Unparalleled Exploration: How New World Treasure Fueled Spain’s Empire

Exploration and currency are inextricably linked; as explorers moved around the globe, they took their coins and other wealth with them. As trade was established, these coins began to move along the trade routes.


1024px-Map_of_HispaniolaAlthough the Vikings (and possibly other Western civilizations) had visited the New World, formal discovery with the addition of trade was not established until the late 15th century. The Spanish Empire’s influence on the Americas began in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus; Spain would eventually control most of North, Central, and South America. Regardless of danger and a high death rate, by 1500AD, there were nearly a thousand Spanish settlers in the Hispaniola region (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.)


Expeditions quickly moved inwards as more ships arrived from the European mainland. Nueva Cádiz was founded in 1500 in Venezula, followed by Alonso de Ojeda in Colombia. Cumaná, in modern-day Venezuela, was the first permanent European settlement, though  it was destroyed by the indigenous peoples several times before its final re-building in 1569.



One of the most famous—and ruthless—of the Spanish explorers was Hernán Cortés. His forces, with help from the Tlaxcala and other indigenous allies, overthrew the Aztec Empire in just a few years, between 1519 and 1521. The Viceroyalty of New Spain was created in 1535 by Charles V, who appointed Don Antonio de Mendoza as viceroy.



In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his troops, including indigenous warriors, took the Incan Emperor Atahualpa prisoner, beginning a war that raged for years. It took four decades for Spanish forces to conquer the strongest empire in the Americas. The Spanish encountered the Inca during a time of unrest and civil war, and were able to use the political situation to their advantage, despite smaller numbers of armed soldiers.


In the 16th century, over 200,000 Spaniards had made their home in the Americas, with the number swelling to 500,000 in the 17th century. Even after the American Revolution, Spain controlled California through the missions until 1833, when Mexico passed the Secularization Act.


While exact numbers are not available, sources indicate that the indigenous population of Caribbean prior to the arrival of Columbus was about 6 million, with several million more in Mexico and South America. These populations declined by up to 90% in many areas by the early 17th century. In addition to coins and trade, the Spanish explorers brought diseases against which the native peoples had no natural resistance. The hard labor and other punishments of the Encomienda system also had an effect.


Some of the gold, silver, and other precious items valued by the explorers originally took the form of religious items, which were melted down prior to the voyage to Catholic Spain. It is unknown how many archeological treasures were destroyed in this process.


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While Columbia and Brazil produced gold, the main metal coming out of the New World was silver. During the 300 years of Spanish dominance in the Americas, a peso had approximately 25 grams of silver. A Spanish treasure ship could carry as many as two million such coins. According to Timothy R. Walton, “The modern approximate value of the estimated 4 billion pesos produced during the period would come to $527,270,000,000 or €469,839,661,964 (based on silver bullion prices of May 2015).” These coins did not stay predominantly in Spain, but were sent to their allies and trading partners for imports, military supplies and expenses, and other trade expenses. The wealth of the Americas was the foundation for the might of the Spanish Empire.




As the Spanish crown insisted on receiving ⅕ of the wealth collected, more and more ships and crews began smuggling unregistered coins and other goods. This makes it difficult to know the exact contents of shipwrecks and other lost treasures, as official records may not show all goods on board.




The Spanish Empire eventually began to decline, and their presence in the New World weakened. But the coins and other goods still circulated the globe, following the trade routes of the legendary sea-faring nation.

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