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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 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.
The Treaty of Tordesillas was an attempt to solve the disputes with the Portuguese colonizers. It split the mostly unknown New World into two spheres of influence; however, when it was fully charted almost all the land fell in the Spanish sphere.
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) replaced the American local oligarchies and imposed 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 under Spanish control. After this, African slaves, who had developed immunities to these diseases, were quickly brought in to replace them.
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 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.
Eventually 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. 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.
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. 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:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Hispaniola, the modern Dominican Republic and Haiti
- Puerto Rico
- Argentina – Buenos Aires founded in 1536. Re-founded in 1580 as it was forcefully abandoned in 1539; independence was formally declared in 1816.
- Bolivia – La Paz founded in 1548. Independent in 1825.
- Chile – In 1541, the Spanish conquered the Incas. Chile won its independence from Spain in 1818
- Colombia – In 1510 Spaniards founded Darien, the first permanent European settlement on the mainland of the Americas. In 1538 they established the colony of New Granada. Independence in 1810.
- Ecuador – Conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the land in 1532; left Spain in 1809 to form Greater Colombia.
- Paraguay – Asuncion, Paraguay was founded in 1537. Independent from 1811.
- Peru – Conquered from the Incas in 1531 by Francisco Pizarro. Peru won its independence from Spain in 1821.
- Uruguay – Taken by Spain from Portugal in 1778. Part of Brazil from 1821-1828. Independence in 1828.
- Venezuela – Caracas was founded in 1567. Independent in July 5 1811.
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
- Guatemala – Settled by Spanish in 1523,
- Nicaragua – Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba
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.
- Florida including parts of modern-day Alabama and Mississippi
- California and New Mexico – in the west the extent of Spanish colonies was formally set in 1819 by the Adams-Onís Treaty to replace nebulous boundaries. Most of the interior was not permanently inhabited by Spain. This included all or some part of the modern U.S. states of: California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming.
- Louisiana territory – Spain controlled this territory from 1762-1800. Most of the north and interior was not inhabited by Spain. French settlers made up most of the inhabitants and new immigrants. This included land in the present U.S. states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
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.
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. Things did not go well and a battle ensued; the Spanish were badly defeated, only 13 managing to return to New Mexico. Although this was a small engagement, it is significant being the furthest penetration of the Spanish into the Great Plains, setting the limit to Spanish expansion and influence there.
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 settlement in Oregon to British Columbia. In 1791 the king of Spain gave Alessandro Malaspina an order to search for Northwest Passage.
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.
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