Spanish Colonial Culture

European contact with the Indians of the Americas changed both worlds
John Guy’s party meets a group of Beothuk at Bull Arm, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland.

Matthäus Merian, Dreyzehender Theil Americae, 1628

The Colombian Exchange

The near accidental discovery of an almost unknown continent by a Genoese merchant-explorer in the later years of the 1400s led to the greatest colonial migration and cultural exchange ever known. Though he was not the first explorer to set foot there, nor did he ever come to understand the dimensions of his discovery, it was Christopher Columbus who first published an account of his findings. This began the intense interest in and subsequent conquest of the "New World," that area we now know as America. The consequences of this contact created profound global change.

 
Phillip the Second; King of Spain from 1556 until 1598
King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598), Portrait in Full Figure

Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1566

Spain Emerges

Perhaps the greatest empire that the world has ever known, the Spanish Empire controlled, influenced, or claimed nearly half of the world in the 16th-18th centuries. Spanish dominance reached all five of the then-known continents. Spain's rapid growth from a group of small weak kingdoms fighting Islamic incursion and each other to become, though challenged, the near master of the world, is a phenomenal story.

The Spanish Flag

The flag which flies over Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas is described in heraldry as a red saltire raguly on a white field. A saltire is an X figure; raguly refers to the jagged edges of the cross. The X-shaped cross is commonly called "St. Andrew's cross," because tradition says that Andrew the Disciple was crucified on a cross of that shape. The story is that the branches were roughly hacked off two small trees, and the trees were tied together to make the cross. The jagged edges of the cross on the Spanish flag represent these trees with the branched lopped off. Since the flags of Ireland and Scotland (and the flag of Great Britain incorporating the cross of Scotland) are also St. Andrew's crosses, when speaking of the Spanish flag, this design is best called the Burgundian Cross, or the Cross of Burgundy.

 
The Spanish colonial flag, a jagged red X on a white field.

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who sponsored Columbus' voyages to the New World, used the medieval flag with the red and gold quartered lions and castles, which represented the united Spain of Leon and Castile. However, since they did not have a son to succeed them, the Spanish Crown went to the son of their oldest daughter, Juana, who was married to Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The red saltire was his family symbol, since Andrew was the patron saint of Burgundy. White was the distinctive color of French Royalty, and Burgundy was a French state. In 1506, Philip came to rule Spain as Philip I, regent to his young son Charles. Charles also adopted this flag when he became Charles I of Spain (1516-1556). He was also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, probably the most powerful man in Europe at that time.

The Spanish naval ships began to fly this flag in the early 1500s in honor of their king. In those days, the flag of a country was actually the flag of the ruling house. Eventually, the army also began to fly this flag, and it came to represent Spain. As Spain's power spread to the New World and across the Pacific to the Philippines, this was the flag carried by her ships and flown over the fortresses which guarded her possessions. Thus, it is sometimes referred to as the Spanish Colonial Flag.

 
A slave and her mistress purchase fruit, from a period colonial painting.
Distinguished Woman with her Slave

Vicente Alban; Quito, Ecuador, 1783

Colonial Culture

Though influenced by Spanish traditions from the Iberian peninsula, the culture that emerged in the colonial New World was a mixture of European, African, and local Native customs. "Latinized" America was a diverse, capable, and often complex society. While it sought to duplicate the Spanish lifeways of the Old World, it created its own unique traditions, identities, and cuisines.

Last updated: April 19, 2018

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