colonial empire governed by Spain between 1492 and 1976

The Spanish Empire (Imperio español) lasted from the time of Christopher Columbus to c. 1900 and in that time was the starting point for many of the famous European explorers and the home of an empire that, for hundreds of years, ruled most of the Americas.


Coat of Arms of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs

For hundreds of years, the Moorish people (Muslims from Northwest Africa) controlled parts of Spain. Eventually, however, Christian leaders - ultimately led by just-married monarchs Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon - pushed the Moorish rulers off the European continent, concluding the Reconquista, and forced Muslims and Jews to convert or leave, enabling the ruling couple to claim the title Los Reyes Católicos and to focus on exploring new lands. The Spanish government supported Christopher Columbus' voyage to the west, which resulted in the "discovery" of the North American continent (of course, the Native Americans, and later the Vikings, had already discovered North America).

The Spanish took advantage of Columbus' discovery and the posterior circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan, and quickly got large portions of the Americas and the Pacific islands under control; the British and the French would lag behind the Spanish until the 1600s. During its Golden Age, Spain was ruled by the House of Habsburg, a different branch of which also had power over the Austrian Empire, dominating continental Europe until defeated by the anti-Habsburg alliance of the Thirty Years War. The Spanish Habsburgs engaged in a lot of marrying within their family and ultimately died out when Charles II, plagued by many hereditary ailments, was unable to produce an heir.

The greatest geographic loss of the Spanish Empire came with the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, where French troops invaded Spain, and caused instability in which Latin America became independent from Spanish rule. The problems for Spain began with the death of Charles III in 1788 who had been a capable ruler who implemented many reforms throughout his empire, some of which however rubbed the criollo elites (native born people of European descent) the wrong way. His successor Charles IV was more interested in hunting than governance and had his prime minister (and possibly the lover of his wife, the queen) Manuel Godoy run most day to day business, which in turn infuriated the crown prince Ferdinand, who tried several times to depose his father. In 1808 finally, Napoleon Bonaparte had had enough of this and invited both claimants to the throne to Bayonne with the excuse of mediating the dispute. Instead he forced both to abdicate in favor of his brother Joseph which was received with shock in Spain leading to the formation of Juntas to keep royal administration going. Ultimately those juntas drafted a remarkably liberal constitution in 1812 and Ferdinand VII swore to abide by it in order to become king. Juntas were likewise set up in Latin America, ostensibly to express loyalty to the Spanish Bourbons over the Bonapartist usurper. However, Ferdinand's hard absolutist turn lost him many sympathies and those same leaders who had set up the juntas started breaking away from him until an 1820 mutiny among troops that were supposed to crush the Spanish American independence movements put an end to all hopes of reinforcements for the colonial governments ultimately resulting in their defeat.

Maximum extent of Spanish Empire, in 1790.

However, a mere look at a map can be deceiving and while the Spanish Empire did indeed declare (and in many case have said declarations recognized by other European powers) rule over vast swaths of territory, often they just replaced the very top layer of native society with Spaniards and only slowly spread their rule and the Spanish language further, sometimes even relying on native languages like Nahuatl in Mexico or Guaraní in what is today Paraguay. Some countries had to engage in "nation building" or even outright conquest of de facto indigenous polities even after independence. Nicaragua only got control of Caribbean Nicaragua a hundred years after the Spanish Empire lost control over Central America and Chile only subdued its southernmost parts after independence. During most of the reign of the Spanish Habsburgs, which came to an end in 1700 after the death of the severely inbred and childless Charles II, Spain spent untold treasures trying to hold onto the "Spanish Netherlands" today largely the country of Belgium but also parts of the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

The Spanish Empire largely ceased to exist following the 1898 Spanish-American War, when much of Spain's final colonial possessions (notably among them Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines) were surrendered to the United States. It retained control of its African colonies, however: Equatorial Guinea until 1968, and Western Sahara until 1975. Western Sahara has been in a state of limbo since then as a disputed territory; part of it is controlled by Morocco, and part of it is controlled by the unrecognised Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The long "frozen" conflict flared up again in 2020.

The Coat of Arms of Fernando de Aragón and Isabella de Castilla, which has elements still part of Spanish royal iconography today, shows a few aspects of Spain's history and political claims. The yoke (Latin iugum) and the arrows (Spanish flechas) at its base stand for a claim to power; as well as the first names "Fernando" and "Isabela" of the ruling monarchs, they also formed the symbol of Spain's ruling fascist party under Francisco Franco much later. This iconography is reminiscent of the fasces of fascism. The castles on the Coat represent Castille, while the lion represents the Kingdom of León. The red and yellow stripes (today part of the flags of Spain and Catalonia) represent the Kingdom of Aragón, which is combined with the eagle of Sicily to form the Coat of Arms of Aragonese Sicily. The Pomegranate (Spanish Granada) at the bottom symbolizes Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Andalusia, which the Catholic Monarchs had conquered in 1492. In many Spanish Coats of Arms, from the reign of Fernando and Isabella's grandson Charles V Habsburg (known as Carlos I in Spain) onwards, there are also two columns which symbolize the Strait of Gibraltar and the words Plus Ultra, Latin for "[There is something] further beyond", implicating Spain's claim to the Canary Islands and the Americas. Before European contact with the Americas, it sometimes said non plus ultra ("there is nothing beyond") symbolizing the belief that the world ended where Spain ended.

As put by modern historians, whereas the "body politic" of the Spanish Empire is no more, its "body historic" is very much alive and thriving. Spain continues to control the Canary Islands just off the western coast of Africa, as well as territories in North Africa, and is also home to large communities of Latin American origin, as a legacy of its former colonial empire.

Regions once part of the Spanish EmpireEdit

Historical destinationsEdit

Mission San Jose
  • Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay and Quito, capital of Ecuador, have well-preserved Spanish colonial central sections.
  • Cuzco, Peru, where colonial architecture is built on Inca foundations.
  • El Escorial is a massive palace-monastery built on behalf of Philip II, namesake of the Philippines, as a mausoleum for his father Charles V. While the palace is gargantuan (and must've cost a pretty penny) his own "office" from which he ruled half the planet is pretty modest. In the "basement" there is also a burial chamber and "national shrine" of sorts housing the remains of most Spanish kings and queens who gave birth to kings from Philip's time onward. As "Valle de los Caídos" is close by - perhaps intentionally as Franco chose the site - the two can be done on a single day-trip. Valle de los Caídos used to house the corpse of Franco and still houses the remains of many dead of the Civil War, as well as the corpse of Juan Antonio Primo de Rivera, a leading fascist executed by Republicans in 1936.
  • Madrid became the seat of the Spanish court at a similar point in time as the rise of Spain to global power occurred and it is thus full of signs of the wealth and power of former Spanish monarchs. The current Spanish monarch as well as Spain's government and parliament are also found here.
  • Manila Intramuros, Manila's old town "inside the walls" was built in the Spanish time (though rebuilt after WWII destruction) and served as the capital for the Spanish East Indies for more than 300 years.
  • Seville became an economic powerhouse, as its port monopolised the transoceanic trade, and it shows in its rich architectural heritage. To this day the main archive on the Spanish colonial history is housed here, making it a favorite destination for researchers of the colonial era.
  • Missions on El Camino Real in California, United States, many of which can still be visited as museums or churches.
  • Santa Fe (founded in 1607) and Albuquerque (funded in 1706) in New Mexico.
  • Pensacola (founded in 1559) and St Augustine (founded in 1565) in Florida.
  • San Antonio (founded in 1718) in Texas.
  • Vigan — arguably the best preserved Spanish colonial town in the Philippines

Battle sitesEdit

  • Cartagena (Colombia) was a very important port from which the wealth of South America was sent to Spain, and very famous as the site of the one of the worst defeats suffered by the British, the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. In 1741 a small force of just 3,000 Spanish troops, leaded by one of the best Spanish leaders of all times, Blas de Lezo, successfully defeated a force of 30,000 British soldiers with 186 boats (50 of which ended up sinking there) that wanted to invade it. Cartagena's impressive fortications, which were a huge help to Blas de Lezo and his men, are still standing.
  • Cádiz and A Coruña were the sites of the "singeing of King Philip's beard" raid by Sir Francis Drake in 1587. He occupied the harbours and destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships. About 20 km south of Cádiz is Cape Trafalgar, off which was fought the famous 1805 naval battle.

See alsoEdit

  • Age of Discovery
  • Latin America as a region of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, south of the United States, makes up much of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the Americas prior to 1819-1821 when most of the countries gained independence from Spain. Brazil also gained independence from Portugal at around the same time period.
  • The U.S. states of California, Texas, Florida and the Southwestern states (of AZ, NM, NV, CO, UT); and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico were also part of the Spanish Empire. After independence from Spain, California and the Southwest became part of Mexico till after 1848 when they were ceded to the U.S. by Mexico as a concession towards ending the U.S./Mexican war. Texas seceded from Mexico earlier in 1836 only to join the U.S. in 1845 and Florida was ceded by Spain to the U.S. in 1819.

Other colonial empiresEdit

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