Voyages of Exploration: Spain

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Voyages of Exploration: Spain




Trends. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus lived during the convergence of several long-term trends that contributed to maritime exploration: the crusading spirit of Medieval Christians; the quest for contact with Asia; the Renaissance pursuit of knowledge and glory; innovations in the construction of ships; and cartographers’ search for better methods of mapping. Since the twelfth century, Europeans had sought new routes to the Far East. Columbus's voyages combined that quest with a militant Christian mentality that had been launched centuries earlier in the crusades. He lived in an age of Renaissance developments in printing, literacy, engineering, and shipbuilding that vastly changed the mental horizon. Printing provided Columbus with access to a broad array of notions about the earth's size and shape. Moreover, technological advances in ship construction and riggings allowed the Portuguese to explore the coast of Africa.

Western Route. The Portuguese voyages forced cartographers to gradually reconsider how they mapped Africa and the world. Fifteenth-century world maps tended to follow the Ptolemaic conception of the world as three large land masses surrounded by smaller bodies of water. Columbus was one of many fifteenth-century navigators and geographers who believed that the Atlantic Ocean was actually a fairly narrow body of water. The idea derived from a thirteenth-century Franciscan named Roger Bacon and gained impetus in the early fifteenth century, when Pierre d'Ailly revived the study of Ptolemy. Columbus and Nuremberg geographer Martin Behaim applied Marco Polo's land distances to Ptolemy's erroneous estimate of the earth's size. In 1474 the Florentine geographer Paolo Toscanelli dal Pozzo had written to the king of Portugal that one could sail roughly five thousand miles west from Portugal to China with stops at islands along the way. Toscanelli's theories were well known on the Iberian Peninsula in the decade before Columbus sailed. Columbus believed that he could sail west from the Canary Islands and would reach Japan after only 2,400 nautical miles (the actual distance is 10,600 nautical miles). He presented the idea of a western passage to Asia, his so-called Enterprise of the Indies, to King John II of Portugal in the early 1480s. John II refused to support Columbus's proposal but shortly thereafter supported at least two other westward expeditions in search of new islands.

Spanish Support. Columbus moved to Spain in 1485. Spain may have been a better candidate for patronage because Columbus planned to turn west at the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands. Two 1479 treaties between Portugal and Castile had essentially barred Spanish mariners from African trade beyond the Canary Islands. Moreover, Portugal was also pursuing a possible sea route to Asia around the southern tip of Africa at that time. Columbus made a proposal that the Spanish royal family compensate for Portugal's control of western Africa by supporting his project to open a new trade route to Asia. The proposal also revealed religious motives that were consistent with the Spanish Inquisition (in 1492, the recently unified Spaniards defeated the Muslims at Granada and expelled them from Spain). After several rejections, Castile finally agreed to fund Columbus and grant him significant benefits for any land he might claim for the Spanish crown. He was given a nao, or cargo ship, called the Santa Maria and two smaller caravels called the Pinta and Niña (the Niña was actually named the Santa Clara but was referred to as the Niña because its owner was Juan Nino). The owners of all three ships joined the expedition, but Columbus had problems finding a crew until a local shipowner named Martin Alonso Pinzón and his younger brother Vincente Yáñez Pinzón agreed to captain the Pinta and Niña.

Discovery. On 12 October 1492 Columbus landed on present-day San Salvador in the Caribbean Sea and thereby became the first European to voyage to the Americas with a written record of the voyage. He named the people he encountered Indians because he believed he was near India. He soon realized that Asian traders were not in the vicinity and that the available luxury items were limited. Columbus searched further until he reached Cuba, which he mistakenly believed was part of the mainland. He did not find gold in Cuba, but he did note in his diary the abundance of pine trees that were both suitable for shipbuilding and the sites with sufficient water power to run sawmills. Historians have found in those comments the origins of a shift from the Portuguese trading-post model of exploration to the Spanish and English model of settlement and colonization. Columbus may not have given up his dream of finding gold, but he did shift the focus of his diary to descriptions of fertile lands and industrious people. When the Santa Maria, the larger nao, ran aground and broke apart, Columbus was forced to abandon his flag-ship and any hope of bringing a sizeable cargo of treasures back to Europe. Thirty-nine men remained in a fort constructed from the wrecked ship. Columbus turned the shipwreck into a sign from God that he should found a settlement.

Indians. In a letter written six months after landing in the Caribbean, Columbus also used the shipwreck to rationalize the paucity of goods. In the letter he attempted to convince a broad audience that better provisions should be supplied for a future trip. He also suggested that settlement and colonization were the best way to profit from the Indies. Columbus even outlined how the Indians might be converted to Christianity. To facilitate these conversions, Columbus had found it imperative to prevent the other Europeans from cheating the Indians with unfair trades. He thereby rationalized his efforts to monopolize all trade with the Indians. These restrictions may have motivated Martin Pinzon to take the Pinta and leave the other two ships one month before the shipwreck of the Santa Maria. Two days after Columbus had left thirty-nine men behind, and forty-six days after the Pinta had sailed away from the other ships, the Pinta chanced to encounter the Niña. The two captains reconciled and the two ships sailed together again. Shortly thereafter, the Europeans faced their only significant military encounter with the Indians. Columbus then decided to return to Spain.


With financial support from Queen Isabella of Castile, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 in search of a new sea route to China. Trade had been disrupted due to Muslim conquests along the traditional Mediterranean route, and Columbus was searching for an alternate route. The following letter was written six months after Columbus landed in the Caribbean. It was intended for a wide audience and was one of the most widely printed documents from the voyages of discovery.

Knowing that it will afford you pleasure to learn that I have brought my undertaking to a successful termination, I have decided upon writing you this letter to acquaint you with all the events which have occurred in my voyage, and the discoveries which have resulted from it. Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian Sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance m the name of our most illustrious monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Saviour (San Salvador) relying upon whose protection I had reached this as well as the other islands; to each of these I also gave a name. . . .

Thus they bartered like idiots, cotton and gold for fragments of bows, glasses, bottles, and jars; which I forbade as being unjust, and myself gave them many beautiful and acceptable articles which I had brought with me, taking nothing from them in return; I did this in order that I might the more easily conciliate them, that they might be led to become Christians, and be inclined to entertain a regard for the King and Queen, our Princes and all Spaniards, and that I might induce them to take an interest in seeking out, and collecting, and delivering to use such things as they possessed in abundance, but which we greatly needed . . . .

In all these islands there is no difference of physiognomy, of manners, or of language, but they all clearly understand each other, a circumstance very propitious for the realization of what I conceive to be the principal wish of our most serene King, namely, the conversion of these people to the holy faith of Christ....

Finally, to compress into a few words the entire summary of my voyage and speedy return, and of the advantages derivable therefore, I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton, and of mastic (which is only found in Chios), and as many when for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require. I promise also rhubarb and other sorts of drugs, which I am persuaded the men whom I have left in the aforesaid fortress have found already and will continue to find; for I myself have tarried no where longer than I was compelled to do by the winds, except in the city of Navidad, while I provided for the building of the fortress, and took the necessary precautions for the perfect security of the men I left there. Although all I have related may appear to be wonderful and unheard of, yet the results of my voyage would have been more astonishing if I had had at my disposal such ships as I required.

But these great and marvelous results are not to be attributed to any merit of mine, but to the holy Christian faith, and to the piety and religion of our Sovereigns; for that which the unaided intellect of man could not compass, the spirit of God has granted to human exertions, for God is wont to hear the prayers of his servants who love his precepts even to the performance of apparent impossibilities.

Source: Christopher Columbus, Letters, translated and edited by R. H. Major (London: Hakluyt Society, 1847), pp. 1-17.

Second Voyage. Columbus wrote Luis de Santángel a letter that was meant for wide circulation. The letter does not correspond with his diary, apparently because he wanted to create an image of the Indies that would encourage further support. Columbus was made “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and “Viceroy and Governor” of the new lands. He was instructed to select the best caravels and crews for a return voyage that would establish a royal monopoly over trade in the area. Rather than create a Portuguese-style trading post, Columbus was to begin a process of settlement and colonization. He set sail in September 1493 with seventeen vessels, including three heavily loaded naos. Upon returning to the Caribbean, he faced heated combat with the natives. He also learned that the thirty-nine Europeans who had stayed in the Caribbean on the first voyage were all dead. Columbus's propaganda backfired during the second voyage, and he had to face the reality that he was unable to accumulate spectacular amounts of gold and silver in a short period of time. The second voyage did provide some slaves for Spain but few riches. From a financial perspective, the voyage was a disaster because the rewards did not cover


The following account describes from the native's perspective the brutal Spanish destruction of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1519.

The greatest evil that one can do to another is to take his life when [the victim] is in mortal sin. This is what the Spaniards did to the Mexican Indians because they provoked them by being faithless in honoring their idols, [The Spaniards], catching [the Indians] enclosed [in the courtyard] for the feast [of Huitzilopochtli], killed them, the greater part of whom were unarmed, without their knowing why.

When the great courtyard of the idol, Huitolopochtli, god of the Mexicans, was full of nobles, priests, and soldiers, and throngs of other people, intent upon the idolatrous songs to that idol, whom they were honoring, the Spaniards suddenly poured forth ready for combat and blocked the exits of the courtyard so that none could escape, Then they entered with their weapons and ranged themselves all along the inner walls of the court-yard. The Indians thought that they were just admiring the style of their dancing and playing and singing, and so continued with their celebration and songs.

At this moment, the first Spaniards to start fighting suddenly attacked those who were playing the music for the singers and dancers. They chopped off their hands and their heads so that they fell down dead. Then all the other Spaniards began to cut off heads, arms, and legs, and to disembowel the Indians. Some had their heads cut off, others were cut in half, and others had their bellies slit open, immediately to fall dead. Others dragged their entrails along until they collapsed. Those who reached the exits were slain by the Spaniards guarding them; and others jumped over the walls of the court-yard; while yet others climbed up the temple; and stiE others, seeing no escape, threw themselves down among the slaughtered and escaped by feigning death.

So great was the bloodshed that rivers of blood ran through the courtyard like water in a heavy rain. So great was the slime of blood and entrails in the courtyard and so great was the stench that it was both terrifying and heartrending. Now that nearly aE were faEen and dead, the Spaniards went searching for those who had climbed up the temple and those who had hidden among the dead, killing aE those they found alive.

Source: “The Destruction of Tervochtitlan,” in Bernardino de Sahaguti, The Conquest of New Spain, translated by Howard F, Cltne (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989), pp, 76-78.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes provides the Spanish perspective of the destruction of Tenochtitlán in an excerpt from one of his letters, written on 12 August 1521.

On leaving my camp, I had commanded Gonzalo de Sandoval to sail the brigantines [ships] in between the houses in the other quarter in which the Indians were resisting, so that we should have them surrounded, but not to attack until he saw that we were engaged. In this way they would be surrounded and so hard pressed that they would have no place to move save over the bodies of their dead or along the roof tops. They no longer had nor could find any arrows, javelins, or stones with which to attack up; and our allies fighting with us were armed with swords and bucklers, and slaughtered so many of them on land and in the water that more than forty thousand were killed or taken that day, So loud was the wailing of the women and children that there was no one man among us whose heart did not bleed at the sound; and indeed we had more trouble in preventing our allies from killing with such cruelty than we had infighting the enemy. For no race, however savage, has ever practiced such fierce and unnatural cruelty as the natives of these parts. Our allies also took many spoils that day, which we were unable to prevent, as they numbered more than 150,000 and we Spaniards were only some nine hundred. Neither our precautions nor our warnings could stop their looting, though we did all we could. One of the reasons why I had avoided entering the city in force during the past days was the fear that if we attempted to storm them they would throw all they possessed into the water, and, even if they did not, our allies would take all they could find. For this reason I was much afraid that your Majesty would receive only a small part of the great wealth this city once had, in comparison with all that I once held for your highness. Because it was now late, and we could no longer endure the stench of the dead bodies that had lain in those streets for many days, which was the most loathsome thing in the world, we returned to our camps.

Source: “We Could No Longer Endure the Stench of Dead Bodies,” from Hernindo Cortes, Letters from Mexico, translated and edited by Anthony Pagden (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 261-262.

the great cost of the initial fleet and of relief ships that had been sent. In 1496 Columbus returned from his second voyage to a royal family that was no longer interested in elaborately funding colonization.

Third and Fourth Voyages. Columbus eventually persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to fund eight ships on a voyage that was to create a self-sustaining colony. Authorization was given to bring three hundred men and thirty women as new colonists, but only two hundred and twenty-six could be found. Columbus returned to the Caribbean in the summer of 1498 to find chaos that was beyond his control. In October 1500, Columbus and his two brothers were arrested and sent home in chains. The king and queen received Columbus well upon his return but they refused to let him serve again as viceroy and governor. On a fourth and final voyage in 1502, Columbus and his entire crew were shipwrecked. After being rescued, Columbus returned to Spain in late 1504 and died two years later, still convinced that he had sailed west to islands off the eastern coast of Asia.

The Americas. Spain clearly agreed with Columbus's assessment that he had found a new sea route to Asia because the government created a Council of the Indies. Another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci of Florence, made a voyage to Venezuela under the Spanish flag in 1499-1500. Vespucci's second voyage (1501-1502), this time under the Portuguese flag, forced geographers to reassess their conception of the world. Vespucci knew that Pedro Cabral had sighted Brazil while leading a Portuguese fleet along a route similar to that of da Gama's famous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. Vespucci used this information to chart the Brazilian coast along a south-southwest route that he believed crossed the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas's line dividing Spanish and Portuguese areas. Vespucci correctly surmised that South America was a new world distinct from Asia. His first name, Amerigo, became the basis for cartographers adapting the name America. Vasco Nunez de Balboa's crossing of Panama in 1513 simply supported Vespucci's claims of a new land mass.

Revised Perceptions. Geographers were unable to calculate the circumference of the earth until Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese mariner sailing under the Spanish flag, circumnavigated the globe. Magellan died in the Philippines in 1521 but his Basque assistant, Juan Sebastian del Cano, completed the three-year journey in a ship appropriately named Victoria. Magellan correctly planned to sail past the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas and on westward to the Spice Islands. Although Portuguese by birth, he sailed with the Spanish because they stood to benefit from his prediction that the Pacific was sufficiently narrow to warrant a western route to Asia. Columbus miscalculated the width of the Atlantic Ocean and Magellan miscalculated the width of the Pacific Ocean, but their voyages forced cartographers to make drastic revisions in how the world was depicted.

Conquering the New Land. Conquest of the New World tended to follow the model of colonization that Columbus had started, as opposed to the Portuguese model of fortified trading posts. Contact and colonization had a profound influence on the indigenous populations and on the Europeans. Devastating diseases swept the New World, whereas only one main disease from the Americas, syphilis, spread across Europe. Diets on both sides of the Atlantic changed as corn, potatoes, and various fruits made their way to Europe, while European pigs spread throughout the New World. Coffee and sugar became popular in the New World, and tobacco and cocoa found eager consumers in Europe. The nature of European trade shifted in two key respects: the items that were actually traded shifted from expensive luxury goods traded in small amounts to inexpensive goods traded in large quantities, and the focal point of trade shifted from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

Conquistadores. Europeans did encounter two prosperous empires in the New World: the Aztecs in Central Mexico and the Incas in Peru. Both civilizations were brutally destroyed by opportunistic military leaders known as conquistadores. The actions of Hernan Cortes against the Aztec population and, specifically, the main city of Tenochtitlán in 1519-1520 are well known because of the unusually thorough documentation from surviving eyewitnesses. Bernal Diaz of Castile provided the perspective of a foot soldier in his account of the atrocities. Cortés landed with a force of six hundred soldiers and immediately removed the possibility of desertion by destroying his ships. Cortés conquered the Aztec center of government and used the city as his base. His army slaughtered Aztecs and zealously destroyed native temples. The Aztec population fell from twenty-five million to just two million. Francisco de Pizarro was equally brutal to the Incas in Peru during his 1530-1531 campaign. Cortes and Pizarro conquered populated areas, established Spanish cities, and found productive silver mines. They and other conquistadores had funded their own campaigns in hopes of reaping great rewards. Private military leaders were soon replaced by royal appointees once the Spanish Crown realized that the conquistadores were a potential threat to royal power in the New World.


Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonisation from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492 (Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan Education, 1987).

J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (Cleveland: World, 1963).

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Geoffrey Vaughan Scammell, The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion, c.1400-1715 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).