth was used by the Spanish crown to mfight religious wars in Europe--most prominently to supress Protestantism.
Great wealth from the Americas flowed into Spain. The bullion flowing into Spain had massive economic consequemves throughout Europe.
After Ferdinand and Isabella, under the Spanish Habsburgs, Spain with the wealth flowing in from the new Empire became the superpower of the age with vast, political, military, and economic power. The question would become what would Spain do with its vast power. What would become of Spain and its people and neigboring countries as well as Western civilization as a result of the power Spain had acquird. What major advances in occurred in Spain as a result of its wealth and power. Were their important cultural, ecomomic, poltical, scientific, social, or other achievemnts. The answer is eerily similar to the fate of the Soviet Union--virually nothing. The reasons why are very simikilar to the Soviet Inion despite the epartion in time and ideology--the supression of human freedom.
English audacity and technology at sea laid the groundwork for the Royal Navy and command of the seas. The swashbuckling English sea captains of the Elizabethan era were known as "sea dogs". They were a breed apart. They were adventurers who combinined considerable maritime and military skill they allowed them to sucessfully seize Spanish treasure. Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Martin Frobisher, and klesser known names for four decades fought a private war with Spain, the great naval power of the day. Queen Elizabeth was a secret partner, but well known to King Philip. The Queen loaned ships and took her share of the loot from privateering expeditions aimed at Spanish or French shipping. The long conflict with Spain was rooted in an English hunger for Spanish treasure and a commercial and maritime rivalry. The depredations of the Sea Dogs convinced Philip that he must act against England. There best known achievement is defeating the Great Armada and with it the threat of Spanish Catholic absolutism. They bedeveled the Spanish treasure fleet and thus gained for England a share of the Amrican bullion flowing into Europe. The English then formed overseas trading companies and very modest colonization attempts were made in the Caribbean and North America by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. One of these colonies was Jamestown, one of the foundation stones of the future United States.
Three powerful developments came together at roughly the same time. The fall of Granada and thus the completion of the
Reconquista as wll as Colimbus' first voyage both occured un the same year (1492). Luther naimed his 95 Thesis on the church door soon after, initentionally launching the Reformation (1517). By time the Hapsburgs in the person of Charles V oversaw a vast European realm, including both German and other central European provinces as well as Spain. The Spanish army as a result of the Reconquista was the stringest in Europe and as gold and silver poured in from the the Indies, Charles and then his son Philip II had at their command vast power. Much of the strength of the empire was devoted to supporting the Catholic Church and supressing the Protestants. Gret efforts wre made to keep Protstants out of their American colonies. (In shrap contrast to what occurred in the English colonies.) Two of the best known Spanish efforts were the effort to destroy Protestantism in the Netherland and England. This proved enormously expensive. The huge effort to build the Spanish Armada was almost a total failure. And the tiny Netherlabds fought the Spanish armies to a standstill in the Dutch War for Independence. The Spanish and German Hapsburg as well as the Spanish Bourbons undeniably suceeded in steming the Protestant advance, but they failed to destroy the Protestant stronghold on northern Europe. And the Spanish in particular would ultimately squandor much of the wealth of the indies. This and the Spanish Inquisition would in a short period turn the country into a militry, economic, and intellectual backwater.
The Spanish Empire was founded by Ferdinand and Isabella. Through the marriage of Philip the Handsome to Joanna of Castile, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (1498), the Hapsburg Spanish dynasty was established with their son, Charles I of Spain (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire). The Empire was ruled by the Hapsburgs (16-17th centuries). The War of the Spanish Succession changed this. It was the first war of the 18th century in Western Europe. It resultes from Louis XIV's desire to gain control over Spain. It was fought in Europe from (1702-14). The War was primarily fought on land and was the first major engagement of English forces on the European continent beyond French coastal areas. It was the last of the wars launched by Louis XIV in his drive to expand French power and territory. Two great military leaders emerged, the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène who secured major victories over the French. The War eventually statemated and the English withdrew. The Treaty of Utrech (1713) left the crown in Bourbon hands, but with the stipulation that the French and Spanish crowns would never be unified. England gained important territories including Gibralter and areas of Canada. Bourbon rule had consequences for the Spanish Empire. The Bourbons imposed new fiscal measures to 'rationalize' imperial administration and attract more revenue. This began the destabilization of the Empire at the same time recovering populations were putting more pressure on availble resources. [Walker]
The wealth that flowed into Sain unlike Brtain, did not suceed in building a great world power. After a century of empire building and efforts to destroy the Reformation, Spain began along slow decline. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires were established at about the same time with at first little competition from their European rivals. This ushered in the modern global era (globelization in modern parlance) and the rise of Western dominance in global affairs. The Spamish empire Spain's territorial reach beyond Europe spanned five centuries, although it was sharply reduced with the American wars of independemce (early-19th century). The last possessions were lost as a result of the Spanish-American War (1898-99). The last African colonies were given independence (1975).
Boyle. David. Towards the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America (Walker & Company, 2008), 421p.
Thomas, Hugh. World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II (Allen Lane).
Walker, Charles F. The Tupac Amaru Rebellion (Harvard University Press: 2014), 347p.
Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to the Main European empire page]
[Return to the Main Spanish hisory page]
[Introduction] [Animals] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing national pages:
[Return to the Main Spanish regional page]
[Return to the Main Spanish country page]
[Return to the Main countries page]
[England] [France] [Germany] [Italy] [Netherlands] [Portugal]