The arrival of Europeans in the New World in 1492 changed the Americas forever. Over the course of the next 350 years, Spain ruled a vast empire based on the labor and exploitation of the Indian population. Conquistadors descended on America with hopes of bringing Catholicism to new lands while extracting great riches. Religion and self-interest combined to create a potent mixture that drew hundreds of thousands of Spaniards across the ocean with hopes of finding riches and winning souls for God. Along with the Spaniards came diseases to which the New World natives had no immunities.
What followed was one of the greatest tragedies in human history as smallpox, influenza, and other communicable diseases ravaged the native populations, killing millions. The Spanish never set out to destroy the people of the New World—after all, their goal was to use Indian labor for their own ends—and almost immediately a debate arose in Spain concerning the rights of Indians. This was the first time any European nation had consciously debated the rights and status of non-Christians. The traffic of Europeans to the Americas was not a one-way street. The so-called Columbian Exchange brought European goods and ideas to the New World—including the horse, which was not native to the Western Hemisphere—and returned new plants and animals to the Old World, including potatoes, corn, tomatoes and other crops. The world was forever changed by the new horizons opened by Spain's intrepid explorers, despite the misdeeds of Spanish rule in America.
Spanish conquistadors, who were primarily poor nobles from the impoverished west and south of Spain, were able to conquer the huge empires of the New World with the help of superior military technology, disease (which weakened Indian resistance), and military tactics including surprise attacks and powerful alliances with local tribes. Once an area had been conquered, it was partitioned into encomiendas, or grants of land. More importantly, the Indian people themselves were parceled out to the conquistadors, who were given title to the land and its people in return for a promise to teach the natives Christianity. This system was heavily abused, and Indians throughout the Americas were reduced to a condition of virtual slavery.
However, due to natural attrition and harsh misrule, the population of native laborers soon became too small for the voracious Spanish, so they began to import African slaves to work in sugar plantations and silver mines. The introduction of African traditions to the Native American and mestizo cultures already in existence made for a social mixture richer than in almost any other part of the world, although racism continued to play a dark role in the New World. Colonial society was hierarchical, based upon on the amount of non-Spanish blood a person possessed. A complicated system, called the casta, delineated over 100 separate names for groups containing certain levels of Indian and African blood. Jobs, government positions, titles to land, and almost everything else in the Americas functioned according to this system with those at the top getting preference over those lower on the list. Discrimination and repression were features of Spanish colonial rule throughout its history.
Spain's government in Madrid tried hard to govern the New World, despite its distance from Europe. Using a system of viceroyalties and audencias, royal courts of appeals, the Spanish Monarchy was able to exercise control over Spanish settlers, even when they didn't want any sort of interference from the central government. The Crown was entitled to one-fifth of all mining profits, and this huge income helped Spain to become the largest and most powerful empire in Europe by 1600. Religion was mixed with politics to create a hybrid system in what would become the American Southwest: Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries were often left in charge of large areas in what is now Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and, later, California. With its goal of bringing the Catholic religion to the New World, Spain was also able to use the existing church governments for its own political uses. Today, religion and politics continue to mix in Latin America.
The often-heavy handed rule from Madrid and the new ideas of liberty and freedom coming out of the American and French Revolutions brought about the wars of Independence in the early nineteenth century. Simón Bolívar—the Great Liberator—and José de San Martin led the fight for independence, although this was not a fight for Indian rights, or on behalf of the poor. Those who fought for South American independence were called criollos, American-born descendants of Spaniards, and they continued to rule the many new nations of Spanish America for generations. The Spanish left a legacy of cruelty and exploitation in their wake, but they also managed to open the world and increase cultural exchanges to a level never before seen in human history.