Spanish Empire (1492 – 1976)

The great Catholic empire that spanned the world.

Santa María, Pinta, and Niña
Papal bull
Over 2000
Napoleon Bonaparte
The Spanish American wars of independence
Almost 500 million

Who were the Spanish?


When the Spanish Empire rose to prominence at the end of the 15th century, they ushered in an age of exploration and colonization. They took control of much of the Americas, conquering native civilizations such as the Aztecs and Incas, and clashed with other European powers along the way.

At the height of their power, the Spanish also ruled over parts of Africa and Asia. Some people called it ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’, because the Spanish territory covered so many time zones that it was always daytime somewhere.

Domestically, the Spanish were fierce Catholics, with little tolerance for other religious beliefs. They took the same approach in their colonies too, stamping out the native religions and instituting Catholicism in their place. They are part of the reason why Christianity is so widespread in the world today.

The origins of the Spanish


In modern times, Spain is a unified country, but it was not always that way. During the 1400s, the territory was divided into several kingdoms: Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Granada.

This changed when Isabella of Castile, and Ferdinand of Aragon, got married in 1469. This relationship was not based on love – it was politically motivated, with both monarchs hoping that their two kingdoms would be stronger together than apart.

One of the first things they did, as a combined force, was invade Granada, to the south of Castile. This region had been an Islamic stronghold for hundreds of years. Now, the Catholic forces of Castile and Aragon chased the Muslims away, and claimed the region as their own.

The discovery of America

In 1492 – the same year that Isabella and Ferdinand laid claim to Granada – they also turned their gaze towards the wider world.

They decided to sponsor an Italian explorer by the name of Christopher Columbus. They gave him three ships – the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña – as well as supplies for a long distance voyage.

He sailed westward from Spain, across the Atlantic Ocean, in the hope of finding an easy trade route to Asia. Instead, he stumbled upon the Americas. This chance discovery changed the course of global history, by opening up a brand new continent for the Spanish to conquer and explore.

Papal support

When Pope Alexander VI heard news of the Americas – and the fact it was discovered by a Catholic expedition – he quickly declared that the Spanish monarchy had the divine right to claim the continent as their own.


This declaration was made in the form of a papal bull – an official decree from the head of the Catholic church. A condition of this bull was that the Spanish monarchy would convert America’s indigenous populations to Catholicism.

The next few decades saw a rush of activity, as Spanish explorers and priests set sail for the New World, acting upon their divine authority to claim these lands, and to convert anyone they found along the way.

Colonization and conversion

Barely fifty years after discovering the Americas, the Spanish Empire had conquered two of the largest civilizations in the world: the Aztecs in Mesoamerica, and the Incas in South America.

This enabled them to gain control over vast amounts of land and resources. They found a staggering amount of precious metals, including gold and silver, not to mention several exotic plants which fetched massive prices in Europe: chilies, tobacco, and cocoa beans.

They initially enslaved the native people, until several priests spoke out against this, and the Spanish crown made native slavery illegal in 1542. Meanwhile, the Spanish converted as many people as they could, wiping away their native religions, and introducing Catholicism instead.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish crown was determined to spread Catholicism throughout their growing empire, and they also took a similar approach domestically.

The Spanish Inquisition was a tribunal that sought out any non-Catholics living on the Iberian Peninsula, such as Jews or Muslims, and forced them to convert or be expelled from Spain. The Inquisition also had the power to execute those who refused conversion; it is estimated that over 2000 people were executed during this period.

This brutal process led to a more homogenous Spanish culture, but it also had some major drawbacks. Many Jewish people, for example, held positions at court. When they were forced to leave these positions, the Spanish government lost some important minds.

The decline of the Spanish


After several centuries of power and wealth, the Spanish Empire began to decline when Europe transitioned from the early modern period into the modern era.

The Spanish Empire was invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808. His modern army was extremely well trained, and the Spanish troops were completely out-fought. Napoleon ousted Ferdinand VII – a direct descendant of Isabella and Ferdinand – and installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne instead.

Over the next few years, a bloody war was fought between the French and Spanish rebels. The Spanish managed to regain control, but the entire ordeal left their country in a state of chaos and economic decline. Their time as the world’s most powerful nation was drawing to a close.

Wars of independence


While the Spanish were distracted by their war with the French, their colonies took advantage. A series of short and violent battles took place, which are known collectively as the Spanish American wars of independence.

The weakened Spain was unable to repress these revolts. The early 1800s saw a chain reaction throughout Latin America, as more and more countries threw off their oppressors. This marked an end to centuries of Spanish rule over South America and Central America.

But these independent states remained similar to Spain in terms of language, religion and culture. Indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs and the Incas had been gone for hundreds of years, and it was far too late to bring these cultures back.

The legacy of the Spanish


The Spanish Empire left a major mark on the Western Hemisphere, wiping away other civilizations and leaving its own legacy in their place.

The most obvious examples are the prevalence of Spanish language in Latin America today. In fact, it is estimated that almost 500 million people around the world speak Spanish as their first language, making it one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Similarly, well over 50% of Latin Americans are Catholic.

The Spanish legacy can also be seen in architecture across Latin America; many cities have preserved colonial buildings from the 16th century, including baroque and neoclassical churches. These monuments serve as physical reminders of Spain’s long-lasting impact on the region – an impact which came at the expense of those who lived in the Americas before.

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