Like other superpower nations in history, Spain once traveled the oceans looking for countries to occupy and control in the name of wealth, prosperity, and world domination. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain led Europe as a global explorer and a colonial force expanding its power worldwide, beginning with Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas in 1492. From this time up until the early 19th century, this nation held colonies in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. These were geographic locations with bountiful natural resources and strategic ports on popular trade routes.
To this day, Spain still holds territories abroad in places like Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, but many of its previous colonies have been lost in the wars of history. In fact, Spain held 35 colonies at various points in history, exacting its power so widely it was called "the empire on which the sun never sets," an expression that also began to be used in reference to Great Britain when the latter's prominence overcame Spain's.
Many of Spain's former colonies still use Spanish as an official language to this day with numerous different Spanish dialects spoken around the world, but this is not true of all former colonies. Jamaica, the Philippines, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago are former colonies where Spanish is not an official language.
What were some of Spain’s most prominent colonies, and how did it lose them? Here is a quick look.
Mexico is now a thriving country in North America with its own culture, cuisine, music, and flare. The nation was once dominated by Indigenous groups including the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Toltecs at various points in history before Columbus arrived on the continent. This ended when Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador, conquered the Aztec empire in 1521 and claimed Mexico for Spain. Spain's rule lasted for centuries and Mexico did not regain its independence until the nation’s people won the Mexican War of Independence in 1821.
The imprint of Spain has been long-lasting in Mexico. While the presence of Indigenous cultures can be felt, the people speak Spanish as a dominant language, and the majority have now adopted the European religion of Catholicism. Spanish architecture is also widespread throughout the country. Spanish culture and those of the area’s Indigenous populations have become intertwined in a tight bond.
Before the US was settled by the British, many parts including California, Florida, and New Mexico were once occupied by Spain. The first Europeans to come to California after the Indigenous Americans had already been there for thousands of years was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his crew. This group arrived at San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542, and named the land “Alta California.” The first permanent European settlement was not established until quite later, when the Presidio at San Diego was created by Spain more than two hundred years later, in 1769. This governance didn’t last for long, however. In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain and Alta California was then no longer a Spanish colony but rather became a Mexican province.
At this time, ranchers and trappers began filling this new territory. In June 1846, conflict arose when American settlers decided to occupy Sonoma Plaza, and raise the bear flag. They declared it to be the Republic of California, starting the Bear Flag Revolt. Within a month, the US occupied the new republic, thus ending the revolt. A couple of years later in 1848 gold was discovered in California and Americans rushed to claim it. In 1850, California became a US state.
Spain colonized the Philippines in the late 1500s. Located in Southeast Asia as an island archipelago, the nation was seen as a good stopping spot on route to the riches of East Asia, and a boon to Spain’s role in the spice trade. This colonization lasted for three hundred years up until 1898 when Filipino rebels along with US troops fought off the Spanish, and declared the Philippines to be an independent nation. Unfortunately, this freedom did not last for long and the Americans took over, sneakily annexing the Philippines while devising a peace treaty with Spain. The Philippines gained their independence from the US in 1946 and is now a sovereign nation.
History is full of the chase for power and riches. Spain, alongside Portugal, France, the Dutch Republic, and England spread their dominance and culture throughout the world traveling by sea during the period of modern western colonization. The effects of Spain’s influence can be seen throughout the world today in architecture, culture, and the people that live in its former colonies. Mexico, California, and the Philippines are just a few examples, as Spain colonized most of the Americas prolifically, and parts of Africa and Europe. By visiting Central and South America, it is easy to see how strong Spain’s cultural influence has been. Hundreds of years after their rule, the presence of the Spanish is still felt worldwide.