Spanish Empire

The Spanish Empire (Spanish: Imperio español) lasted from the time of Christopher Columbus to around 1900, and 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 leader, 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 later 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 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. 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 the leaders who had set up the juntas started breaking away from him. In 1820, a 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 leading to 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 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 Empire

  • The U.S. states of Florida and Louisiana were also part of New Spain but were governed from Havana instead of from Mexico City. After Mexican independence, Florida and Louisiana were never part of Mexico. Florida was eventually ceded by Spain to the U.S. in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. France secretly re-aqcuired the Louisiana Territory through the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800, but Spain continued to administer it till 1803 when the Americans purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.

Historical destinations



  • 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 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.
  • 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 Spanish colonial history is housed here, making it a favorite destination for researchers of the colonial era.
  • 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

New Spain (Mexico, United States, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico)

Mission San Jose in California
  • Cortés established Acapulco as a major port by the early 1530s, with the first major road between Mexico City and the port constructed by 1531. The wharf, named Marqués, was constructed by 1533 between Bruja Point and Diamond Point. Soon after, the area was made an "alcadia" (major province or town). Spanish trade in the Far East would give Acapulco a prominent position in the economy of New Spain.
  • Havana was founded in 1519 by the Spanish. During the colonial period, it became a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish Galleons crossing between the Old and New Worlds.
  • Missions on El Camino Real in Alta California (modern day California) many of which can still be visited as museums or churches.
  • Mexico City — the capital of Mexico and of New Spain before national independence. Mexico City was built on a lake bed which had been the site of the Aztec city of Tenochitlan.
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico was once the capital of the territories north of the Rio Grande under Spanish and then Mexican rule, but its visible history extends far beyond the arrival of the Spanish; it is thought to have been the site of Puebloan villages that had already been long abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived in 1607. It is the capital of the U.S. state of New Mexico.
  • Pensacola (founded in 1559) and St Augustine (founded in 1565) were the principal cities in Florida.
  • San Antonio was as a Spanish mission and colonial outpost in 1718, the city in 1731 became the first chartered civil settlement in what is now Texas; the area was then part of the Spanish Empire. From 1821 to 1836, it was part of the Mexican Republic. It is the oldest municipality in Texas,
  • Santo Domingo is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas, and was the first seat of the Spanish colonial rule in the New World, the Captaincy General of Santo Domingo which had jurisdiction over the Spanish Caribbean possessions and the coast lines surrounding the Caribbean Sea. Due to its strategic location, the Captaincy General of Santo Domingo also served as headquarters for Spanish conquistadors on their way to the mainland and was important in the establishment of other European colonies in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Veracruz played an important part in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire by Cortés. He founded Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz in 1519, as the first Spanish town in what is now Mexico. By doing so, Cortés threw off the authority of the Governor of Cuba, claiming authority directly from the Spanish crown. A small contingent of the expedition remained at Veracruz, while the main body of conquerors moved inland. During the colonial era, Veracruz was the main port of entry for immigrants from Spain, African slaves, and all types of luxury goods for import and export. The first group of Franciscans arrived in Veracruz in 1524, walking barefoot to the capital of the Spanish colony of New Spain. The route between Veracruz and the Spanish capital of Mexico City, was the key trade route during the colonial era.
  • Yuquot in Nootka Island, off Central Vancouver Island, western Canada, was once named Santa Cruz de Nuca, and is a highwater mark of verified northerly Spanish settlement along the North American Pacific coast. Yuquot is far from the established New Spain (and later Mexico) and is in a disputed territory of Nootka (modern day Pacific Northwest, Idaho & British Columbia) with Great Britain and Russia.

Capitancy of Guatemala (Central America & Chiapas except Panama)

  • Antigua Guatemala was one of the grand colonial capitals of the Spanish Empire in America from the 16th to 18th centuries. Under the name Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, it was the original "Guatemala City" as the capital of the Central American Viceroyalty. A disastrous earthquake in 1773 destroyed or damaged most of the city, and the Spanish crown ordered the capital moved to a new city, what became the modern Guatemala City.
  • León, Nicaragua, named after the city of León in Spain, was founded in 1524 at the western end of Lake Xolotlán. Ten years later, the Diocese of Nicaragua was established there. After a destructive volcanic eruption of Volcan Momotombo, the city was moved to its present location in 1610. Almost the entire city was moved, including the saints in the churches and some of the dead in the cemeteries, but ruins of the old city can still be seen at León Viejo. In 1812, the second oldest university in Central America was established in León.
  • Granada, Nicaragua, nicknamed La Gran Sultana after its Muslim-influenced namesake in Spain, founded in 1524, is the oldest extant European settlement on the American mainland (the only older extant European-founded cities in the Americas are Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and Panama, which moved afterwards). A rich town for most of the colonial period, Granada has always been a conservative city. As a (sort of) "Caribbean port", connected to the ocean by the lake and the Rio San Juan, Granada was attacked by pirates several times in its early history. However the attack that left the biggest mark on the city was carried out by an American in 1856, when the city was burned down.

New Granada (Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela)

  • Cartagena 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, led by one of the most effective Spanish leaders of all time, 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 fortifications, which were a huge help to Blas de Lezo and his men, are still standing.
  • Santa Fe de Bogotá was founded as the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada in 1538 by Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada after a harsh expedition into the Andes conquering the Muisca, the indigenous inhabitants of the Altiplano. Santafé (its name after 1540) became the seat of the government of the Spanish Royal Audiencia of the New Kingdom of Granada (created in 1550), and then after 1717 it was the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada which consisted of the modern countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.
  • Quito Historic city that is the capital of Ecuador.

Viceroyalty of Peru (Chile & Peru)

  • Lima was founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1535 to serve as the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru (which consisted of much of South America) and the seat of La Real Audencia which was the appellant court of the Spanish Empire. m,
  • Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th Century to 1532. The Spanish laid siege to the city and eventually built their city on top of Inca ruins.
  • Trujillo (Peru) — the Independence of Trujillo from Spain was proclaimed in the Historic Centre of Trujillo on December 29, 1820, and the city was honored in 1822 by the Congress of the Republic of Peru with the title "Meritorious City and Faithful to the Fatherland"

Rio Plata (Argentina, Bolivia Paraguay, Uruguay)

  • Buenos Aires was the capital of this region to rival Lima and is the capital of Argentina.
  • Montevideo, well-preserved Spanish colonial central sections.
  • La Paz, Bolivia was founded on 20 October 1548, by the Spanish conquistador Captain Alonso de Mendoza, at the site of the Inca settlement of Laja as a connecting point between the commercial routes that led from the silver mines of Potosí and Oruro to Lima
  • Potosí, known as Villa Imperial de Potosí in the colonial period, is the capital city and a municipality of the Department of Potosí in Bolivia. It is one of the highest cities in the world at a nominal 4,090 m (13,420 ft). For centuries, it was the location of the Spanish colonial silver mint. A considerable amount of the city's colonial architecture has been preserved in the historic center of the city, which — along with the globally important Cerro Rico de Potosí — are part of a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • In 1538, Sucre was founded under the name Ciudad de la Plata de la Nueva Toledo (City of Silver of New Toledo) by Pedro Anzures, Marqués de Campo Redondo. In 1559, the Spanish King Philip II established the Audiencia de Charcas in La Plata with authority over an area which covers what is now Paraguay, southeastern Peru, northern Chile and Argentina, and much of Bolivia with Sucre as the capital of this newly established region.

The Philippines & Guam

  • Manila Intramuros, Manila's old town "inside the walls" was built in the Spanish time (though rebuilt after destruction in World War II) and served as the capital for the Spanish East Indies for more than 300 years.
  • Cebu City was the first Spanish base in the Philippines, and briefly the capital.
  • Vigan — one of the the best-preserved Spanish colonial towns in the Philippines
  • Taal — another well-preserved colonial town.

See also

  • Age of Discovery
  • Atlantic slave trade
  • 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 and joined the U.S. in 1845. Florida was ceded by Spain to the U.S. in 1819.

Other colonial empires

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