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territory of Crown of Castile. Crown of Castile.png.

Overseas north -septentrion- territory of Crown of Castile (New Spain and Philippines) Nueva España 1795.png

Overseas south -meridional- territory of Crown of Castile (Perú, New Granada and Río de la Plata) 70px

Colonial expansion under the crown of Castile was initiated by the Spanish conquistadores and developed by the Monarchy of Spain through its administrators and missionaries. The motivations for colonial expansion were trade and the spread of the Catholic faith through indigenous conversions. Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus and continuing for over four centuries, the Spanish Empire would expand across most of present day Central America, the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and much of the rest of North America including the Southwestern, Southern coastal, and California's Pacific Coast regions of the United States.

In the early 19th century the revolutionary movements resulted in the independence of most Spanish colonies in America, except for Cuba and Puerto Rico, given up in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, together with Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific. Spain's loss of these last territories politically ended Spanish colonization in America.


Flag of Spanish conquistador with crown of Castile under red flag, used by Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro and others

Spanish settlements

In newly unified Spain, the Catholic Monarchs Isabella I, Queen of Castile, and her husband Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, approved the plans of Christopher Columbus to reach India. He made four voyages to the West Indies as the monarchs granted Columbus the governorship of the new territories, and financed more of his trans-Atlantic journeys. He founded La Navidad in what is present day Haiti on his first voyage. After it's destruction by the indigenous Taino people, the town of Isabella was begun in 1493, on his second voyage. In 1496 his brother, Bartholomew, founded Santo Domingo. By 1500, despite a high death rate, there were between 300 and 1000 Spanish settled in the area. The local Taíno people continue to resist; refusing to plant crops and abandoning their Spanish-occupied villages. Their rebellion progressed from disobedience to violence. Eventually European diseases, slavery, and ritual infanticide and suicide (meant to avoid adult and infantile enslavement) eradicated most of the Taíno people. In 1502, 2500 more Spanish settlers arrived. By 1508 there were 10,000 Spaniards living in 15 new settlements.[1]

The first mainland explorations were followed by a phase of inland expeditions and conquest. In 1500 the city of Nueva Cádiz was founded on the island of Cubagua, Venezuela and it was followed by the founding by Alonso de Ojeda of Santa Cruz in present day Guajira peninsula. The Spanish founded San Sebastian de Uraba in 1509 but abandoned it within the year. There is indirect evidence that the first permanent Spanish mainland settlement established in America was Santa María la Antigua del Darién.[2]


Spanish Conquest of Mexico

Map depicting Cortes' invasion route

There is a difference in the 'Spanish conquest of Mexico' between the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. The former is conquest of the campaign, led by Hernán Cortés from 1519–21 and his Tlaxcala and other 'indigenous peoples' allied against the Mexica/Aztec empire. The Spanish conquest of Yucatán is the much longer campaign, from 1551–1697, against the Maya peoples of the Maya civilization in the Yucatán Peninsula of present day Mexico and northern Central America. The day Hernán Cortés landed ashore at present day Veracruz, April 22, 1519, marks the beginning of 300 years of Spanish hegemony over the region. In 1535, the Viceroyalty of New Spain was established by Charles V.


Vasco Núñez de Balboa claiming possession of the South Sea (Pacific Ocean)

Map depicting the route of Pizarro from Panama to Cuzco

In 1532 at the Battle of Cajamarca a group of Spanish soldiers under Francisco Pizarro and their indigenous Andean Indian auxiliaries native allies ambushed and captured the Emperor Atahualpa of the Inca Empire. It was the first step in a long campaign that took decades of fighting to subdue the mightiest empire in the Americas. In the following years Spain extended its rule over the Empire of the Inca civilization.

The Spanish took advantage of a recent civil war between the factions of the two brothers Emperor Atahualpa and Huáscar, and the enmity of indigenous nations the Incas had subjugated, such as the Huancas, Chachapoyas, and Cañaris. In the following years the conquistadors and indigenous allies extended control over the greater Andes region. The Viceroyalty of Perú was established in 1542.

Río de la Plata and Paraguay

Cabildo council

European explorers arrived in Río de la Plata in 1516. Their first Spanish settlement in this zone was the Fort of Sancti Spiritu established in 1527 next to the Paraná River. Buenos Aires, a permanent colony, was established in 1536 and in 1537 Asunción was established in the area that is now Paraguay. Buenos Aires suffered attacks by the indigenous peoples that forced the settlers away, and in 1541 the site was abandoned. A second (and permanent) settlement was established in 1580 by Juan de Garay, who arrived by sailing down the Paraná River from Asunción (now the capital of Paraguay). He dubbed the settlement "Santísima Trinidad" and its port became "Puerto de Santa María de los Buenos Aires." The city came to be the head of the Governorate of the Río de la Plata and in 1776 elevated to be the capital of the new Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata.


Spain's administration of its colonies in the Americas was divided into the Viceroyalty of New Spain 1535 (capital, México City), and the Viceroyalty of Peru 1542 (capital, Lima). In the 18th century the additional Viceroyalty of New Granada 1717 (capital, Bogotá), and Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata 1776 (capital, Buenos Aires) were established from portions of the Viceroyalty of Peru.

This evolved from the Council of the Indies and Viceroyalties into an Intendant system, raise more revenue and promote greater efficiency .



  • Viceroyalty of New Spain (1535–1821)
    • Las Californias
    • Nuevo Reino de León
    • Nuevo Santander
    • Nueva Vizcaya
    • Santa Fe de Nuevo México
    • Nueva Extremadura
    • Nueva Galicia
  • Captaincy General of Cuba (until 1898)
  • Puerto Rico (until 1898)
  • Santo Domingo (last Spanish rule 1861-1865)
  • Captaincy General of Guatemala


19th century

Spanish colonialization in the Americas.

During the Peninsular War in Europe between France and Spain, assemblies called juntas were established to rule in the name of Ferdinand VII of Spain. The Libertadores (Spanish and Portuguese for "Liberators") were the principal leaders of the Latin American wars of independence from Spain. They were predominantly criollos (local-born people of European ancestry, mostly Spanish or Portuguese), bourgeois and influenced by liberalism and in most cases with military training in the mother country.

In 1809 the first declarations of independence from Spanish rule occurred in the Viceroyalty of New Granada. The first two were in present day Bolivia at Sucre (May 25), and La Paz (July 16); and the third in present day Ecuador at Quito (August 10). In 1810 Mexico declared independence, with the Mexican War of Independence following for over a decade. In 1821 Treaty of Córdoba established Mexican independence from Spain and concluded the War. The Plan of Iguala was part of the peace treaty to establish a constitutional foundation for an independent Mexico.

These began a movement for colonial independence that spread to Spain's other colonies in the Americas. The ideas from the French and the American Revolution influenced the efforts. All of the colonies, except Cuba and Puerto Rico, attained independence by the 1820s. The British Empire offered support, wanting to end the Spanish monopoly on trade with its colonies in the Americas.

In 1898, the United States won victory in the Spanish-American War from Spain, ending the colonial era. Spanish possession and rule of its remaining colonies in the Americas ended in that year with its ownership transfer to the United States. The U.S. took occupation of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. The latter possession now officially continues as a self-governing unincorporated territory of the United States.

Demographic impact

It has been estimated that in the 16th century about 240,000 Spaniards emigrated to America, and in the 17th century about 500,000, predominantly to Mexico and Ecuador.[3][not in citation given]

Before the arrival of Columbus, in Hispaniola the indigenous Taíno pre-contact population of several hundred thousand declined to sixty thousand by 1509. Although population estimates vary, Father Bartolomé de las Casas, the “Defender of the Indians” estimated there were 6 million (6,000,000) Taíno and Arawak in the Caribbean at the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492.[citation needed]

The population of the Native Amerindian population in Mexico declined by an estimated 90% (reduced to 1 - 2.5 million people) by the early 17th century. In Peru the indigenous Amerindian pre-contact population of around 6.5 million declined to 1 million by the early 17th century.[citation needed]

Of the history of the indigenous population of California, Sherburne F. Cook (1896–1974) was the most painstakingly careful researcher. From decades of research he made estimates for the pre-contact population and the history of demographic decline during the Spanish and post-Spanish periods. According to Cook, the indigenous Californian population at first contact, in 1769, was about 310,000 and had dropped to 25,000 by 1910. The vast majority of the decline happened after the Spanish period, in the Mexican and U.S. periods of Californian history (1821–1910), with the most dramatic collapse (200,000 to 25,000) occurring in the U.S. period (1846–1910).[4][5][6]

Cultural impact

The Spaniards were committed, by Vatican decree, to convert their New World indigenous subjects to Catholicism. However, often initial efforts were questionably successful, as the indigenous people added Catholicism into their longstanding traditional ceremonies and beliefs. The many native expressions, forms, practices, and items of art could be considered idolatry and prohibited or destroyed by Spanish missionaries, military, and civilians. This included religious items, sculptures, and jewelry made of gold or silver, which were melted down before shipment to Spain.

Though the Spanish did not impose their language to the extent they did their religion, some indigenous languages of the Americas evolved into replacement with Spanish.

See also

  • Atlantic World
  • Black Legend
  • Habsburg Spain
  • Inter caetera
  • List of largest empires
  • Old Spanish Trail (trade route)
  • Population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas
  • Smallpox Epidemics in the New World
  • Spanish conquest of Guatemala
  • Valladolid debate


  1. A History of Latin America to 1825 by Jacqueline Holler and Peter Bakewell (2011). A History of Latin America to 1825. John Wiley. pp. 109–18. 
  2. Tibesar, A.S. (1957). "The Franciscan Province of the Holy Cross of Espanañola, 1505-1559". pp. 377–389. 
  3. "Migration to Latin America". Retrieved 2011-09-04. 
  4. Baumhoff, Martin A. 1963. Ecological Determinants of Aboriginal California Populations. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 49:155-236.
  5. Powers, Stephen. 1875. "California Indian Characteristics". Overland Monthly 14:297-309. on-line
  6. Cook's judgement on the effects of U.S rule upon the native Californians is harsh: "The first (factor) was the food supply... The second factor was disease. ...A third factor, which strongly intensified the effect of the other two, was the social and physical disruption visited upon the Indian. He was driven from his home by the thousands, starved, beaten, raped, and murdered with impunity. He was not only given no assistance in the struggle against foreign diseases, but was prevented from adopting even the most elementary measures to secure his food, clothing, and shelter. The utter devastation caused by the white man was literally incredible, and not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident."Cook, Sherburne F. 1976b. The Population of the California Indians, 1769-1970. University of California Press, Berkeley|p. 200

Further reading

  • David A. Brading, The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, I492-1867 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • María M. Portuondo, Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World (Chicago, Chicago UP, 2009).


  • Alejandro Cañeque. "The Political and Institutional History of Colonial Spanish America" History Compass (April 2013) 114 pp 280–291, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12043

External links

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