In the first two chapters of this topic, we have seen how the first two colonisers of the world expanded their colonisation. In this chapter, we will move into another stage of colonisation history, from 14th to 18th century. During this period, there were three dominant colonisers: Spain, Britain and France. We will have a look at Spain and see what motivated the Spanish to explore the world, how they traded with its colonies and what legacies were left to the modern world.
What motivated the Spanish to colonise the Americans?
The Spanish conquest and colonisation of the Americas started with the arrival in America of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Following that, during the 16th century, Spain began the conquest of colonisation. Spanish colonies from 14th to 18th century included South and Central America, Mexico, parts of the Caribbean and much of the United States.
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At the beginning, the Spanish explored new lands to convert people into Christianity. Later they looked for gold and silver to pay for all their debts and expenses in previous explorations.
For example, in 1791, the King of Spain gave Alejandro Malaspina command of an expedition around the world. The trip had two purposes: to locate the Northwest Passage, which was a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through Canada, and to search for gold, precious stones, and any American, British, or Russian settlements along the northwest coast.
Life in Spanish colonies
To govern their colonies, the Spanish issued the Laws of the Indies. These laws were drawn up such that the Spanish king and the viceroys had most of the power. The viceroys were the head of each colony, and they had almost complete control over them. They were appointed by the king.
The social classes in the Spanish colonies consisted of 5 different classes: Peninsulares, the Creoles, the Mestizos, the Indians and the Africans. The Spanish tried to exploit the colonised people as much as possible. They made it their right to demand taxes of labour from the Indians (who were the native Americans) when they wanted. This was called encomiendas.
Right after the Spanish arrival to America, they brought with them many European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus. They also introduced temperate and tropical diseases, which reduced the Indian population by 50 to 90 percent.
The Spaniards were very committed to converting the colonised people to Christianity. They often did this by force. They were willing to get rid of any native practices that prevented them from their mission. Spanish explorers destroyed many native artworks which they considered as idols for people with no religion. They ruined many gold and silver sculptures found in the Americas, which were melted down before transport to Europe.
However, not all attempts of the Spanish were successful, as American natives simply blended Catholicism with their traditional beliefs.
The Spaniards did not impose their language to the degree they did their religion. But many trips made by the church to spread Christianity contributed to the expansion of the American languages, equipping them with writing systems.
Trading between Spain and its colonies
After conquering an area, the colonists usually enslaved the native people. That means the native people were forced to become slave to work for the Spanish colonisers.
The Spanish utilised the same form of labour system in supplying the work force needed for the silver mines and vast ranches, which was the basis of their economy at this time. This system killed a large part of the American population.
In some areas, particularly in Mexico, the natives and the Spaniards interbred, forming a Mestizo class. These and the original Americans were often forced to pay unfair taxes to the Spanish government and were punished harshly for disobeying their laws. In other areas, the natives stayed ethnically distinct for more than two centuries.
The end of Spanish colonisation
In 1898, the United States won the Spanish-American War and occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico. This event ended Spanish occupation in the Americas. However, until the early 20th century, there was still a stream of immigration of poor people and political exiles from Spain to the former colonies, especially Cuba, Mexico and Argentina.
Spanish colonisation also left many legacies to its colonised country, particularly America.
In Spanish colonisation of the Americas, the Catholic missionaries selected and learned among the languages of the Amerindians and devised writing systems for them.