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The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire

Written by C. Christian Monson

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We all remember the rhyme from grade school and probably the simplified version of events that Columbus “discovered America,” but rarely do we consider its true historical significance and the chain of events that would end up shaping much of the political structure of the modern world.

Essentially a new nation in 1492, Spain would go on from Columbus’s expeditions to found one of the largest empires in human history. At its peak at the end of 18th Century, the Spanish empire covered some 5.3 million square miles, which is roughly 13.7 million square kilometers or nearly 10% of all the land on Earth. It included possessions in Europe, Africa, Asia and of course, the lion’s share of the Americas. 

But like all empires, its glory days were numbered. This is the tale of the Spanish Empire’s meteoric rise—and dramatic fall.


Although the start of the Spanish Empire is indeed often dated to 1492, its true formation can be put a bit farther back to 1469 with the marriage of Queen Isabella of Castile to King Ferdinand II of Aragon, uniting most of what is now considered Spain under the “Spanish throne” or the “House of Trastamara.”


Both kingdoms had already been expanding. Castile had pushed south in the Iberian peninsula and taken Andalusia back from the Moors in addition to conquering the Canary Islands, a major step in the push for Western Exploration. Meanwhile, Aragon had retaken Mallorca and most of Valencia from the Moors, and the crown’s territories included Sardinia, Sicily and Naples.

With the combined might of both kingdoms, the Spanish throne completed the conquest of Andalusia by taking over the Muslim Kingdom of Granada in 1492, which earned Ferdinand and Isabella the title of Reyes Catolicos, or “Catholic Monarchs,” as granted by Pope Alexander VI.

Ferdinand and Isabella had a few pressing matters on their agenda as monarchs: containing their rival, the French empire; conquering territory in Italy and North Africa; and, increasing trade with Asian nations like China and India. 

This latter goal was particularly complicated because the Ottoman Empire had taken over much of Asia in the 15th Century including Constantinople in 1453 and blocked access to the Silk Road for European powers, making land trade with the East impossible. Instead, Spain had to look for and secure a sea route to the East, something they were racing with the Portuguese to accomplish. Enter a certain Genoese explorer with an incredibly misinformed theory about the circumference of the Earth.


By the time Christopher Columbus came to Queen Isabella in 1492 with his plans to sail west to Japan, the Spanish crown was desperate. In the War of the Castilian Succession in the 1470s, Queen Isabella fought her niece Joanna and her husband King Alfonso V of Portugal. The war essentially ended in a stalemate with the Treaty of Alcáçovas, which benefited Isabella by granting her the throne of Castile but severely disadvantaging her by giving Portugal a navigational monopoly on the Western coast of Africa, meaning that Spain had no way to voyage to Asia around Africa and through the Indian Ocean.

So when Columbus came to Isabella with a proposal that basically all European explorers had considered preposterous up to that point, she was willing to take the risk. Despite the popular myth, Columbus did not propose that the Earth was round. That was common knowledge. Traveling west to China and India had even been proposed by the Romans, but they deemed it too far a journey to be practical. 

Rather, Columbus proposed that the Earth was much smaller than it is. Specifically, he pinned its circumference at 19,000 miles versus its true 25,000 miles, or about 30,000 kilometers as opposed to 40,000. This was due to a misreading of Arabic navigational texts, not realizing that the Arab “mile” was considerably longer than the Roman one. 

For reference, the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan going west is more than 10,000 nautical miles or nearly 19,000 kilometers, almost half the circumference of the Earth. Now, Columbus did have three innovative ships: the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. The largest and most impressive was certainly the Santa Maria, a Nao class ship similar to a Carrack with three masts. It measured roughly 62 feet long, or 19 meters, not too much longer than a semi-truck, and had 150 metric tonnes of displacement. This gave it room for a crew of 40 and four 90-millimeter cannons. 


Still, even with these advanced ships, it would have taken Columbus more than three months to reach Japan at his ships’ average speed of 4 knots, or about 4.6 miles per hour or 7.4 kilometer per hour. In the 15th Century, this represented an impossible journey as no ship could have carried enough food and fresh water to support a crew for that long a period. 

But Columbus thought it was only about 2,400 nautical miles to Japan, which would take him just a few weeks. Coincidentally, he did hit land about right when he thought he would. It just wasn’t Japan. Rather, he landed on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas 36 days after leaving the Canary Islands.

On San Salvador, Columbus encountered natives who he believed were the victims of regular raids and enslavement from a nearby mainland. He quickly set off to find that mainland, exploring Cuba, then Hispaniola in what is present day Haiti. There the Santa Maria ran aground, and the crew had to abandon it on Christmas Day, thus creating the first Spanish settlement in the Americas, appropriately named La Navidad. It consisted of 39 men.

After some conflict with Portuguese authorities on his return across the Atlantic, Columbus finally reached Ferdinand and Isabella in Barcelona on March 15, 1493. He brought gold and pearl jewelry he had stolen or traded from the natives as well as unknown food like pineapple and turkey, all accompanied by an arguably exaggerated account of the riches he had found in what he still believed to be the East Indies. At first, Isabella and other prominent European figures including the Pope believed Columbus, both that he’d reached east Asia, and that it was filled with wealth.

However, there was one aspect of Columbus’s expedition that did not impress Queen Isabella. In addition to the goods he brought back to Spain, Columbus had kidnapped several Taíno, an indigenous people native to the Caribbean. While the Catholic Monarchs were enthusiastic about the idea of converting the natives to Christianity, Isabella was staunchly opposed to slaverly and had outlawed it on Spanish soil.

Under the “Capitulations of Santa Fe,” Isabella had granted Columbus the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and made him Viceroy of any lands he discovered, but she retained sovereignty for herself and the Spanish crown, meaning the settlements in the Americas were Spanish territory and its inhabitants Spanish subjects who could not be enslaved.

Over the course of the next decade, Columbus made three more voyages to the Americas, primarily exploring the Caribbean but also making first contact with the mainland in Venezuela and then Panama and Nicaragua. He set up a settlement called La Isabela on Hispaniola of 330 people that would go on to serve as the primary launching point for exploration deeper into the Americas. 

Many of these colonists were prisoners in Spain who were offered pardons in exchange for a few years of unpaid service in HIspaniola. Altogether, they included 100 soldiers and general laborers, 50 farmers, 40 squires, 30 sailors, 30 cabin boys, 20 goldsmiths, 20 handymen, 10 gardeners and 30 women. 

As the governor of all the discovered lands, Columbus installed his brothers and friends in positions of authority. They shared his heavy-handed philosophy of governance. They treated the Spanish settlers brutally, ordering frequent executions, and the natives even worse. 

For example, cases of natives attacking the Spanish settlements, enslaving Spaniards or raping Spanish women gave Columbus an excuse to sentence indigenous people to slavery as a punishment, theoretically still allowed by Isabella. However, Columbus and his brothers applied this liberally, enslaving most of the natives he found and forcing any over 14 years of age to pay a tribute of gold or have their hands cut off.

But Hispaniola had little gold, and even with the strict forced labor, Columbus could not substantiate his claims of riches. Moreover, reports of the Columbus family’s brutality and ill-treatment of the natives reached Isabella, leading to her ordering their arrest after the third voyage. 

Though he avoided prison time and was even granted a fourth voyage as a chance to redeem himself, Isabella had lost all faith in her admiral, who was still insisting the West Indies were Asia, something that was becoming ever more clearly impossible. For this reason, Isabella and the Spanish throne began restricting Columbus’s authority in the Americas and instead looking for other figures to lead the expansion of the Spanish Empire. 



Besides access to slave labor in the form of the indigenous Taíno population that was rapidly shrinking due to disease and conflict, Hispaniola proved to have few of the resources and riches Columbus had claimed it did. As a result, Spanish ambition quickly looked elsewhere, first to Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León took over Puerto Rico, and by 1515, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar conquered Cuba, killing thousands of Taíno in the process.

From there, the Spanish turned to the mainland. Conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa formed the first settlement there in 1510, Santa María la Antigua del Darién in present-day Colombia, though this was abandoned in 1524 for the more favorable location of Panama City. Different Conquistadores like Ponce de Leon and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (whose second last name literally means “cow head”), explored North America in hopes of finding rumored vast cities of gold. However, they instead encountered mostly hostile natives who attacked and in some cases enslaved them.

It was Hernán Cortés who had more luck, discovering and subsequently conquering the expansive Aztec Empire in Central Mexico. Initially, Cortés was appointed by his father-in-law Diego Velázquez to lead an explorative expedition to the Mexican coast, but he had glorious dreams of the conquest of the mainland, something Velázquez wanted for himself.

As Velázquez grew suspicious of Cortés’s motives, he ultimately ordered his arrest and replacement as commander of the expedition, but Cortés set sail before he could be caught, technically heading for Mexico as a mutineer and criminal. He left Trinidad, Cuba, in February of 1519 with 11 ships and around 630 passengers, including 30 crossbowmen and 12 infantrymen equipped with arquebusiers, an early form of firearm and first with a trigger mechanism, as well as a doctor, carpenters, eight women, and Taíno and African crewmen and slaves.   

Cortés encountered the Aztecs in what is now the Mexican State of Veracruz in April of 1519. Thanks to a Nahuatl-speaking woman Cortés had met on the coast, named Marina, taught Spanish, and even fathered a son with, Cortés was able to communicate with the Aztecs, who had sent representatives for the Emperor Moctezuma II to welcome him. 

After establishing the coastal settlement of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, Cortés led his men to Cempoala, a native city that had been conquered by the Aztecs and was now forced to pay tribute in the form of goods and human beings as slaves and sacrifices. As a result, Cempoala’s native inhabitants cheered upon the Spaniards’ arrival, seeing them as their saviors from the Aztecs, something only reinforced when Cortés captured and imprisoned five Aztec tax collectors.

The Aztecs sent more dignitaries to meet Cortés and dissuade him from traveling to their capital, Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. However, they did so by offering Cortés gifts of gold and fabrics that only increased his thirst for conquest.

Cortés then easily convinced the Cempoalas to ally with him and rebel against the Aztecs who had been oppressing them. With 40 Cempoalan war chiefs and 200 soldiers, the Spaniards marched inland where they found the Tlaxcala, a loosely confederated band of tribes and villages who were raided by the Aztecs on a yearly basis for human sacrifices. 

In September of 1519, Cortés reached their main city of the same name where he was greeted by another celebratory people hoping he would save them from the Aztecs. They provided him with 1,000 soldiers to continue marching to Cholula, the second largest city in the Aztec Empire and a holy site in the Aztec religion. In fact, made of adobe brick with a perfectly square base 1,480 feet (450 meters) on each side and a height of 180 feet (55 meters), the holy Great Pyramid of Cholula dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl was the largest pyramid by volume ever made, even bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. 


Cortés did not receive a particularly warm welcome in Cholula, and his translator Marina eventually informed him that the wife of an Aztec aristocrat had told her the Aztecs were going to kill the Spaniards in their sleep. This along with warnings from the Cempoalas and Tlaxcalans convinced Cortés to attack the Aztecs pre-emptively. The Spanish forces with help from their native allies burned the city to rubble and killed 3,000 inhabitants within a few hours.

After the massacre at Cholula, Moctezuma realized the Spanish were coming whether he liked it or not. He felt capitulation was his only option and invited Cortés into Tenochtitlan. There Moctezuma essentially handed over the Aztec Empire to Cortés, claiming that the Spaniards matched Aztec legends of men from the east who would come to conquer them.

At the time, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in Mesoamerica. With population estimates ranging up to 300,000, it was probably one of the largest cities in the world, certainly larger than any in Spain. The Spanish found caches of treasure beyond anything they’d ever seen and demanded that the Aztecs pay the gold in tribute, which they melted down into bars.

However, not all the Aztecs were as ready to hand their empire over to the bearded strangers as their emperor was, and they started rallying around Moctezuma’s brother Cuitláhuac, demanding the Spanish return home. Eventually, fearing an attack, the Spanish preemptively killed a large portion of the Aztec aristocracy at a religious festival around the Great Temple.

This only enraged the Aztecs and led to an uprising of the entire population against them. In July of 1520, the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from the city, killing 860 of them and roughly 1,000 Tlaxcalan soldiers in the process.

The Spanish retreated back to the Tlaxcalans’ territory, who were apparently so impressed by the Spaniards’ bravery that they now offered 10,000 of their soldiers to Cortés for the conquest of Tenochtitlan. Cortés also finally received reinforcements from Spain, who he’d convinced to see him as the rightful Conquistador, and built 13 brigantine ships armed with cannons that the Spaniards carried over land to Lake Texcoco, which surrounded Tenochtitlan as a natural fortification.

Altogether, Cortés besieged the city with 84 horsemen, 194 crossbowmen and gunmen, and 650 Spanish infantrymen, in addition to a total of 20,000 indigenous allied troops. Starting in May of 2021, the siege lasted over three months, with the Aztecs finally surrendering on August 13. Enraged by the Aztecs’ practice of sacrificing prisoners of war, the Spanish ransacked the city and destroyed all the idols and temples, replacing them with Catholic religious symbols and finally establishing the colony of Nueva España, or New Spain.

While Cortés’s conquest was partially aided by a smallpox epidemic that severely weakened the Aztecs, it was and still is regarded as an impressive military feat due to the relatively small Spanish force involved. His tactics, like allying with native groups, is still a strategy used by armies today. During his entire expedition, Cortés led no more than 3,000 Spanish infantrymen and 100 cavalrymen and had access to only 32 guns and the 13 ships his men built in-country. Yet they defeated an army consisting of roughly 200,000 Aztecs and another 100,000 Aztec allies.

Franciso Pizarro went on to use Cortés’s same approach to arguably outdo his success by conquering the Incan Empire in 1532. Pizarro had already made contact with the Inca some five years earlier, and he returned to find them suffering from a smallpox pandemic he or other Spaniards had introduced. 

After gaining the support of several native tribes who had been oppressed by the Inca, Pizarro took the Incan capital of Cuzco and its some 150,000 inhabitants in 1533 with just 168 soldiers, defeating an Incan army of roughly 100,000. With as many as 14 million subjects, larger than the current population of Portugal, the Incan Empire spanned the majority of the Pacific South American coast from modern-day Peru to Chile, covering an area of 770,000 square miles, or 2,000,000 square kilometers.

In fact, Conquistadors rapidly expanded the scope of the Spanish Empire. In 1565, Miguel López de Legazpi founded the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines, which had been explored earlier by Ferdinand Magellan who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe in service of the Spanish crown. That same year, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine in Florida. 

Ultimately, the Spanish would claim territory as far north as Port Valdez, Alaska, and as far south as Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. In North America, their claims reached as far east as modern-day Virginia, and they colonized California in the mid-18th Century.


In 1516, control of the Spanish Empire fell to Charles V, who was the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Because his father was Maximilian I, he was a Habsburg and subsequently became the Holy Roman Empire. While his brother Ferdinand inherited much of the traditional Habsburg territories like Austria and Hungary, Charles and then later his son Philip II still controlled the lands of Castile, Aragon, and the Spanish Americas (referred to as “the Indies”), as well as Portugal, Portuguese territories in Brazil and India, and much of southern Italy.


Habsburg Spain maintained very strict economic control of the empire. With a philosophy of mercantilism, they tried to limit trade with outside powers, which at the time were France, England and Holland. The crown also claimed monopolies over most production, most notably that of silver.

While the Spanish had failed to find the gold Columbus had promised in the Americas, they did find a lot of silver, so much so that the world’s stock of precious metals ultimately tripled from Spanish silver mining in the Americas. The Habsburgs used this silver to fund their many geopolitical goals: limiting French expansion, containing Protestantism, spreading Catholic Christianity to their colonies, defending Europe against Islam in the form of the Ottoman Empire, and preventing other Eurpean powers from taking their territory in the Americas, which they had been doing extensively, especially in the Caribbean.

In fact, by the end of the 16th Century, silver from the Americas paid for some 20% of the Empire’s budget. Unfortunately, those familiar with economics can guess what happened with such a rapid increase in the money supply. A growing number of people in the empire started chasing the easy money over which the crown had a monopoly by seeking bureaucratic positions or positions in the expanding Catholic Church. Plus, the wealthy shifted their investments from real production to government debt.

The Habsburgs faced increasing debt and an inability to pay for their many wars and the growing number of rebellions in their territories. By the end of the 17th Century, Spain was lagging behind northern Europe economically. England, France and Holland all had better systems of capital investment that produced a growing manufacturing sector that provided more and more goods to their populations. 

Despite the policies of mercantilism, illegal trade with these powers became a necessary part of providing the massive Spanish Empire with goods. Eventually, the Spanish Crown even began allowing the import of foreign goods, but only through their own state monopoly of mercantile middlemen. This further enriched northern Europe, and the quality of life in Spain and its empire fell compared to that of other major powers until the War of the Spanish Succession.


In 1700, the Habsburg King Charles II of Spain died without any children. Since he had perceivable heirs in both the Austrian Habsburg family and the French Bourbon family, both families feared what access to the large resources of the Spanish Empire would mean for the balance of power in Europe. 

Waged from 1701-1714, the War of the Spanish Succession ended with a number of treaties that changed the territorial outlines in Europe, including Spain being reduced to more or less its current borders. However, the Bourbon King Philip V did gain the Spanish throne and control of the Spanish Empire.

The Bourbons were able to recognize the economic problems that had plagued the Habsburgs but decided to merely double down and strengthen the centralized monopoly system under the same philosophy of mercantilism. While they were able to increase silver production even further, it did little to improve economic efficiency in the Spanish Empire and merely enriched the aristocracy.

Plus, maintaining a closed economic system proved impossible because the Treaty of Utrecht, signed at the end of the war, stipulated that the British be allowed to sell African slaves in the Spanish colonies. The same merchants that transported slaves could easily sell goods manufactured in Northern Europe under the table. 

By the end of the 18th Century, the Bourbons tried to liberalize the Spanish economy by creating the equivalent of free trade zones, Spanish ports where any merchants could trade with the Spanish Empire, but it was too little too late. The Spanish were well behind other powers like the British, French and Dutch, who increasingly encroached into Spanish territory. This culminated in war with the British in 1796.


The Anglo-Spanish War ended with the formation of an alliance against Napoleon in 1808, but the British had spent much of the war blockading Spanish colonies. This only further decreased the economic stability and quality of life in the Spanish Empire, leading to an explosion of revolutions against colonial rule.


Besides the declining economic conditions in Spanish America, people in Spain were generally dissatisfied with Bourbon rule. In an attempt to gain tighter control of the colonies’ production, the Bourbons had replaced many local leaders with Spaniards, leading to a century of brewing resentment. Furthermore, at the beginning of the 19th Century, liberal enlightenment ideals reached Spain’s colonies at the same time that Spain itself was invaded by Napoleon. This gave revolutionary leaders the perfect opportunity to assert their nations’ independence.

The first attempts at independence were Fracisco de Miranda’s failed invasion of Venezuela in 1806 and Miguel Hidalgo’s quashed revolution in Mexico in 1811. However, the momentum continued. Venezuela declared the First Republic in 1812, followed by Simón Bolivar’s formation of a revolutionary army in 1813, the same year Mexico abolished slavery and declared independence. 

Simón Bolivar continued fighting for independence throughout much of Central and South America, suffering both successes and defeats until the final formation in 1819 of an independent Gran Colombia, consisting of modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. Despite refusal from Madrid, Spanish authorities in Mexico recognized its independence in 1821. The Federal Republic of Central America, consisting of modern-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, formed in 1823.  

Then in 1829, Spain, under the rule of King Ferdinand VII, made one last-ditch attempt to retake their former colonies but was ultimately defeated in the Battle of Tampico in Mexico. The Spanish government finally renounced its claims to its colonies in the Americas in 1836 with only a few exceptions like Cuba and Puerto Rico. Spain finally lost those in the Spanish-American War fought in 1898, which ceded control of these territories as well as the Philippines and Guam to the United States.



Altogether, the Spanish Empire had lasted over 400 years but took less than a century to collapse. Nevertheless, its legacy is still clear geographically, linguistically and even politically. 

Latin American nations generally use a civil law legal system inherited from Spain, and they often invoke contracts and treaties made under the Spanish Empire. For example, Chile and Argentina’s claims to Antarctica are based on the governorship granted to Pedro Sánchez de la Hoz in the 16th Century of all lands south of the Straits of Magellan.

The GDP of Spanish-speaking Latin America is roughly $3.36 trillion. Combined with Spain and the Philippines, this rises to roughly $5 trillion or about 6% of global production. The economic power of the Spanish Empire is still seen in words like “dollar,” originating in the Spanish Silver dólar, one of the first global currencies due to its reliability and uniform minting.

Perhaps most notably, Spanish is an official or de facto language in 20 nations, 18 of them in Latin America, plus New Mexico and Puerto Rico. It’s spoken by 477 million native speakers and 572 million people overall, making it the second most spoken language in the world.

The Spanish Empire might not exist anymore, but if you’ve ever drunk Caribbean rum, visited a Spanish mission, or lived in one of the dozens of places named after Christopher Columbus, you’re still feeling its power.  


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