The Colonial Period

Spanish South America was ruled as the king's private property. From the 16th to the early 19th centuries, it was governed by a complex administrative system. Viceroys were the king's representatives and the highest authorities in the colonies. Three vice-royalties were set up—Peru, New Granada, and La Plata. They were divided into administrative districts presided over by captains general. An audiencia (court of appeal) exercised judicial authority over a specified area. Captains general and the presidents of audiencias often came to rival the viceroys in power.

The colonial period was marked by a rigidly stratified society. At the top of the system were the peninsulares , Spaniards born in Spain, followed by the creoles , persons of pure Spanish ancestry born in America. The peninsulares held all of the major offices. The creoles were followed by the mestizos , of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, and at the bottom were the Indians and Negroes.

In Portuguese South America, large areas were granted by the king to nobles, who were responsible for colonization. Early settlement was limited to the coast. In the mid-16th century, Brazil was united under a single colonial administration. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the interior was penetrated by missionaries and by farmers seeking land. A rigid class system did not develop in Brazil.

Mining, agriculture, and ranching were the main occupations of the South American colonists. The Indians were forced to work as slaves in the mines and on the haciendas (plantations). Many of them died of overwork and of diseases introduced by Europeans. African slaves were therefore imported, especially along the northern and eastern coasts.

Roman Catholic missionaries were a powerful force in the colonial era. They established many missions among the Indians. The Jesuits were one of the most influential orders; the La Plata basin was largely under their control for more than a century.

The English, French, and Dutch were interested in South American trade and established settlements in the northeast.

Colonialism: Americas.Colonialism: Americas. This map shows European colonies in the Americas around 1763. At that time, European colonies covered extensive areas in North, Central, and South America. France, Portugal, Spain, and Britain controlled the greatest amount of territory. The main era of colonization in America ended in the late 1820's, following a series of armed rebellions.