Spanish Exploration and Colonization

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Spanish Exploration and Colonization


Beginning in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451?-1506), Spanish explorers and conquistadors built a colonial empire that turned Spain into one of the great European powers. Spanish fleets returned from the New World with holds full of gold, silver, and precious gemstones while Spanish priests traveled the world to convert and save the souls of the native populations. However, Spain's time of dominance was to be relatively short-lived; only two centuries later, Spain's European power was in decline, and a century after that, virtually all her colonies were in open revolt. Much of the reason for this sequence of events, and for the subsequent history of former Spanish territories can be traced back to the reasons for and the nature of Spanish imperialism.


For almost 800 years, Arabs occupied and ruled the Iberian Peninsula. For over a century, a succession of Spanish rulers fought the Moors, gradually pushing them back and reestablishing Spain as a Christian nation. This goal was finally achieved in 1492, when the Moorish bastion of Granada finally surrendered after a decade of siege. In that same year, Spain expelled thousands of Jews, a Spaniard was elected Pope, and another Spaniard published the first formal grammar of any European language. And Genoan navigator Christopher Columbus sailed on a voyage of discovery to find a more direct route to the Orient. All of these factors turned out to have great importance for the next 300 years of Spanish history, and for all subsequent Latin American history.

Columbus returned to Spain, convinced he had succeeded in finding the Orient and not realizing his discovery was, instead, much greater. He was quickly followed by others: Francisco Pizzaro (1475-1541), Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519), Hernan Cortés (1485-1547), and others. Within a few decades, Spain had explored most of South and Central America, and had found the Americas to be rich with precious metals and stones. Meanwhile, Spanish priests discovered a new continent full of, in their opinion, savages whose souls needed to be saved. So Spain descended on the Americas with a cross in one hand and a gun in the other, determined to convert the natives while stripping their lands to fill the Spanish treasury.

While this description may sound unnecessarily harsh, Spain's actions are understandable to some degree. Spain had just emerged from centuries of domination by a foreign power and (by their lights) heathen religion. They earned their liberty by force of arms and, they believed, divine help. This belief seemed vindicated when a Spaniard became Pope in the very year the last Moors were defeated, cementing in the national consciousness the link between religion and military power. This, plus Spain's late emergence from medieval feudalism, helped mold the national character that was to have such a profound influence in Spain's management of her overseas possessions.

Spain's religious fervor was no less understandable than was her elevation of the military to a position of prominence in society. Spain's recent emergence from seven centuries of Moorish rule had only served to emphasize to her the importance of the Christian Church (this was before the Protestant Reformation), and religious belief was an important fact of daily life. Then, in 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546) tacked his famous 95 theses to the door of a church in Germany, launching the Reformation, which was to subject Europe to centuries of religious bloodshed as Protestants and Catholics battled for supremacy. Against this backdrop, Spain's desire to spread the Catholic Church overseas is entirely understandable, especially given Protestant England's later colonization of North America.

The Spanish did not treat their New World possessions kindly. The conquistadors came to conquer new territories for power and riches. They overthrew the Inca and the Aztecs, plus a host of less-advanced civilizations. Spanish settlers came to make a fortune and return to Spain, not to stay in a new home. They felt that many chores were beneath their dignity, so they employed or enslaved the native populations to till the land, mine precious metals, and do the other menial work of empire. In this, they were a microcosm of the Spanish government, and their colonial style was to have significant ramifications for both the Spanish colonies and for Spain herself.


During the Age of Exploration and subsequent years, there were five major colonial powers: England, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland. Each of these nations had a different motivation for establishing overseas colonies, and each treated her colonies differently. Most of their former colonies still bear an unmistakable imprint of their colonial heritage, made of equal parts of the motivations of their parent country in establishing colonies and the manner in which they were treated before independence.

In general, the Dutch came to trade, the Portuguese to explore and to trade, the English to expand, the French to counter English maneuvers, and the Spanish to get rich. Another generalization is that the English and French settlers came looking for freedom and opportunity in a new home, the Portuguese and Dutch settlers came to work what was, in effect, an "overseas assignment" before returning home again, and the Spanish came to take what they could to advance themselves, their families, their religion, and their nation.

During their centuries of domination, the Spanish colonies returned an incredible amount of wealth to Spain, making Spain one of the most powerful and most feared nations in Europe. However, this money was not used wisely, in part because Spain was not expecting it and her government was not ready for it, similar to how a child is not ready to inherit and manage a million dollars. So Spain spent her wealth building up a large army and larger navy, waging wars, subduing a continent, and defending her colonies against opportunistic attack. At the same time, Spain's European ambitions led to her dominating large sections of Europe, only to lose them in later years through war or political maneuvering.

Because she spent her money unwisely, Spain almost immediately went into debt, if that can be believed. She began borrowing against future treasure, primarily from foreign governments because Spain's Catholics were not permitted to lend money, and she had expelled her Jews, who had no Biblical injunction against lending money. So most of Spain's New World revenues passed through Spain and ended up in France, Switzerland, and the other nations of Europe while the Spanish economy and people benefited little. In effect, Spain's mismanagement of her great wealth drove her into bankruptcy, and Spanish power began to decline. In 1588 the seemingly invincible Spanish Armada failed to defeat the English navy, while at the same time, her New World possessions had been repeatedly attacked by English ships led, more often than not, by Sir Francis Drake (1540?-1596). Although Spanish power would continue to be feared for more than a century longer, by the start of the seventeenth century it was already apparent that Spanish power would not last forever.

Spain's colonies were perhaps most dramatically influenced by Spanish practices. As noted above, they were settled largely by men who came to the New World simply to conquer, convert, or become rich. This was a direct outgrowth of the period in which Spain found herself at that time. By the time of the Latin American revolutions in the last part of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth, these characteristics were deeply ingrained into the national psyches of virtually all Latin American nations, and they remain visible today. Most Latin American nations are devoutly Roman Catholic. The military has a prominence in most of them that is almost unique among the world's democracies, and Latin American politics and government are still strongly reminiscent of the Spanish feudal heritage, in which a strong leader dominated the nation's political machinery. This was seen in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, also in Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador during this same time frame, and continues to be the case in Peru, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, and other nations today. Some of these nations, in particular Venezuela and Mexico, continued their progenitor's profligate ways with national wealth; in both cases, vast amounts of revenue from petroleum and mineral deposits has been either squandered or vanished.

Although Spain's power was broken in the wake of the Armada's defeat, she remained a power to be reckoned with until her defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898-99. During this time, she continued to play a role in European politics and wars, including the Napoleonic Wars, though usually in a supporting role.

It is also noteworthy that the treasure brought back from the New World, while it did not often benefit Spain, did benefit Spain's European lenders. In spite of the incredible imported wealth, Spain defaulted on loans several times in the late 1500s and early 1600s, and some of her military defeats were due to army mutinies over lack of pay. In particular, the Dutch, the Swiss, and the French held Spanish loans, but the Spanish borrowed from just about any government with which they were not actively at war. This money, in turn, was often put to good use by the recipient nations, helping to build their economies.

It is probably safe to say that Spanish aims in exploring and colonizing Latin America were not bad, but they turned out badly. Arriving with the near-absolutism of the zealot, Spanish missionaries were determined to convert native populations to Catholicism, in part to combat the spread of Protestantism in Europe. And, recently emerged from a long and bloody religious war against the Moors, Spanish settlers were more than willing to believe in the advantages of a powerful central government, a strong military, and the necessity of military conquest to tame a new continent. In addition, a strongly patriarchal society gave familial lands to the oldest son, leaving younger sons often destitute and eager to spend a few years in the Americas to make their fortune, which they tended to do with the labor of native populations. This almost inevitably led to the establishment of strong central governments presiding over largely Catholic nations and supported by a large, strong military—exactly the pattern seen in many Latin American nations for nearly two centuries. In addition, Spain's mismanagement of her imported wealth led just as inevitably to her economic and military downturn, taking Spain from a prominent position in European power to that of a second-class power within just a few centuries.


Further Reading

Copeland, John, Ralph Kite, and Lynne Sandstedt. Civilización y Cultura. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1989.

Crow, John. The Epic of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House, 1987.

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: Portrait of an Age. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Wood, Peter. The Spanish Main. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1979.

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Spanish Exploration and Colonization

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