The Spanish Empire lasted from the time of Christopher Columbus to c. 1900 and in that time was the starting point for many of the famous European explorers and the home of an empire that, for hundreds of years, ruled most of the Americas. The Spanish Empire, historically known as the Hispanic Monarchy and as the Catholic Monarchy, was one of the largest empires in history. From the late 15th century to the early 19th, Spain controlled a huge overseas territory in the New World and the Asian archipelago of the Philippines, what they called “The Indies”. It also included territories in Europe, Africa and Oceania. The Spanish Empire has been described as the first global empire in history, a description also given to the Portuguese Empire. It was the world’s most powerful empire during the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries, reaching its maximum extension in the 18th century. The Spanish Empire was the first empire to be called “the empire on which the sun never sets”.
Castile became the dominant kingdom in Iberia because of its jurisdiction over the overseas empire in the Americas and the Philippines. The structure of empire was established under the Spanish Habsburgs (1516–1700) and under the Spanish Bourbon monarchs, the empire was brought under greater crown control and increased its revenues from the Indies. The crown’s authority in The Indies was enlarged by the papal grant of powers of patronage, giving it power in the religious sphere. An important element in the formation of Spain’s empire was the dynastic union between Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as the Catholic Monarchs, which initiated political, religious and social cohesion but not political unification. Iberian kingdoms retained their political identities, with particular administration and juridical configurations.
Although the power of the Spanish sovereign as monarch varied from one territory to another, the monarch acted as such in a unitary manner over all the ruler’s territories through a system of councils: the unity did not mean uniformity. In 1580, when Philip II of Spain succeeded to the throne of Portugal (as Philip I), he established the Council of Portugal, which oversaw Portugal and its empire and “preserv its own laws, institutions, and monetary system, and united only in sharing a common sovereign.” The Iberian Union remained in place until in 1640, when Portugal overthrew Habsburg rule and reestablished independence under the House of Braganza. Under Philip II, Spain, rather than the Habsburg empire, was identified as the most powerful nation in the world, easily eclipsing France and England. Furthermore, despite attacks from other European states, Spain retained its position of dominance with apparent ease.
The Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis (1559) confirmed the inheritance of Philip II in Italy (the Mezzogiorno and the Duchy of Milan). Spain’s claims to Naples and Sicily in southern Italy dated back to the Aragonese presence in the 15th century. Following the peace reached in 1559, there would be no Neapolitan revolts against Spanish rule until 1647. The Duchy of Milan formally remained part of the Holy Roman Empire but the title of Duke of Milan was given to the King of Spain. The death of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566 and the naval victory over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 gave Spain a claim to be the greatest power not just in Europe but also in the world.
The Spanish Empire in the Americas was formed after conquering large stretches of land, beginning with Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean Islands. In the early 16th century, it conquered and incorporated the Aztec and Inca Empires, retaining indigenous elites loyal to the Spanish crown and converts to Christianity as intermediaries between their communities and royal government. After a short period of delegation of authority by the crown in the Americas, the crown asserted control over those territories and established the Council of the Indies to oversee rule there. Some scholars consider the initial period of the Spanish conquest as marking the most egregious case of genocide in the history of mankind. The death toll may have reached some 70 million indigenous people (out of 80 million) in this period. However, other scholars believe the vast majority of indigenous deaths were due to the low immunological capacity of native populations to resist exogenous diseases. Many native tribes and their cultures were entirely wiped out by the Spanish conquest and disease epidemics.
The structure of governance of its overseas empire was significantly reformed in the late 18th century by the Bourbon monarchs. Although the crown attempted to keep its empire a closed economic system under Habsburg rule, Spain was unable to supply the Indies with sufficient consumer goods to meet demand, so that foreign merchants from Genoa, France, England, Germany, and The Netherlands dominated the trade, with silver from the mines of Peru, Bolivia and Mexico flowing to other parts of Europe. The merchant guild of Seville (later Cadiz) served as middlemen in the trade. The crown’s trade monopoly was broken early in the seventeenth century, with the crown colluding with the merchant guild for fiscal reasons in circumventing the supposedly closed system. Spain was unable to defend the territories it claimed in the Americas, with the Dutch, the English, and the French taking Caribbean islands, using them to engage in contraband trade with the Spanish populace in the Indies. In the seventeenth century, the diversion of silver revenue to pay for European consumer goods and the rising costs of defense of its empire meant that “tangible benefits of America to Spain were dwindling…at a moment when the costs of empire were climbing sharply.”
The Bourbon monarchy attempted to expand the possibilities for trade within the empire, by allowing commerce between all ports in the empire, and took other measures to revive economic activity to the benefit of Spain. The Bourbons had inherited “an empire invaded by rivals, an economy shorn of manufactures, a crown deprived of revenue… [and tried to reverse the situation by] taxing colonists, tightening control, and fighting off foreigners. In the process, they gained a revenue and lost an empire.” The Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian peninsula precipitated the Spanish American wars of independence (1808-1826), resulting the loss of its most valuable colonies. In its former colonies in the Americas, Spanish is the dominant language and Catholicism the main religion, enduring cultural legacies of the Spanish Empire.
For hundreds of years, the Moorish people (Muslims from Northwest Africa) controlled parts of Spain and, therefore, ruled over the Spanish people. Eventually, however, the Spanish pushed the Moorish people off the European continent, and the Spanish then were able to focus on exploring new lands. The Spanish government supported Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the west, which resulted in the discovery of the North American continent (however, the Vikings and, of course, the Native Americans had long since discovered North America.)
The Spanish took advantage of Columbus’ discovery and the posterior circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan, and quickly got large portions of the Americas and the Pacific islands under control; the British and the French would lag behind the Spanish until the 1600s. Spain’s empire became huge, and remained so until the early 1800s, when Latin America became independent from Spanish rule.
However, a mere look at a map can be deceiving and while the Spanish Empire did indeed declare (and in many case have said declarations recognized by other European powers) rule over vast swaths of territory, often they just replaced the very top layer of native society with Spaniards and only slowly spread their rule and the Spanish language further, sometimes even relying on Native languages like Nahuatl in Mexico or Guaraní in what is today Paraguay. Some countries had to engage in “nation building” or even outright conquest of de facto indigenous polities even after independence. Nicaragua only got control of Caribbean Nicaragua a hundred years after the Spanish Empire lost control over Central America and Chile only subdued its southernmost parts after independence.
Finally, the Spanish Empire largely ceased to exist following the Spanish-American War, when much of Spain’s final colonial possessions were surrendered to the United States.
Regions once part of the Spanish Empire
South America, excluding Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
Central America, excluding Belize, and parts of the Caribbean (Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico)
Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish colony in Africa other than the Canary Islands and the ports of Ceuta and Melilla
Western Sahara, one of Spain’s last colonies whose “messy divorce” with the mother country — and subsequent Moroccan invasion — created an enduring conflict that while “frozen” presents problems for mapmakers to this day
Florida, Louisiana, Texas and quite a few southwestern states in the United States were once part of the Spanish Empire; some eventually were part of the Mexican Empire before the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.
The Netherlands and Portugal
Although the Spanish Empire declined from its apogee in the middle seventeenth century, it remained a wonder for other Europeans for its sheer geographical span. Writing in 1738, English poet Samuel Johnson questioned, “Has heaven reserved, in pity to the poor,/No pathless waste or undiscovered shore,/No secret island in the boundless main,/No peaceful desert yet unclaimed by Spain?”
The Spanish Empire left a huge linguistic, religious, political, cultural, and urban architectural legacy in the Western Hemisphere. With over 470 million native speakers today, Spanish is the second most spoken native language in the world, as result of the introduction of the language of Castile—Castilian, “Castellano” —from Iberia to Spanish America, later expanded by the governments of successor independent republics. In the Philippines, the Spanish–American War (1898) brought the islands under U.S. jurisdiction, with English being imposed in schools and Spanish becoming a secondary official language.
An important cultural legacy of the Spanish empire overseas is Roman Catholicism, which remains the main religious faith in Spanish America and the Philippines. Christian evangelization of indigenous peoples was a key responsibility of the crown and a justification for its imperial expansion. Although indigenous were considered neophytes and insufficiently mature in their faith for indigenous men to be ordained to the priesthood, the indigenous were part of the Catholic community of faith. Catholic orthodoxy enforced by the Inquisition, particularly targeting crypto-Jews and Protestants. Not until after their independence in the nineteenth century did Spanish American republics allow religious toleration of other faiths. Observances of Catholic holidays often have strong regional expressions and remain important in many parts of Spanish America. Observances include Day of the Dead, Carnival, Holy Week, Corpus Christi, Epiphany, and national saints’ days, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico.
Politically, the colonial era has strongly influenced modern Spanish America. The territorial divisions of the empire in Spanish America became the basis for boundaries between new republics after independence and for state divisions within countries. With no colonial precedent for democracy or a legislative branch of government, the executive power is stronger than legislative power. The idea that government should benefit those at the top and that public office is a source of enrichment for officeholders is a legacy of the colonial era.
Hundreds of towns and cities in the Americas were founded during the Spanish rule, with the colonial centers and buildings of many of them now designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites attracting tourists. The tangible heritage includes universities, forts, cities, cathedrals, schools, hospitals, missions, government buildings and colonial residences, many of which still stand today. A number of present-day roads, canals, ports or bridges sit where Spanish engineers built them centuries ago. The oldest universities in the Americas were founded by Spanish scholars and Catholic missionaries. The Spanish Empire also left a vast cultural and linguistic legacy. The cultural legacy is also present in the music, cuisine, and fashion, some of which have been granted the status of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The long colonial period in Spanish America resulted in a mixing of indigenous peoples, Europeans, and Africans that were classified by race and hierarchically ranked, favoring white Europeans.
In concert with the Portuguese Empire, the Spanish Empire laid the foundations of a truly global trade by opening up the great trans-oceanic trade routes and the exploration of unknown territories and oceans for the western knowledge. The Spanish Dollar became the world’s first global currency.
One of the features of this trade was the exchange of a great array of domesticated plants and animals between the Old World and the New in the Columbian Exchange. Some cultivars that were introduced to America included grapes, wheat, barley, apples and citrous fruits; animals that were introduced to the New World were horses, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens. The Old World received from America such things as maize, potatoes, chili peppers, tomatoes, tobacco, beans, squash, cacao (chocolate), vanilla, avocados, pineapples, chewing gum, rubber, peanuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pecans, blueberries, strawberries, quinoa, amaranth, chia, agave and others. The result of these exchanges was to significantly improve the agricultural potential of not only in America, but also that of Europe and Asia. Diseases brought by Europeans and Africans, such as smallpox, measles, typhus, and others, devastated indigenous populations that had no immunity, with syphilis the exchange from the New World to Old.
There were also cultural influences, which can be seen in everything from architecture to food, music, art and law, from Southern Argentina and Chile to the United States of America together with the Philippines. The complex origins and contacts of different peoples resulted in cultural influences coming together in the varied forms so evident today in the former colonial areas.