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How did the Spanish Empire begin?
The Modern Spanish state itself began when the small Christian communities north of the mountains in the north coast of Spain began to regain the country from the invading Muslims. Gradually they extended the area they controlled further south, coalescing into three main kingdoms: Portugal; Castile and Aragon (Catalonia) plus the mainly Basque Navarra. This process ended in 1492 with the conquest of the last Muslim kingdom, Granada and the union of Castile and Aragon under the Aragonese king. Aragon ruled parts of Italy, Sardinia and the Balearic islands.

This was also the date when Spain's expansion outside Europe began.

Overseas influence
One of the component parts of the united Spanish kingdom was Aragon, consisting mostly of modern Catalonia. This kingdom expanded to the east, to parts of Italy, especially Sicily, occupied from 1282 to 1442 (as part of a complex struggle between the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the French and the native Sicilians). Sicily, like Spain, had been ruled by Muslims for a period.

The Age of expansion
In Europe the Portuguese were the first to contact non-European peoples by sea. They were followed by Spain. Whereas the Portuguese headed south (though may also have covered other areas), it was a result of the wish and plan of the Genoese Cristobal Columbus that the rulers of Spain sponsored the contact to the west, and therefore opened up a continent hardly known to Europeans. (See Hugh Thomas - "Rivers of Gold" for a history of those early explorations and conquests.)

Columbus reached the Caribbean. He seems never to have realised he was in a new continent unknown to Europe, but thought he was in the East.

As soon as he arrived he and his associates treated the area as Terra Nullius - belonging to no-one - and it was declared the property of the Spanish Crown, thus beginning the custom of the European empires - ignoring the rights of the people living there.

The invaders claimed to be advancing the interests of the Spanish Crown, but in practice were advancing their own interests. Like the Crusaders they were predominantly Younger Sons - those without an inheritance under European laws and therefore their main intention was to acquire wealth. Like the early British Empire the effort was mainly a private enterprise.

They began on the island of Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where they built a city for a Spanish governor, churches for the Catholic religion, and began to enslave the local people. For these the arrival was a catastrophe. Although the conquerors found new agricultural products (Maize, pineapples, Guavas, Chocolate, and in the South potatoes), which in the end transformed the diet of the whole world, their orders were to find gold to pay the king's debts. Thus, like the aristocracy from which the leaders came, they were not interested in trade but in plunder - stealing.

From that island they moved to Cuba, founding cities and exterminating the natives.

North America
Mexico can be classified as North America, though its affinities are with Central America as the Aztecs shared much of the culture of the Mayas. However, before the United States expanded, Spanish-ruled Mexico included much of what became the western United States.

The Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes landed on the shores of Mexico in 1520 with two major weapons: gunpowder and horses. Although horses had lived in the Americas at the end of the Ice Age they had died out and none of the native Americans had draft animals or wheeled vehicles.

The Conquistadors made alliances with some of the people who had been enslaved by the Aztecs whose center was Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). For the Aztecs themselves the arrival of the Spanish invaders was a catastrophe - the end of their empire which had lasted for about 100 years since they came out of the deserts to the north and conquered the previous rulers. For the non-Aztecs it was at first a deliverance from the slavery to the Aztecs, enforced by mass human sacrifices (a practice common throughout the Central American cultures but more extreme in the Aztec empire).

From the 17th century Spanish missionaries and explorers pushed on to the north of Mexico into territory which is now the western part of the United States, reaching along the coast to northern California. Missions of Catholic priests were built in California and the other southwestern states: New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

In Mexico itself imported diseases such as smallpox reduced the native population by about 80%. The survivors came to speak Spanish and their own culture disappeared into folk customs - though some of the languages survive.

Central America
The modern states of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Some of this area was occupied by Maya tribes, speaking languages within the Maya language family, and sharing a culture derived from the Classical period of huge monuments.

Soldiers and missionaries travelled and settled in the Maya area. Their effect was to destroy the political structures and the historical records. However, the language has survived and many of the religious ceremonies continue, in secluded areas or in the guise of Catholic ceremonies.

At the isthmus of Panama they viewed the Pacific Ocean and began to realise the real position of their new conquests - not in Asia. This knowledge led to the advance into South America, and especially the Pacific Coast.

South America
Spain came to occupy most of the continent. Conquistadors met the Andean empires of the Incas. As with the Aztecs their gunpowder, horses and metals made them much stronger than the highly organised civilisations of the Andes. There too they made use of the subjected peoples of the Incas and when they attacked, the "Spanish" army was largely composed of "natives".

They found the gold and silver they had been seeking in South America, especially in the area of modern Bolivia and Peru. This they shipped out via either the Cape Horn route in sub-antarctic waters, or via the peninsula of Panama. Other Europeans learned of these trades and sometimes attacked the treasure ships.

Caribbean
Spain ruled at one time or another most of the islands in the Caribbean but lost the smaller ones to France, Britain and the Netherlands.

South East Asia
In the east the Tordesillas line gave Spain the Philippine Islands (named after king Philip of Spain). The first European visitor was Magellan (Portuguese, killed there) in 1521. Spain ruled it as a colony from 1565 until ejected by the United States in 1898 allegedly acting to assist local insurgents, struggling to gain independence.

Africa
The empire in Africa was confined to two territories in West Africa and two enclaves in the north: Rio de Oro; Equatorial Guinea and Ceuta and Mellilla. These were acquired after the treaty of Tordesillas was no longer considered binding. Ceuta and Mellilla were taken over from Portugal.

Rio de Oro (Gold River) was entirely misnamed as it is on the western edge of the Sahara and had neither a river nor gold. It is now Western Sahara and disputed with Morocco and independence fighters. Equatorial Guinea with the island of Fernando Po was a slave base. After the end of the slave trade it was a base for plantations of Cocoa.

North Africa
Spain was involved in Morocco and after colonial wars administered a part of Morocco (the other, larger, part going to France).

Oceania
Spain occupied some islands in the Pacific.

Interesting Reading

Hugh Thomas - Rivers of Gold
A detailed account of the early conquests



Hugh Thomas - The Golden Empire of Charles V

The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V
The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America

The next stage, the conquest of South America and the effect on Europe
Henry Kamen - Spain's road to empire



A useful collection of reviews of Kamen's book.
David Abulafia - The Discovery of Mankind



Review of David Abulafia - the Discovery of Mankind.



A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

Guardian review

How was the Spanish Empire ruled?

From the beginning the kings of Spain appointed governors of the different areas of the Empire. The first was based on the island of Hispaniola. Later governors were based in Mexico City and Lima in Peru.

Spain never developed the detailed colonial administration used in the later European empires by Britain and France. What developed was more similar to the medieval European states, with some of the qualities of feudalism. Perhaps this is why the Latin American countries took so long to develop political cultures, each spending long periods under military rule.

Did Spain gain from the Empire?
In the beginning the King paid off his debts with the silver and gold brought back from the Americas - stolen from the natives, and then produced by slave labour. The gold bought mercenaries and Spanish influence in Europe, but was not invested in industry or anything useful and led to inflation throughout Europe.

Like other European powers Spain gained from the profits of the slave trade, though as Spain itself weakened the English and French gained more as time passed. They also exploited the sugar plantations of the Caribbean but, again it was the French and English who gained most, after they were captured. Overall, after the gold and silver Spain did not stay wealthy from its empire. Spain itself remained poor and undeveloped and did not gain even from more or less honest trade. Other European powers, especially Britain and France became relatively richer in the same period.

How did the Spanish Empire end?
There were wars of independence as the Spanish state itself became weak and divided with civil wars, especially after Spain had been occupied by Napoleonic forces.

First Latin America was lost after a revolt led by Simon Bolivar. The Spanish state could not raise the funds to fight numerous guerrilla wars and found, as Britain had discovered 50 years before, that colonists could not be held against their will. The last part of the empire: Cuba, Puerto Rico and Philippines were lost to the United States in a war of conquest (1898). Puerto Rico became a territory (colony) of the US; Cuba was allowed nominal independence.

After the Spanish Empire
Ibero-American summit is an organization of the Spanish speaking nations. Its main institution is a regular meeting of heads of government. Spanish companies, such as the main Phone company Telefonica and Spanish electricity companies are active in many of the former colonies.

An interesting recent development is the role of the Spanish judicial system in investigating crimes in Latin American states. Thus Spanish investigating magistrates have interested themselves in incidents in Argentina during the last military regime, in Chile calling for the trial of the late General Pinochet (for killing Spanish citizens in Chile), and most recently in Guatemala during the civil war (when the Spanish embassy was burned down with many deaths).

However, Spain itself is now (2012) in deep economic trouble and many Spanish citizens, especially the young, are emigrating to the former empire in search of employment.

 Argentina  Ecuador  Jamaica  Paraguay
 Bahamas  El Salvador  Martinique  Peru
 Bolivia  Equatorial Guinea  Mexico  Philippines
  Chile  Guadeloupe  Montserrat*  Puerto Rico
 Colombia  Guatemala  Morocco (part) Trinidad and Tobago
Costa Rica  Grenada  Nicaragua  Turks and Caicos Islands*
 Cuba  Guam  Palau  Uruguay
 Dominican Republic  Honduras  Panama   Venezuela
 Dominica      Western Sahara
Rio de Oro

 British

 French

 American or other

 Spanish to the end

Most of the Caribbean Islands have been occupied and ruled by Spain at one time, though afterwards captured and fought over by Britain and France (and other powers). Few cultural influences from Spain remain in the British, French, American or Arab territories.

Last revised 29/01/12



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