Spanish Colonization – Summary, history and characteristics

We explain what the Spanish colonization was, its causes, consequences and characteristics. In addition, the colonized territories.

Spanish colonization
Spanish colonization lasted between the 16th and 19th centuries.

What was the Spanish colonization?

Spanish colonization It was the expansion of the Spanish Empire in search of new territories and resources in different regions of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. That was the path that many other nations in Europe followed in the historical period between the 16th and 19th centuries, undertaking a process of colonization.

A) Yes, the Spanish Empire became one of the largest in the world (“The Empire in which the sun did not set”), with a total area of ​​20 million square kilometers in the 18th century.

Imperial expansion and colonialism were a common phenomenon in late medieval and modern Europe. In the case of Spain, it took its first steps after the unification of the nation and at the end of the reconquest of the territories occupied by the Moors, both in the 15th century.

Not content with expelling Muslims from their lands, the Spanish continued to expand over Mediterranean Africa (Oran, Tunisia, Algeria) at least until the reign of Carlos of Austria (Carlos I of Spain), who preferred to focus his efforts on the recently discovered America.

During later times, Spain controlled an immense portion of the American territories, along with the Philippine Islands, its surroundings and some specific regions of Africa. However, the Spanish colonies in the world did not last long. They were ceded to other powers of greater military capacity, negotiated as part of the payment of debts, or finally lost through bloody wars of independence in the 19th century.

Characteristics of the Spanish colonization

Spanish colonization viceroy
Viceroys were born in Spain, never in the colonies they ruled.

The Spanish colonization, logically, had particular features depending on the territory to which we refer. Even so, broadly it can be characterized by:

  • Like all colonizations, it consisted of the military occupation and political, social and economic control of the colonized territories, subordinating them to the interests of the Spanish metropolis.
  • He was strongly influenced by religion, given the ultra-Catholic character of Spain (cradle of the Counter-Reformation) and its traditional fight against Islam. The expansion of Catholicism and the conquest of souls for the Church were an important part of the Spanish colony, especially in America.
  • Politically, Spain was still a medieval empire, whose notion of political power was brutally centralist and absolutist, tailor-made for the ancient Roman Empire.
  • In many territories, such as the American one, the system of conquest and colonization of the Spanish crown consisted of the encomienda and the encomendadores: private actors to whom the crown gave permission to appropriate land and exploit the work of the indigenous, as long as they imposed the Spanish political, social and cultural order in return.
  • Once the colonial political order was established, however, political power usually rested in the figure of the viceroys, absolute rulers of each Viceroyalty of the Spanish Empire, who were peninsular of origin and were in charge of maintaining colonial control.
  • The economic rules that governed the colonies benefited Spain peninsular, to the detriment of the interests of colonial citizens. Despite the fact that the society was ethnically stratified, the Spanish whites born in the colony were seen as second-class citizens compared to the Spanish born in Europe.
  • The American territories played a key role in the organization of the Spanish Empire, serving as a bridge between Asia and Oceania, and the European metropolis. Likewise, the African coasts and especially the Canary Islands were a key point of communication between Europe and America.

Causes of Spanish colonization

The European colonial expansion was due to numerous reasons, summarized in the fierce competition between the powers of the continent to accumulate resources, to the extent that the mercantilism built by the bourgeoisie laid the foundations for the coming capitalism several centuries later. In the case of Spain, in particular, some of the causes of its colonial expansion have to do with:

  • The fight against Islam, initially to recover the Spanish territory occupied by the Moors, and later to expand European rule in Mediterranean Africa, securing the Christian borders of Europe.
  • The need to find new trade routes to China and other eastern territories, which did not subject Spain to transit through the territories of other rival powers, pushed them to explore unknown seas, thus stumbling over the American continent in a fortunate mistake.
  • Obtain sufficient financial resources to invest in the religious struggle against the Protestant Reformation, that is, the Counter-Reformation, through the defense of Catholicism in Germany. This, at the same time, strengthened the hegemony of the Habsburgs in the German region.

Territories colonized by Spain

spanish colonization map
The Spanish colonization spread a total area of ​​20 million km2.

Spanish colonization, at its peak, included the following territories:

In Africa:

  • The protectorate of Morocco, made up of two regions: the Rif area, which occupied the Moroccan Mediterranean coasts from Melilla to Tangier, and the Cape Juby area, which bordered the Spanish Sahara and Algeria.
  • The Ifni colony, in the south of Morocco, occupied by Spain since 1476, and which returned to Moroccan hands in the 20th century, after the Ifni War.
  • The colony of the Spanish Sahara, initially known as Río de Oro, located northwest of French West Africa, off the Canary Islands.
  • Spanish Guinea, in the Gulf of Guinea, present-day Equatorial Guinea, its limits were drawn up in the Treaty of Paris of 1901, and it included the islands of Fernando Poo, Annobón, Elobey and Corisco.
  • The Canary Islands, the only Spanish colony in Africa that still conserves the European nation, is made up of eight islands: El Hierro, La Gomera, La Palma, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and La Graciosa, as well as five islets: Alegranza, Isla de Lobos, Montaña Clara , Roque del Este and Roque del Oeste. They were originally populated by the Guanches people, and the conquest of this territory culminated in 1496.
  • Ceuta, Spanish city located on the Tingitana peninsula, on the African shore of the Strait of Gibraltar. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC. C., became part of the Spanish Crown in 1580.

In Asia and Oceania:

  • The Philippine archipelago, conquered by Spain in 1565, when the Captaincy General of the Philippines was established, which also included the Palau archipelago, the Carolinas, the Marshall Islands, the Mariana Islands and the Gilbert Islands. Everything became part of the “Spanish West Indies”, but the Spanish evangelization and population began to really take place in the middle of the seventeenth century.
  • The island of New Guinea, especially in the Doberai peninsula, present-day Papua New Guinea.
  • The protectorate of Cambodia, ceded to Spain by the Portuguese in 1597, was briefly managed by the empire, ended up returned to Portugal in 1599.
  • Other settlements in the region, specifically in Indochina, Macao, Malacca, Goa, Indonesia and Nagasaki, inherited from the Portuguese empire and later lost, when the Iberian union was dissolved.

In America:

  • The Viceroyalty of New Spain, founded in 1519 after the defeat and conquest of the Aztecs and the other Mesoamerican and Aridoamerican aboriginal nations, encompassed the current territories of Mexico and the United States provinces of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Utah, Florida, Nevada, and part from Colorado, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.
  • The Captaincy General of Guatemala, which included the territories of the current countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and the Mexican state of Chiapas.
  • Spanish Louisiana, ceded to Spain by France in 1762 and preserved until 1801, it encompassed the current US territories of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa.
  • The Captaincy General of Venezuela, which included the territories of the current countries of Venezuela, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and part of Colombia.
  • The Viceroyalty of New Granada, one of the last to be created, covered the current territories of Colombia, Panama and Ecuador.
  • The Viceroyalty of Peru, founded after the defeat of the Inca Tahuantinsuyo (Inca Empire) in 1542, encompassed the territories of the current states of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and part of Brazil. Before the creation of the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1717, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador were also part of it.
  • The Viceroyalty of the Río de la PlataLimiting with the aboriginal Patagonia that was never controlled by Spain, this viceroyalty was the last to be created in 1777, and it encompassed the current territories of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and part of Bolivia.
  • The Captaincy General of Chile, originally called Nueva Extremadura, encompassed the core of current Chilean territory, since the southern half of the country was in the hands of the Mapuche peoples until the 19th century.
  • Caribbean island territories such as the current Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Bahamas (until 1670), Antigua and Barbuda (until 1632), Trinidad and Tobago, Granada (until 1674), Jamaica (until 1655), Saint Kitts and Nevis, Dominica (until 1783 ), Barbados (until 1624) and Saint Lucia (until 1654).

Consequences of the Spanish colonization

The Spanish colonization had important consequences both for Spain and Europe, as well as for the colonized territories, many of which later passed into the hands of other colonial nations. The main consequences were:

  • The expansion of the Catholic religion and its permanent establishment in Hispanic America, as well as the Spanish language, adopted as its own in the former American colonies of Spain. Currently, Spanish is the second language with the most speakers in the world, after Mandarin Chinese.
  • The sudden and immense enrichment of Spain, especially with the gold and silver mined in America, which however did not prevent the Empire from going into crisis in subsequent centuries.
  • American colonization required the insertion of slave labor from Africa, which gave rise to the melting pot Latin American culture, where European, Aboriginal and African traditions were mixed.
  • The subsequent handover of many of the colonial territories to other military and economic powers, as punishment for the Spanish military failures against Great Britain, Holland, Germany and the United States, or as payment of debts.
  • The transmission of European enlightened ideas to the American colonies that allowed, during the decline of the Spanish Empire, the independence outbreak in America that ended up taking control of its colonies from the metropolis forever, giving rise to the nations of Hispanic America.

Expulsion of the Spanish

spanish colonization war of independence cuba
In America, Spain lost most of its colonies in the 19th century.

The Spanish they were militarily expelled from many of their colonial territories during the wars of independence that began at the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, especially America.

On the other hand, in Africa they were faced by Moroccan forces, in various conflicts during the 19th and 20th centuries: the African War (1859-1860), the First Rif War (1893-1894) and the Rif War (1911 -1926), for example. However, the rest of the Spanish colonial territories in Morocco were later decolonized, thanks to pressure from the UN.