Atlantic History Spanish Colonization to 1650
Allyson M. Poska
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0017


With Christopher Columbus’s accidental arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, Castile became the first European kingdom to colonize the Americas. The devastation of the indigenous population by epidemic disease allowed Spaniards to quickly lay claim to the islands of the Caribbean, followed by the former Aztec and Inca empires on the mainland. Within 100 years, all of the major Spanish settlements in the Americas had been established. Although older scholarship often focused on the completeness of the Spanish conquest and domination over native peoples, over the past few decades most scholars have offered a more nuanced view that describes the relationship between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples of the Americas as one of negotiation and contestation. In terms of the formation of Spanish colonial society, recent scholarship privileges the complexities of race, class, and gender relations over the establishment and evolution of institutions.

General Overviews

The mid-20th-century scholarship on colonial Spanish America is clearly summarized in the authoritative works of Haring 1947 and Gibson 1966. The first two volumes of the Cambridge History of Latin America (Bethell 1984) then provide an overview of the research in the field through the mid-1980s. Elliott 2006, a comparative compendium, synthesizes much of the more recent research.

  • Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vols. 1 and 2, Colonial Latin America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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    This multivolume collection contains essays on specific topics by experts in each field. The essays provide excellent introductions to the political, social, and economic history of both Spanish and Portuguese America.

  • Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

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    A comprehensive, comparative examination of the experience of the two major empires in the Americas by one of the foremost historians of early modern Spain.

  • Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

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    Gibson’s work synthesizes the research since the publication of Haring 1947.

  • Haring, C. H. The Spanish Empire in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

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    Haring’s work is the classic text on the establishment of Spanish institutions in the Americas. The author’s description of Spanish dominance has been challenged by recent research.

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