From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Spanish Empire was one of the largest empires in world history, and one of the first global empires. It included territories and colonies in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania, from the 15th century through—in the case of its African holdings—the latter portion of the 20th century. Spain had emerged as a unified monarchy in 1492 following the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula; that very year, Christopher Columbus commanded the first Spanish exploratory voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, leading to Europe's eventual colonial engagement with the Americas. The Western Hemisphere thereby became the focus of this new Spanish Empire.
During the Age of Discovery, Spain began to settle the Caribbean islands and conquistadors soon toppled native empires such as the Aztecs and Incas on mainland America. Later expeditions established an empire that stretched from present-day Canada in North America to Tierra del Fuego in South America. The Spanish expedition of world circumnavigation started by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, and completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano in 1522, achieved what Columbus had longed for, a westward route to Asia, and brought the Far East to Spain's attention, where it established colonies in Guam, the Philippines and surrounding islands. During its Siglo de Oro, the Spanish Empire comprised the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Italy, parts of Germany, parts of France, territories in Africa, Asia and Oceania, as well as large areas in the Americas. By the 17th century Spain controlled an empire on a scale and world distribution that had never been approached by its predecessors.
Trade flourished across the Atlantic between Spain and her colonies; all kinds of goods including precious metals from America were brought back to Spain in annual galleon fleets. The Manila Galleon also linked the Philippines to America through regular convoys across the Pacific. Much of the Spanish trade was used to strengthen the Spanish Navy and protect the Spanish realms in Europe and the Mediterranean. Some of Spain's European possessions were given up at the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, but it retained its vast overseas empire.
The French occupation of Spain in 1808 under Napoleon cut off its American colonies temporarily, and a number of independence movements between 1810 and 1825 resulted in a chain of newly independent Latin American republics in South and Central America. The remainder of Spain's then–four hundred year empire, namely Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Spanish East Indies, continued under Spanish control until the end of the 19th century, when most of these territories were annexed by the United States after the Spanish-American War. The remaining Pacific islands were sold to Germany in 1899.
By the early 20th century Spain only held territories in Africa, namely Spanish Guinea, Spanish Sahara and Spanish Morocco. Spain withdrew from Morocco in 1956 and granted independence to Equatorial Guinea in 1968. When Spain abandoned Spanish Sahara in 1976, the colony was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania at first, and wholly by Morocco in 1980, though according to the United Nations it is still technically under Spanish administration. Today, the Canary Islands and two enclaves on the North African coast, Ceuta, and Melilla, are administrative divisions of Spain.