Shocking Facts About the Spanish Empire

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Modern-day Spain is a largely peaceful, reasonably prosperous nation that rarely finds itself embroiled in wars of conquest or thrust to the centre of world affairs. 

This hasn’t always been the case. The Spanish Empire was once one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, spanning almost ten percent of the world’s land mass. It led the brutal conquest and colonisation of the Americas, possessed immense wealth, and shaped the modern world.

In this list we’ll take a closer look at the Spanish Empire, and some of the reasons it was hated by so many of its inhabitants.

10. The Royal Family was Dangerously Inbred 

The Spanish Empire became a global power under the rulership of the Hapsburg Dynasty, which could lay claim to be the most powerful and influential family in the world. At various times they ruled not only over Spain and her colonies but also Austria, Hungary, the vast Holy Roman empire, and even more besides.  

The Hapsburgs guarded their power jealously. Desperate to avoid sharing it too widely they married almost exclusively from within their own family. While this worked well enough for a while, it turned out to be a very bad idea in the long term. The lack of new genetic material entering the bloodline led to severe inbreeding, culminating in the tragic story of King Charles II. 

While contemporary portraits of Charles II paint him as a relatively healthy young man, this was an early exercise in propaganda and very far from reality. 

Charles II was mentally sound, but his genetic makeup condemned him to a miserable existence. He was barely able to walk or talk, suffered from severe epilepsy, and his jaw was so malformed he struggled to chew his food. He was too sickly to even attend his own wedding, which may well have been a relief to his bride who repeatedly complained of being repulsed by her husband’s appearance.

Charles was none the less strong enough in body and spirit to repeatedly confound his doctors, who had been predicting his imminent death from the moment of his birth.

In the event Charles was unable to reproduce and almost certainly sterile.  He died in November 1700 at the age of 38 with no clear heir, breaking the Hapsburg Dynasty’s hold over the Spanish Empire. 

9. Spain’s Discovery of the Americas led to Millions of Deaths 

Christopher Columbus was an Italian, but he discovered the Americas in 1492 at the head of a voyage funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus dubbed the natives Indians, having come to the entirely mistaken conclusion that he had arrived at the Indies.  

Nonetheless, he found the locals to be friendly, and he was greeted with smiles and gifts. The natives did not realize that many of them would not survive the arrival of the strange newcomers from Europe.

At this point the indigenous population of the Americas stood at roughly 50 million people. By the year 1600, scarcely more than a century later, only around eight million remained. 

Warfare certainly played its part in this catastrophe, and the Spanish conquistadors weren’t shy about slaughtering and enslaving natives, but the diseases they brought were an even deadlier killer.  

Measles, cholera, black death, influenza and more were all introduced by the European invaders. Without any immunity to these diseases millions of people died. Another disease known as cocoliztli struck in 1545, wiping out another 15 million people. 

So many people died in such as short space of time that it may even have led to global climate change. Between the 17th and 19th centuries the world suffered under the impact of the Little Ice Age.  Some theories suggest that so much farmland had been abandoned and reclaimed by nature, the huge proliferation of trees locked away carbon and reduced the amount of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. 

8. The Spanish Empire Destroyed the Aztec Empire 

Located in modern day Mexico, the heart of the Aztec Empire was an alliance between three city states, dominated by the city of Tenochtitlan.  

Through aggressive warfare the Aztec Empire had expanded to encompass 80,000 square miles, some 500 smaller states, and up to 16 million people. The Aztec Empire’s power was such that it had dominated the region for at least a century, but it would fall forever within just a few years of being discovered by Spain.  

In 1519 a Spanish Conquistador named Hernan Cortez landed in Aztec territory at the head of a small expedition of just 650 men. Motivated by rumours of vast reserves of gold and riches, Cortez was prepared to remove it by force. 

Despite their armor, weapons, and horses, the conquistadors found themselves massively outnumbered. However, the Aztec Empire was not popular amongst many of their subjects, and Cortez found plenty of local allies willing to throw their lot in with his conquistadors. His original force of just 650 men soon swelled to more than 70,000 strong.  

To make matters worse for the Aztec Empire it suffered a devastating outbreak of smallpox. When the city of Tenochtitlan fell in 1521 the invaders found the streets piled high with the dead and dying. 

7. The Spanish Empire Destroyed the Incan Empire

 

It’s something of a rarity for one empire to destroy another, but in the Americas the Spanish managed it twice almost simultaneously.

Up until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors the fortunes of Atahualpa, Emperor of the Incan Empire, had been on the up-and-up. Appointed governor by his brother, he’d betrayed and defeated his sibling in the Incan civil war. Things were, however, about to go very badly for him and the Incan Empire in Peru.

In 1532 Atahualpa received word that a small group of strangers were advancing into his lands. Since he was at hand with an army of 80,000 men, with the ability to call upon many more, the Incan emperor failed to recognize he was in any real danger.

Splitting his army and accompanied by just 5,000 of his men, he agreed to meet with the small advancing force of just 168 heavily armed and armored Spaniards.

Atahualpa arrived somewhat the worse for wear for alcohol and stumbled blindly into a trap. What followed was more of a massacre than a battle. Thousands of his Incan warriors were killed or fled, while the conquistadors didn’t lose a single man.

In an attempt to buy his freedom, or perhaps just to save his life, Atahualpa offered to fill a large room once with gold and then twice over with silver.

He was as good as his word, but even this wasn’t enough to save him. The conquistadors executed Atahualpa, believing him too dangerous to be left alive. Threatened with being burned alive, which he believed would rob him of his soul, Atahualpa converted to Christianity in exchange for being strangled to death.

The Spaniards crowned Atahualpa’s brother as emperor, but he was nothing more than a puppet ruler installed to help rob the Incan Empire of its treasures.

6. The Spanish Inquisition Destroyed Lives

In the Spanish Empire it generally paid to come from a long line of Catholics. Religious persecution was rife; Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and in 1609 Spain’s 300,000 strong population of Moriscos suffered the same fate. Many of them had long since converted to Christianity, but their ancestors had been Muslims, and this was enough to condemn them to banishment. 

The Spanish Inquisition was the tool used to carry out this cleansing. While it was by no means the only inquisition at work, the Spanish Inquisition’s infamy overshadows all others. Its purpose, which it carried out with a fanatical devotion, was to defend and purify the Catholic faith, root out heretics, and enforce God’s justice.  

Established in 1478, the Spanish Inquisition operated in all of Spain’s many territories and colonies, and it is widely remembered as one of history’s most brutal organizations. According to some estimates the Spanish Inquisition may have tortured and murdered more than a million people. 


The Spanish Inquisition’s reputation has recently undergone something of a rehabilitation. Many historians now believe the organisation had been victim of a highly effective propaganda campaign undertaken by the English.    

It may be that as few as 125,000 people were tried, with only around 1% of those being executed. If this is accurate then it’s a definite improvement, but little consolation for those who did lose their life for the crime of following the wrong religion.  

5. The Spanish Empire Took Millions of Slaves


In 1518 King Charles I, who was not only King of Spain but also Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, signed an edict permitting Spanish ships to transport slaves directly from Africa to the Americas. 

It was the first time that African slaves were taken to the Americas without first passing through a European port, but it would not be the last. The Spanish Empire was by no means the only European power to profit through slavery, but it was one of the pioneers, and amongst the last to abandon the practice. 

It’s estimated that around 12.5 million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas. Conditions on the ships were so poor that perhaps as many as 2 million didn’t survive the journey. 

The Spanish Empire by no means limited itself to African victims. Millions of local Indians were also enslaved, with huge numbers forced into the lucrative silver mines that became big business in South America. 

Just one of these, Cerro Rico, which means “Rich Mountain” in Spanish, yielded 40,000 tons of silver for the Spanish Empire before it was finally exhausted after almost 200 years.   

Tunnel collapses were commonplace, oxygen was in short supply deep in the mountains, and conditions were so harsh that few survived more than twenty years of underground toil. It’s estimated that around eight million slaves lost their lives in the Spanish Empire’s mines. 

4. The Spanish Armada Could Have Changed the Course of History 

Vast fleets of warships can be a risky project to sink vast sums of money into. It only takes one ill-judged or unlucky battle for that investment to literally sink to the bottom of the sea. 

Despite these risks, in 1585 Philip II of the Hapsburg Dynasty began work on constructing the most powerful navy the world had ever seen. By some estimates this Spanish Armada would consume as much as two-thirds of the Spanish Empire’s entire revenue. Since the Spanish Empire was at this point, thanks to the silver and gold flooding in from the Americas, the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world, this represented an extraordinary amount of money.

The cause of this frantic shipbuilding activity was largely a religious spat between Philip, the Catholic ruler of Spain, and Elizabeth I, England’s Protestant Queen. Philip’s ambitious goal was to defeat the English at sea, transport an army across the English Channel, spark a rebellion amongst English Catholics, and topple his troublesome protestant rival. 

Philip’s newly constructed navy was finally ready by 1588, but his invasion was a disaster.   

The ships of the Spanish Armada boasted vastly more firepower than their English opponents, but the faster and more manoeuvrable English ships carried the day. Only 5 of Spain’s 130 ships were lost in battle, but many were forced to cut their anchors and flee.

Without their anchors, the Spanish ships were at the mercy of storms as they attempted to make the long journey around Scotland and towards the safety of home. 30,000 men had set out. A mere 10,000 of them ever returned. 

Had Philip’s invasion succeeded there would most likely never have been a British Empire, and the course of world history would have played out very differently. 

3. Spain Still Managed to go Bankrupt

The Spanish Empire’s conquest of so much of the Americas, and the theft of so much of its riches, turned it into an economic and military powerhouse. However, very few of the Spanish people benefitted from this huge influx of wealth, and much of the great fortune was squandered.

Incompetent leadership, expensive wars, the cost of the Spanish Armada itself, and a deeply unfair taxation system that placed the burden almost entirely on the poorest members of society all played their part.

Spain’s problems multiplied as her rulers either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the impact of inflation. As ships laden with gold and silver arrived prices rose, and the relative value of the incoming riches diminished.

With her economy failing, and the impact of droughts and the Little Ice Age being felt, in 1607 the Spanish government declared a moratorium on their debts. Spain was effectively bankrupt.

The Spanish Empire was far from finished, but its strength and influence was beginning to wane.

2. The Spanish Empire’s Brutality Helped Cost her its Colonies

Spain’s early lead in discovering the Americas established the Spanish Empire as the most powerful empire in the world. It was said to be the empire on which the sun never sets, a phrase now more often attributed to the British Empire which later came to dominate a significant portion of the globe.

While the conquest of the Americas might have been a blessing, at least for the richest and most powerful families in Spain, although certainly not for many of the natives, it became something of a curse.

Spain’s population fell throughout the 1600s as people left to make a new life in the Americas. The longer they remained, the less new generations considered themselves to be Spaniards.

The local populations, meanwhile, were understandably not favorably disposed to the Spanish Empire which had enslaved them and their ancestors and stolen their wealth.

Independence movements gained strength in many of the Spanish Empire’s colonies. Simultaneously, and closer to home, Spain came under attack in her home territory from Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most brilliant military commanders.

1. The Spanish Empire Pioneered the Use of Concentration Camps

In 1895-1898 the island of Cuba was the stage for one of the bloodiest revolts against the rule of the Spanish Empire.

General Valeriano Weyler was sent from Spain to crush the uprising. His brutal methods soon earned him the nickname of “the Butcher”.  

The Cubans were fighting a guerilla war, deploying hit and run tactics against the Spanish soldiers before melting away and hiding amongst the civilian population.

The invention of barbed wire in 1874 had made it far easier for a relatively small number of guards to imprison large numbers of people. Weyler decided to use it, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians into concentration camps.

Conditions were appalling, and more than 150,000 people died from starvation and disease. Weyler was none the less unable to defeat the uprising, and Cuba broke away from Spain in 1898.


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