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Spanish Colonization Terms

Audencia, Audencias

A system of legal appeals courts that the Spanish set up in the New World to help govern the Americas. The first was organized in Hispaniola as early as 1511, but the first permanent one was set up in Mexico City in 1527. The audencias were staffed by judges who dispensed royal justice far from the court in Madrid. As the population of the Americas increased, so did the number of audencias. Many of the boundaries of modern-day Latin American nations correspond to the boundaries of the audencias from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Conquistador, Conquistadors, Conquistadores

From the Spanish conquistar (to conquer) this was the name given to the armies that first conquered Latin America for Spain. They were not part of any professional army, although many had military experience and training. Though their numbers were small, they used fear, intimidation and advanced military technology to defeat their enemies. Many of them became immensely wealthy and their descendants became the ruling class in South America.

Spanish for "conqueror," the conquistadores were adventurers who sought to conquer Indian nations and capture lands and treasures for Spain in the early years of European colonization of the Americas. Among the most famous conquistadores are Hernán Cortés (who defeated the Aztec) and Francisco Pizarro (who defeated the Inca).

Encomienda, Encomiendas, Encomenderos, Encomendero

The encomienda system was a form of land ownership set up after 1492 to divide both the lands and peoples of the New World into workable—and exploitable—pieces that were run by Spanish settlers. These encomenderos were given rights to land and the ability to demand work from the natives under their control in exchange for a promise to the Spanish crown to teach the Indians Christianity. Imagine everyone's surprise when this system was abused, the Indians were worked like slaves, and the teaching of Christianity was dropped because it interfered with the profits of the Indians' forced labor. The practice, which was in practice a form of slavery, was officially outlawed in the 1550s, but the exploitation of Indians in America never disappeared.

Imperial System

Maintenance of far-flung overseas empires required colonizing nations to develop complex imperial systems to organize and regulate colonial affairs. In an age when communication between the New World and the Old could take many months, American imperial systems tended to be much more decentralized in practice than they were in monarchical theory, as European leaders could exert only indirect control over events on the ground in America.

Mestizo, Mestizos

Mestizos were the mixed-race offspring of Spaniards and Indians, usually with a Spanish father and Indian mother. This intermingling of Indians and Europeans quickly created a society numerically dominated by racially-diverse people, although those with pure Spanish ancestry controlled American society until the 20th century. The Spanish authorities devised a hierarchical system known as the casta, which graded the entire population according to the amount of Indian blood they possessed, and contained over 120 different grades. Those with more Indian blood were of a lower casta, those with more European blood were higher on the social list.

New World

A European term for the Western Hemisphere, which seemed brand new following Columbus's "discovery," in contrast to the Old World of Europe, Africa, and Asia—all of which had been known to Europeans for centuries. Of course, nothing about the New World was new to the Indians who had been living there for centuries.

A European term for the Western Hemisphere, which seemed brand new following Columbus's "discovery," in contrast to the Old World of Europe, Africa, and Asia—all of which had been known to Europeans for centuries. Of course, nothing about the New World was new to the Indians who had long been living there.

Peninsulares And Criollos

At the very top of the casta system were the peninsulares and the criollos, These were both groups who claimed to be purely European with no intermingling of "tainted" Indian blood. The penisulares were those who were born in the Iberian peninsula—hence peninsulares. The criollos, from which we get the word creole, were born to European-descended parents in the New World. Together the two groups dominated American society in almost every way, but the history of Spain's American empire was characterized by the constant struggle for power between the two groups, culminating in the wars of Independence in the early 1800s during which the criollos kicked out the peninsulares and won the contest.


An area located far from the center of an imperial system. The far northern periphery of Spain's New World empire included lands that would eventually become the Southwest of the United States. Spain left its mark on those areas, but as peripheral territories they were not fully integrated into the norms and traditions of the heart of New Spain. Thus the culture of, say, Mexico today reflects a much stronger Spanish influence than that of, say, New Mexico.

Power Elites, Power Elite

The ruling class of any society is populated by power elites, people whose wealth, status, military strength, lineage, accomplishments, or other positive social markers bestow upon them the authority to make key decisions to shape the social life of their communities.

Pre-Columbian Civilizations

The Indian societies that existed in the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of Europeans in America in 1492. Pre-Columbian civilizations varied widely in character, ranging from nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to the huge and sophisticated empires of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs. (At the time of Columbus's journey, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was larger, cleaner, and more beautiful than Paris.)

Triangle Trade, Triangular Trade

A trans-Atlantic system of commerce that developed following European settlement in the New World, the triangle trade carried manufactured goods from Europe to Africa and the Americas; slaves from Africa to the Americas; and the products of plantation agriculture from the Americas back to Europe. The profits generated by the trade, and the sophisticated enterprises that developed to organize it, helped to give birth to modern capitalism.

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