European Explorations in South America

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European Explorations in South America

At the end of the fifteenth century, technological developments in shipbuilding and the search for new commercial markets and spices combined with unique configurations of crusade, curiosity, and adventure to take Europeans across the Atlantic. Christopher Columbus's (1451–1506) four voyages of discovery are the most famous of these explorations, and their motivations and characteristics were continued and developed throughout the sixteenth century across the South American continent.

When Columbus caught sight of land (which he named San Salvador) in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he believed that he was close to Japan and a valuable westward route to the spice trade of Asia. He subsequently sailed on to Cuba and Hispaniola, naming and recording his brief encounters with native people before hurrying back to Spain to register his discoveries with the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand II (1452–1516) and Isabella (1451–1504). By the time of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) with Portugal, Columbus was already on his second voyage, during which he discovered the destruction of his settlement of Navidad on Hispaniola by native people. Columbus returned to Spain in 1496 to defend himself against the complaints of bitter colonists whose dreams had yet to be realized. Columbus's third voyage (1498–1500) took him to Trinidad and the fresh water delta of the Orinoco River, which he speculated might lead to the Earthly Paradise in a vast new continent (it was Amerigo Vespucci [1454–1512], following in Columbus's wake, who received the credit for formulating this idea). In 1500 Pedro Álvars Cabral (1468–1520) landed on the Brazilian coast near Porto Seguro in Bahia on Portugal's follow-up voyage to Vasco da Gama's (1460–1524) successful sea voyage to the Indian Ocean. On his fourth voyage (1502–1504) Columbus's mystical and religious leanings thrived on his bitterness at ill-treatment by his colonists. He traced the coastline of Central America from Honduras down to Panama, on the way being captured by native people. He escaped. By now Columbus was more interested in millenarian prophecies of using New World gold to finance a crusade on Jerusalem than in augmenting his own personal fortune.

After Columbus's death in 1506, exploration of the circum-Caribbean was fuelled by two factors: the desire to capture more Indian labor to replace those native people who died of disease or abuse, and the adventurous instincts of Spanish men hoping to make their fortunes in the New World. Puerto Rico was conquered in 1508, Jamaica in 1509, and Cuba in 1511. Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521) discovered Florida in 1513. These islands provided the basis for further explorations. In 1513 an expedition was sent out from Spain under Pedrarias Dávila (1440–1531) to conquer the Isthmus of Panama. A survivor of an earlier slave-raiding expedition in 1509, Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519), crossed the isthmus first and claimed the waters of the Pacific Ocean for the Catholic monarchs in September 1513. Dávila quarrelled with Balboa and had him executed.

Once begun, discovery and conquest developed their own momentum. Hernán Cortés (1484–1547) came to epitomize the bold fortune hunter. Diego Velázquez (1465–1524), governor of Cuba, sent out two expeditions to explore the coast of Mexico in 1517–1518. In 1519 Cortés took advantage of the findings of these expeditions by launching the conquest of what he came to label New Spain, without authorization from Velázquez. During the next three years Cortés dedicated himself to the conquest of the empire ruled by Montezuma II (1466–1520) from the great city of Tenochtitlán. Cortés exploited, and was himself used by, pre-existing conflicts between native people. He launched major military campaigns against those who opposed him. At the same time he wrote Cartas de relación to Charles V (1500–1558) back in Europe, appealing over the heads of colonial officials for recognition of his extralegal conquests. Cortés's example further heightened the momentum of adventure, ambition, and exploration. Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541), who had served under Cortés, spent ten years in the conquest of Guatemala and El Salvador before reaching expeditions sent up from Panama by Dávila. Francisco de Montejo (1479–1553) attempted the conquest of the Yucatán in 1527, which was resisted by the Maya until their rebellion was violently suppressed in 1542.

Panama was the base for exploration of the Pacific and, eventually, the discovery and conquest of Peru. Francisco Pizarro (1475–1541) and Diego de Almagro (1475–1538) obtained permission to this end from Dávila in 1524. Returning after repeated difficulties, Pizarro was convinced that he could found a personal empire on the wealth of the rumored kingdom of the South. In 1530 he set out from Panama with about 180 men. Using Cortés's dealings with Montezuma as a model, in 1532 Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa (1502–1533) and exploited the subsequent stumblings of the Inca empire to manipulate local factions and grievances. Atahualpa was executed in 1533.

Pizarro entrusted the exploration of the northern provinces of Quito to Sebastián de Benalcázar (1495–1551). He had to compete with a rival expedition under Pedro de Alvarado (1485–1541) who arrived from Guatemala. During the 1530s Benalcázar progressed north into the Cauca Valley. Near the capital of the Chibcha, Bogotá, he encountered two expeditions that had traveled down from the Caribbean coast, led respectively by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1495–1579) and Nikolaus Federmann (1505–1542). The groups avoided armed confrontation, and their combined findings encouraged belief in the existence of a city of gold, El Dorado, which would itself act as the spur to further explorations of New Granada and Venezuela. The consolidation of European rule in Peru foundered on rival claims to wealth and political influence. Further south, Pizarro's attempt to build a personal empire for his family and descendents was resisted by rebellions led by the Inca heir Manco Inca Yupanqui (1516–1545) during 1536–1539, and by his own bitter subordinates. Civil war between the followers of Almagro and Pizarro in 1537 and 1538 ended with Almagro's execution and a subsequent chain of bloodletting that encompassed Francisco Pizarro who was killed in 1541. In the same year his brother, Gonzalo (1502–1548), led an expedition from Quito, the consequence of which was Francisco de Orellana's (1490–1546) discovery and navigation of the river he named the Amazon because of the female warriors who attacked him during the exploration.

In addition to the Amazon, the New World provided a new lease of life for medieval legends including golden cities, fountains of youth, paradise on earth and, of course, great wealth. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490–1560) survived an 1528 expedition to Florida and journeyed overland until he reached Mexico City in 1536. His stories inspired other adventurers to explore new lands; Cabeza de Vaca himself later journeyed through the Brazilian interior to Paraguay, where he was briefly governor of Asunción (1542). In 1540 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (1510–1554) explored New Mexico and Arizona in search of the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola, traversing through Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Another of Pizarro's men, Hernando de Soto (1500–1542), sought his fortune in 1541 on an expedition through Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, leading to the discovery of the Mississippi River. Francisco Pizarro's advances led to many subsequent expeditions using Peru as a base. Pedro de Valdivia (1498–1553) left Cuzco in 1540 and after crossing the Andes and the Atacama Desert, founded Santiago de Chile in 1541. Valdivia was killed in battle with the Araucanians in 1553.

On the Atlantic coast, Portugal was distracted by its efforts on the route to India during the first half of the sixteenth century, but it began to explore and settle in Brazil to ward off potential French competition during mid-century, triggered by the exploratory voyages of the French Breton sailor Jacques Cartier (1491–1557). The Jesuit order was fundamental in collaborating with royal government to establish a strong central government in Brazil. The lack of immediate financial returns was a further reason delaying settlement and conquest on the Atlantic seaboard. Further south, the River Plate estuary was explored by Spanish adventurers in the hope that it might provide Columbus's long-hoped-for passage to Asia. Juan Díaz de Solis (1470–1516) explored in 1516 and Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) four years later. Unsuccessful, Magellan travelled south in search of such a passage and in November 1520 discovered the straits that led him into the Pacific.

South American discoveries
1492–1493First Voyage of Columbus: Caribbean
1493–1496Second Voyage: Puerto Rico and Jamaica
1498–1500Third Voyage of Cabot: South America
1499–1500Ojeda and Vespucci: South America
1500Cabral Claimed Brazil for Portugal
1502–1504Fourth Voyage of Cabot: Central America
1513Balboa Crossed Panama and Saw the Pacific
1517Hernández de Córdova: Yucatan
1519–1522Magellan Voyage Circumnavigated the Globe
1524–1528Pizarro: The Coast of Peru
1526–1532Sebastian Cabot: Rio de la Plata

While desire for gold and silver was important, explorations were also orientated by dreams of power and social advancement, shaped by encounters with indigenous people, and developed their own momentum through the influence of charismatic figures such as Columbus, Cortés, and Pizarro, whose efforts were recorded and relayed throughout the new colonial world. But if exploration had only been motivated by plunder it would not have happened at all. While Columbus may have been a self-styled discoverer, the likes of Cortés and Pizarro looked beyond the short-term in the hope of establishing permanent settlements from which they and their families could extract permanent honor, influence, and wealth. The spread of religion was also an important factor in the configuration of exploration. In difficult moments Columbus and Cortés revealed their millenarian and crusading inspirations. Chivalric tradition is particularly evident in conquistador writings, and the desire to bring Christianity to the heathen must not be discounted from the encounter between Old and New Worlds, no matter how much it was besmirched by the often grubby and violent nature of physical conquest. Myths and legends suffused the exploration of South America by Europeans. Whether there were claims that indigenous people welcomed them as returning gods or dreams of noble savages and cities of gold, exploration was closely linked to colonization, settlement, and conversion. Indeed adventure, exploration, and quests for honor through travel remained important themes through subsequent centuries. Exploration led inextricably to empire.

see also European Explorations in North America.


Boxer, Charles. Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415–1825. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Fernández-Armesto, F. Columbus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Hemming, John. The Search for El Dorado. London: Joseph, 1978.

Pagden, A., ed. Hernán Cortés Letters from Mexico. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Parry, J.H. The Age of Reconnaissance 1450–1650. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Sauer, Carl. The Early Spanish Main. Berkeley: University of California Press; London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Varon Gabai, R. Francisco Pizarro and His Brothers: Illusion of Power in Sixteenth-Century Peru. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

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European Explorations in South America

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European Explorations in South America