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Spanish colonization of the Americas

Spanish colonization of the Americas began with the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus in 1492. He had been searching for a new route to the Asian Indies and was convinced he had found it. Columbus was made governor of the new territories and made several more journeys across the Atlantic Ocean. He profited from the labour of native slaves, whom he forced to mine gold; he also attempted to sell some slaves to Spain. While generally regarded as an excellent navigator, he was a poor administrator and was stripped of the governorship in 1500.


Early Settlement

Early settlements by the Spanish were on the islands of the Caribbean. On his fourth and final voyage in 1502 Columbus encountered a large canoe off the coast of what is now Honduras filled with trade goods. He boarded the canoe and rifled through the cargo which included cacao beans, copper and flint axes, copper bells, pottery, and colorful cotton garments. He took one prisoner and what he wanted from the cargo and let the canoe continue. This was the first contact of the Spanish with the civilizations of Central America.

The Treaty of Tordesillas was an attempt to solve the disputes with the Portuguese colonizers. It split the mostly unknown New World into two spheres of influence; however, when it was fully charted almost all the land fell in the Spanish sphere.

It was 1517 before another expedition from Cuba visited Central America landing on the coast of the Yucatán in search of slaves. This was followed by a phase of conquest: The Spaniards (just having finished a war against the Muslims in the Iberian peninsula) replaced the Amerindian local oligarchies and imposed a new religion: Christianity. (See also: Conquistador, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Bartolomé de las Casas, Spanish Conquest of Yucatan, Spanish conquest of Peru)

Effect on Natives

European diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus) to which the colonial populations had no resistance, and cruel systems of work (the (in)famous haciendas and mining industry's mita) decimated the Amerindian population under its government. African slaves began to be imported. Africans had been exposed to the diseases for centuries and therefore had evolved an immunity. On the other hand, the Spaniards did not impose their language in the same measurement and the Catholic Church even evangelized in Quechua, Nahuatl and Guarani, contributing to the expansion of these Amerindian languages and equipping them with writing systems. The Amerindians allowed parts of Christianity to be a part in their lives due to their belief of manay. The Crown was not satisfied with this half-conversion and began forcing the Natives into plantations, work, eventually the Natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. They were forced to trade and pay taxes to the Spanish government and were punished for disobeying the laws. Their idols were ruined by inspectors and their goods were traded to Europe, for the Amerindian signature design of geometrical designs were much different from the realistic figurative art of European countries.

Spanish colonies

Areas in the Americas under Spanish control included most of South and Central America, Mexico, parts of the Caribbean and much of the United States.

The initial years saw a struggle between the Conquistadores and the royal authority. The Conquistadores were often poor nobles that wanted to acquire the land and labourers (Encomienda) that they couldn't achieve in Europe. Rebellions were frequent (See Lope de Aguirre). The Spanish Crown resorted to several systems of government, including Adelantados, Captaincy General, Viceroyalties, Lieutenant General-Governors and others.


Spain claimed all islands in the Caribbean although they did not settle all of them. They had settlements in the Windward and Leeward Islands and:

South America

See Also: New Granada, Viceroyalty of Peru, Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata

Central America

These countries became independent from Spain in 1821 during Mexico's war of independence.

  • Panama - As part of Colombia, independent in 1819.

North America

See Also: New Spain

This United States postage stamp depicts the Spanish settlement of what is now the American Southwest
This United States postage stamp depicts the Spanish settlement of what is now the American Southwest

New World Trade

The precious metals were subjected to the Quinto Real tax, a fifth of everything seized. The silver of America (especially the mines of Zacatecas and Potosí) went to pay the enormous debt brought by the wars against the Reformation led by the Spanish kings.

Soon the exclusive of commerce between Europe and America was conceded to Seville (later to Cádiz).

Mexico served as a base for the later colonization of the Philippines (see Galeón de Manila)

Northern extent of Spanish influence

In 1720 a small expedition from Santa Fe met and attempted to parley with French allied Pawnee in what is now Nebraska. Things did not go well and a battle ensued; the Spanish were badly defeated, only 13 managing to return to New Mexico. Although this was a small engagement, it is significant being the furthest penetration of the Spanish into the Great Plains, setting the limit to Spanish expansion and influence there.

In 1781, a Spanish expedition during the American Revolutionary War left St. Louis, Missouri, then under Spanish control and reached as far as Fort St. Joseph at Niles, Michigan where they captured the fort while the British were away. Spanish territorial claims based on this furthest north penetration of Spain in North America were not supported at the treaty negotiations.

The Nootka Convention (1791) resolved the dispute between Spain and Great Britain about the British settlement in Oregon to British Columbia. In 1791 the king of Spain gave Alessandro Malaspina an order to search for Northwest Passage.


During the Peninsula War, several assemblies were established by the creole to rule the lands in the name of Ferdinand VII of Spain. This experience of self-government and the influence of Liberalism and the ideas of the French and American Revolutions brought the struggle for independence, led by the Libertadores. The colonies freed themselves, often with help from the British empire, which aimed to trade without the Spanish monopoly.

In 1898, the United States won the Spanish-American War and occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico, ending Spanish occupation in the Americas.

Still, the early 20th century saw a stream of immigration of poor people and political exiles from Spain to the former colonies, especially Cuba, Mexico and Argentina. After the 1970s, the flow was inverted.

In the 1990s, Spanish companies like Repsol and Telefonica invested in South America, often buying privatized companies.

Currently, the Iberoamerican countries and Spain and Portugal have organized themselves as the Comunidad Iberoamericana de Naciones .

See also

Further reading

  • David A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, I492-1867 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993

Last updated: 10-18-2005 17:38:04
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