The Renaissance, the revival of classical art, literature, and learning which took place in Europe in 15th and 16th centuries, sparked imaginations and made people eager to explore. The promise of new riches, such as the spices as silks of the Far East, and the potential discovery of the fabled Northwest Passage were the primary objectives, which fueled the exploration of the New World. The age of exploration was filled with courageous voyagers and conquistadors from all over Europe, much like today. There was much competition for land rights. The main land disputes were between Spain and Portugal.
The Spanish monarchy was stronger than ever before and in a position to support foreign ventures; it could bear the costs and dangers of exploration. But, “Portugal situated on the extreme southwestern edge of the European continent, got the start on the rest of Europe.” (p. 478) They sought greatness in the unknown world oversees.
In the early phases of Portuguese exploration, Prince Henry “the Navigator” (1394-1460) played the leading role. In the fifteenth century, most of the gold that reached Europe came from Sudan by way of Portugal. Portuguese ships transported gold to Lisbon, and by 1500 Portugal controlled the flow of gold to Europe. This had commenced the golden century of Portuguese prosperity.
Christopher Columbus a sea captain from Genoa, Italy, considered one of the greatest explorers of all time. Like every other explorer, Columbus had many reasons for his exploration. However, it is made obvious by studies of the history of Columbus’ explorations that his main motive for exploration was greed. Columbus had the same desires as many explorers both before and after him. He yearned for gold. He wanted land. He wanted power.
The whole purpose for his first voyage to what he thought was India, but turned out to be Central America, was to gain land for Spain. It took quite a bit of sweet-talking from Columbus to get the money and ships needed for this voyage from Spain’s Queen Isabella. But in the end, Columbus had the chance to reach a goal brought on by greed: to gain riches. Queen Isabella had the same motive. She wanted land for Spain, and that is the only reason that she ever gave him the money and ships to make his voyage. Their voyage began on August 3, 1492, from Palos, Spain and ended on October 12 when land was sighted at the Americas. Eventually, Columbus claimed Cuba and Hispanola, which is now more commonly known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian that represented the Medici Bank in Spain, chartered the coastline of Central America and described this as the “Mundus Novus”, meaning “New World”. In 1507, a German cartographer labeled the continent America named after Amerigo Vespucci. He also explored the coastline of Central America.
The Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama reached India and returned to Lisbon loaded with samples of Indian commodities. Ferdinand Magellan, of Portugal, founded the narrow straits at the Southern tip of South America in route to find a discreet route to the Moluccan Islands off the south east coast of Asia. It was later named the “Strait of Magellan”. “Magellan had also proved that the earth was much larger than Columbus had imagined,” (p. 486). He was later killed by Philippine Natives and four of his ships were destroyed. Only one ship made it back to Spain, making it the first voyage around the World in 1522.
In 1519, the year Magellan departed on his worldwide expedition, Hernando Cortez (1485-1547) crossed from Hispanola to mainland Mexico with six hundred men, seventeen horses, and ten cannon. Within three years of arriving on the cost, Cortez had completely conquered the fabulously rich Aztec Empire, and founded Mexico City as the capital of New Spain. During the “exploration” of Mexico, Cortez’s greatest ally against the Aztecs was smallpox.
Between 1531 and 1536, with even fewer resources Francisco Pizarro repeated Cortez’s feat in Peru by crushing the great Incan Empire. In 1545 the Spanish opened at Potosi in the Peruvian high land, what became the richest silver mines in the New World. Between 1525 and 1575, the riches of the Americas poured into the Spanish port of Seville and the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. However, for all their new wealth they did not become important trading centers in Europe.
Eventually, there was strong competition between Spain and Portugal for land and wealth in the Americas. The Pope settled land disputes by declaring a “Line of Demarcation”. It said that everything on the coast of this line was Portuguese and everything west was Spanish. The Portuguese got cheated, because all they were able to claim was a portion of present day Brazil. Spain claimed 95% of the Americas.
Often times, the sixteenth century has been referred to as the “Golden Century” of Spain. The Influence of Spanish armies, Spanish Catholicism, and Spanish wealth was felt all over Europe. This greatness rested mainly from the influx of precious metals from the New World. Between 1503 and 1650, 16 million kilograms of silver and 185,000 kilograms of gold had entered Europe by the port of Seville. Between 1560 and 1600, much of Europe experienced large economic increased.
The colonization resulted in political control of much of South and North America; costal regions of Africa, India, China and Japan; and many of the Pacific islands. This political supremacy was accomplished by economic exploitation, religious domination, and the introduction of European patterns of social and intellectual life. Indeed, the sixteenth-century expansion of European society launched a new age in world history.