Empire in the Americas, Spanish

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Empire in the Americas, Spanish

The last vestiges of Spanish imperialism in the Americas disappeared in 1898 when Spain withdrew from Cuba and Puerto Rico. The mainland empire had ended seventy-four years earlier, in 1824, with the viceroy of Peru's surrender to a patriot army—a surrender that marked the end of the process of continental emancipation that had begun in Caracas and Buenos Aires in 1810. At its height, in the late eighteenth century, this imposing empire stretched from California to Chile. It incorporated not only the territories commonly referred to as "Spanish America," but also Florida (ceded to the United States in 1821), Louisiana (uncharted lands to the west of the Mississippi ceded to France in 1801 and sold to the United States in 1803), and the northern borderlands (Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Upper California, all of which passed to independent Mexico in 1821 and to the United States in the 1840s). Many of these territories had only a token Spanish presence, as did vast regions in South America (notably southern Chile, Patagonia, and lands east of the Andes). Nevertheless, the edifice endured for over 300 years, with only islands and isolated mainland territories in the Caribbean being lost to rival European powers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The frontiers of empire were ill defined, despite occasional attempts to demarcate them—notably, the Treaty of Madrid (1750), which recognized that Portuguese Brazil had expanded beyond the line established at Tordesillas in 1494. However, by the mid-sixteenth century the core areas of Spanish settlement had been clearly determined by two principal factors: the availability of precious metals (initially from native treasure hoards and from the mid-1540s from silver mining) and the presence of sedentary native populations accustomed since the preconquest era to providing tribute.

The empire's initial origins are to be found, of course, in the three voyages to "the Indies" mounted by Columbus in 1492 to 1498. The first led to his landfall in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, and took him to the northeast coast of Cuba and the north coast of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where the first Spanish settlement in the Americas was founded two months later. By March 1493 Columbus was back in Spain, displaying American natives and gold to Ferdinand and Isabella. They promptly authorized his second expedition, whose seventeen ships and 1,200 men left Cadiz in September with the primary task of settling Hispaniola rather than searching for a route to Asia. His third and fourth expeditions went to Trinidad and Venezuela in 1498 to 1500 and Central America in 1502 to 1504. Although Columbus believed until his death (1506) that Asia could be reached by sailing west, his former collaborator, Amerigo Vespucci, realized during a voyage to Brazil in 1501 that the landmass he encountered was part of a hitherto-unknown continent, which he named Mundus Novus (New World). Increasingly, European geographers accepted his logic, and from 1507 were calling the new lands "America" in his honor.

The Spanish Conquests in America
Region or People Date
Puerto Rico1507
The Mexica1521
The Inka1538
The Inka of Vilcabamba1572
New Mexico1696
The Itza1697

By 1500, 6,000 men—mainly artisans, peasants, and seafarers—from southwestern Spain had migrated to Hispaniola, which gradually emerged as a base for the exploration and settlement of the other major Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509) and Cuba (1511). Puerto Rico, in its turn, became the platform for the discovery of Florida in 1513, although the 1521 attempt by the island's governor to establish a permanent settlement there was defeated by native resistance. In Central America, too, initial attempts in 1509 to settle colonists on the isthmus of Panama were overcome by a combination of native hostility and yellow fever, with the loss of 1,000 Spaniards. However, reinforcements from Hispaniola rescued the enterprise, leading to the foundation of the city of Darien in 1510 and, three years later, the first Spanish crossing of the isthmus to the shores of the Pacific. During this period the first contact was made with Yucatán, and further probes from Cuba in 1517 to 1518 culminated in the 1519 expedition of Hernán Cortés, which in 1521 captured the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, razed and rebuilt as Mexico City. This new phase of imperialism on the mainland reached even greater heights in 1533 with the capture of Cuzco, the capital of the Incas, by Francisco Pizarro. Peru, in its turn, served as the base for penetration northward into Ecuador and New Granada (modern Colombia) and southward into Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) and Chile, while new expeditions from Spain to the southern Atlantic founded Buenos Aires in 1536 and Asuncion in 1537. At both ends of this rapidly expanding empire the quest for further fabulous cities and civilizations drew intrepid Spanish explorers into increasingly remote regions, including the Amazon basin, the Guianas, and the borderlands of northern Mexico. The failure to find either treasure or easily subdued natives in these regions led to their abandonment or, at best, the establishment of isolated outposts. As a result, permanent settlement became increasingly concentrated in central and southern Mexico and the Andean region. These areas became the favored destinations for the continuous stream of new migrants—2,000 a year were sailing for America by the 1530s—as the Caribbean islands were relegated to a position of secondary importance.

An estimated 300,000 Spaniards migrated to America in 1492 to 1600. They were followed by 450,000 more in 1601 to 1700, and another 500,000 in 1701 to 1810, giving an overall total of 1,250,000. In the same period almost one million black slaves arrived from West Africa (75,000 by 1600; 292,000 in 1601–1700; 578,000 in 1701–1810). They were first shipped in significant numbers in the 1520s, as the disappearance of the native population in the Caribbean (due to ill-treatment and imported diseases such as measles and smallpox) created a demand for labor. As in British America, slaves were concentrated in areas where plantation agriculture flourished. However, blacks—slave and free—were also present in large numbers in towns and cities throughout the empire, working in Spanish households and also as artisans and shopkeepers. They had greater access to manumission (emancipation from slavery) than their counterparts in British America—a 1791 census showed, for example, that Peru had 40,000 slaves and 41,000 free blacks, while another (1797) identified 65,000 slaves and 54,000 free blacks in Cuba's total population of 272,000. This was partly because Spanish colonists were readier than the British to accept that, although all slaves were black, not all blacks had to be slaves. Most of the colonial censuses understated actual population, because of the close correlation between being counted and being registered for conscription or taxation. Moreover, categorization into ethnic groups often reflected individuals' social or economic status rather than rigid racial classification. However, it is generally accepted that by the first decade of the nineteenth century Spanish America had almost seventeen million inhabitants (peninsular Spain had ten million), of whom blacks constituted 5 percent (800,000), Spaniards (a category that included the peninsular-born minority and the more numerous American-born creoles) 18 percent (three million), "Indians"—as the Spaniards still called the native Americans—43 percent (seven million), and those of mixed descent 34 percent (5.5 million). This last group—the castas—was predominantly mestizo (Indian/Spanish) except in areas like Venezuela where blacks had been introduced from an early date, thereby encouraging the growth of the pardo (black/Spanish) population. In theory slaves and castas occupied distinctly subordinate places in the social pyramid, while Spaniards and Indians inhabited separate "republics," each with its own hierarchical structure. The reality was that the supposedly inferior groups were often more mobile—socially and politically—than the native inhabitants. There was, however, scope for indigenous community leaders to acquire considerable wealth and prestige, in return for their crucial intermediary role in the collection of the male capitation tax known as the tribute and the delivery of quotas of community Indians for labor service in mines and other enterprises. This conscription of native labor did not constitute slavery, because workers were paid, usually in kind, and service was for fixed periods, but in reality it was a devastating scourge upon communities, causing high mortality as well as mass migration from the provinces required to provide laborers for service in the mines.

Potosí alone was allocated 14,000 native conscripts a year from 1573, and thousands more voluntarily worked there and at other mining centers in order meet their fiscal obligations to Church and state. From the mid-sixteenth century the fruit of their labor—silver—was the motor driving both regional economies in America and transoceanic trade. The crown sought to protect remittances to Spain by organizing transatlantic trade into the "fleet system," whereby annual convoys sailed from Seville (later Cádiz) for Vera Cruz and the isthmus of Panama—the half-way house to Peru—to exchange Spanish products for American silver. Silver was by far the most important commodity among American exports to Spain, representing 80 percent of their value in the Habsburg period and over 50 percent in the eighteenth century, when the Bourbons successfully promoted the export of sugar, coffee, indigo, cotton, and hides from hitherto neglected regions of the empire. Two million pesos a year of taxation revenue were being remitted to Spain by the 1590s, although by the 1650s this figure had fallen to 300,000, and it would fall further during the reign of Charles II (1665–1700) as Spain's commercial monopoly was undermined by foreign contrabandists and buccaneers. Moreover, by the seventeenth century the colonists were themselves producing and circulating many of the commodities previously imported from Spain—oil, wheat, wine, woolens—giving the empire a growing degree of economic autonomy from the metropolis, albeit within a context of continuing political subservience.

By the mid-sixteenth century the administrative parameters of Spanish America were clear. The crown established two viceroyalties—New Spain (capital Mexico City) and Peru (capital Lima); later, the latter's territory was reduced to more manageable proportions with the creation of the viceroyalties of New Granada (1739) and the Río de la Plata (1776). Each viceroyalty contained several "kingdoms," each with a crown-appointed governor (viceroy, captain-general, or president) who functioned alongside a judicial tribunal (audiencia) that also had administrative functions. At the subordinate level, local governors—known as corregidores in South America and as alcaldes mayores in New Spain—exercised jurisdiction over the native population and oversaw tax collection and public administration. The missionary orders—notably the Franciscans and Dominicans—were increasingly subordinated to the authority of an ever more bureaucratized church, as bishoprics were founded to both organize evangelization and cater to the religious needs of the growing Spanish population. Archbishops were appointed in Lima, Mexico City, and Santo Domingo in 1546 (and in La Plata in 1609) to oversee the activities of some forty bishops and thousands of lower clergy—who to some extent acted as general agents of the Spanish crown, alert for signs of idolatry and sedition, particularly in native communities. In remote regions the religious orders continued to exercise secular authority, notably in Paraguay where the Jesuits ran their missions until their expulsion in 1767.

This expulsion was part of a wide-ranging process of change implemented by Spain's fourth Bourbon king, Charles III (1759–1788). Building upon the piecemeal changes of the earlier Bourbons, Charles III sought systematically to restore Spain as a major international power by overhauling internal administration, tightening fiscal screws, improving defenses, and, above all, liberalizing colonial trade. "Free trade," introduced in 1778, although still prohibiting trade with foreigners, authorized the principal ports of Spanish America to trade directly with those of Spain, and reduced and simplified duties. The result was a commercial boom that made Spanish Americans richer and happier, and willing in the short term to tolerate the intensification of absolutism. It also made them increasingly confident of their ability to maintain their burgeoning prosperity without Spain, although no serious moves were made to promote that possibility until the Bourbon monarchy collapsed in 1808 and the crown of Spain passed to Joseph Bonaparte.

see also Government, Colonial, in Spanish America; Haciendas in Spanish America; Law, Colonial Systems of, Spanish Empire; Mexico;Mexico City; Mining, the Americas; New Spain, the Viceroyalty of; Peru under Spanish Rule; Plantations, the Americas; Spanish American Independence, 1808–1825.


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