No Spain, No Gain

No Spain, No Gain

The Spanish Royal Seal on an imperial flag (H 65057) captured by American forces during the 1898 Spanish-American War. This flag is currently on display at the Ohio History Center.

By: Michael Fouts

The sun never sets on the Spanish Empire. For a period of time this phrase was not just a prideful boast, but an absolute truth. From the mid-15th-century until well into the 20th-century, European nations such as Portugal, Great Britain, France and Spain amassed vast colonial empires that stretched from as far as East Asia to the Americas. Some of these empires were so massive that the sun was literally shining on an imperial possession at all times of the day, leading to the birth of slogans such as the one stated at the beginning of this post. From the time that Christopher Columbus reached the shores of the Americas in October 1492 to the dawn of the 20th-century, Imperial Spain held one of the largest and wealthiest empires in the world. However, the rise of a new world superpower in the west soon pushed the older, declining Spanish Empire into the dark.

During the mid-15th-century, Europe was looking for a way to reach the lucrative trading routes of China. The problem was that European traders could not simply connect to China by going directly east as the rapidly expanding Ottoman Empire was standing as a barrier between Europe and the rest of Asia. The relationship between Europe and the Ottomans was ice cold to say the least, so the race was on for someone to find an alternative route to the East. Both the monarchies of Portugal and Spain launched expeditions to find the long sought after route to China.

Spurred on by the race to find a direct route to China, Spain actually landed in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. This land, previously unknown to Europeans, was essentially opened for conquest. Spain’s emerging empire was then solidified after a papal bull in 1493, known as the Inter Caetera and the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, divided the world (outside of Europe) between the Spanish and the Portuguese. These two documents gave Spain the exclusive right to create colonies in the western hemisphere, excluding the area of what would become Brazil which was reserved for the Portuguese. The Spanish were also given the claim to colonize the far eastern parts of Asia.

In the years that followed 1492 a series of Spanish warriors, known as Conquistadors, led expeditions across the globe to claim lands in the name of Spain. From 1519 to 1541 the empire expanded to include massive holdings in North and South America, the Caribbean and the Philippine Islands. This was the “Golden Age” of Spanish exploration.

“Interview Between Cotrez and the Embassadors of Montezuma.” History of Hernan Cortez, 1855. Cortez was perhaps the most well-known of the Spanish conquistadores. By the year 1521, he had conquered the Aztec Empire and had claimed Mexico in the name of Spain. (Image: From the Library at the Mariners’ Museum)  

Despite the unrivaled prosperity and prestige that the imperial holdings brought in the early years of conquest, the beginning of the 19th-century signaled troubling times for the aging empire. The Treaty of Ildefonso (1800) forced the Spanish to give France, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, control of the Louisiana territory in North America. The Louisiana territory was then sold by the French to the young and rapidly expanding United States of America in 1803. From 1811 to 1821 a series of wars saw Spain lose imperial authority over many of its South and North American colonies, including Argentina (1816), Central America (1821) and Mexico (1821), among others. By 1821, the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only territories in the western hemisphere still under imperial rule.

Imperial Spanish flag (H 65447) dating from c. 1898 currently on display at the Ohio History Center. This flag features the “lesser” Spanish Royal Seal in the middle. 

The last remains of Spanish rule in the Americas came to an end after a disastrous war with the United States of America. The brief conflict lasted from April to August 1898 and saw action in both the Pacific and Caribbean colonies of Spain. During the war, approximately 15,300 Ohioans participated in bringing an end to the once great empire. The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 2, 1898, gave the United States possession of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Cuba was also technically given its independence, but U.S. soldiers remained on the island for years after. Spain held onto some territories in Africa well into the mid-20th-century, but the total defeat in 1898 essentially ended its once massive overseas empire that was started in the year 1492 and spanned period of 400 years.

The Spanish-American War gave the United States its own overseas empire and a new slogan was born, “the sun never sets on Uncle Sam’s domain.”

Map of American possessions in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Orange highlights the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico as territories ceded from Spain. Cuba (in yellow) was ceded from Spain under partial U.S. control. (Image:  

You can visit to the Ohio History Center to see some of the Spanish Imperial war flags captured by American forces during the Spanish-American War. For field trip reservations please email [email protected] or call 614.297.2663 or 800.686.1541.

Research Questions (8th-9th Grades):

What were some of the factors that caused the Spanish conquistadors to be so successful in their conquest of the Americas?

You can find the answer here:

What role did religion play in the Spanish conquest of the Americas?

This article may be of help:

How did the rise of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the 15th and 16th-centuries effect the British and French?

These sources might be helpful:

Posted December 13, 2017

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