Within a few years after Columbus other Spanish explorers started colonies in the Caribbean, and in Central, North, and South America.[1] In 1492, Spain was the separate kingdoms of Fernando II of Aragón and Isabel I, of Castilla, whose monarchs married. Spain itself was created by the impact of the new empire and was initially known as the Castillian Empire, since King Fernando's focus had been in Africa. It had been Queen Isabel who had authorised and funded Columbus, not her husband, and it was the Castilians who had expanded south and had absorbed smaller Iberian states by marriage and war. Spain itself was created in 1516, when Carlos V, grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, acceded to both Aragon and Castilla.

In the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, the unclaimed world had been divided by the pope between the Spanish and the Portuguese giving Spain control of the Americas. (Protestant England, the Netherlands, and the German states did not feel commited to this treaty for obvious reasons and an issue for conflict and piracy was thus created.) Spain used her new colonies for trading with Indians, religious conversion, collecting wealth, and as bases for further exploration. From the beginning, the Spaniards sought wealth in gold and silver, and mining and sugar cane plantations became primary economic interests. Most of the Spanish conquistadors were members of the aristocracy and had no intention of labouring themselves. After killing off the majority of the native Indian population by disease, overwork as slaves, and sadly by direct murder, they imported African slaves for manual labor.

New Spain Flag


The size and geography of this new empire crerated severe strains on Spanish governors, particularly considering that Spain was used to taking decisions in Sevilla, or Madrid. To meet regional needs, the Spanish established four major colonial administrations, which they termed vice-royalties. Each was headed by a Viceroy (Virrey). The Viceroyalty of Peru, with its capital in Lima, ruled over all of Spain's territory in South America, while the Viceroyalty of New Spain, with its capital in Mexico City, ruled over Spain's territory in Mexico, Central and North America, the Caribbean and the Philippines. (Venezuela, in South America, was at times attached to the Viceroyalty of New Spain.) The viceroyalties of Spanish America were subdivided into smaller units, Audiencias and Captaincies General, which in many cases became the basis for the independent countries of modern Spanish America.[2] There was additional colonial coordination made in Havana, Cuba, which was established as a Captaincy General.

  • In 1535, New Spain with it's capital at Mexico City and called Virreinato de la Nueva España.
  • In 1542, Peru with it's capital at Lima and called Virreinato del Perú.
  • In 1717, New Granada with it's capital at Santa Fé de Bogotá and called Virreinato de la Nueva Grenada.
  • In 1776, The Plata with it's capital at Buenos Aires and called Virreinato del Rio de La Plata.

Spanish America


The Viceroyalty of New Spain was the 'first amongst equals' and governed Spanish territories in the Asian Pacific, both North and Central America, and the Caribbean peripheries from 1535 to the 1821 independence of Mexico.[3] The Spanish were initially interested in the 'island' of Florida, because of its size, soil, and climate and they quickly imported colonists to establish their colonies along the coasts near their Catholic missions. As crops and mining prospered throughout the Caribbean, Nueva Espania, and Peruvian colonies the need for military defences became apparent. Spain claimed British Columbia and Alaska, but relinquished those claims in 1819 under the Adams-Onis Treaty. In 1821, Spain lost the American territories with the independence of Mexico. However, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico and Spanish East Indies (including the Caroline Islands, Mariana Islands and the Philippines) continued as a part of Spain until the 1898 Spanish–American War.

The Spanish Empire streched world-wide and it was the Spanish who opened world trade routes. Spain's enormous empire allowed her to trade in both China and Japan, as well as the Philippines and other smaller Asian states. The slave trade had opened Spanish colonies in Africa and created further trading opportunities. The Asian trade had been the initial prize after the Silk Road had been closed by the Turks and 'Chinese' spices and silks had stopped flowing into the Byzantine Empire. However, that value of that Asian trade was almost dwarfed by the flood of silver and gold flowing from the Americas.[4] This enormous wealth enabled Spain to develop the Caribbean Islands as 'sugar-factories', using slave-power, which supplied growing European and colonial markets and which further increased Spain's profits. In turn the vast new wealth sparked European inflation and paid for Spanish building and wars.

Although the Spanish were the early European heavyweights in America they did not last. By 1600 they had built impressive new cities throughout their Empire as well as the large administrations to care for them. Panama was established on the Pacific in 1519 and in 1521 Hernando Cortez enabled Vera Cruz to be built on the Mexican Gulf. Mexico and Peru became the world’s largest silver producers and by 1560, the principal Spanish export to Seville was silver, with lesser quantities of cochineal, jems, gold, cattle hides, tallow, and sugar.[5] Spain traded in silver and silk via the Philippines and a vast treasure flowed to Seville - shortly followed by inflation.

Gold & Silver


Aztec Quetzalcoatl


In 1517 Cuban governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, commissioned a fleet of three ships under the command of Hernández de Córdoba to sail west and explore the Yucatán peninsula. Córdoba reached the coast of Yucatan. The Mayans at Cape Catoche invited the Spaniards to land, upon which Córdoba had the Spaniards read the Requirement of 1513 to them. Córdoba took two prisoners whom he named Melchor and Julian to be interpreters. On the western side of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Spaniards were attacked at night by Maya chief Mochcouoh (Mochh Couoh). Twenty Spaniards were killed. Córdoba was mortally wounded and only a remnant of his crew returned to Cuba.

Hernán Cortés, then one of the favourites of the Cuban governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, was named as the commander of an expedition to explore the Mexican coast. Cortés sailed with 11 ships in 1519 just as the Governor tried to revoke authority for Cortés to leave Cuba. To ensure he would face no mutiny, on landing on the Yucatan coast Cortés burned his ships. Cortés commanded a small army against the powerful Mayans and Aztecs, but the Spanish carried their own secret weapons - European diseases.

Spanish settlers brought with them typical European smallpox, typhus, and other diseases. Most of the settlers had already developed an immunity in childhood, but the Indians lacked the protective antibodies as these diseases were then alien to America. There were at least three separate, major epidemics that decimated the population: Smallpox (1520–1521), measles (1545–1548) and typhus (1576–1581). Modern population estimates suggest that up to 98% of the native Indians died as a result of disease and abuse by their conquerors.

 'We came here to serve God, and also to get rich', announced Bernal Diaz with Cortés. After initial fighting, Cortés allied his army with an Indian confederacy at Tlaxcala against the larger enemy the Aztecs. After more fighting, Cortés was welcomed to the Mexican capital called Tenochtitlan by Moctezuma the king of the Mexica Indians.[6] Additional fighting between the Aztecs and Spanish continued through 1521, but the Indian populations were also killed by smallpox and similar diseases. By 1524 it was over, Council of the Indies had been created to govern the new colonies, and Mexico was integrated into a growing Spanish Empire.

Inca Machu Picchu


To the Spanish Conquistadores gold was the only prize worth the effort of colonising. Francisco Pizarro became the ultimate conqueror. Pizarro managed to coordinate the conquest of both Preu and Chile. Pizarro built the citiy of Lima to serve as his capital, as the Inca city of Cusco was too remote. He persisted in attacking the Inca empire until he finally had the Inka (king) Atahualpa as a prisoner in 1532.[7] Knowing the Spaniard's greed for gold, Atahualpa offered to ransom himself by filling his prison with gold, and twice again with silver.

Ultimately this was ~700 tons of gold and silver bullion! "The room measured 22 feet long by 17 feet wide (6.7m x 5.2m) and was to be filled to a white line half way up its height (about 2.5m)... he would fill the room with various objects of gold... he would also give the entire hut filled twice over with silver. And he would complete this within two months". Of course once the bullion was indeed delivered, Pizarro killed the king anyway.

Since the Spanish were silmultaneously looting Inca temples for additional treasure the total value is unimaginable.[8] This was why the Spaniards went to the New World, the Conquistadores had little real interest in converting the Indians for the church, or in furthering state motives.

Imperial Wealth

To pay off the Spanish army that had captured Mexico the Conquistadores were granted large areas of land together with any native Indians living there in a revived type of feudalism. Although officially the Indians could not become slaves they were oppressed and exploitated under a system, known as encomienda. As the Indians died of disease and abuse Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas suggested bringing in African slaves. Sadly, he later repented given that the Africans got even worse treatment. Slavery was critical to the Spaniards, not only for their plantations, but also to production in the silver mines. Discovered in Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico the mines contributed most of the wealth flowing to Spain, with important mining centers like Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Hidalgo.

Trade for Seville


To move the wealth back to Sevilla, there were several major ports built in New Spain. These were the ports of Nombre de Dios (for Veracruz) the viceroyalty's principal port on the Atlantic, Acapulco on the Pacific, and Manila near the South China Sea. The ports were fundamental for overseas trade, stretching a trade route from Asia, through the Manila Galleons to the Spanish mainland. In June of 1572 Drake attacked and pillaged Nombre de Dios the Spanish treasure port on the Caribbean. He then lay in wait until March 1573, when Drake captured the entire 'silver train' of mules carrying ore overland from Panama to Nombre de Dios.[9] The silver was shipped to Panama City and then carried overland on the mules.

Some ships made two voyages a year between Manila and Panama, or Acapulco, and their cargos (spices, silks, pearls, jewels, timber, etc) were then transported overland from Panama, or Acapulco, to Veracruz and later reshipped on the Flotta to Seville, or Cádiz, in Spain. The ships that sailed from Veracruz were usually loaded with both the Oriental cargos from the Philippines, plus the gold, silver, sugar, hides, indigo, etc from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. During the sixteenth century, Spain gained the equivalent of US$2 trillion in gold and silver alone from New Spain. Sadly, this wealth did not translate into development due to the Roman Catholic kings' frequent European wars; as well as the incessant attacks by English, French, and Dutch buccaneers and pirates. Some of the pirates were actually financed by the Amsterdam Stock Market and later others were financed by the London market.

Piracy grew in the Caribbean, because it was the centre of the European sugar trade and colonization, plus it was the centre of the Spanish bullion transhipment route from the late 15th Century. The mainland around the Caribbean was called the Spanish Main and the key early settlements were Cartagena, Panama, Santiago Porto Bello and Santo Domingo. Economically, the Spanish were mining staggering amounts of silver bullion from Nueva Espania, and Peru. Other trade was largely hides — the Spanish preferred ranching to plantations. The huge silver shipments attracted pirates and privateers like flies both in the Caribbean and all the way across the Atlantic,to Seville. The Spaniards had their hands full protecting this rich investment from pirates and were content to leave the northern areas to the French and English.

Imperial Over-Reach

Despite its new riches and empire, Spain then began to suffer from imperial over-reach. The major problem was security and the defense of a border from California to St. Augustine. It was difficult enough to support such a widely distributed population; but by 1600, the native populations had fallen by a staggering 98% due mainly to European diseases. As the Spanish became embroiled in European wars (especially the Thirty Years War) the military costs mounted and interest in the West declined. The French, Dutch, and English openly flouted the Treaty of Tordesillas, and piracy grew. In an effort to exclude both Britain and Russia from the Pacific coast, Carlos III of Spain sent a number of expeditions between 1774 and 1791 to explore and hold the Pacific Northwest.

The Dutch United Provinces and England were defiantly anti-Spanish for much of the time from the 1560s, while the French government was seeking to expand its colonial holdings (the French had the first non-Spanish hold in the Caribbean at St. Augustine, although it was short-lived). Aided by their governments English, French and Dutch traders and colonists ignored the treaty to invade Spanish territory: "No peace beyond the line." The Spanish could not afford a sufficient military presence to control the area or enforce their trading laws. This led to constant smuggling and colonization in peacetime, and if a war was declared there was widespread piracy and privateering throughout the Caribbean. Port Royal in Jamaica joined the piracy bases, following the island's capture by the English in 1655.

England, France and Holland grew stronger and moved from fighting the Spanish over religion to fighting each other over economics. The English levied economic sanctions against the Dutch in the 1650s and the two nations were at war three times in the next two decades, and New York became English in 1664. Louis XIV also pursued an aggressive expansionist policy in France. While European warfare continued towards the end of the 17th century, affairs in the Caribbean became more settled. The colonies were more important and the adverse economic effects of piracy were more apparent. The English were becoming a much more significant presence and stationed a naval squadron at Port Royal from the 1680s. Privateering was becoming rarer and naval pirate-hunting more common, although the Spanish established a Costa Guarda of privateers. In the eighteenth century Spain became more aggressive and occupied from Texas (1718) to California (1767) extending Spanish authority to the Mississippi. Their aggressive Guarda Costa caused the 1739 War of Jenkins’ Ear as a British retaliation; and in an attack on Cartagena four battalions were first named ‘Americans’. The 1863 Treaty of Paris exchanged Florida, for the Bahamas, captured on 8 May 1782, by General Count Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Governor of Louisiana and senior Spanish commander.[10] Spanish Florida, of course, ultimately became American in 1819. Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico remained part of the Spanish Empire until the 1898 Spanish–American War.


1             For an overview see Spanish colonization of the Americas, at, and Spanish Empire, at The Spanish empire dominated Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and much of that power came from the Spanish wealth generated in the Americas. The Spanish-American empire was so large that four viceroyalties had to be created to govern the Spanish colonies and territories. Although that empire has since dissolved Spain spread Roman Catholicism, the Spanish language, a basis of international law, and an improved agricultural potential in both Europe and the Americas as a permanent inheritance. For a full list of the 81 world-wide Spanish colonies claimed by Spain after the Middle Ages see World Statesmen Colonies (Spain), at

2             See SE Morrison, The Oxford History of the American People,

3            Viceroyalty of New Spain, at

4             By c1600, Sevilla and Madrid banked gold and silver valued (2008) at c$2 trillion, primarily from their silver mines in Mexico and Peru. Inflation was inevitable.

5              Cochineal is a paste of dried desert insects, which make carmine and a scarlet dye.

6             For conquest details see Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, There is considerable academic debate about the size of the pre-columbian Indian populations. The Mexica city of Tenochtitlan housed at least 500,000 and perhaps over 1,000,000, see Charles C Mann, 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for various demographic discussions. Typically Cortés asked Moctezuma for gold and after it was delivered he still held Moctezuma as hostage

7             See Francisco Pizarro, at

8             Incas & Conquistadors, at

9             Stephen Coote, Drake, The Life and Legend of an Elizabethan Hero, pp., 57-59, 71-75.

10             Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez, at

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