Spanish Colonization Summary & Analysis
Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue
The arrival of Europeans in the New World in 1492 changed the Americas forever.
Over the course of the next 350 years:
- Spain ruled a vast empire based on the labor and exploitation of the native population.
- Conquistadors descended on America with hopes of bringing Catholicism to new lands while extracting great riches.
- Religion and self-interest combined to create a potent mixture that drew hundreds of thousands of Spaniards across the ocean with hopes of finding riches and winning souls for God.
But along with the Spaniards came diseases to which the New World natives had no immunities.
What followed was one of the greatest tragedies in human history as smallpox, influenza, and other communicable diseases ravaged the native populations, killing millions. Yes, a lot.
The Spanish never set out to destroy the people of the New World—after all, their goal was to use native labor for their own ends—and almost immediately a debate arose in Spain concerning the rights of natives. This was the first time any European nation had consciously debated the rights and status of non-Christians.
The traffic of Europeans to the Americas was not a one-way street. The so-called Columbian Exchange brought European goods and ideas to the New World—including the horse, which was not native to the Western Hemisphere—and returned new plants and animals to the Old World, including potatoes, corn, tomatoes and other crops. The world was forever changed by the new horizons opened by Spain's intrepid explorers, despite the misdeeds of Spanish rule in America.
Spanish conquistadors, who were primarily poor nobles from the impoverished west and south of Spain, were able to conquer the huge empires of the New World with the help of superior military technology, disease (which weakened indigenous resistance), and military tactics including surprise attacks and powerful alliances with local tribes.
Once an area had been conquered, it was partitioned into encomiendas, or grants of land. More importantly, the native people themselves were parceled out to the conquistadors, who were given title to the land and its people in return for a promise to teach the natives Christianity. This system was heavily abused, and Native Americans throughout the Americas were reduced to a condition of virtual slavery.
However, due to natural attrition and harsh misrule, the population of native laborers soon became too small for the voracious Spanish, so they began to import African slaves to work in sugar plantations and silver mines. The introduction of African traditions to the Native American and mestizo cultures already in existence made for a social mixture richer than in almost any other part of the world, although racism continued to play a dark role in the New World.
Colonial society was hierarchical, based upon on the amount of non-Spanish blood a person possessed. A complicated system, called the casta, delineated over 100 separate names for groups containing certain levels of Native American and African blood. Jobs, government positions, titles to land, and almost everything else in the Americas functioned according to this system with those at the top getting preference over those lower on the list.
Of course, discrimination and repression were features of Spanish colonial rule throughout its history.
Spain's government in Madrid tried hard to govern the New World, despite its distance from Europe. Using a system of viceroyalties and audencias, royal courts of appeals, the Spanish Monarchy was able to exercise control over Spanish settlers, even when they didn't want any sort of interference from the central government.
The Crown was entitled to one-fifth of all mining profits, and this huge income helped Spain to become the largest and most powerful empire in Europe by 1600. Religion was mixed with politics to create a hybrid system in what would become the American Southwest: Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit missionaries were often left in charge of large areas in what is now Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and, later, California.
With its goal of bringing the Catholic religion to the New World, Spain was also able to use the existing church governments for its own political uses. Today, religion and politics continue to mix in Latin America.
The often-heavy handed rule from Madrid and the new ideas of liberty and freedom coming out of the American and French Revolutions brought about the wars of Independence in the early-19th century. Simón Bolívar—the Great Liberator—and José de San Martin led the fight for independence, although this was not a fight for indigenous rights, or on behalf of the poor. Those who fought for South American independence were called criollos, American-born descendants of Spaniards, and they continued to rule the many new nations of Spanish America for generations.
The Spanish left a legacy of cruelty and exploitation in their wake, but they also managed to open the world and increase cultural exchanges to a level never before seen in human history.
From 1492 to the 1800s, Spanish explorers were the bullies of the New World.
Beginning with Columbus in 1492 and continuing for nearly 350 years, Spain conquered and settled most of South America, the Caribbean, and the American Southwest.
Yeah, they kept themselves busy.
Christopher Columbus and his crew arrived in 1492 after sailing the ocean blue in a quest to find a faster trade route to Asia. They wanted riches and the eternal glory of being really cool by discovering the better water highway to Asia. They also wanted to spread what they thought was the Best Religion Ever, Catholicism.
Maybe the explorers thought they were bringing something great (religion and Catholicism) to the local tribes, but they actually brought diseases that killed millions of Native Americans.
To add insult to smallpox, the Spanish explorers enslaved the Native Americans who weren't killed and then took their natural resources. It was a pretty ugly time period for the Native Americans, who fought back and won some key battles, but in the end they were dealing with so many diseases that they weren't exactly in tip-top fighting shape.
Sound too good to be true? (For Spain, that is.) Well, it was.
The growth of a racially-mixed society eventually caused rifts to develop between Spain and its American colonies, and by 1824, all of Spain's New World colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico had fought for and won their independence.
So, it's hard to say that anything "good" came out of the conquest, but that's the thing with history. It happens whether you like it or not.
Hate 'em or hate 'em less, the Spanish explorers did leave a deep and lasting mark on the Americas. To see the Spanish legacy, all you have to do is look around you. See those horses and that wheat? The conquest brought those. Ever notice that there are more than 400 million people who practice Catholicism in Latin America today? The conquest did that. Does the phrase "Spanish language" ring any bells? Of course it does because more than 8% of the world speaks it as a first language.
That's the conquest again. Say what you will about the conquistadors, but you can't say they weren't important.
Ever wonder how we, as modern Americans, got here?
After all, our society doesn't look much like the societies that existed here in the Western Hemisphere during the previous few thousand years. And while the American people today are descendants of peoples from every continent, American culture does look a lot like European culture. Which is funny because Europe is far away.
European culture in America began not with the English, but with Spain, which over the course of about one hundred years, managed to conquer the native societies of Latin America and install a forceful presence in what's now the United States.
Christopher Columbus is a controversial figure today, celebrated by some as a great hero, while others attack him as a historical villain, responsible for the often-vicious conquest of the Americas by the Spanish who followed in the wake of his "discovery" of this continent.
Whether you imagine Columbus in the role of hero or villain, there's no denying his importance. Columbus opened the Atlantic to European explorers, adventures, merchants, and the famous conquistadores. And the process that Columbus set in motion led to the foundation of the United States about three hundred years after Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.
The Spanish were able to colonize much of South and Central America, but the territory that later became the United States stood on the far periphery of Spain's New World empire. Only in the West did the Spanish have a serious presence in territory that's now the United States, and Spanish penetration of California and New Mexico came only in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Spanish place names and institutions are still found all over California and the Southwest.
But even more important than the physical remains of Spanish society in the United States is the mere fact that the Spanish came here, paved the way for later European nations to come here, and provided the models on which those other societies thrived. There would be no United States without Spain, and it's with Spain that the history of the United States as we know it began.