Spanish Empire – WorldAtlas

The Spanish Empire, controlled by the Kingdom of Spain, lasted from the 15e century until the 20e century. At its peak, it controlled territories on five of the world’s continents, including large parts of Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, as well as smaller possessions in Asia and Africa. The Spanish Empire began when separate kingdoms from the Iberian Peninsula united to form the Kingdom of Spain. The empire reached its peak between the middle and the end of the 16e century. In the 19e century, however, the Spanish Empire began to decline rapidly as its colonies became independent countries. Around the mid-20se century, the vast Spanish Empire had practically disappeared. Today the only territory that Spain controls outside its own borders on the Iberian Peninsula are a few small enclaves in North Africa.

Map of the Spanish Empire at its height.

Birth of the Kingdom of Spain

The history of the Spanish Empire begins at the beginning of the 15e century. It was the last century of the Reconquista (Reconquest), the centuries-old campaign of Christian forces to recapture the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Arabs, who had conquered it in the 8e century. At the beginning of the 15the century, Muslim control of the Iberian Peninsula had been reduced to a single kingdom on the southeast coast of the Iberian Peninsula known as Granada. The rest of the peninsula was controlled by four Christian kingdoms: Portugal, Navarre, Castile and Aragon. In 1469, Ferdinand d’Aragon and Isabelle de Castille got married. Ten years later, with both on the thrones of their respective countries, the crowns were united and the Kingdom of Spain was born.

The Spanish Empire is growing

Stone statues of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs in Spain
Stone statues of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Kings – Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, in the gardens of the Alcazar of Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain.

By the time Spain became a united kingdom, it already controlled territories outside the Iberian Peninsula, including the Canary Islands, Sardinia and Sicily. In 1492, the Spaniards conquered Granada, destroying the last Muslim outpost on the Iberian Peninsula. Coincidentally, this is the same year that Christopher Columbus embarked on his historic journey to the so-called New World. His arrival in the Caribbean islands marks the beginning of Spanish colonization.

During the first half of the 16e century, the Spanish Empire quickly expanded, seizing the kingdom of Navarre, as well as the lands of Western and Central Europe. At the same time, Spain’s colonial possessions in the Caribbean were increasing. In 1521, Spain had claimed Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Panama and Hispaniola, the island on which the present-day countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are located. It was in 1521 that the Spanish Empire entered what is called “The golden age of Spain”.

Golden Age of Spain

Statue of Charles I of Spain at the Wax Museum, Madrid.
Statue of Charles I of Spain at the Wax Museum, Madrid. Editorial credit: Anton_Ivanov /

When King Charles I ascended to the throne of Spain, he was able to rule over about a quarter of Europe, not by conquest, but rather by inheritance due to marital alliances established by the Reyes Catolicos (Catholic kings) before his reign. He inherited the colonial possessions of Spain as well as the crowns of the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands (now Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) and the Franche-Comté (region in the north-east of the France today). Thus, Charles I became the most powerful man in Europe. In fact, his empire would not be rivaled until the Napoleonic era.

Statue of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in Spain.
Statue of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in Medellin, Spain, who led an expedition that led to the fall of the Aztec Empire.

Meanwhile, the Spanish conquest of the New World was advancing at a rapid pace. The Spanish conquistadors devastated the Aztec Empire in present-day Mexico, culminating in the birth of the Spanish colony of New Spain in 1521. The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in South America led to the creation of the Vice- king of Peru. After the conquest of the two aforementioned empires, rumors of the existence of cities of gold in North and South America prompted the Spaniards to mount new expeditions to territories in the Americas that were not yet under their control. They were disappointed, however, for they did not find the rumors of cities of gold, and the wealth they found was far less than they had hoped for. In fact, the resources of the Americas will not become a significant part of Spain’s revenues until the end of the 16e century, when the money of the Americas represented one-fifth of the country’s total budget.

Coat of arms of the Spanish Empire.
Coat of arms of the Spanish Empire. Editorial credit: andysartworks /

The middle to the end 16e century was the time when the Spanish Empire was at its peak. At that time, the empire controlled large parts of North and South America and the Caribbean. He also controlled the Philippines and a few other Pacific islands, not to mention his European possessions. King Philip II (1556-1598) would be the sovereign president at the zenith of the Spanish Empire, but it was also he who presided over some important defeats. The suppression of the rebellion in the Spanish Netherlands and the rise of piracy in the Caribbean seriously damaged Spain’s finances. Additionally, the empire suffered a resounding defeat in 1588, when the Spanish Armada was destroyed by the English navy in an attempt to invade England. When King Philip II died, he left Spain bankrupt. Nevertheless, the Spanish Empire continued to endure. In fact, the empire gained even more territory after its union with the Crown of Portugal in 1581, thereby gaining territory on the east coast of South America, as well as smaller territories in Africa and Asia. But from the beginning to the middle of the 17the century, the Spanish Empire began to slowly decline.

Decline and fall of the Spanish Empire

From the 1640s Spain faced a number of challenges. Rebellions against Spanish rule have surfaced in Portugal, southern Italy and Catalonia. The union with Portugal ended, although the Spaniards managed to cling to southern Italy and Catalonia. Spain, however, lost territory in Europe during the 17e century. In addition, the country was in the throes of economic ruin and a series of plagues that killed at least 1.25 million people. During this tumultuous time, the leadership of the Spanish Empire was inept and incompetent, leaving the kingdom’s defenses weak and archaic. At the beginning of the 18e century, Spain had lost all its territories in Europe except the Kingdom of Spain itself. The Spanish Empire recovered somewhat in the rest of the 18e century. Trade in the colonies exploded and there was a new growth in the mining of precious metals in the Americas. Spain has started to modernize its institutions and its economy. The 18e century was also relatively peaceful compared to other centuries. The empire even managed to conquer new territories abroad. But Spain was still not the first-rate power it once was. Indeed, he was still quite backward compared to his rivals.

HMS Victory, the famous historic warship of the Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar
HMS Victory – Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 at the historic Portsmouth Dockyard, UK.

The real death knell for the Spanish Empire would come in the 19e century. It all started with the loss of Louisiana territory by Spain in 1800 to the French. Just five years later, the historic Naval Battle of Trafalgar took place, in which British forces defeated a Franco-Spanish fleet. This battle marked the end of the great Spanish naval power. By 1824, Spain had lost all of its territory on the North and South American continent, as its colonies became independent countries. What remained of the Spanish Empire were small amounts of territory in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain lost control of its Caribbean and Asian colonies, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Finally, in the mid-1920se century, Spain gave up control of Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea. Today Spain has no colonial possessions apart from small enclaves on and off the Mediterranean coast of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Edward K. Thompson