Spanish colonization of the Americas

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Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas began with the arrival in America 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

Word of Colombus's discovery caused trouble between Spain and Portugal, each of whom had been given Papal permission to colonize the region. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1492, was an attempt to resolve this conflict. It split the mostly unknown New World into two spheres of influence; however, once it was fully charted, almost all of the land fell in the Spanish sphere.

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.

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) began toppling the local American civilizations, and attempted to impose 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 native populations had no resistance, and cruel systems of forced labor, such as the infamous haciendas and mining industry's mita), decimated the American population. These diseases usually preceeded the Spanish invaders, and the resulting population loss (between 30 and 90 percent in some cases) severely weakened the native civilizations' ability to fight back.

After conquering an area, the colonists usually enslaved the native people, using them for forced labor. However disease continued to kill them off in large numbers, and so African slaves, who had already developed immunities to these diseases, were quickly brought in to replace them.

The Spaniards were committed to converting their American subjects to Christianity, often by force, and were quick to purge any native cultural practices that hindered this end. However, most initial attempts at this were only partially successful, as American groups simply blended Catholicism with their traditional beliefs. On the other hand, the Spaniards did not impose their language to the degree they did their religion, and the Catholic Church's evangelization in Quechua, Nahuatl and Guarani actually contributed to the expansion of these American languages, equipping them with writing systems. Many native artworks were considered pagan idols and destroyed by Spanish explorers. This included the many gold and silver sculptures found in the Americas, which were melted down before transport to Europe.

In some areas, particularly in Mexico, the Natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. These and the original Americans were often forced to pay unfair taxes to the Spanish government and were punished harshly for disobeying their laws. In other areas, the Natives stayed ethnically distinct, and continued to resist for more than two centuries.

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 (Encomiendas and Repartimientos) 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 River Plate

Central America

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

  • Panama - As part of Colombia, independent in 1810. Declared independence from Colombia in 1903.

North America

See Also: New Spain

This United States postage stamp depicts the Spanish settlement of what is now the US Southwest
This United States postage stamp depicts the Spanish settlement of what is now the US 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. Negotiations were unsuccesful, and a battle ensued; the Spanish were badly defeated, with only 13 managing to return to New Mexico. Although this was a small engagement, it is significant in that it was the deepest penetration of the Spanish into the Great Plains, establishing the limit to Spanish expansion and influence there.

In an effort to exclude Britain and Russia from the eastern Pacific, the Spanish crown sent Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra north from Mexico in 1775 to find and control the fabled Northwest Passage.

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 settlements in Oregon to British Columbia. In 1791, the King of Spain gave Alejandro Malaspina command of an around-the-world scientific expedition, with orders to locate the Northwest Passage and search for gold, precious stones, and any American, British, or Russian settlements along the northwest coast.

In the end, the North Pacific rivalry proved too costly for Spain, who withdrew from the region in 1819, leaving little more than a few place names.


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
  • Naske, Claus-M and Herman E. Slotnick (2003). Alaska: A History of the 49th State, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. ISBN 0-8061-2099-1
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