Colonialism is arguably one of the most fundamental occurrences in the history of the world. It refers to the establishment, acquisition, maintenance and expansion of colonies in a certain territory by individuals from another territory. In essence, it underlined an unequal relationship between the colony and the metropole, as well as between the indigenous population and the colonialists. It goes without saying that there existed numerous sets of colonialists mostly from the European countries. One of the most recognized and strongest colonialists was Spain. After the fall of the Roman Empire, there existed no empire with a base in Europe that extended outside the continent. However, the situation changed rapidly in the 16th century when Spain and other colonizers became the pioneers of the new era of colonialization.
The Spanish empire was composed of colonies and territories that were administered directly by Spain in America, Europe, Africa, Oceania and Asia. It started during the Age of Exploration, in which case it was one of the world’s first empires. At the time of the Hapsburgs, Spain attained its position as a world power or the foremost global power (Jensen, 1981, page 330). This went on from the late fifteenth century up until the latter part of the 20th century in the case of the African colonies that it possessed. Following the War of the Castilian Succession which was between 1475 and 1479, Spain came out with a relatively unified monarch (More, 1908, page 69). This was due to the marriage between the catholic monarchs that is the King of Aragon and the Queen of Castile. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs finished the Reconquista after Granada was incorporated to the Kingdom of Castile. By this time, the Portuguese had gained tremendous ocean-going skills through their voyages discovery, which their Spanish neighbors eagerly copied. The internal conflicts that had occurred in Spain had just been resolved. In the 1490s, a Spanish voyager known as Columbus laid the foundation of the Spanish empire when he set west and stumbled upon America in 1492. The discovery of America marked the beginning of the eventual colonial engagement by the Europe in the New World. The Americas proved to be a soft target for the Spaniards thanks to the fact that their people had been eliminated from the military. In addition, the Spaniards had little rivals from Europe in America, which significantly influenced their effect as far as the American civilization was concerned (Spitz, 1980, page 254). When Columbus landed on the shores of America, he discovered a people and a land about which he did not know anything. The Europeans had not imagined that there was another continent to its west (Columbus, et al, 1989, page 23). However, since he was simply looking for a passage to Asia, the voyages that followed his viewed America as the wall standing between the Asian ports and Spain (Jensen, 1981, page 337). This is irrespective of the fact that the land provided them with immense trading opportunities and source of wealth. In essence, they moved to Asia where they were welcomed easily simply because the Asians believed them to be gods. The main attraction to Asia was the opportunities of trading where the Spaniards would give the Asians trinkets and glass beads in exchange for exotic products and gold.
Both the Asian and American empires offered varied benefits and obstacles to the Spaniards. Nevertheless, they were a profitable source of income, both for the nationally supported trade organizations and the individual explorers. By 1515, the Caribbean Islands were under the control of Spaniards after Havana was founded and Cuba conquered. These two became the launch pads for new adventures. In 1521, Spain conquered the Aztec kingdom in Mexico and followed it up with Central America by 1526.
The Spaniards were attracted to the southern part of Venezuelan coast in 1523 and conquered it around the same time. However, they could not replicate these efforts in Pipil, as they were met with stiff resistance emanating from the indigenous people (More, 1908, page 67). In fact, they managed to put the Pipil people under their control after two subsequent expeditions in 1525 and 1528. They extended their expeditions to the western coast of Peru or the Inca kingdom which they conquered in 1533, and went on to conquer Colombia and Ecuador in the late 1530s. Most of Chile was gradually brought under the control of Spain in the 40s. The conquering expedition continued to the coast of continental Argentina, which was brought under the control of Spain from the 1540s. In 1565, the Spaniards explored the Philippine Islands and Guam thereby laying the ground for the Spanish East Indies (Jensen, 1981, page 334). It is worth noting that, by 17th century, the scale of the Spanish empires was larger than that of its predecessors. It expanded to Oceania and America, as well as parts of the European territories such as parts of Germany and France, the Low Countries and the larger part of Italy, and several coastal strongholds in Africa.
In examining how the Spaniards dealt with the indigenous populations, it is imperative to examine their reasons for expansions. There were three key reasons that drove the overseas expansion by the Spanish. These included material wealth, faith and the quest for national prosperity. For quite a long time, the expansion of faith was seen as inextricably intertwined with economic profit and military glory. In essence, many historians ask the question on whether the main motivation for the Spaniards was their quest for material wealth or their religious zeal. Scholars opine that, the Spaniards used overseas expansion as a tactic to spread Catholicism to New World’s India so as to stop the spread of Protestantism, which had taken hold of Europe in early 16th century. Religion was also used as a way of forcefully reminding the indigenous population of whom they undoubtedly were. As for material wealth, the Spaniards were motivated by the wealth that these lands offered, even as they spread Catholicism (Columbus, et al, 1989, page 78). The lands that they conquered offered them immense tracts of land, minerals and slaves, as well as precious metals for which they fought. At around the 14th and the 15th century, there had been an increase in the demand for luxury goods especially from the east such as silks, cotton cloths, flavors, spices and exotic precious stones.
There were varied responses from the local populations as to the expansion of the Spanish empires to their lands. Irrespective of the motive for their entry, Spaniards used force to coerce the local population or the indigenous people to submission (Spitz, 1980, page 262). This is irrespective of the response that they received from them.
When the Spaniards discovered gold deposits in the Caribbean, they needed to secure enough labor, which they would use mine the gold. In essence, they instituted the encomienda system with which they regulated the newly-created settlements. Encomiendas referred to grants of land that were given to settlers and also incorporated several indigenous slaves. These settlers had the sole obligation of bringing their slaves to Christianity (More, 1908, page 65). However, the slaves were subjected to inhuman treatment such as harsh labor regimes, brutal mistreatment, not to mention the European diseases that led to the decimation of their population. This, however, only served to spur an increase in their efforts to expand as they sought new slaves to replace the dead ones. In essence, this explains their continued efforts to expand to new lands every now and then.
The subsequent occupations followed a similar pattern where they would discover a certain land, conquer it, create settlement areas, exhaust the exploitation of the minerals or objects of interests and move on to new frontiers with new opportunities, slaves and natural resources. In cases where the local or indigenous populations were warring, the Spaniards would exploit the rivalries, apply the divide and rule policy and conquer such lands with extreme efficiency.
This pattern was the standard for the exploration, expansion and colonization of the Spaniards in the New World (Columbus, et al, 1989, page 67). Once they discovered new territories, they were usually greeted by a friendly local populace. In the initial stages, they would survey the places and determine their likelihood of exploitation. However, the indigenous people would become resentful of the Spaniards within a short time as they helped themselves to gold, native women and food. These abuses were extremely common in Spanish cross-cultural contact and, in fact, provoked violent reactions from the varied indigenous populations. For example, a group of tribal leaders in the Island of Hispaniola joined forces in an effort to expel the Spaniards from their locality. However, their resistance was met with ruthlessness because the Spaniards had the benefit of arquebuses, savage dogs and strong armor. In essence, they quelled these uprisings within no time and captured the tribal leaders so as to ensure that the natives cooperated. Once they crushed the resistance of the natives, they forced the villages to bring up cash crops, mine the precious metals and pay tribute (Spitz, 1980, page 256). The Spanish regime was violent and brutal in almost every place they conquered. Massacres and rapes occurred casually and frequently, and were rationalized by racist worldviews that justified the mistreatment or exploitation of nonwhites or non-Christians.
In conclusion, Spain was arguably the most powerful monarch in the 15th century thanks to the marriage of the monarchs. Their desire for material wealth, economic growth and military glory spurred them to expand to new territories. Their expansion started in late fifteenth century when Columbus stumbled upon America as he sought his way to Asia. As much as there are instances that their desire to spread Christianity or rather, Catholicism was the key motivation, their desire for economic wealth and growth characterized their exploration. Their exploration mainly followed similar patterns where they would explore, settle and conquer the local populace. In all instances, they treated the indigenous people inhumanely especially in cases where their exploration was met with resistance. Their main advantage was their military might and armory.
Jensen, De Lamar. Renaissance Europe: age of recovery and reconciliation. London: D.C. Heath, 1981 Pages 327- 364
Spitz, Lewis William. The Renaissance and Reformation Movements: The Renaissance. New York: Concordia Pub. House, 1980 Pages- 250-272
More, Thomas. Utopia. University Press, 1908
Columbus, Christopher Jane, Cecil and Casas Bartolomé de las. The journal of Christopher Columbus. New York: Bonanza Books, 1989
(Columbus, et al, 1989) (Spitz, 1980) (Jensen, 1981) (More, 1908)