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1492-1525: After the Christopher Columbus voyage


The limits of Portuguese discovery and dominion were soon reached; and as the fifteenth century advanced, Spain emerged not only as one of the great powers of Europe but as the first exploring, conquering, and colonizing nation of America. A century before any other European state obtained a permanent foothold in the New World, Spain began the creation of a great colonial empire there, which was soon occupied by her settlers, administered by a department of her government, converted by her missionaries, and made famous throughout Europe by the wealth which it brought to the mother-country. Such a work at such a time could only be accomplished by a vigorous and rising nation, and, in fact, Spanish advancement in Europe during this period corresponded closely with her achievements in America. There are few recorded instances of a development so rapid and a transformation so complete as that which took place in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, between 1474 and 1516.

For a career destined to be scarcely inferior to that any of the great empires of history, Spain had at the beginning of this period an inadequate and undeveloped political organization. Even that royal power which was the condition precedent to distant conquest and colonial organization was new. Spanish national unity, royal absolutism, and religious uniformity, which were famous throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, were all of recent growth; the centralized control over all parts of her widely scattered colonies which Spain, above all colonizing countries, exercised, was a power attained and a policy adopted only at the moment of the acquisition of those colonies.

When, in 1474, Isabella inherited the crown of Castille, and, in 1479, her husband, Ferdinand, became king of Aragon, they united, by close personal and political bonds, what had formerly been near a score of domains, variously joined or detached.

The king of Aragon had already incorporated into a personal union three separate countries - the kingdom of Aragon, the kingdom of Valencia, and the ancient principality of Catalonia, each with its own body of representatives, its own law, its peculiar customs, and its separate administrative systems. Castile was in name a political unity, having one monarch and one body of estates. Nevertheless its provinces represented well-marked ancient divisions. Leon had once been a separate kingdom, and was still coupled with Castile itself in the full title of that monarchy; while Galicia, Asturias, and the three Basque provinces were inhabited by peoples of different political history, of different stock, and living under different customs. Navarre, Granada, and Portugal, although within the Iberian peninsula, were, at the accession of Ferdinand and Isabella, still independent; though the first was destined to be united to Aragon, the second to Castile, and even the third was to be amalgamated for eighty critical years with the greater monarchy. Thus Spain was a congeries of states, joined by the marriage bond of the two rulers of its principal divisions, but by no means yet a single monarchy or a united nation. It was the work of the Catholic sovereigns to carry this unification far towards completion by following common aims, by achieving success in many fields of common national interest, and by imposing the common royal power upon all divergent and warring classes and interests in the various Spanish states.

The personality of Ferdinand and Isabella was the first great factor in the strengthening of the monarchy; for they were both individuals of authority, energy, and ability. Their union was the next element; for the royal power of the united monarchies could be used to break down opposition in either. Great achievements in Spain and in Europe increased their authority and power by the prestige of success. Finally, the discoveries, conquests, and colonization of America gave a unique position to the rulers of these distant possessions. Not only did the products of the American mines American commercial taxation furnish a material basis of strength and influence; not only did a great commercial marine and a great navy grow up around the needs of intercourse with the colonies; but the romantic interest of the discoveries, the wild adventures, and the wonderful success of the conquistadores, and the extent of the colonies, filled the imagination and gave an ideal greatness to the monarchs in whose name these conquests were made, and by whom the New World was ruled.