The Spanish Empire:  Historical Colossus and Modern Impact


            Although the Scandinavian Vikings were the first to explore and establish colonies on the American landmass, in the 11th century A.D., the Iberian nations—Spain and Portugal— were the initiators of the European Age of Exploration which would spread European values, culture, language, and political, military, and commercial hegemony across the globe since the 1400s.  They would commence the largest migration of peoples and cultural shifts in recorded history, and they would permanently unite the Eastern and Western hemispheres.   Spain, especially, forged a remarkable global empire whose breadth and impact were astounding.

            Because of our modern era, in which the British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries remains a recent memory, we tend to regard that vast Anglo-Saxon dominion as the “empire on which the sun never sets” (until it did after WWII, of course…), as an especially expansive and unusual global imperium created by a rainy, modest-sized island country in northwestern Europe.  There were of course competing and contemporaneous imperial domains of the French, Belgians, Dutch, and others, yet the British Empire of the 19th century was unquestionably the most far-reaching—and, it is sometimes believed, historically unique in its inclusion of such a vast array of disparate, overseas lands.  Yet this perception is misleading; Spain created a vast global empire of similar size, in spite of limitations in its native territory, natural resources, and population that were akin to those encountered by the British, French, and Dutch.  Moreover, Spain forged its enormous imperial colossus three centuries before the British Empire reached its maturity during the Victorian period, and in a pre-industrial age without the advantages of advanced firearms, navigation, and other technologies that were available to Europe in the 1800s.  The Caribbean was practically a Spanish lake for centuries, and Spanish and Portuguese navigators ensured that the Iberian countries exerted the predominant European influence in the innumerable archipelagos of the Pacific until the pioneering voyages of the British Captain James Cook in the 1700s and the American expulsion of the Spanish fleets from Guam and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898.  Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Spanish Empire was extremely durable, persisting well into the 18th and 19th centuries.  Spanish colonies often remained under the Spanish crown for 300-400 years, a principal reason that the Spanish cultural and linguistic imprint in its former colonies remains remarkably strong, to the extent that hundreds of millions of people in Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere identify themselves predominantly with the Spanish cultural, religious, and/or linguistic heritage—as “Latino,” “Hispanic,” or “Hispanohablante.”  Spanish is today the third-most commonly spoken native language in the world (after Mandarin Chinese and Hindi), and if the 178 million speakers of the closely-related Portuguese tongue (predominantly in Brazil) are included, the Iberian linguistic realm comprises over half a billion people.  Moreover, inhabitants of lands in the former Spanish Main are overwhelmingly Catholic; indeed, South America is today the most Catholic continent in the world, in spite of the fact that for most of the 2,000 years since Christianity was founded (i.e., not until the 1500s), not a single European knew of or set foot in that land.

            By contrast, the British, French, Belgians, Dutch, Italians, and Germans ruled their overseas colonies for much shorter periods, and most of them were in Asian or African lands with ancient cultures that revived and predominated following the termination of colonial rule after the Second World War.  Britain’s “crown jewel,” India, was under effective British control for only about 150 years (or 200, if one dates British supremacy to Clive’s defeat of the Nawab of Bengal).  Other British colonies (Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt), Dutch colonies (Indonesia, Suriname), and French (Southeast Asia) ones retain cultural elements from their formal colonial masters, but to a far lesser degree than Spain’s former domains.  For example inhabitants of India by and large adhere to the Hindu or Muslim faiths, or to another of India’s traditional creeds (Jainism, Sikhism, Parsee Zoroastrianism), and not to the Protestantism (Anglicanism or otherwise) characteristic of Great Britain.  While English is an important (and official) common tongue for business, law, and education in India, particularly for the upper classes, the vast majority of the population speaks Hindi (in the north) or one of several Dravidian languages (in the south).  (The Hindi language, furthermore, has been receiving greater emphasis for official functions in recent years.)  British legal traditions remain important in India, yet the country’s legal heritage stretches back centuries and millennia to ancient Hindu customs as well as Muslim practices.  Pakistan and Bangladesh both remain preponderantly Muslim, with the people speaking Punjabi, Urdu, or Bengali; analogous demonstrations can be made for Iraq and Egypt.  Indonesia, despite being a longstanding colony of the Netherlands, remains a predominantly Muslim land.  Many of its people are familiar with the Dutch language and legal traditions, yet the people mostly speak Bahasa Indonesian and follow laws ensuing from Indonesia’s own Muslim and indigenous traditions.  French colonies in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos retain many traces of their colonial histories yet largely remain true to their ancient roots.  (The largest English-speaking country, the United States, contains mostly territory that was never part of the British Empire.  While the East Coast of the US began as a series of British colonies, the vast majority of US land was acquired as a consequence of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and the Alaska Purchase of 1867—all of which occurred after the US had become independent of British rule, and on territory that had been part of the French, Spanish, and Russian empires, respectively.) 

            Thus by any measure, the Spanish Empire was a remarkable and extremely significant historical phenomenon, one whose effects are powerfully manifest today.  This is perhaps no more in evidence than in the modern United States, which has experienced a large, sustained, and historically unique tide of Hispanic immigration since the 1960s.  Substantial influxes into the US are nothing new; Germans, Dutch, Swedes, and Irish streamed over in significant numbers during the early-to-mid 19th century, craving the rich soil and open land of the American plains or the menial yet available labor in the country’s eastern seaboard cities.  Meanwhile, southern and eastern Europeans graced the gates of Ellis Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in numbers and percentages not too far removed from those observed today.  The difference between the current immigration wave and all before it is the degree to which such an extraordinary preponderance of immigrants identify with a single language and cultural tradition.  Whereas the newcomers of the early 1900s hailed from Italy, Poland, Hungary, Armenia, Lithuania, Russia, Japan, Ireland, and other disparate locales in comparable numbers (so that no single cultural, ethnic, or linguistic group reached a critical mass that conferred national significance), the lion’s share of immigrants since the Hart-Celler immigration act of 1965—and, especially, the Reagan IRCA Amnesty of 1986 and the Bush Immigration Reform of 1990—have hailed from Latin American countries once within the colonial dominion of Spain, and they have carried that mixed Spanish-native American cultural heritage with them as they have moved north.  The result is that drugstore signs and TV advertisements can be routinely seen in both English and Spanish in cities like Minneapolis and Boston, well north of the Rio Grande that separates the US from Mexico.  And, in contrast to previous waves, the Spanish cultural identification is persisting over the generations, with a sort of self-reinforcing effect as the culture and language of Spain and Latin America become more mainstream in the US itself.  Spanish is already the second language of the US, and the Spanish cultural imprint is especially strong in the southwestern states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah) that were once part of the Spanish Empire and an independent Mexico, until seized and annexed by the US following the Mexican War from 1846-1848.  In everything from popular music to film, university courses to affirmative action programs, popular restaurants to street graffiti, the common identification of the new immigrant class with the Spanish historical presence in Latin America and the Caribbean has tremendous consequences.  It is because the Spanish Empire possessed such a wide geographical reach, and for such an extensive period since the late 1400s, that the very term “Hispanic” has such a significant meaning today in the US, one that increases with each passing year and each new group of people to utter the Oath of Citizenship to their new nation.


n      Wes Ulm


Back to Wes’s Spanish Armada page