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Guys Who Sailed the Ocean Blue

From the beginning, the Portuguese took the lead in overseas adventures. They were the first to work their way down the western coast of Africa, and they were determined to be the first to find a sea route to Asia, but they had no intention of heading west to get there.

Would You Believe?

Dias named the southern tip of Africa the “Cape of Storms" only to have it renamed the “Cape of Good Hope" by the King of Portugal.

Dating back to the days of Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese pushed farther and farther down the African coast. In 1487, a sailor named Bartholomew Dias (c.1450-1500) followed the same course as other Portuguese sailors before him along Africa’s west coast. Dias encountered difficult winds and currents so he turned his ships west and went with the flow. Dias took his ships so far west he easily could have gone on to what is now South America, but he was determined to travel around Africa. Dias caught a ride on the westerlies and rode them past the southern tip of Africa. Once around Africa, Dias turned north. He had done it; he had sailed around the southern tip of Africa.

Dias paved the way for other Portuguese to make their way to Asia, including Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama (c.1460-1524) used the knowledge gained by Dias to make his way southward from Portugal, around the Cape of Good Hope and ultimately all the way to India. Da Gama’s voyage brought a fortune back to Portugal, but it was the establishment of a route to India that made it a great success. The Portuguese remained a force to be reckoned with in the Indian Ocean for centuries, going on to establish many trading posts along the route to India. Trading in spices like cinnamon, peppers, and ginger, along with dyes and textiles, the Portuguese made quite a living in the Asian markets.

Because the Portuguese got in on the ground floor of the overseas business, the pope issued a statement in 1481 granting Portugal all land south of the Canary Islands and west of Africa. Of course, the pope had no knowledge of what actually lay west of Africa. After all, the Americas technically fall into the category of “west of Africa.”

As a Matter of Fact

Vasco da Gama played a vital role in establishing the Portuguese as one of the premier powers in trade during the sixteenth century. Da Gama's first voyage impressed upon the Portuguese crown the importance of establishing trade routes and building trade ports in the East. Vasco da Gama is so highly regarded and esteemed in Portugal that he is the subject of the most important piece of Portuguese literature, Os Lusiadas, an epic similar to Virgil's Aeneid.

The early voyages of the Portuguese were not intended to be so-called voyages of discovery, though. As Spain got the bug for exploration, Spain appealed the papal decision and ultimately ended up with a compromise called the Treaty of Tordesillas. The 1494 treaty drew a vertical line of demarcation through what is now South America. Spain got rights to everything west of the line while Portugal received rights to all land east of the line. For Spain the treaty was rather timely, because Spain had launched the first expedition of Spanish explorers just two years before the Treaty of Tordesillas was finalized.

Columbus-Hero or Hack?

Originally from Genoa, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) remains the poster boy for European exploration and expansion 500 years after his death. Undoubtedly, Columbus possessed tremendous naval skills and a passion for sailing. He began his career working for Castile (part of Spain) and for Portugal before his life changed forever in 1492.

Based on his study of both contemporary and classical texts, Columbus became convinced of the theory that Asia could be reached quickly by sailing west from Europe. He took this idea to the king of Portugal, but the king wasn’t interested. At the time, Portugal was interested in trade expeditions, not expeditions that might or might not discover something new. So Columbus presented his case to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. They were interested, but only enough to grant Columbus a measly three ships, 90 men, and a handful of supplies. Truly, the king and queen of Spain kept their enthusiasm in check and their expectations low.

Continental Quotes

"And the sea will grant each man new hope ...."

—Christopher Columbus

Columbus set sail with great anticipation in August of 1492. In October, Columbus finally sailed into what are now the Bahamas, then Cuba, and finally the island of Hispaniola, or what is today the Dominican Republic.

Would You Believe?

Columbus's initial expedition included three ships. The Nina and the Pinta were caravels. The Santa Maria was a slow, fat-hulled ship called a nao, which simply means “ship" in old Spanish.

Unfortunately for Columbus, he believed he had landed in a group of islands not far from Japan, a group of islands known as the Indies.

Believing such, Columbus named the inhabitants “Indians,” a name that in many ways has endured to this day.

Down to only one ship because one of his ships sank and one of Columbus’s captains took the other, Columbus decided to leave 40 of his men on Hispaniola until he could return. Columbus eventually met up with his rogue captain and the two made their way back to Spain where Columbus was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Columbus was granted a title and a government position in the newly found land; he also was to receive a share of the land’s wealth. Columbus returned to the islands three additional times over the next 10 years. During his later visits, Columbus made excursions to the coast of modern-day Central America.

Ferdinand and Isabella must have been excited about the reports Columbus gave them. He told them about the peaceful people he found in the islands, people who were open to prayers and the sign of the Cross and who could be converted. He told of a variety of crops produced on the island. He explained that he surely would have discovered more valuables had his ships been at his disposal the entire time, valuables that his men back in the islands probably had discovered already. Ferdinand and Isabella believed him and gave him command of 17 ships and 1,500 men.

Columbus returned to find that the men he left behind had found no great treasures. Worse, many of the men had managed to fall victim either to each other or to the natives. Apparently, some of his men went on a wild search for gold and left many natives in their wake. The Spaniards who returned to the islands with Columbus settled in and established a cruel pattern of behavior not unlike the original Spanish settlers left behind by Columbus. They forced the natives to work the land and rewarded them with brutal treatment; Columbus had virtually no power to stop the madness. Columbus never got his settlements under control and he certainly never managed to produce the fortunes he believed he would find. Columbus’s administration and his treasure hunt were a flop, his geography was more than a little inaccurate, and his treatment of the natives, whether directly or indirectly, was nothing less than exploitation. Once his biggest supporters, Ferdinand and Isabella took away nearly all they had given Columbus and refused to sponsor any further expeditions.

Would You Believe?

A geographer from Florence named Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512), who happened to be on a Spanish ship exploring the coast of modern-day Brazil, determined in 1501 that in fact Columbus landed nowhere near Asia but rather he had stumbled upon a continent that no one in Europe knew existed, a “New World" so to speak. The continent later was named “America" in honor of Vespucci.

The Conquistadors

Some of the most important expeditions ever launched by Spain were led not by sailors but by conquistadors. The conquistadors led military forces and conquered land that Spain, or the conquistadors themselves, wanted. Whereas Columbus claimed land and established Spanish presence through administrative means, the conquistadors established Spanish presence through the use of force. The conquistadors claimed, and then took, more land for Spain than any other Spanish explorers. The two most successful of all the conquistadors were Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro.

Define Your Terms

Conquistador is Spanish for “conqueror," and refers primarily to the Spaniards who conquered territory in the New World.

In the years following the Spanish settlement of Hispaniola and Cuba, the Spanish population grew rapidly. Settlers poured into the area faster than it could support the population. Spanish administrators turned their attention toward the mainland whose coast had been only minimally explored. Natives of the New World with whom the Spaniards had contact told of a civilization on the mainland that interested Spain.

The Spanish Governor of Cuba, Velasquez, chose an ambitious young Spaniard named Hernan Cortes to lead an expeditionary force inland to seek out the civilization. Velasquez later changed his mind about Cortes, but it was too late. Cortes stayed a step ahead of Velasquez and took off for Mexico with around 500 men. Upon his arrival in 1619, Cortes met native tribes who were enemies of the mighty Aztec Empire, a civilization ruled by the rich and powerful Montezuma. The tribes weren’t too interested in converting to Christianity but they sure were excited about fighting with the Spaniards against the Aztecs.

Cortes and his men made their way to the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, and met the ruler, Montezuma. Montezuma and the Aztecs believed Cortes and his men to be ancient gods returning to the Aztecs, so Montezuma welcomed Cortes and showered him with gilts. Over the next two years, Cortes thanked Montezuma by destroying the entire Aztec civilization, razing many of their cities including their capital, and stealing unimaginable wealth. Cortes managed such a feat with only about five hundred of his own men, less than two dozen horses, a few pieces of artillery, some native allies, and a secret biological weapon: smallpox. The immune systems of the natives of the New World had no defense against the diseases brought from Europe. Columbus and his expeditions took disease to the Bahamas, too, but the destruction paled in comparison to that in Mexico.

Would You Believe?

Upon landing on the Mexican coast, many of Cortes's men feared what lay inland. To strengthen his troops' resolve and to prevent his troops from having any thought of retreat, Cortes emptied his ships' supplies and burned his ships.

Francisco Pizarro (1470-1541) followed a pattern similar to that of Cortes. He had spent time in Panama City and other places, but had not discovered the gold and glory he so badly wanted. Pizarro headed to South America in search of the Inca Empire, a civilization rumored to be vast and wealthy. Pizarro arrived in Peru to discover a land taken with smallpox and desperate to overthrow the Inca. Pizarro allied with natives, much like Cortes had done, and used the natives to overthrow the mighty Inca Empire. Pizarro took huge amounts of gold and silver and established a capital at Lima on Peru’s coast. The silver trade from the former Inca lands eventually would become a major part of the economy of Spain.

Would You Believe?

While the conquistadors possessed artillery and some guns, they used these modern weapons more to scare and to awe the natives than to kill them.

While Cortes and Pizarro were by far the two most successful conquistadors, the term became synonymous with explorers who used the armed forces to conquer land for Spain. After all, conquering land was as legitimate a way to acquire new land as through diplomacy. The conquistadors were successful for a number of reasons. They used natives to help with battle and they had the benefit of iron weapons and armor. The conquistadors also played by different rules than the natives they conquered. The Aztec and Inca used battles to take captives who would be sacrificed later; the Spaniards used battles to kill as many people as possible. The greatest advantage the conquistadors had, though, was the unwitting use of biological warfare. European diseases killed millions upon millions of natives in North, Central, and South America.

More Who Explored

In the decades following Columbus, literally dozens and dozens of explorers made their way across the Atlantic to the shores of the Americas. Others attempted more dangerous and exciting endeavors. Some found great wealth and fame while others met an early demise.

One of the most dramatic voyages was made by Ferdinand Magellan (c.1480-1521) and his crew. The Spaniard set sail for South America in 1519 and then sailed along the South American coast until he reached the southern tip. He carefully navigated the straits at the southernmost tip of the continent, now known as the Strait of Magellan, and made his way into the Pacific Ocean, which had been discovered by fellow Spaniard Vasco de Balboa (1475-1519) in 1513. Four months later, after a harrowing journey with practically no food, the expedition landed in the Philippines. Though natives there killed Magellan, two ships left the Philippines, sailed westward, and headed for the Spice Islands. Finally, in 1522, 15 of Magellan’s original 260 men returned to Spain, having circumnavigated, or sailed around, the globe.

Would You Believe?

Ironically, after de Soto discovered the Mississippi River, he died of a fever and his men buried him in the river he discovered.

The Spaniards were all over the place during the age of exploration. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon (c.1460-1521) explored what is now Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. Hernando de Soto (c.1500-1542) explored more of southeastern North America 30 years later and discovered the Mississippi River. About the same time, Francisco Coronado (1510-1554) scoured southwestern North America in search of gold.

The French and English, not to be outdone by their Spanish-speaking rivals, sent their share of explorers into the great unknown, too, although they did enter the game a little later than everyone else. In the 1530s, Frenchman Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) explored the St. Lawrence River in North America. In the early 1600s, Samuel Champlain (1567-1635) continued the exploration of the eastern coast of North America. Late in the 1600s, Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) and Louis Joliet (1645-1700) made their way along the northern part of the Mississippi River. Ten years later, Rene-Robert-Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687) explored the mouth of the Mississippi River and claimed it for France. Near the end of the fifteenth century, the Italian-born explorer for the English John Cabot (c.1455-1499) explored Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Labrador.

Would You Believe?

La Salle met a most unfortunate death when his men, bent on mutiny, assassinated him in the middle of the Texas wilderness, where they left his body for the wild animals to devour.

In the 1570s, Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) became the first Englishman to sail around the world. Then in the first decade of the next century, Henry Hudson (1565-1611) explored the Hudson Bay and Hudson River.

For the Portuguese, Spanish, English, and French, exploration led to expansion through colonization, or the founding of colonies.

Define Your Terms

These colonies were created to generate revenue for the mother country, as sources of new natural resources, and as new markets.

colony is a settlement established in a distant land by a country for trade purposes.

Some of the colonies begun during this era disappeared or broke away early on, while others remained under control of the founding country even into the twentieth century.

Going Dutch

While the other European powers were busy spending energy and money on exploration and colonization, the Dutch developed a unique business plan of their own. Because the Netherlands covered only a small geographic area and lacked the large populations of other European nations, the Dutch didn’t have the resources to explore or colonize the world; their stint in colonizing the New World didn’t last long.

Would You Believe?

The Dutch were such savvy businessmen that they managed to buy the entire island of Manhattan from the Native Americans for about $24 in beads and trinkets.

Rather, the Dutch concentrated on trade. Through a combination of fishing and shipbuilding, the Dutch generated huge revenues. As the shipbuilding industry grew, the Dutch carried trade goods for other nations throughout the Baltic and North Sea regions and then throughout the world. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dutch enjoyed amazing prosperity. As they branched out, the Dutch imported raw materials from other trade powers and redistributed the goods as finished and refined products. The prosperity attracted jewelers, financiers, and others from across Europe. For a while, Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, served as the financial capital of Europe.

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