19.2.3: Spanish Exploration
The voyages of Christopher Columbus initiated the European exploration and colonization of the American continents that eventually turned Spain into the most powerful European empire.
Outline the successes and failures of Christopher Columbus during his four voyages to the Americas
- Only late in the 15th century did an emerging modern Spain become fully committed to the search for new trade routes overseas. In 1492, Christopher Columbus’s expedition was funded in the hope of bypassing Portugal’s monopoly on west African sea routes, to reach “the Indies.”
- On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera with three ships. Land was sighted on October 12, 1492 and Columbus called the island (now The Bahamas) San Salvador, in what he thought to be the “West Indies.” Following the first American voyage, Columbus made three more.
- A division of influence became necessary to avoid conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese. An agreement was reached in 1494, with the Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the world between the two powers.
- After Columbus, the Spanish colonization of the Americas was led by a series of soldier-explorers, called conquistadors. The Spanish forces, in addition to significant armament and equestrian advantages, exploited the rivalries between competing indigenous peoples, tribes, and nations.
- One of the most accomplished conquistadors was Hernán Cortés, who achieved the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Of equal importance was the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire under Francisco Pizarro.
- In 1565, the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Philippines was founded, which added a critical Asian post to the empire. The Manilla Galleons shipped goods from all over Asia, across the Pacific to Acapulco on the coast of Mexico.
- Christopher Columbus
- An Italian explorer, navigator, and colonizer who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under the monarchy of Spain, which led to general European awareness of the American continents.
- Treaty of Tordesillas
- A 1494 treaty that divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and the Crown of Castile, along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa. This line of demarcation was about halfway between the Cape Verde islands (already Portuguese) and the islands entered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage (claimed for Castile and León).
- Treaty of Zaragoza
- A 1529 peace treaty between the Spanish Crown and Portugal that defined the areas of Castilian (Spanish) and Portuguese influence in Asia to resolve the “Moluccas issue,” when both kingdoms claimed the Moluccas islands for themselves, considering it within their exploration area established by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The conflict sprang in 1520, when the expeditions of both kingdoms reached the Pacific Ocean, since there was not a set limit to the east.
- A period in the history of the Iberian Peninsula, spanning approximately 770 years, between the initial Umayyad conquest of Hispania in the 710s, and the fall of the Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic state on the peninsula, to expanding Christian kingdoms in 1492.
While Portugal led European explorations of non-European territories, its neighboring fellow Iberian rival, Castile, embarked upon its own mission to create an overseas empire. It began to establish its rule over the Canary Islands, located off the West African coast, in 1402, but then became distracted by internal Iberian politics and the repelling of Islamic invasion attempts and raids through most of the 15th century. Only late in the century, following the unification of the crowns of Castile and Aragon and the completion of the reconquista, did an emerging modern Spain become fully committed to the search for new trade routes overseas. In 1492, the joint rulers conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which had been providing Castile with African goods through tribute, and decided to fund Christopher Columbus’s expedition in the hope of bypassing Portugal’s monopoly on west African sea routes, to reach “the Indies” (east and south Asia) by traveling west. Twice before, in 1485 and 1488, Columbus had presented the project to king John II of Portugal, who rejected it.
On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera with three ships: Santa María, Pinta (the Painted) and Santa Clara. Columbus first sailed to the Canary Islands, where he restocked for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean, crossing a section of the Atlantic that became known as the Sargasso Sea. Land was sighted on October 12, 1492, and Columbus called the island (now The Bahamas) San Salvador, in what he thought to be the “West Indies.” He also explored the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola. Columbus left 39 men behind and founded the settlement of La Navidad in what is present-day Haiti.
Following the first American voyage, Columbus made three more. During the second, 1493, voyage, he enslaved 560 native Americans, in spite of the Queen’s explicit opposition to the idea. Their transfer to Spain resulted in the death and disease of hundreds of the captives. The object of the third voyage was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal claimed was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. In 1498, Columbus left port with a fleet of six ships. He explored the Gulf of Paria, which separates Trinidad from mainland Venezuela, and then the mainland of South America. Columbus described these new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured them hanging from China. Finally, the fourth voyage, nominally in search of a westward passage to the Indian Ocean, left Spain in 1502. Columbus spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before arriving in Almirante Bay, Panama. After his ships sustained serious damage in a storm off the coast of Cuba, Columbus and his men remained stranded on Jamaica for a year. Help finally arrived and Columbus and his men arrived in Castile in November 1504.
The Treaty of Tordesillas
Shortly after Columbus’s arrival from the “West Indies,” a division of influence became necessary to avoid conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese. An agreement was reached in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world between the two powers. In the treaty, the Portuguese received everything outside Europe east of a line that ran 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (already Portuguese), and the islands reached by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage (claimed for Spain—Cuba, and Hispaniola). This gave them control over Africa, Asia, and eastern South America (Brazil). The Spanish (Castile) received everything west of this line, territory that was still almost completely unknown, and proved to be mostly the western part of the Americas, plus the Pacific Ocean islands.
Further Explorations of the Americas
After Columbus, the Spanish colonization of the Americas was led by a series of soldier-explorers, called conquistadors. The Spanish forces, in addition to significant armament and equestrian advantages, exploited the rivalries between competing indigenous peoples, tribes, and nations, some of which were willing to form alliances with the Spanish in order to defeat their more powerful enemies, such as the Aztecs or Incas—a tactic that would be extensively used by later European colonial powers. The Spanish conquest was also facilitated by the spread of diseases (e.g., smallpox), common in Europe but never present in the New World, which reduced the indigenous populations in the Americas. This caused labor shortages for plantations and public works, and so the colonists initiated the Atlantic slave trade.
One of the most accomplished conquistadors was Hernán Cortés, who led a relatively small Spanish force, but with local translators and the crucial support of thousands of native allies, achieved the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the campaigns of 1519-1521 (present day Mexico). Of equal importance was the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. After years of preliminary exploration and military skirmishes, 168 Spanish soldiers under Francisco Pizarro, and their native allies, captured the Sapa Inca Atahualpa in the 1532 Battle of Cajamarca. It was the first step in a long campaign that took decades of fighting, but ended in Spanish victory in 1572 and colonization of the region as the Viceroyalty of Peru. The conquest of the Inca Empire led to spin-off campaigns into present-day Chile and Colombia, as well as expeditions towards the Amazon Basin.
Further Spanish settlements were progressively established in the New World: New Granada in the 1530s (later in the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1717 and present day Colombia), Lima in 1535 as the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, Buenos Aires in 1536 (later in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1776), and Santiago in 1541. Florida was colonized in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
The Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan died while in the Philippines commanding a Castilian expedition in 1522, which was the first to circumnavigate the globe. The Basque commander, Juan Sebastián Elcano, would lead the expedition to success. Therefore, Spain sought to enforce their rights in the Moluccan islands, which led a conflict with the Portuguese, but the issue was resolved with the Treaty of Zaragoza (1525). In 1565, the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Philippines was founded by Miguel López de Legazpi, and the service of Manila Galleons was inaugurated. The Manilla Galleons shipped goods from all over Asia across the Pacific to Acapulco on the coast of Mexico. From there, the goods were transshipped across Mexico to the Spanish treasure fleets, for shipment to Spain. The Spanish trading post of Manila was established to facilitate this trade in 1572.
- Spanish Exploration
“Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Aztec_Empire. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Treaty of Tordesillas.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Tordesillas. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Spanish colonization of the Americas.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_colonization_of_the_Americas. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Inca_Empire. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Voyages of Christopher Columbus.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyages_of_Christopher_Columbus. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“First Voyage, Departure for the New World, August 3, 1492.” http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_Voyage,_Departure_for_the_New_World,_August_3,_1492.jpg. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.