Spanish Empire

Spanish Empire
   An empire in final decline and disintegration in the nineteenth century, starting with the loss of the Louisiana Territory in 1800 in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and ending with the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
   The Age of Expansion of the Spanish Empire had started early in the sixteenth century, under the Habsburg dynasty, of Austrian origin, brought about by the succession to the throne of Carlos I (1516–1556). Carlos was also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, who sponsored the “discovery” of America. The map of Spanish holdings in the Americas up to the dawn of the nineteenth century would start in the north with the Louisiana Territory, founded in 1699 by the French who lost it to Spain after the Seven Years’ War. France briefly regained control of Louisiana in 1800, under Napoleon Bonaparte, who sold it to the United States in 1803. Spain disputed the borders of Louisiana, however, because the United States considered it to include territory corresponding to Texas, part of New Mexico, and West Florida, which Spain still regarded as colonies. Part of the squabble was settled in 1819, with the Adams-Onís Treaty, whereby Spain also ceded all of Florida to the United States.
   The Napoleonic Wars generally undermined Spain’s control of its American colonies. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, a resounding victory for the Royal Navy, resulted in the destruction of the Spanish fleet, leaving Spain without the means to enforce its administrative control in the Americas. The tables were turned in 1808, with the Peninsular War, when Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain and Portugal, which were supported this time by Great Britain. The war ended with the British army crossing the border into France and Napoleon’s abdication in 1814. The Spanish economy nevertheless went in freefall for most of the nineteenth century.
   By 1825, Spain had lost all its mainland American colonies. The Spanish holdings in the Americas were organized and administered as viceroyalties. The first ones to be created, in the sixteenth century, were the Viceroyalty of New Spain, containing the North and Central American territories, and the Viceroyalty of Peru, covering most of South America. In the eighteenth century the Viceroyalty of Peru, created in 1542, was modified through the addition of the Viceroyalties of New Granada and of Río de la Plata, and left with the territory of what today is Chile and Peru. These two countries obtained their independence in 1818 and 1821, respectively, thus marking the end of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The Viceroyalty of New Granada was created in 1717 for administrative reasons, because Lima, the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, was not easily accessible. It included present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Revolutionary movements of independence emerged in this area in 1810, under the leadership of Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) and Francisco de Paula Santander (1792–1840). In 1819, these territories declared their independence as the confederation of the Republic of Gran Colombia. It lasted until 1830, when Ecuador and Venezuela proclaimed their independence. Panama remained a Columbian department until 1903, when it seceded from Colombia and declared its independence, emboldened by the United States, whose government immediately was granted exclusive rights to build and administer the Panama Canal.
   The Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata was created in 1776 and covered the territory of what today is Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In 1778, Portugal annexed the Uruguay territory, which would become part of Brazil when it declared its independence in 1822. A revolt started in 1825 and in 1828 Uruguay declared its independence. With the Spanish fleet devastated in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, military enforcement of Spanish dominion in the area became impossible. British troops repeatedly attacked Buenos Aires and Montevideo in 1806 and 1807 but were successfully overcome by local forces, raising hopes for self-rule. Paraguay declared its independence in 1811 and Argentina in 1816. Bolivia had proclaimed itself independent in 1809, but strife continued until 1825, when a republic was finally established.
   The Viceroyalty of New Spain was the first to be created, in 1525, and the last to fall apart. It covered the Spanish territories in North and Central America. The territorial disputes with the newly established United States, stirred by Napoleon’s sale of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, were settled through the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, and New Spain ceased to exist in 1821 when Mexico gained its independence along with all the Central American territories, except for the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
   The Philippines had also been annexed to New Spain in 1565 and continued to remain under Spanish domination after 1821. Late in the nineteenth century, Spain colonized the Palau Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines, and in 1899 sold them to Germany. Also in the Pacific Ocean there were the Marshall Islands, first explored by Alonso de Salazar in 1529. Spain claimed them in 1874, but in 1885 they became a German protectorate. The struggle for independence intensified toward the end of the century, particularly in Cuba and the Philippines, duly supported by the United States. This led to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Treaty of Paris, whereby the United States took over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Cuba was granted conditional independence in 1902, through the Platt Amendment, but the United States continued to exercise strict control over its affairs and even occupied it between 1906 and 1909.
   The colonies that Spain managed to hold on to the longest were several small north African territories. In 1778 Spain had received territorial and commercial rights in the Gulf of Guinea from Portugal in exchange for South American land rights. The respective area would become Spanish Guinea in 1885, a Spanish claim reinforced by the 1898 Treaty of Paris. Only in 1968, under international pressure, was the Guinea protectorate declared an independent state and renamed Equatorial Guinea. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 parleyed the colonization of Africa by European powers, and one of the consequences was that Spain and France went on to collaborate in controlling northwestern Africa, mainly the Algerian, Moroccan, and Western Saharan territories, until well after World War II.
   See also <>.
    Balfour, Sebastian. The End of the Spanish Empire, 1898–1923. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997;
    Cortada, James W., ed. Spain in the Nineteenth-Century World: Essays on Spanish Diplomacy, 1789–1898 . Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994;
    Esdaile, Charles J. Spain in the Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808–1939 . Oxford: Blackwell, 2000;
    Tortella, Gabriel. The Development of Modern Spain: An Economic History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries . Translated by Valerie Herr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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