Spanish Colonization of the Americas
The Spanish colonization of the Americas began in the years following Christopher Columbus’ first voyage and arrival in the Caribbean. Authorized by the Crown of Castille, the Spanish conquistadores began to colonize the surrounding areas of the Caribbean, invading and incorporating half of South America, most of Central America and much of North America into the Spanish Empire for over three centuries.
The Race to Colonial Dominance
Columbus arrived in the “New World” or America in 1492 and revealed the great riches to be had in the land when he got back the following year. As early as 1494, Spain and Portugal tried to decide how they would divide the riches of the Old World and the New between them. Many Spanish conquistadors began exploring throughout the Caribbean, North America, and South America. Their motivations included gold–to get rich, glory–to bring glory to one’s self and nation, and to introduce God–to bring Catholicism to native peoples living in the Americas.
In the race to colonial dominance, the Treaty of Tordesillas legitimized Spain’s holdings in the New World, which indicated Spain’s primacy over Portugal. The two powers fought for domination over the acquisition of new lands. In the 1480s, Pope Sixtus IV had granted Portugal the right to all land south of Cape Verde Islands. It led the Portuguese King John II to claim that the lands discovered by Columbus belonged to Portugal. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued two papal decrees that gave legitimacy to Spain’s Atlantic claims. King John II negotiated a treaty with Spain. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas drew a north to south line through South America. Spain gained territory west of the line, and Portugal retained the lands east of the line.
Spanish Colonization and Conquistadores
Several Spanish conquistadores or explorers followed in Columbus’s footsteps with hopes of conquest in the New World. In 1504, Hernán Cortés arrived on Hispaniola and participated in the conquest of the Island. He led the exploration of the Yucatán Peninsula.
In 1519, he entered the capital of the Aztec/Mexica Empire, the Tenochtitlán. He and his men were astonished by the Aztec wealth and the sophisticated gardens and temples in the city. However, they were horrified by the practice of human sacrifice. He wanted to gain power over the city, thus he took Aztec ruler Moctezuma as hostage. He and his men murdered hundreds of high-ranking Mexica during a religious festival. On 22 May 1520, the celebration of the Feast of Toxcatl ended in a massacre of Aztec elites or the Massacre in the Great Temple, also called the Alvarado Massacre. The Tenochtitlán people retaliated and Cortés and his men fled for their lives.
Following his defeat, Cortés created alliances and recruited tens of thousands of natives who resented Aztec rule. They took advantage of the disunity among the diverse groups in the Aztec Empire until they were able to capture Tenochtitlán. In August 1521, Spain claimed Tenochtitlán and renamed it Mexico City. The smallpox took a heavy toll on the Tenochtitlán people and played a great role in the city’s downfall.
Cortés then proceeded to Tabasco, a region in the southeast of the present-day Mexico, in search of the great city of Indians, as described by Captain Juan de Grijalva, the other Spanish conquistadores who had already explored the region. Cortés fought the unwelcoming natives and won in the Battle of Centla. The natives of Tabasco gave Malintzin, a Nahua woman, to Cortés as tribute. She translated for Cortés and entered into a physical relationship with him. Their son, Martín, may have been the first mestizo or a person of mixed indigenous American and European descent.
In 1509, Francisco Pizzaro made his way to the Spanish Caribbean. He participated in successful expeditions in Panama before trying to look for the Inca wealth in the south. His first efforts against the Inca Empire in the 1520s failed but he was able to capture and execute Inca emperor Atahualpa in 1532. He founded Lima, Peru in 1533. Aside from having to combat the natives, he also fought against competitors from his own country. He assassinated Spanish rival Diego de Almagro in 1541.
Hernando de Soto
Hernando de Soto, who participated in Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca, led his own expeditions from 1539 to 1542 to the southeastern United States. The said expeditions explored modern-day Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas. European diseases and violence claimed thousands of native lives. de Soto died in 1542 of sickness and the surviving Spaniards returned to Mexico City without finding gold and silver.
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado
In 1535, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado went to Mexico. From 1540 to 1542, he led Spaniards and native allies on a large exploration of the southwestern United States. He found natural wonders including the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, among others. During the winter of 1540-41, they waged war against the Tiwa people in the New Mexico. Instead of finding gold and silver, the expedition left Coronado bankrupt.
Spanish Colonial Policies
Shortly before the death of Queen Isabella I in 1504, the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) was created to regulate commerce between Spain and the New World. It aimed to make monopolistic trade and to pour the maximum amount of bullion into the royal treasury. The policy was successful at first but failed when Spain was not able to provide necessary manufactured goods for its colonies. Foreign competitors took advantage and smuggling grew.
Charles V created Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies) in 1524 to serve as a lawmaking body for the colonies. For three centuries, it enacted a massive amount of legislation. Philip II died in 1598 and his successors left American affairs to the Casa and Consejo. They proved to be conscientious and hard-working bodies but in the 17th century, appointments to the council could be purchased.
From 1535 the viceregal system started. Antonio de Mendoza was sent to govern New Spain (Mexico), bypassing the Cortés (parliament). In 1542, a second viceroy was named for Peru and the viceroyalties of New Granada and Río de la Plata were formed in 1739 and 1776, respectively.
By the 18th century, viceroys had an average service of five years and led a hierarchy of bureaucrats from Spain to occupy lucrative posts. Because of this, American-born Spaniards resented favoritism which accounted in part for their separation from Spain. The mestizo offspring of white and Indian had lower social and economic status than them, then Indians and Black slaves followed in the hierarchy.
An indication that Spain sent colonists to America is the number of new cities founded which were distinct from the old Indian culture centers. Among them were Vera Cruz, New Spain; Panama, Cartagena, and Guayaquil, in New Granada (in modern Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, respectively); Lima, Peru; and all those of what are now Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay.
The foremost controversy that Spain faced was the encomienda–Indian groups were entrusted to Spanish proprietors, who in theory should have cared for them physically and spiritually in return for rights to tribute in labor. However, they were often abused and enslaved.
Spanish Dominican friars condemned the said system and worked for its abolition. Missionary Bartolomé de las Casas devoted most of his life to the Indian cause and secured passage of laws in 1542 to order the early abolition of the encomienda. However, these resulted to noncompliance in New Spain and armed rebellion in Peru. Spanish theologians believed that Indians were inferior beings who were destined to be slaves and to be subdued and forcibly converted to Christianity.
Although the Indians became Christians, their numbers shrank from Old World diseases such as smallpox. The aboriginal West Indian population which disappeared in a few generations were replaced by Black slaves. The hybrid mestizo element grew and replaced the Indians.
The Leyenda Negra (Black Legend), which was propagated by critics of Spanish policy, contributes to the general belief that Spain was the most cruel to subject populations. However, a review of Spain’s record suggests that while it was no worse than other nations, it produced a great number of humanitarian reformers. The Jesuit order came to the Indian’s defense and led missionary activities until its expulsion from the Spanish Empire in 1767. They took charge of large converted native communities especially in the area of the viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (Paraguay), in their paternalism.
Pueblo Uprising in Santa Fe
After finding wealth in Mexico, Spain looked north to expand their empire into the land of the Pueblo people. They expected to yield gold and silver in present-day New Mexico. They established a political base in Santa Fe in 1610 and named it the capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico. Located in Mexico City, it became an outpost of the larger Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain. The missionaries built churches and forced the Pueblos to convert to Catholicism and discard their own religious practices. They converted young Pueblos by drawing them away from their parents and traditions.
The Spanish demanded corn and labor from the Pueblos, but tension arose in Santa Fe when a long period of drought impeded production. The latter also suffered from attacks on their villages by rival native groups which were attributed to the Spanish presence.
Pueblo leader Popé led a return to native customs and popularized the idea that “when Jesus came, the Corn Mothers went away.” This described the displacement of native traditions by Spanish culture and religion.
In 1680, the Pueblos, Navajos, and Apaches from the region congregated and planned to strike Santa Fe when the Spaniards were low on supplies. For nine days, they laid siege to the city and cut off the Spanish water supply. Popé’s rebellion killed over 400 Spaniards and drove the remaining 2,000 Spanish settlers south toward Mexico. The rebels also destroyed mission churches to diminish Catholic physical presence on the Pueblo. The rebellion was considered the “first American revolution by Pueblo historian Joe S. Sando.
For the next 12 years, the Pueblo reestablished their religious institutions and a government of their own. But the Spanish took advantage of droughts and attacks by rival tribes to regain foothold over the Pueblo in 1692.
Although they were able to regain Santa Fe, their missionary vision was compromised by the sentiment stirred up during the uprising. Many Pueblo resisted Catholicism and quietly folded their own customs into Spanish norms. Religious syncretism or the amalgamation of distinct religious cultures of the Pueblos and the Spanish was produced. The labor demands and harsh practices of the encomienda was also decreased and over the course of the next few centuries, the Pueblo and Spaniards intermarried. Pueblo customs heavily influenced the New Mexican culture.
Summary and Definition of Terms
The early interactions between the Spanish and Native Americans led to a series of cultural exchanges that affected the New World and the Old World.
- Treaty of Tordesillas: Spain and Portugal moved the line of demarcation several degrees west in 1494. It established Portugal’s claim to Brazil.
- Encomienda system: The Spanish crown authorized encomenderos to enslave natives to farm and mine in the Americas.
- Caste system: A social system in which class status is determined at birth. It was determined by how “Spanish” one was; those with little to no Spanish blood were the lowest in class.
- Peninsulares: Spaniards born in Spain
- Criollos: Spaniards born in the Americas
- Mestizos: Descendants of a Spaniard and a Native American
- Mulatoes: Descendants of a Spaniard and an African Slave
- Indios: Descendants of two Native American parents
- Negros: Descendants of two African parents or a slave taken from Africa
- Criollos: Spaniards born in the Americas
- Peninsulares: Spaniards born in Spain
- Bartolomé de las Casas: a missionary who devoted most of his life to the Indian cause and secured passage of laws in 1542 to order the early abolition of the encomienda
- Pueblo Revolt (1680): A successful rebellion to reclaim Pueblo religious practices, culture, and land from the Spanish colonizers
Core Historical Themes
- Motivations for Colonization:
- To extract gold and silver from the Americas
- To stimulate Spanish economy and make Spain a powerful country
- To convert Native Americans to Christianity
- In order to extract natural resources from the Americas, labor systems like the encomienda was developed. The Native Americans who died from diseases were replaced by captured enslaved Africans.
- In an attempt to integrate Native Americans into Spanish culture, they were forced to convert to Catholicism or to marry. While others adopted aspects of Spanish culture, some initiated rebellion like the Pueblo Revolt which was successful in reclaiming their religious practices, culture, and land.
- “Spanish colonization”.Khan Academy.(Accessed on 2 February 2021).
- “The Spanish conquistadores and colonial empire”.Khan Academy.(Accessed on 2 February 2021).
- “Spanish Colonial Policies”.Britannica.(Accessed on 3 February 2021).
- “Pueblo uprising of 1680”.Khan Academy.(Accessed on 3 February 2021).
- “Lesson summary: The Spanish empire”.Khan Academy.(Accessed on 3 February 2021).