The Spanish Empire
Episode #8 of the course “The Most Powerful Empires in History”
The Spanish Empire proved to be an expert in the area of colonization in the 16th century, more so than virtually any other empire at the time. Their colonies gave them 7.5 million square miles of territory, which is about 13% of the land mass of the earth. The Spanish Empire lasted for about four centuries, but its heyday only lasted about 40 years.
Spain commissioned voyages to explore the new worlds across the ocean. The most important two were Columbus’ accidental discovery of the Americas in 1492 and Vasco de Gama’s discovery of India. The Spanish struggled to use their new lands and resources at first, but by 1515, the Spanish claimed Cuba and the Caribbean islands. They began using their resources to become powerful, and conquering areas in Central and South America was next on the agenda.
The Spanish defeated the Incas in Peru, the Aztecs in Central America, and the Mayans in the Yucatan. Although these civilizations were the largest and strongest in the Americas, they were no match for Spain. The Spanish had advanced weaponry like muskets, and these once-mighty civilizations fell relatively easily.
The Spanish exploited resources and labor from their newly colonized territories. Southern America was rich in both timber and precious metals, and harvesting the gold and silver in the area made the empire very rich. Spreading Catholicism to the area was another important goal.
The Spanish only settled a few areas in North America; their focus was more on South America. However, they did attempt a few exploratory missions. For example, Juan Ponce De Leon discovered Florida and landed there in search of the Fountain of Youth. Unfortunately for Spain, he was attacked by Native Americans almost immediately, so colonization wasn’t successful.
Spain also initially claimed areas on the West Coast that are now Oregon, Alaska, and Washington. They also settled in what is now British Columbia (in modern day Canada). Spain had colonies on the other half of the world, too, including Africa and other parts of Europe. Ultimately, however, Spain faced the threat of military conquest from other European powers and severe monetary problems (especially after being involved in two North American wars), forcing them to allow most of their colonies to withdraw.
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