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Spanish and Portuguese Exploration

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Exploration to the West

Europeans were unaware of the existence of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean when they first considered sailing westward to reach the East. When they reached the western hemisphere at the end of the fifteenth century, they began a new era of colonization and cultural exchange.

Spanish and Portuguese Exploration

The race for American colonies and the continuing cultural exchange between the Americas and Europe began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean with a fleet of three ships. Columbus, an Italian sponsored by the Spanish monarchy, had sailed forth looking for the elusive trade route to India and China. He reasoned that since the world was spherical, one should be able to reach the East by sailing west. There was only one flaw in his theory; the existence of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean lay between Europe and Asia.

In his four voyages to the Caribbean, Columbus claimed Cuba, Hispaniola, Antigua, and the Bahamas for Spain, establishing a base of operations for the Spanish explorers who followed him. The islands are called the “West Indies” because Columbus never realized that he had not in fact reached India; the misnomer “Indians” has stuck to the earliest inhabitants of the Americas ever since.

When Columbus returned safely to Spain from his first voyage, bringing with him gold nuggets, Caribbean plants, and several Taino people, word spread throughout Europe. Many other explorers were curious to see the “new world,” and the monarchs of Europe realized that by sponsoring explorers, they could establish colonies and expand their power bases abroad. Missionaries were also pleased at the discovery that there were whole societies of people they could try to convert to Christianity.

In 1500, the Portuguese landed in South America where they would establish a vast, profitable colony called Brazil. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal sailed all the way around South America and continued on to the west. Magellan died in the Philippines, but thirty-five of his crew returned safely, having circled the globe. This voyage established that it was indeed possible to reach Asia by sailing west.

Between 1519 and 1531, the Spaniards defeated the mighty Aztec and Inca armies of Mexico and Peru. The great wealth they seized fired the imaginations of explorers such as Juan Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto, who sailed to North America in search of similar wealth. These men are known to history by the romantic name of conquistadors, a word that celebrates their adventurous spirit and undoubted bravery while minimizing the fact that they were motivated by greed and behaved brutally to those whose lands they invaded.

The conquistadors explored the Southeast and Southwest of North America, failing to find any evidence of gold. None of them realized at the time that the wealth of North America was in its natural resources: timber, fruit, vegetables, a mild seasonal climate, and fertile land.

In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Áviles established the first permanent European colony in North America when he founded the city of St. Augustine, Florida. The Spaniards began to settle Texas in the late 1600s and California in the mid-1700s. At one time, Spain claimed almost two-thirds of what is now the United States.

By the 1770s Spain was reaping an enormous profit from its colonies. The Spaniards had organized their territory into the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, which were broken down into smaller, locally administered units. Spain controlled the wealth of the colonial gold and silver mines, with the crown taking a one-fifth share of the profits. In addition, the colonists were banned from trading with any nations besides Spain.

Naturally, the Spaniards and Portuguese exploited the native populations for the purposes of labor. Conditions were little better than chattel slavery at first; like all people in positions of economic power throughout history, the masters and owners paid the workers as little as possible and curtailed their freedoms as much as they could. Under political and religious pressures from Europe, and thanks in large part to the protests of the influential Catholic missionary Bartolomeo de las Casas, working conditions eventually improved somewhat.

European invasion was catastrophic for the native populations of Latin America. Their empires were destroyed, their cultures all but obliterated, and their people enslaved in backbreaking, dangerous jobs in mines and plantation fields. The American population dropped drastically after the invasion; many were killed in armed conflict, but the vast majority succumbed to European diseases like smallpox. Never having been exposed to these diseases, the Americans had no natural resistance.

With the native workforce dying by the thousands, the Spaniards had to find another source of labor. This was the beginning of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas; it would continue for nearly three hundred years.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Age of Exploration in Europe Practice Test

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