Transoceanic Crusades

Engraved image of a Spanish Catholic flotilla leaving the Iberian Peninsula by an unidentified artist, 1621. A Catholic bishop holding the papal banner (crossed keys under the papal hat) seemingly leads the flotilla, which are mostly bearing the same standard. A conquistador holding Castile's banner (a castle tower) on the top-center galleon appears to follow the cleric, signifying that the voyage was a Christian crusade. Notice the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand V and Isabella I, on the top-right bidding the ships farewell.

"Almirante de navíos para las Indias"
"Admiral of ships for the Indies"
"Sphaera Mundi"
"La esfera del mundo"

Europeans initially set their sights across the Atlantic Ocean in search for Asia's spice trade. Betting on the projections of an Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand V and Isabella I, financed his expedition into uncharted waters in 1492. As the story goes, he would not find what he proposed. Instead of locating a sea passage to the East Indies, or lands in and around the Indian Ocean, Columbus encountered a whole "New World" of resources for the Europeans.

Based on the information Columbus and other European explorers and conquistadors relayed back, cartographers started to graphically invent the idea of what lied beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Slowly, the "Americas"—named after another Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci—started taking form in maps that emerged during the early sixteenth century. These imaginings served as instruments and symbols power: cartographic depictions of lands beyond the oceans enabled European sovereigns, or rulers, to stake out and represent "global" empires.

Colored map of of the world depicting an early understanding of the Americas to the left by an unidentified artist, 1537.

"Americae sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio"

These cartographic images were a European "creative enterprise" that invented the idea of the "Indies", or lands across the Atlantic Ocean the Spanish Crown claimed (Padrón, 27-28). Despite the depiction of entire islands, continents, and oceans being part of the Spanish Empire, the reality was different. Royal representatives and Spanish vassals occupied key geographic nodes and claimed the transportation conduits, or "corridors of legal authority", that connected them to establish a network of spaces that would represent Spanish sovereignty. This resulted in an imperial "fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings" (Benton, 2).

While oceans could never really belong to anyone, the lands that lied beyond them always could in sovereigns' minds. Coming full circle, the Spanish Crown finally managed to reach the East Indies trade when they crossed the Pacific Ocean and landed on what would be called the Philippines in 1565. Prior to Spanish domination, the archipelago already had strong economic relationships with China and other nation-states in the mainland and South Asia. Thus, it quickly became the nexus of trade between Spain and the Orient. To formally mark its presence, the Spanish established Manila in 1571 and made the Philippines the empire's bastion in Asia.

Besides influencing the Asian market, the Spanish Crown also sought to impart its culture and religion. By the 1540s, Jesuits, among them Saint Francis Xavier, had already established missions in Southeast Asia and Japan. Throughout the second half of the century, Catholic priests collected information about Asian spiritual beliefs and practices, such as Confucianism and ancestor worship, to devise proselytizing approaches. However, Christian ideologies and antagonism towards Japanese rulers and customs eventually led to their prosecution in the late 1560s. This came to a climax in 1597 when twenty-six Jesuit fathers, among them Philip of Jesus—who would be come the first novohispano saint—were martyred.

Connecting the metropole to its far-flung territories, New Spain's ports were perhaps the most guarded nodes in the imperial network. The Spanish Crown channeled licensed transoceanic trade through these coastal towns to maintain a firm grasp on the economy, especially its revenues. Annually, American silver exited the continent through novohispano ports to fuel global economies and wars in Asia and Europe. In the Pacific Coast, Acapulco equipped the Manila Galleon with silver destined to the Philippines and beyond to bring back Chinese goods, such as silk, spices, and porcelain. On the opposite coast, Veracruz sent silver across the Atlantic to refill the Spanish Empire's coffers.


UT Catalog | Worldcat | Benton, Lauren A. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400--1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

UT Catalog | Worldcat | Flynn, Dennis O, Arturo Giráldez, James Sobredo, Dennis O Flynn, and Arturo Giraldez. European Entry into the Pacific: Spain and the Acapulco-Manila Galleons. 1st ed. Vol. 4. Florence: Routledge, 2001.

UT Catalog | Worldcat | Padrón, Ricardo. The Spacious Word : Cartography, Literature, and Empire in Early Modern Spain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.