Christopher Columbus’s westward voyages aroused great excitement in Spain, even if the results were at first disappointing. Castile was determined to follow the lead of neighboring Portugal, whose mariners had already traveled around the southern end of Africa and opened a sea route to Asia. Although Columbus did not succeed in finding a westward route to Asia, Castile annexed the islands he found in the West Indies upon his return from his first voyage. The Castilians gradually settled colonies in the Caribbean, beginning with Santo Domingo (in present-day Dominican Republic), and established their first settlement in Cuba in 1509. Then Spain’s stunning expansion in the Americas began.
Over the course of the next century generations of adventurers and explorers, known as the conquistadors, traveled to the Americas on behalf of the Spanish crown. Hernán Cortés destroyed the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. Explorers such as Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Ferdinand Magellan, and Hernando De Soto were chartered by Spain. Spain eventually laid claim to all of Latin America, except for Brazil, and also claimed the southern part of the United States from Florida to California, as well as Jamaica and the Philippine Islands. At first the conquerors sent home gold and silver accumulated by the Aztec and Inca empires. These riches were soon exhausted, and little moveable wealth remained in the Americas that could bear the costs of shipment to Europe and still be sold for a profit. The conquerors then turned to the land and the labor of indigenous peoples to create wealth in ways that were familiar in Spain. They imported Spanish crops and livestock and attempted to build productive, largely self-contained, colonies.
Spain’s empire in the Americas entered a new phase in the mid-16th century when extensive silver deposits were discovered, first in Mexico and then in Bolivia. By 1560 large amounts of American silver were flowing into the Spanish treasury annually. At the same time, European diseases had decimated native peoples in the Americas. To keep the silver flowing, Spanish colonizers forcibly moved shrinking numbers of indigenous peoples to new towns where they could be put to work in the mines. As native peoples died, Spain imported African slaves to work in its colonies. Spain also organized a system of seaports and regular transatlantic fleets with naval protection to control trade between Europe and the Americas. By the late 16th century American silver accounted for one-fifth of Spain’s total budget. This silver allowed Spain to build a huge structure of credit and to fight many wars. When Spain’s monopoly on American silver broke down after 1630, Spanish power quickly collapsed. Encarta "Spain" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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