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The Making of the Armada

The Spanish explorers and conquistadors set in motion a series of events that changed both the Old World and the New World forever. The settlements established in the New World grew into colonies whose sole purpose was to bolster the Spanish economy. Perhaps more than any other nation, Spain benefited from the exchange of goods between the Americas and Europe as well as the influx of precious metals from the Americas. The colonists ravaged the lands surrounding the Spanish colonies in search of gold, crops, and anything of value that could be sent back to Spain. The colonies grew so prosperous that huge ships full of goods made journey after journey back and forth across the Atlantic. It didn’t take long for others to realize what precious cargo was being hauled across the ocean.

The Booming Economy

Initially, the staple of the Atlantic economy, particularly for Spain, was importing precious metals like gold and silver. Ships took so much tonnage of the valuable metals back to Spain that many economists and historians blame the fall of Spain on the inflation caused by injecting so much gold and silver into the Spanish economy. For a while, though, Spain enjoyed a golden age, so to speak, because of the enormous wealth the gold brought with it. After all, gold was the common currency of Europe. Every nation desired gold and would trade anything for it. The nation with an endless supply of gold had the means to build palaces, armies, ships, colonies, roads, or whatever else it wanted or needed. Such was the case with Spain.

At first, the Spanish administrators in the New World, known as encomenderos, were charged with overseeing land, resources, and natives. Many of these encomenderos used the Native Americans to mine precious metals. Likewise, encomenderos who ran plantations of sugar cane and other crops used natives to work the fields. When the majority of the natives succumbed to the dreaded European diseases, black Africans were shipped to the Americas to provide labor. The slaves were strong and able and the economy flourished.

The New World contained many fascinating new crops like maize and potatoes that were sent to Europe to improve the diets of Europeans. Likewise, though, plants and animals were sent from Europe to the New World to help support colonists there. Animals like sheep, goats, cattle, and horses were introduced to the New World from Europe. Fruits and vegetables like apples, peaches, clover, and grains also traveled to the New World from Europe. This exchange of goods between Europe and the New World came to be known as the Columbian Exchange.

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Historians also include among the things traded in the Columbian Exchange the numerous diseases that wiped out so many natives of the New World. Smallpox proved deadly, as did diseases like the plague, chicken-pox, measles, and flu.

The Finest Fleet

As the Spanish economy boomed, others took notice. Both rival nations and pirates drooled over the booty that Spanish treasure ships, or flota, carried across the ocean year after year. Caravels initially did fine, but they could not carry the huge, heavy cargoes produced by the colonies in the New World. Spanish shipbuilders modified the caravels a number of times and finally settled on a large-hulled ship, called a galleon, designed specifically for carrying cargo. As pirates and rival nations intercepted the galleons, Spain added guns to the treasure ships. Some galleons had as many as 30 or more large guns mounted on them. As threats to the precious cargo increased, Spain modified the galleons to hold both soldiers and treasure. These escort ships traveled alongside the regular treasure ships to offer some protection. The threat of hostile ships, though, still had not been thwarted.

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Two of the most famous attacks on Spanish galleons occurred when Sir Francis Drake attacked and captured, on two separate occasions, ships carrying gold, spices, ivory, exotic foods, and more. The combined booty probably totaled nearly 100 million dollars.

The Spanish got wise and adopted a convoy system of large numbers of ships, both treasure galleons and guard ships, making the voyages together. The theory of strength in numbers proved to be watertight. To further protect their precious cargoes, the Spanish built fortified ports in places like Cuba, Mexico, and Panama in which their treasure fleets could safely dock. With the new convoy system and fortified ports, the Spanish fleet lost fewer ships than ever. Even when attacked, ships rarely sank. Attacks from enemy ships usually damaged sails and masts rather than critically damaging the massive hulls. By working to protect its cargoes from ports around the world, the Spanish had created the world’s largest and most powerful fleet, a fleet that Spain believed to be invincible.

The Least You Need to Know

A sense of curiosity about the world around them, along with other motivations, created in Europeans an interest in exploring the lands that existed overseas.

The development of such things as the astrolabe and the caravel enabled Europeans to make long voyages never before possible.

The Portuguese took the lead in overseas travel but their voyages were for trade and not so much for exploration.

Columbus, determined to find a sea route to Asia, sailed west and landed in the Bahamas, a group of islands he believed to be in Asia.

Conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro contributed to the disappearance of indigenous populations in the New World through military endeavors and the introduction of diseases.

The Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English all sponsored voyages of discovery that resulted in the formation of colonies.

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