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Spanish Colonies in America & Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Spanish Empire was an extremely powerful force in history. In this lesson, we'll look at their colonies in the Americas and in Africa, and compare how these situations were similar or different.

The Spanish Empire

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, do you know what happened?

The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile rallied their forces and defeated the last Moorish stronghold on the peninsula at Granada. Oh, and Columbus also sailed the ocean blue.

These two events are actually related: while the rest of Europe was enjoying the wealth and growth of the Renaissance, the Spanish kingdoms had been fighting a nearly 800-year religious war. So, Ferdinand and Isabella were anxious to catch up, and agreed to finance the voyage of a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus so that the now-unified Spain could gain access to trade routes with Asia. The result would be the world's first global empire, stretching across the Americas, Europe, and parts of Asia. This may not exactly be the 1492 nursery rhyme you grew up with, but it's a history that has impacted us all.

Ferdinand and Isabella
Spanish monarchs

The Spanish Empire in the Americas

The Spanish Empire's history begins with the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus. Columbus embarked on his voyage intending to land in Japan. However, rather than finding Asia, Columbus landed on the island now containing Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which he named Hispaniola. This arrival marked the beginning of Spain's conquest of the Americas.

We can see three principal phases of the Spaniards' conquest of the New World. First came the conquest of the Caribbean. Columbus brought back intriguing new foods and products, things like cacao and tobacco and tales of gold, which prompted waves of Spanish ships to set sail for the West Indies. Thanks to Spain's role in defending the Catholic faith, in 1494 the Pope ratified the Treaty of Tordesillas, giving Spain exclusive rights to any lands discovered across the Atlantic other than part of Brazil.

The 800-year religious conflict in Spain ended in 1492. Afterward, Spanish culture was highly militarized, and young Spaniards sought violent adventure as means to social and economic status. These men came to the Caribbean, fought the local Carib and Arawak people nearly to extinction, and built Spanish-style farms on the islands. By 1510, the island of Cuba was nearly pacified and under the control of Spanish explorer Diego de Velázquez. The island became one of the most important economic and cultural centers of the Spanish Caribbean. It was from Cuba that Ponce de León left to explore Florida in 1513, and that a young Spaniard named Hernán Cortés set sail in 1519.

Spanish Conquests of the Americas

After hearing rumors of a treasure-filled continent to the west of the Caribbean, Velázquez hired Cortés to plan an expedition, but then cancelled it due to fear that Cortés would steal the glory. Cortés left anyway, sneaking out of the harbor at night. He landed on the coast of Mexico, founded the city of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz to formally incorporate the land into the Spanish Empire, and started marching inland. As the Spanish conquistadors worked their way into the Aztec Empire, they built alliances with the enemies of the Aztecs. Most notable were the Tlaxcalans, feared warriors who composed the majority of Cortés' nearly 150,000 Amerindian soldiers.

After defeating the Aztec Empire in 1521, Mexico became the cultural and administrative center of the Spanish Americas. From here, the Spanish pushed north into what is now the United States, and south throughout Central America. The abundance of gold and other trade items also inspired other conquests, notably Francisco Pizarro's 1532 conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. Even though the Inca armies wouldn't be fully subdued until 1572, this signaled Spain's entrance into South America.

Spanish Americas at the greatest extent
Spanish Americas

The Spanish Empire in Decline

From the 16th-18th century, the Spanish empire seemed nearly untouchable. However, after the United States declared independence in 1776, most of Spain's American colonies followed suit, declaring independence around 1810 when Spain itself was invaded by France. They lost their last major colonies of the Americas, Cuba and Puerto Rico, at the very end of the 19th century as a result of the Spanish-American War.

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