Former Spanish Colonies of the World

By Victoria Simpson on August 29 2020 in World Facts

Spanish colonial style in Antigua, Guatemala.
  • Spain once had up to 35 colonies throughout the world, some of which it still governs today.
  • The areas that are now the US states of California, Florida, and New Mexico where once governed by Spain, and still hold evidence of this today through place names and local architecture.
  • Mexico along with Central American and South American countries were all once Spanish colonies, and they gained their independence at different points in history.

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.

Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. Image credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

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

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. 

California 

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. 

The California State flag draws its inspiration fro the flag raised during the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846. Image credit: Millenius/Shutterstock

The Philippines  

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. 

Former Spanish Colonies of the World

RankFormer Spanish ColoniesYear Independence from Spain
1Argentina1818
2Belgium1714 (remained part of the Netherlands until 1831)
3Belize1981
4Bolivia1809
5California (United States)1846 (Became a US territory, then a state in 1850)
6Chile1826
7Colombia1810
8Costa Rica1821
9Cuba1895
10Dominican Republic1795 (Subsequently ruled by France and Haiti until 1865)
11Ecuador1820
12El Salvador1821
13Equatorial Guinea1968
14Florida (United States)1821 (Became a US territory, then a state in 1845)
15Guam (unincorporated territory of the United States)1898 (Now an unincorporated US territory)
16Guatemala1821
17Haiti1804
18Honduras1838
19Italy1714
20Jamaica1707 (Became a British colony until 1962)
21Louisiana (United States)1800 (Returned to France, sold to the US in 1803, statehood in 1912)
22Luxembourg1714
23Mexico1821
24Morocco1956
25Nicaragua1821
26Panama1810 (separated from Colombia in 1903)
27Paraguay1811
28Peru1824
29Portugal1640
30Puerto Rico (unincorporated territory of the United States)1898
31The Netherlands1714
32The Philippines1898 (Became a US territory until 1946)
33Trinidad and Tobago1962
34Uruguay1825
35Venezuela1823

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