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HISTORY OF THE SPANISH EMPIRE
 
 


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New European empires: 16th century

Since the fall of Rome, there has been no empire based in Europe which extends outside the continent. This situation changes abruptly in the 16th century, when Spain and Portugal become the pioneers in a new era of colonization.

The Iberian peninsula is well poised at the time for this leap into the unknown.
 









In their great voyages of discovery, in the 15th century, the Portuguese have developed ocean-going skills which are eagerly copied by their Spanish neighbours. Spain's internal conflicts of recent centuries have recently been resolved with the union of Castile and Aragon and then, in 1492, the conquest of Granada.

Two voyages in the 1490s lay the foundations for the future empires. Columbus, sailing west for Spain, stumbles upon America in 1492. Vasco da Gama, adventuring south and east for Portugal, reaches India in 1498.
 






Spaniards in a new world: 16th century

The half century after Columbus's voyage sees a frenzy of activity in the new world (part exploration, part conquest, part colonization) as the Spanish scramble and struggle to make the most of their unexpected new opportunities.

By 1506 the entire continental shore of the Caribbean Sea has been explored from Honduras to the mouth of the Orinoco. Known at first as Tierra Firme (a phrase applied to the isthmus of Panama), it is believed to be part of the coast of Asia - until Vespucci's furthest journey south gives him a different impression, which becomes gradually accepted.
 









During the first decade of the century the only secure Spanish settlement in the new world is Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola, established in 1496 by Diego Columbus, brother of the explorer. An equivalently stable settlement is not achieved in continental America until 1510, when Balboa founds Santa María la Antigua del Darién (the site from which, in 1513, he makes his expedition to the Pacific).

Thereafter the speed of Spanish expansion and consolidation over a vast region is astonishing. By 1515, with the conquest of Cuba and the founding of Havana, the islands of the Caribbean are under Spanish control. They become the launch pad for further adventures.
 







The Aztec kingdom in Mexico is conquered in 1521, followed by a campaign against the Maya in Yucatan. Central America, from Guatemala to Nicaragua, is brought under Spanish control between 1524 and 1526. In the southern part of the continent the coast of Venezuela (where the rich pearl fisheries are a powerful lure) is the first region to attract Spanish settlers, from 1523. Down the west coast, the Inca kingdom in Peru is overwhelmed in 1533; Ecuador and Colombia are subdued later in the 1530s; and most of Chile is gradually brought under control during the 1540s.

On the east coast of the continent Argentina, around the river Plate, is colonized from the 1540s. Brazil, meanwhile, is developing in Portuguese hands.
 







This half-century of activity by a single nation, Spain, on the other side of a vast ocean, in an age of relatively primitive sailing vessels, is perhaps unparalleled in history. It involves numerous incidents and adventures which demonstrate the courage, greed, cruelty and wanton destructiveness of the Spanish conquistadors ('conquerors').

Two adventures in particular catch the imagination of their own time and of every age since. They are the victories won against the greatest odds and for the richest gains - the toppling by a handful of Spaniards of the great empires of the Aztecs and the Incas. But the first important development in contintental America is the establishment of Panama.
 






Panama: from1519

After Balboa discovers the Pacific in 1513, he is given responsibility for Spain's new ocean. But the bitter rivalry of Pedrarias, governor of the neighbouring crown colony, prevents Balboa from making anything of his new appointment.

Instead it is Pedrarias who establishes a new Spanish municipality and bishopric on the south coast of the isthmus at Panama, in the year 1519 - within month's of his judicial murder of his rival.
 









Panama immediately becomes a place of focal importance in the developing Spanish empire. From here expeditions set out to colonize the Pacific coast (most notable being the departure of Pizarro on his voyage to Peru in 1530). And here the produce of the Pacific colonies is subsequently brought, to start its journey to Spain.

The goods are carried on caravans of mules for fifty miles across the isthmus to Portobelo - a harbour named beautiful by Columbus in 1502. Portobelo becomes the scene of a great trade fair. Each year, until the event is discontinued in 1748, a fleet of Spanish galleons arrives, to deliver European goods for the colonies and to take home the wealth of Latin America.
 






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