With the possible exception of Great Britain, Spain probably holds the record for the largest amount of colonial territory lost through popular revolutions and conflict in the modern era. In 1799, the Spanish crown governed a vast swathe of territory running from the Mississippi to Cape Horn. This great Latin corridor was administered through four viceroyalties which governed in the name of the King. These proconsular seats, were in order of seniority: New Spain (Nuevo España), Peru, Río de la Plata and New Granada (Nuevo Granada). By 1833 it was all gone.
She could also count on holdings along the coast of North Africa, the Mediterranean and of course in Northern Europe, the Pacific and Malaysia, but it was from the new world that Spain drew most of her revenues. From the unification of Spain in the 14th century, and to the height of the Spanish empire, partly resulting from their conquests in the Americas in the early 16th century, this system of distant political control in return for economic consumption worked, but by the end of the 17th century the Enema procedure that was drawing the wealth of the Americas to Seville was failing.
Ironically much of the material wealth extracted from overseas colonies had been squandered by frivolous king’s on frivolous wars to maintain a hegemony over a distant and culturally opposed republic on the far side of Europe. This was grandiose empire building on a foundation of sand. The mixture of heavy taxation and lack of self determination amongst imperial possessions that were establishing their own homegrown upper and mercantile classes, and added to that the issue of different religion in Holland, (which in the 16th and 17th century was known as the Spanish Netherlands), eventually lead to almost every major overseas and foreign possession Spain ever laid claim to, raising the banner of rebellion.
Between 1568 and 1648 the Dutch Republic fought doggedly to throw off Spanish control. They were aided by friendly Protestant nations that recognised them as a sovereign polity, and catholic enemies of Spain, such as France who ended Spanish military supremacy at the Battle of Rocroi. The struggle, also known as the eighty years war can be cited as one of the main reasons for the loss or weakening of the Spanish empire, as much of its wealth and manpower would be squandered in a confusing and ultimately pointless struggle to retain this distant and culturally opposed region.
For America and in Spain’s numerous Mediterranean holdings (Sicily, Sardinia, Naples etc) the rise of Napoleon offered the chance to establish a measure of self determination which signalled the breakup of the empire begun by Charles V. Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of the Iberian Peninsula swept away the Imperial Spanish government and politically dissolved its empire as a functioning state. In its place arose a Junta at Seville, which passively governed the vast overseas holdings and promised liberal reform, as colonies such as Venezuela arose and formed their own Revolutionary Juntas. When the King was restored upon the fall of Napoleon, all hope of reform evaporated and from 1816 onwards to 1833 Central and South America erupted into open rebellion and Spain’s grip on her overseas empire slipped one country at a time.
Spain’s holdings in the Caribbean and Pacific were less troublesome to deal with, the threat here came from foreign powers, and indeed it was the United States that finally ended what might be termed the old Spanish Empire in 1898 when Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and other small island nations, were all ceded after the Spanish American War. The Spanish presence in North and western Africa would be all that remained of her foreign, colonial policy thereafter, most of which was ceded in the mid 20th century.
At this moment Catalonia has declared its intention to separate from what Latin American Patriots were given to refer to as the “madre patria”. That in the past Catalonia stood as part of the body of Spain against all of the uprisings here listed should not be forgotten, just as Aragon and Castile. Historically Spain has always met revolutionary sentiment with hard line measures that for the most part have incited reciprocal violence. Historically, especially in the case of Holland and Latin America, each these encounters were horrendously brutal and in each instance Spain was forced to reluctantly amputate the states in question. So far history has been annoyingly cadenced in its rhyming.