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The Spanish colonization of the Americas was the settlement and political rule over much of the western hemisphere which was initiated by the Spanish conquistadores and fought mostly by their native allies. Beginning with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, over three centuries the Spanish Empire expanded from early small settlements in the Caribbean to include Mexico, Central America, most of South America, and what today is Southwestern United States, the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of North America, reaching Alaska[1]. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Spanish possessions in America began a series of independence movements, which culminated in Spain's loss of all of its colonies on the mainland of North, Central and South America by 1825. The remaining Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico were occupied by the United States following the Spanish-American War (1898), ending Spanish rule in the Americas.


Christopher Columbus

Portuguese explorers had recently been establishing new routes south along the West African coast, and it seemed likely that the Portuguese caravels would shortly reach the rich trading areas of Asia by traveling east. After his failure to persuade the King of Portugal to sponsor his expedition, Columbus was able to convince the recently crowned monarchs of the Crown of Castile and the Crown of Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand, to finance his novel idea: to reach the trading partners in Asia by traveling directly west across the Atlantic Ocean.

Spanish America XVIII Century (Most Expansion).png

On his immediate discovery of the Taíno people (one of three local Arawak-speaking indigenous groups), whom he met right after arriving on the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas on his first voyage, Columbus got the impression that he could conquer these people easily. In his journal he wrote, "I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I please". He kidnapped some ten to twenty-five Indians and took them back to Spain. Only about seven or eight survived this journey but with the parrots, gold trinkets and other exotic loot Columbus displayed to the Spanish government he was able to persuade them into providing him with seventeen ships, nearly 1,500 men, cannons, crossbows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for the voyage. He returned to Hispaniola and the Taíno (Arawaks) in 1493 demanding food, gold, spun cotton and other supplies. Cooperation was ensured by a punishment system: any minor offense by an Arawak would result in a Spaniard cutting off his ears or nose only to be sent back to the village.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] While generally regarded as an excellent navigator, during this first stay in the New World Columbus wrecked his flagship, the Santa Maria. He was a poor administrator and was stripped of the governorship in 1500.[citation needed]

The Taínos began to resist by refusing to plant for the Spanish and abandoning captured towns, but over time this rebellion grew physically violent. At first, the conquistadors were victorious everywhere they marched and this led to a massive Spanish slave trade in which Columbus brought back some 500 slaves to Spain—while another 500 stayed as slaves for the crew left in the Americas. In the resulting conflict, the native inhabitants used their extensive knowledge of the terrain and applied guerilla tactics such as booby traps, ambushes, attrition, and forced marches to tire the Spanish columns. Although stone arrows couldn't penetrate the best of the Spanish armor, they were somewhat effective if they were used as shrapnel, since they tended to shatter on impact; stone and copper maces were used more effectively. In 1522, a Taíno Cacique named Enriquillo waged a successful rebellion causing the Spaniards to sign a treaty granting the Indian population the rights of Freedom and of Possession. It had little consequences however, as by this time the Indian population was rapidly declining due to European diseases, forced labour, and ritual suicides. Columbus used this resistance by the Indians as a reason to wage war and on March 24, 1495 the famed explorer set out to conquer this race.[citation needed]

The Taíno often refused to participate in the new lifestyle being forced upon them by the Spanish which resulted in suicide. In addition, children were often killed as a perceived escape from a terrible life to come.[citation needed]

Before Columbus's arrival, hundreds of thousands of people populated Hispaniola alone. By 1509, only 60,000 Taíno remained there. Although population estimates vary, Father Bartolomé de las Casas, the “Defender of the Indians” estimated that there were six million (6,000,000) Taíno in the Caribbean at the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492.

The Spaniards were committed to converting their American subjects to Christianity and were quick to purge any native cultural practices that hindered this end. However, most initial attempts at this were only partially successful, as Native 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 Roman Catholic Church's evangelization in Quichua, 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.

Conquest of Mexico

Map depicting Cortes' invasion route

On his fourth and final voyage to America 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.[citation needed]

In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and led the first European expedition to see the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of the New World. In an action with enduring historical import, Balboa claimed the Pacific Ocean and all the lands adjoining it for the Spanish Crown. 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 Muslim Moors in the Iberian peninsula, began toppling the local American civilizations, and attempted to impose Christianity.

There is a difference between the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. Although the Yucatán Peninsula is part of the modern-day country of Mexico, the Spanish conquest of Mexico refers to the conquest of the Mexica/Aztec empire by Hernán Cortés from 1519–21 and his Tlaxcala allies. It is April 22, 1519, the day Hernán Cortés landed ashore and founded the city of Veracruz, that marks the beginning of almost 303 years of Spanish hegemony over the region. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán, on the other hand, refers to the conquest of the Maya states from 1551–1697, when the last stronghold of Chichen Itza was captured by the Xiu Maya and Montejo the Younger.

Conquest of Peru

Map depicting the route of Pizarro from Panama to Cuzco

In the early 16th-century, a group of Spaniards and Inca renegades led by Francisco Pizarro succeeded in toppling the Inca Empire. They took advantage of a recent civil war in the empire (between the factions of the brothers: Atahualpa and Huascar) to capture the ruling monarch, Inca Atahualpa in the city of Cajamarca on November 16, 1532. In the following years the conquistadors and their native allies managed to consolidate their power over the whole Andean region, repressing successive indigenous rebellions until the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Perú in 1542 and the fall of the resistance of Vilcabamba in 1572.


Spain's administration of its colonies in the Americas was divided into the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. In the 18th century, the Viceroyalty of Peru was subdivided into the Viceroyalties of New Granada and Rio de la Plata.

Spanish Immigration to the Americas

It has been estimated that about 240,000 Spaniards came to the Americas in the 1500s and 500,000 in the 1600s, mostly to Mexico and Peru[2]. The population of the Amerindians in the area known today as Mexico declined by an estimated 90% to some between 1 and 2.5 million by the early 1600s—predominately from diseases and civil strife. Likewise in Peru the Amerindian population declined from some 6.5 million at the advent of European arrival to 1 million by the early 1600s. Between 1800s and 1940, 6 million Spaniards emigrated to Argentina, making it the second most popular etnicity in the country.[citation needed]

Independence and settlement in the 20th century

During the Peninsular War, when Spain itself was occupied by Napoleonic troops, several assemblies (juntas) were established by the criollos to rule the lands in the name of Ferdinand VII of Spain. Meanwhile, on May 25, 1809 the first declaration of independence from Spanish rule was signed at Sucre, the same year second on July 16 in La Paz (both in modern Bolivia) and August 10 in Quito (in modern Ecuador), which began a movement for independence that soon spread across Spain's American colonies. This experience of self-government, the influence of liberalism, and the ideas of the French and American Revolutions influenced the Libertadores. All of the colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico eventually freed themselves by the early 1820s, often with help from the British Empire, which had long sought to break the Spanish monopoly on trade with its possessions in America.

In 1898, the United States won the Spanish-American War and occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico (and the Philippines in Asia Pacific), ending Spanish rule in America. Spanish settlement of the region continued, however, as the early 20th century saw a stream of immigration of poor people and political exiles from Spain to the former American colonies, especially Cuba, Mexico and Argentina. After the 1970s, the flow became reversed as Hispanic Americans began settling in Spain. In the 1990s, Spanish companies like Repsol and Telefonica invested in most countries in America particularly in South America, often buying newly privatized companies.

Currently, the Ibero-American countries, with Spain and Portugal, have organized themselves as the Comunidad Iberoamericana de Naciones.

Most Spanish-speaking American countries are part of the Organization of American States, which includes most countries of America and seeks to build continental unity.

See also


  1. ^ Sources about the presence of Spaniards in Alaska, British Columbia and Oregon: Study of the Instituto Cervantes, Study of the Fundació d'Estudis Històrics de Catalunya. In fact, New Spain formally ruled the Southwestern part of what today is the British Columbia (Source)
  2. ^

Further reading

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

External links


Simple English

The Spanish colonization of the Americas began with the arrival in America of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) in 1492.

The Spanish expanded their territories in America over four centuries till it included Central America, most of South America, Mexico, the South of what today is Southern United States, the Western part of what today is Central United States, the Southwestern part of what today is British Columbia in Canada, and even reaching Alaska[1]. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Spanish possessions in America began a series of independence movements, which lead to the complete separation from Spain by the mid 1820's of Mexico, and the colonies in Central and South American. The remaining Spanish colonies, Cuba and Puerto Rico, were lost in 1898 as a consequence of the Spanish-American War.


  1. Sources about the presence of Spaniards in Alaska, British Columbia and Oregon: Study of the Instituto Cervantes, Study of the Fundació d'Estudis Històrics de Catalunya. In fact, New Spain formally ruled the Southwestern part of what today is the British Columbia (Source)

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