The first Empire upon which the sun never set

The first Empire upon which the sun never set

A Spanish fleet /

A Spanish fleet /

Four hundred years before the British Empire never enjoyed the setting sun, the Spanish Empire rose, flourished, dwindled and vanished. From the late fifteenth century, Spain, a fraction smaller than France, forged an empire including the Canary Islands, most of the West Indian Islands, all central America, all of South America except Brazil, parts of the Low Countries and parts of Italy, plus the Philippines.

It was Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) who started it all with his four voyages of exploration between 1492 and 1504 in search of a western route to the Orient. No-one seems quite certain about Columbus’ nationality, though Genoa and Majorca make their claims. He was partly financed and wholly encouraged by a Pope whose family was Spanish (Rodrígo Borja who became Pope Alexander VI), and the Spanish Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel.

The more military (and militant) conquistadores followed the example of Colón, moving into Mexico, Perú (which was very much larger than it is now) and other countries in the New World, including many parts of what is now the United States. You can find these easily by looking at an atlas. All regions with Spanish names were originally Spanish possessions, lost as time goes by.

As the Spanish explorers found the fabulous wealth in their hands – instead of mere dreams of myth – private enterprise was rapidly replaced by direct rule from Spain herself. Gold, silver and precious stones made 16th century Spain the richest country in the world, under the rule of Charles V (Carlos Quinto). The colonies were divided into vice-royalties, dominated by viceroys (virreyes) many chosen from among the original conquerers. They were New Spain (1535), Perú (1569), New Granada (1717 and Río de la Plata (1776 – the same fateful year as the Declaration of Independence of the North American Colonies).

It was too great, expensive and cumbersome to last: the beginning of the 19th century saw multiple wars of Spanish/South American independence, in which the colonists and natives determined to be free, fought under the leadership of men like Bolívar and San Martin and others; the great Spanish Empire was gradually whittled away. Now, sadly and illogically, even some regions of Spain itself prepare for unilateral secession, such as Catalunya, the Basque Country, Galicia, the Canaries, and possibly Baleares and Valencia. There are seventeen autonomous Communities at this moment, but by 2050 there may be only eleven or twelve.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. christian May 10, 2013 at 10:23 am - Reply

    I always think what if we had maintained the empire… what if Napoleon never entered Spain, what if Fernando VII never were King of Spain, what if the Constitution of 1812 had triumphed, what if the Spanish Armada had conquered London, what if… what if…

    • Dean Swift May 12, 2013 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Dean Swift says: ‘What if’ indeed! All history is ‘what if’. You are quite right Christian, what if Napoleon had not entered Russia? What if ONE of the Three Spanish Armadas had entered London . . .imagine! A face-off between Felipe II and his half sister-in-law Elizabeth? Foils or rapiers. Or perhaps sabres? What if there had been no Treaty of Utrecht? Gibraltar just another nice place in Andalucía to take a holiday! What if Artur Mas had never suffered from Catalan piles? Might he have been more agreeable? What if Winston Churchill had been the Duke of Marlborough instead of his brother? He could never have entered Parliament. What if Tony Blair had been to Eton and Gordon Brown had been to Fettes?

Leave A Comment