History of Colonial Latin America

History of Colonial Latin America

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The history of colonial Latin America began after Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492. Soon, the major maritime powers in Europe sent expeditions to the New World to colonize the native peoples and convert them to Christianity. Spain built its empire on the central and southern parts of the Americas given to it by the Treaty of Tordesillas. These lands were at various times inhabited by the Olmec, Aztec, Inca, Maya, and Toltec. Spain exploited their peoples and stripped their lands of precious metals and other resources. The Portuguese built their empire in Brazil, likewise given it by the Treaty, and used slave labor from Africa to grow sugar.

During the early colonial period, most of the indigenous population died from diseases such as smallpox and measles to which they had no immunity. In addition to spreading disease, Spanish conquistadors behaved with great brutality toward the natives. According to Bartolomé de las Casas, the Europeans worked the native population to death. They separated the men and the women so they could not reproduce, and hunted down with dogs and killed any natives who escaped. The Spaniards forced the natives to work as near-slaves in mines and haciendas, and would “test the sharpness of their blades to prod them.” Las Casas believed that some three million natives had died from war and slavery. “Who in future generations will believe this?” he asked. “I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”

Under Spanish rule, native culture and religion were outlawed. The Spanish even burned the Maya Codices, rich troves of information about astrology, religion, gods, and rituals. Four codices have survived: the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, the Madrid Codex, and the HI Codex. They also melted down countless pieces of gold artwork that they viewed as un-Christian, and sent the gold back to Spain.

Inspired by the American and French revolutions, most of Latin America gained its independence by 1825. But independence destroyed the old common market that had existed under the Spanish Empire. In its place, Great Britain, France, and the United States began to maneuver for control of the region’s resources and markets. Independence also produced a native ruling class whose governance was little different from that of the Spanish and Portuguese.

The large states that had first gained independence— Gran Colombia, the Federal Republic of Central America, and the United Provinces of South America— experienced a plague of civil war and conflict with neighboring states. Brazil remained a monarchy and largely avoided the strife experienced by other emerging states. However, fights between federalists and centrists throughout Latin America resulted in military repression. The new nations of Latin America strived to create a collective identity based upon shared Spanish or Portuguese language and culture. But cultural and class divisions arose to inflict lasting damage on any sense of national unity. Most of the new national borders were created around the old colonial jurisdictions, but many were unstable and wracked with regional conflict over economic resources.

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Colonial Latin America Index | Society: Class | Spanish Colonial Rule: SocietyAmerindians • GovernanceEconomy | Religion | Power: Conquest: ConquistadoresEuropeans | Revolution: LeadersPolities | Economy: Trade | Argentina | Brazil: SocietyPower: Portuguese Empire: Pedro IPedro II | Haiti: DiscontentRevolution | Mexico: Power: HidalgoJuarezMaderoCardenasSanta AnnaDiaz | West Indies: PowerEconomy

Colonial Latin America : Index


Society: Class

Spanish Colonial Rule: Society

Spanish Colonial Rule: Amerindians

Spanish Colonial Rule: Governance

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Spanish Colonial Rule: Economy



Power: Conquistadores

Power: Conquest

Conquest: Europeans

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Revolution: Leaders

Revolution: Polities


Economy: Trade


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Brazil: Society

Power: Portuguese Empire

Power: Pedro I

Power: Pedro II


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Haiti: Discontent

Haiti: Revolution


Mexico: Power

Power: Hidalgo

Power: Juarez

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Power: Madero

Power: Cardenas

Power: Santa Anna

Power: Diaz

West Indies

West Indies: Power

West Indies: Economy

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