Spanish Empire

THE SPANISH EMPIRE designates the whole of territories that were conquered and ruled by SPAIN as a result of exploration and colonial expansion initiated in the 15th century. This expansion turned Spain into the first transcontinental superpower during the 16th and 17th centuries and helped shape much of the modern world. Built on military might and naval ingenuity, and maintained by trade and the mining of gold and silver, this period is appropriately known as the Golden Age of Spain.

The Spanish imperial age had profound repercussions in Europe and especially in the conquered regions. The destruction of ancient civilizations, the decimation of indigenous populations, and the introduction of mass slavery rank among the worst consequences. However, the expansion also increased trade, spurred development, and allowed the transplanting of technologies and the adoption of new crops.

Spanish Empire

At its greatest extent, the empire included most of Central and South America, as well as important areas in North America, Africa, Asia, and in Oceania. In the Americas, Spanish possessions stretched from the present-day western UNITED STATES, through Mexico and Central America, and along the western shores of South America to the edge of Patagonia; they included the state of FLORIDA, the Caribbean islands, and what would become VENEZUELA, COLOMBIA, BOLIVIAPARAGUAY, URUGUAY, and ARGENTINA. In Africa, in different periods, Spain held possessions on the coast of present-day EQUATORIAL GUINEA, including the island of Fernando Poo (now Bioko), and occupied territories in the WESTERN SAHARA (occupied by modern MOROCCO). In Asia, Spain ruled the PHILIPPINE Islands. In Oceania, Spain held the Mariana Islands and later the Caroline Islands.

It is true that in some areas, especially in the Americas, Spanish sovereignty was more official than factual, with large tracts of wild and sparsely populated land remaining unexplored until the 1800s. But despite the difficulty to control such a vast domain, Spain maintained much of the empire until the 19th century. Today only the North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and the CANARY ISLANDS, off the African coast, remain under the Spanish flag.


The process leading to the formation of the Spanish empire is rooted in the Reconquista (reconquest), the Crusades undertaken in 722 C.E. by Christian kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula against the Muslims who had invaded from North Africa. It was the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand V of Aragon in 1469 and the resulting union of their separate Iberian kingdoms that marked the onset of Spain's overseas empire. Several major reasons can explain the Spanish overseas expansion.

The will to spread Christianity farther was a legacy of the long period of reconquest, which strengthened convictions of ethnic superiority among the Spaniards. A sense of carrying out a higher mission could be kept alive and increase Spain's international influence. Finally, the need was felt to compete with the neighboring kingdom of PORTUGAL for new territory and for the chance at easier trade with the Far East. Portugal had gained some advantage by embracing maritime exploration from the start of the 15th century and by establishing strongholds in Atlantic islands and along the western coast of Africa, then practically unknown to Europeans. A sea route to the Far East was found when, in 1488, the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa. Also, it was considered necessary to protect Spain's shipping activities and establish fortified positions for defense against Muslim raids. Those areas could also serve as outposts for export of African slaves and precious metals.

Following suit to this strategy, in 1479 Spain gained control of the Canary Islands, important as a source of fish and sugar, but especially for their strategic location. Close to the west African coast, the islands would become valuable as a resupply base for Atlantic crossings.

The year 1492 marks a definitive turning point for Spain and is a key date for the empire. In this year, the Reyes Catolicos, Isabella and Ferdinand, concluded the Iberian reconquest by seizing the Moorish kingdom of Granada and sponsored the search of a westward way to reach Asia, led by Italian navigator Christopher Columbus. The enterprise had been offered and turned down by Portugal, which was more interested in pursuing the African route. At the time, it was thought that the circumference of the Earth was significantly smaller than it actually was, and that no relevant landmasses existed between Europe and Asia. Columbus assumed he had reached India when he inadvertently discovered the Americas, and so the Spanish called the area the Indies. Columbus landed on the island of Espanola (Hispaniola) and sighted CUBA and upon his return claimed for Spain the lands he explored.

Spain and Portugal benefited from strong support by the Catholic Church when their kings began taking the Christian crusades overseas. In other places, ISLAM was still advancing and threatening Christian Europe. The new conquests were confirmed by official papal decrees, with the pope mediating and reducing conflicts between the two nations by attributing more formal boundaries to claims of vaguely bounded territories. At Spain's request, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI officially certified the right of Spain to the newfound West Indies, helping to set the division of the unexplored world between the two countries. In 1494, Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas that established the Line of Demarcation. Crossing over present-day Brazil at the approximate longitude of 48 degrees, this meridian line granted to Spain new land to the west and to Portugal the discoveries to the east. Hence, following the landing by Pedro Alvares Cabral at Porto Seguro in 1500, Portugal claimed Brazil.


Between 1493 and 1502, Columbus made three more voyages to the Americas, insisting that he had reached India, causing the indigenous peoples of the new continent to be called Indians, regardless of their different cultures. The Americas were indeed a new world for Europeans, filled with hostile environments and in some places inhabited by unfriendly natives, who were vulnerable to imported firearms and newly introduced diseases.

The impact of the colonization process was tremendous for both natives and newcomers, and some initial attempts at creating permanent settlements failed. Along with farm animals and fruit trees, Columbus also took around 1,500 colonists on his second voyage to Hispaniola, but within a decade only onetenth of the original population of the island survived. The colony relied heavily on native labor, and the native Tainos died from overwork, battles, or disease. The friar Bartolome de Las Casas would become notable by denouncing the constant abuses of Native Americans. Due to the natives' high mortality, in 1505 the first African slaves were brought to the Americas, inaugurating a grim commerce that would last four centuries and involve 10 million Africans.

Columbus was unsuccessful in his role as administrator and in 1500 lost his post as governor of the Indies. Still, intense immigration continued and by 1509 some 10,000 Spaniards lived on Hispaniola.

From the early 16th century, Spaniards also used the major Caribbean islands as a base for expeditions to mainland Central America and to explore the Guelfo de la Nueva Espana (Gulf of Mexico). In the first half on the 16th century, the New World became a stage of intense expeditionary activity, with Spaniards launching multiple incursions by sail, horse, and foot into the unknown territories. These expeditions were prepared and led by a legion of hardened men, each a blend of navigator, explorer, and warrior, called the conquistadores (conquerors). These men, some veteran of the Iberian reconquest, came enticed by promises of great wealth and glory and mythical places, such as the Seven Cities of Cibola or the Fountain of Youth. These prospects also attracted able Portuguese and Italian navigators to the service of the Spanish crown. The conquistadores advanced through Central and South America taking treasure and territory for Spain while evangelizing the natives, thus winning recognition from the king and approval from the Church.

From Hispaniola, Ponce de Leon settled PUERTO RICO in 1508 and Diego Velazquez conquered Cuba in 1511. In 1510 Vasco Nunez de Balboa founded the first colony on the mainland in Darien, in today's Panama. Three years later, his men crossed the Central American isthmus and became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. That same year, Ponce de Leon sailed northward, encountering the GULF STREAM and landing in Florida. In 1526, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon started a colony in coastal Georgia. Hernando de Soto, and others further explored North America, and during 1540 to 1542, Francisco Coronado's party penetrated inland as far as the Great Plains and sighted the GRAND CANYON. Francisco de Ulloa explored the western coast of MEXICO and Juan Cabrillo sailed to CALIFORNIA, his men reaching as far north as OREGON.

In Central and South America the explorers came upon civilizations wealthier and more advanced than the Caribbean cultures, such as the Maya and Aztec peoples in Mexico and the Incas in PERU. Their technology enabled abundant crops and successful settlement of inhospitable places. The Aztec ruled an area that stretched from central Mexico to GUATEMALA, as an empire where city-states dominated smaller communities and ethnicities.

With aid from Amerindian allies and epidemics, in 1521 Hernan Cortes captured the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, a sophisticated city of 200,000, and in its place erected MEXICO CITY. Cortes tried to claim the area for himself, but instead it would become part of the colony of New Spain. The conquest of the Yucatan and the Maya realm took longer and was less interesting for Spaniards, since the area had no gold or silver.

The powerful Inca Empire had its capital in Cuzco (now in PERU) and occupied a large swath of land along western South America. The heart of the empire was conquered in the early 1530s by Francisco Pizarro, and from Peru expeditions pushed north into ECUADOR and COLOMBIA and south into CHILE. The Amazon basin was first explored in 1541 and 1542 by Francisco de Orellana, who descended the river in search of the legendary chief El Dorado and his golden kingdom.

Explorers also ventured to the Guiana Highlands, where they generally established only isolated and often temporary outposts. On the eastern seaboard, conquistadores founded BUENOS AIRES, in what is now Argentina, in 1536 and Asuncion, in present-day PARAGUAY, in 1537.


By the 1550s, Spanish America was governed as two large administrative regions called viceroyalties, each headed by a representative of the king. The viceroyalty of New Spain included Mexico, most of Central America, and Spanish territories in the Caribbean. The viceroyalty of Peru encompassed what is now PANAMA and almost all of Spanish South America. The major permanent settlements were in central Mexico and in the ANDES MOUNTAINS, and many of the new urban areas were built on an existing native city or town. A few Spaniards dominated a vast indigenous population by relying on existing native hierarchies and practiced unjust systems of work, the haciendas and the mita.

The only Spanish port allowed contact with the Americas was Seville and later Cadiz, from where many people sailed to the New World, at first landing mostly in Mexico and Peru.

The Spanish colonial system in the Americas was maintained by agriculture, mining, and the resulting commerce. Agriculture was based on large estates (haciendas) that depended heavily on the labor of African slaves, who were imported mostly to the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean and the tropical coasts of the mainland to replace the indigenous peoples who had died. The European nations helped supply the Spanish colonies with African slaves.

Agricultural exports to Europe included corn, cotton, dyes, peanuts, potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes. Potatoes and corn revolutionized agriculture and became staples of human survival. In return, cattle, wheat, and barley were sent to the colonies, along with manufactured products. American mines provided much gold but mostly silver. Large silver mines labored in Mexico and Potosi, in present-day BOLIVIA. Discovered in 1545, Potosi remained the world's most important silver mine until the late 17th century. The influx of America's precious metals changed European economies, but Spain spent much of it on wars, luxuries for its nobility and for managing the huge empire.

In the 16th century, as a consequence of the marriage politics of the Reyes Catolicos, their grandson Charles V came to rule the largest Western empire since the Romans, including all of Spain and the colonies, a large share of Italy, the Low Countries, and the Holy Roman Empire. After 1580, under Philip II, Spain also gained control of the Portuguese Empire until 1640.

From the mid-17th century both the colonies and the world started to suffer important changes, and the Spanish Empire began a long period of decline. In the late 1700s, the Americas became an increasing focus of European national rivalries for control of commerce and the international balance of power. Piracy around the Caribbean Sea also intensified, and Spain's contact with the empire decreased. Still, Spain tried to monopolize commerce with the colonies.

Spanish American societies became more complex and different from Spain's, including rising numbers of creoles, people of Spanish descent who were born in the Americas, and mestizo, people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. In the 18th century, the population of Spanish America grew considerably, agricultural and mining production surged, and new towns were built. Spaniards founded settlements and missions in what are now California, ARIZONA, NEW MEXICO, and TEXAS.

When Spain lost the Seven Years' War (1756–63) to Britain, Spain gave up Florida but received the territory of LOUISIANA from FRANCE as compensation, recovering Florida in 1779.

In the late 18th century, Spanish Americans increasingly exported tobacco, cotton, sugar, cocoa beans, and indigo dye, and also enjoyed higher output of gold and silver. Responding to growth and trying to improve its control over the colonies, in 1776 Spain decided to create the new Viceroyalty of the Rio de La Plata in part of South America. With its capital at Buenos Aires, the new viceroyalty was made up of territories formerly governed under the Viceroyalty of Peru.


In the 1780s the Spanish presence still extended over much of the continent, but Spain had to face the growing threat of British power and nearby presence of the Dutch and French. Although trade between Spain and its American colonies increased, Spain was unable to prevent other nations from trading with them, and smuggling of foreign manufactured goods increased. The Spanish government increasingly drained American treasure and resources, and the colonists' resistance grew, with Creole leaders of the colonial society seeking more control and freedom to trade in other markets.

In 1796 the British blockaded shipping between Spain and America, and in 1810 people began to revolt against Spanish authorities, their struggle benefiting from the power vacuum during Napoleon's invasions of the Iberian Peninsula. Simon Bolivar liberated Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador and assisted Jose de San Martin, who had released Chile from Spanish control, to obtain Peru's independence. By 1824, Spain had lost all of its mainland possessions.

Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only remaining American colonies, until the Cuban revolt in 1895 triggered the Spanish-American War, won by the United States. In 1898, Cuba became independent, and Puerto Rico fell under the United States' administration. The Spanish-American War ended 400 years of Spanish dominion in the Americas and marked the rise of the United States as a world power.


Spain's presence in Asia and the Pacific Islands dates from Magellan's attempt in 1521 to find a westward route to the Spice Islands, which resulted in the first circumnavigation of the globe.

In 1542 Spain reasserted claims to the Philippine Islands, which were named in honor of soon-to-be King Philip II. The colonial capital of MANILA was founded in 1571 on the island of LUZON, becoming an important port center where American silver was traded for Chinese silks and porcelain, which were exported to Mexico and Europe. The main islands first developed as a source of gold and spices, but in the 19th century, as Spain's control over colonial trade declined, they began to specialize in a single export crop, such as sugar, indigo dye, rice, hemp, or tobacco. When the Spanish-American War erupted, the Filipino nationalists proclaimed independence, but following the U.S. victory, Spain ceded the archipelago to the United States.

The Mariana Islands, named for Mariana of Austria, were also visited by Magellan in 1521 and claimed by Spain in 1565. Spain governed GUAM from Manila and in the late 1700s the island becomes a regular stopping place for the ships that sailed between Acapulco and Manila. Like the Philippines, when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, Guam became a U.S. possession, but the other Mariana Islands were sold to GERMANY. Spreading across MICRONESIA, the Caroline Islands were first reached by Spaniards in the late 1520s, were claimed by Spain in the 1870s, and in 1899 were also sold to Germany.


In North Africa, Spanish expansion started in Melilla and Ifni in 1497 and came to include a number of small coastal exclaves. In the 1500s Spain also made some incursions into present-day ALGERIA, TUNISIA, and LIBYA, and in 1580 acquired Ceuta from Portugal, a stronghold on the North African coast that served as a major Mediterranean port for goods (gold, ivory, and slaves) transported from the interior of Africa across the SAHARA DESERT. A trading post was set on the Rio de Oro in 1881, an inlet opposite the Canary Islands in the region later known as the Spanish Sahara, and in 1884 Spain declared a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cape Blanc.

In 1956 and 1958, Spain left Morocco, in 1969 ceded Ifni to that country, and withdrew from Spanish Sahara in 1975 (now known as WESTERN SAHARA), but retained Ceuta and Melilla.

Further south, in the late 1700s, Spain received from Portugal areas in the Gulf of Guinea off western Africa, namely the islands of Fernando Poo (now Bioko) and Annobon (now San Antonio de Pale), and the territory of Rio Muni (now Mbini) on the African mainland. In 1858 Spain created the colony of Spanish Guinea and in the 1870s more land was acquired. Catalan migrants established rich cocoa plantations on Fernando Poo. These territories obtained independence in 1968 under the name of the Republic of EQUATORIAL GUINEA.

Strategically located at the the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, the rock of GIBRALTAR was ceded to Britain in 1713 and it is still claimed by Spain.


Although the Spanish Empire has vanished, its main legacies endure. In Latin America and in the Philippines, large Catholic populations remain, and Spanishspeakers are now the third largest language group in the world, with more than 350 million people. Spanish is also spoken by many Moroccans.

In Spanish America, the boundaries of the new nations denounced the old Spanish imperial jurisdictional divisions. Many cities retained forms of Spanish urban planning, with a large central square anchored by a church and a city hall and streets radiating out from it. In some places Spanish customs, such as bullfighting and the afternoon siesta, remain. Since the 1950s Spain's economy developed rapidly, and its trade with the former colonies increased. Spain now receives immigrants from former colonies and is a key investor in most Latin American countries.