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Spanish Exploration

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Spanish Exploration

How did the eccentric sailor Christopher Columbus, rejected by the rest of Europe, help Spain gain one of the largest empires in the world?

After the Conquest of Granada in 1492, Spain decided to set its sights overseas searching for new worlds, riches, and treasures. Their (essentially accidental) stumbling across the Americas was more than they could ever have imagined and quickly Spain acquired one of the biggest empires in the world.

Reasons for Spanish Exploration

Exploration was costly, uncertain and gruelling work. So why did Spain only start to significantly fund its exploratory missions after Granada?

ReasonExplanation
Rivalries with Portugal

In the 1400s, Portugal’s expeditions led to the creation of an empire that spread across the western coast of Africa to the Congo and along the western coast of India.

These colonies allowed Portugal unequalled control of nautical trade routes due to their strategic placement on the coast. Spain wanted to gain a commercial advantage over Portugal.

The Conquest of Granada

The Christians in Spain had been engaged in hundreds of years of warfare, attempting to reconquest lands from the Moors. Once Granada had been defeated in 1492, Spain was a far more unified country with a strong military and the ability to invest in overseas exploration.

The religious fervour that had accompanied the Reconquista continued throughout Spanish exploration. Conquistadors felt that they were ‘saving’ the natives by converting them to Catholicism.

Catholicism

The monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Atlantic exploration in the hope of spreading Catholicism. The conquistadors promised Indigenous people salvation and eternal life if they converted to Christianity and built churches in the middle of towns.

Money and power

Exploration also offered the chance of riches, monopoly over trade routes, and an expansion of power. Ferdinand and Isabella had intentions of expanding Spanish power and acquiring more wealth for the Crown’s coffers.

Spanish Exploration Summary

Spanish exploration involved conquistadors sailing across the ocean in search of new lands. When they found them, they would colonise them, conquer and enslave the Indigenous communities, and exploit the land for precious materials and goods.

Naturally, Spanish exploration benefitted Spain. It was seen by many as heroic for spreading Catholicism, changing the perception of the world, and bringing wealth back to the country. However, it can also be seen in a very different light. The conquistadors brought brutality, forced conversion, and diseases to the New World, and took its wealth back with them. Spanish exploration had long-lasting consequences, which are still evident today.

Conquistadors were the leading individuals on missions to discover new land and resources. As a conquistador was intent on bringing back wealth and resources to Spain, they often used brutal measures to exploit the newly colonised lands. The name "conquistador" literally means "one that conquers".

Colonisation was an imperial tactic used by conquistadors during the era of Spanish exploration to guarantee the exploitation of a newly discovered land. Using force, the colonisers would establish control over Indigenous people and use them to get the most wealth out of their land to be transported back to Spain.

Early exploration

In the early 1400s, Castile embarked on a mission to create an overseas empire, inspired by the Portuguese exploration into non-European territories. In 1402, Castile began colonising the Canary Islands off the West African Coast but was distracted by the Reconquista and other internal politics. Only after the conquest of Granada in 1492 could Spain truly focus on exploration.

The Reconquista was a period of Early Modern Spanish history that lasted almost 800 years. Muslim forces invaded Spain in 711 A.D., offering better surrender conditions than life under the prior Visigoth King Roderick, and eventually conquered most of Spain and Portugal within 7 years. However, Christians began the long and slow process of reconquesting their lands in 718 A.D. with the Battle of Covadonga; Spain and Portugal were fully controlled by Christians again with the Conquest of Granada in 1492.

Christopher Columbus

In 1492, Christopher Columbus secured backing from the Spanish Crown for an expedition.

Spanish Exploration Portrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus StudySmarterPortrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Columbus' first expedition began the Spanish empire, and he completed three more voyages afterwards - so, what did Columbus find?

VoyageDiscoveriesSignificance

First voyage: 1492-3

Lands: The Bahamas, Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Cuba

Resources: Cotton, limited gold, pearls, tobacco, spices

Columbus believed that the lands he had discovered were India and China, which is why he declared them the "West Indies".

He only found limited amounts of gold but was determined to make the journey appear important for Spain, so he also wrote about how the Indigenous Peoples would make "good slaves".

Spain laid claim to the findings with the Inter Caetera in 1493, beginning the Spanish Empire's expansion West.

Second voyage: 1493-6

Lands: Dominica, Lesser Antilles Islands, Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico

Resources: Columbus continued to search for gold with limited success.

Columbus managed to get more funding from the Spanish crown, and this voyage consisted of 17 ships and around 1000 men. Columbus' mission was to convert the locals to Christianity, expand the first settlement (La Navidad, which he found destroyed), and continue his search to India and China.

This added transatlantic trade and colonisation to the mission goals. Columbus brought back 500 enslaved Indigenous people for the Crown, but many died on the voyage.

Third voyage: 1498-1500

Lands: South American mainland of Trinidad, Venezuela, Honduras

Resources: Columbus found fresh water in Venezuela, so knew he had reached a new continental mainland. He continued the enslavement of Indigenous people to search for gold.

By now, Spanish colonisation and Catholic conversion were key goals of the exploratory trips, with the intent that upon effectively achieving this, Spain could profit from the resources they discovered in the New World.

Columbus' programme of enslavement was disapproved of by Queen Isabela, who summoned him back to Spain in chains in 1500.

Fourth voyage: 1502-4

Lands: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama

Resources: Columbus found a promising supply of gold in Panama but was stopped by the Indigenous people from setting up a trading post.

Columbus' motivations for his voyages had developed significantly at this point as he followed what he thought was a divine mission to find Jerusalem and bring about the second coming of Christ.

Spain allowed the voyage out of sympathy and because they believed he was close to finding the Western route to India and China.

Columbus' last voyage was his least successful, ending with shipwrecks and little resources, but Spain's further colonisation and control of Central and South America would prove beneficial to the empire in the future.

Inter Caetera

The 1493 papal bull (decree) passed by Pope Alexander VI authorising Spain, and Portugal, to colonise discovered lands

The map below shows the routes that Columbus took for his 4 voyages.

Spanish Exploration Map of Columbus' voyages StudySmarterMap of Columbus' voyages, Wikimedia Commons

The Treaty of Tordesillas

The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 was an important development between the two Catholic empires of Spain and Portugal. Both of these countries were investing in the Age of Exploration at this time, with Portugal mostly sailing along the coast of Africa to find the Eastern route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa.

The treaty divided up the New World, with a line of demarcation splitting the Atlantic Sea so that Spain had rights to claim all land West (Americas and Pacific Ocean islands) of the line and Portugal all lands East (Africa and Asia). Portugal managed to negotiate the line so that they could claim Brazil in South America.

As the majority of the Americas were undiscovered at this point, Spain ended up having a good deal as they could claim the riches found in Mexico and Peru. However, although the treaty was authorised by the Pope and agreed upon between Spain and Portugal, it was mostly ignored by other non-Catholic countries, such as England, France and the Netherlands, who continued to explore and claim lands within these territories regardless.

Hernán Cortés and Mexico

In 1519, the explorer Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico, where he later found the Aztec Empire led by Montezuma II. After fighting in the city of Tenochtitlán where Montezuma II was killed and Spanish forces were initially driven out, Cortés sieged the city and gained power over Mexico. For Spain, this conquest meant wealth and the expansion of the empire. Indigenous Mexicans, on the other hand, suffered great cruelty at the hands of the conquistadors and many were killed by violence or infectious diseases, such as smallpox.

Spanish Exploration Portrait of Hernán Cortés StudySmarterPortrait of Hernán Cortés, Wikimedia Commons

Francisco Pizarro and Peru

In 1526, Pizarro arrived in Peru, eager to find riches after rumours of a great ruler in the mountains (Inca). The Inca population, the Indigenous community in Peru, had many riches so their defeat was seen as a benefit for Spain. Pizarro invaded the Inca cities in 1532 and took their leader, Atahualpa, hostage and then killed him. The conquering of the Inca civilisation brought great wealth to Spain and suffering to the Indigenous population, whose population dropped from around 9 million to less than a million.

Spanish Exploration Atahualpa StudySmarterPortrait of Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor, Wikimedia Commons

The Aztec and Inca Empires

At the times when Spain discovered them, the Aztecs were ruled by Moctezuma II in Mexico and the Incas were ruled by Atahualpa throughout the Andes, through Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Both empires were extensive across Central and South America and had well-developed societies and ways of governing.

1519 - Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec civilisation, and murdered many of the nobility. The Aztecs fought back, but by 1521, Cortes had taken control of the empire for Spain. He demolished Tenochtitlan and founded Mexico City, the centre of the Spanish New World.

1532 - Pizarro arrived in the Incan city of Cajamarca, met Atahualpa, and executed him. In 1533 Pizarro marched on Cuzco and conquered the Inca Empire. Pizarro established the city of Lima, which provided the new colonies with communication with Panama and other Spanish colonies in Central America.

Both the Aztecs and Incas had vast amounts of gold, silver and jewels which Cortés and Pizarro brought back to Spain across the Atlantic. Despite Columbus' relatively few resources from his voyages to the Americas, the discoveries through Central and South America of these Empires meant Spain profited massively from colonising them. The Indigenous Peoples suffered greatly under the Spanish rulers; they were subjected to brutal rule and slavery, but also were exposed to European diseases such as smallpox which spread and killed many of the population.

Other campaigns

Spain conquered other areas such as present-day Chile and Colombia and established these settlements:

  • The 1530s: New Granada in present-day Colombia
  • 1535: Lima as the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru
  • 1536: Buenos Aires in present-day Argentina
  • 1541: Santiago in present-day Chile
  • 1565: Florida

Asia

Spain began exploring the Far East in the early 1500s, hoping to gain control of the Moluccas (known as the Spice Islands.) This caused conflicts as Portugal argued that Spain was violating the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas.

In 1529, the two powers signed the Treaty of Zaragoza in order to solve the dispute. This added another line of division to the Treaty of Tordesillas, establishing a boundary to the east of the Moluccas. It gave the Eastern part to Spain and the Western part to Portugal (this included the Moluccas). Spain kept the Philippines, which was on the east side of the treaty line.

Map of Spanish exploration in the new world

Below shows the extent of the Spanish Empire throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

Spanish Exploration World map of Spanish colonies StudySmarterThis map shows the countries throughout the world that the Spanish Empire encountered and colonised at some point during their reign, map created using mapchart.net

Effects of Spanish exploration

We have seen that exploration was beneficial to Spain but at the expense of Indigenous communities. Let's find out more - how exactly did the conquistadors’ discoveries impact Spain and the rest of the world?

Effects on Spain

Although it took a long time to establish rule in Peru and Mexico, the colonisation of these new territories (1553 for Mexico and 1551 for Peru) resulted in a great expansion of power for Spain and the potential for great wealth.

The Aztec and Inca Empires provided the Spanish conquistadors with plenty of resources such as gold, silver, and jewels which benefitted the conquistadors and the Spanish crown. However, the wealth that was added to the Holy Roman Empire was mostly squandered on Imperial armies under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's foreign wars. Therefore, Spanish civilians did not reap the benefits of the country's colonisation as the extracted wealth was spent on royal debt and inflation.

Funding wars

The funding of the army would, however, establish Spain as an emerging military power. Wealth gained from the Americas was channelled into foreign wars in countries such as France and the Netherlands. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V became the King of Spain in 1516, expanding the Habsburg dynasty further across Europe, and consolidating his power to fund wars with his rival, King Francis I of France.

Charles V went to war with France several times throughout the 16th century: 1521-5, 1526-9, 1536-8, and 1542-4. When Henry II succeeded Francis I in France, Charles continued the rivalry with the Italian War 1551-9, ending only with Charles' abdication in 1556 and death in 1558.

The Golden Age

The trade and connections generated from Spanish exploration allowed arts, literature, and music to blossom in Spain, helped by the influx of money acquired from colonisation. Some parts of society, such as merchants and the nobility, did profit greatly from the wealth.

Spanish Exploration Still Life of Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber by Juan Sanchez 1602 StudySmarterJuan Sanchez' Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber was painted in 1602 and epitomised the new wave of artwork throughout Spain, experimenting with different styles and techniques during the Spanish Golden Age, Wikimedia Commons

Under the Habsburgs' extensive and wealthy empire, ideas flowed throughout Spain which spurred creativity. Famous works of literature such as Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote de La Mancha (1605) and artworks such as Juan Sanchez's Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602) demonstrated the emergence of new artistic styles in this period and created a cultural renaissance known as the Spanish Golden Age, or the Siglo de Oro, which ranged from the 16th to mid-17th centuries.

Effects on Indigenous communities

By Christoper Columbus' second voyage across the Atlantic, the mission statements explicitly included the treatment of the Indigenous communities that the explorers would encounter. Columbus was instructed to convert the locals to Catholicism, spread the Spanish language and colonise the territories in order to maximise profits from trade. Little thought was given to the Indigenous communities by the conquistadors, who treated them cruelly, enslaved them and disregarded their own traditions.

Queen Isabela I was horrified to receive a gift of enslaved people from Columbus after his second voyage, claiming them to be "Spanish subjects" who could not be enslaved. Furthermore, she ordered Columbus be returned to Spain in chains after his reported treatment of Indigenous people during his third voyage.

However, the colonising efforts of the conquistadors and the distance from the Spanish homeland meant that many of the explorers could act and behave immorally without immediate repercussions, especially if they were generating wealth for the crown.

Spanish Exploration Taíno women StudySmarterEngraving of Taíno women cooking from around 1565, Wikimedia Commons

Alongside the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous people by the Spanish settlers, they brought European diseases such as smallpox, which the locals lacked immunity from. This meant that many Indigenous people suffered from the foreign diseases.

Some historians estimate that the introduction of smallpox and other European diseases killed nearly 90% of the population of the Americas (North, Central and South combined).

King Ferdinand sanctioned the Laws of Burgos in 1512 which supposedly protected the cultures and bodies of the Indigenous Peoples in the Spanish colonies. However, the laws were mostly disregarded by conquistadors, with many people still being enslaved and killed.

In an exam you may encounter a question like this:

‘The most important result of the discovery of the New World for Spain was increased prosperity.’

Assess the validity of this statement with reference to the years 1519–56.

When answering, you will need to compare the different results of the discovery of the New World and determine whether increased prosperity was the most important. Be sure to make a note of the years and not reference events before and after. Below is a table showing different arguments that you might want to include:

Most importantNot the most important
  • The silver and gold extracted from the colonies provided considerable revenue from 1530.
  • Spain also profited from an increased labour force and fertile lands in the New World.
  • Merchants profited from increased trade and invested in domestic economies.
  • Exploration required ships so the shipbuilding industry prospered.
  • Many regions in Spain remained impoverished. A lack of investment in infrastructure and transport prevented progress.
  • The consequence of an influx of silver was rising inflation.
  • Taxes increased, despite the riches gained from the new world, and social conditions deteriorated.
  • Spanish goods were overlooked for New World commodities.

Spanish Exploration - Key takeaways

  • Spain began exploration in the 1400s, starting to colonise the Canary Islands, but was distracted by the Reconquista and other internal affairs.
  • After the Conquest of Granada in 1492, Spain had more time and energy to devote to overseas exploration.
  • Christopher Columbus changed everything for Spain. He stumbled across the Americas searching for the Indies.
  • The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world up into Spanish and Portuguese territories where they could explore and establish trade routes.
  • Hernán Cortés discovered Mexico in 1519 and conquered the Aztec kingdom. Many indigenous Mexicans suffered great cruelty at the hands of the conquistadors.
  • Francisco Pizarro discovered Peru in 1526 and conquered the Inca population after years of fighting. The kingdom had many riches so was financially lucrative to Spain.
  • The Treaty of Zaragoza divided up the Far East between Spain and Portugal.
  • Spanish exploration had detrimental effects on the indigenous communities of the colonised countries. Many died of diseases, were enslaved, or were killed.
  • Spain's economy profited from the exploration but much of the population did not see that wealth as it was channelled into foreign wars. Instead, people were faced with increased inflation and taxes.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spanish Exploration

Spain wanted to explore overseas in search of riches and treasures. The rivalry with Portugal, which had already established itself in Africa, also fueled Spanish exploration efforts.

Christopher Columbus explored on behalf of Spain, after having received funding for his exploration. He had already tried several other countries but been rejected. It is believed that he was born in Genoa, Italy, so was not in fact Spanish himself.

Spanish exploration led to Spain ‘discovering’ the Americas and colonising countries such as Mexico and Peru. For Spain, this was beneficial. They acquired a large empire and gained huge amounts of wealth from countries. For the Indigenous communities of these countries, the impacts were brutal. Many were killed (either through violence or disease), and those left were enslaved and forced to convert to Spanish culture (language and Catholicism.).

The main goal of Spanish exploration was to discover new lands and power through building an empire and wealth through their natural resources.

The conquistador Hernando de Sota found the Mississippi River in 1541.

Final Spanish Exploration Quiz

Question

Which islands did Spain begin colonising in 1402?

Show answer

Answer

The Canary Islands

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Question

What was the name of the seafarer that came to ask for support from the Spanish crown in 1492?

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Answer

Christopher Columbus

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Question

What was the Treaty of Tordesillas?

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Answer

The Treaty of Tordesillas divided some territories between Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese received everything outside Europe east of a line of demarcation in the Atlantic Ocean. This line cut through Brazil, meaning Portugal received east Brazil, the Cape Verde Islands, Africa, and Asia. Spain received anything west of this line (giving them control over the western part of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean islands.)

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Question

Which explorer landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519?

Show answer

Answer

Hernán Cortés

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Question

What disease killed large numbers of indigenous Mexicans?

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Answer

Smallpox

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Question

Which explorer arrived in Peru in 1526?

Show answer

Answer

Francisco Pizarro

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Question

Which of these were other Spanish settlements?

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Answer

New Granada

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Question

Why did Spain and Portugal have to sign the Treaty of Zaragoza?

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Answer

Spain began exploring in the Far East in the early 1500s, hoping to gain control of the Moluccas. Portugal argued that this violated the Treaty of Tordesillas, and the two signed a new treaty establishing a new boundary.

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Question

What happened in 1492 to free up Spain's resources and energy for exploration?

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Answer

The Conquest of Granada. Spain had been engaged in internal battles against Christians and Muslims over territories. When Ferdinand and Isabella gained control of Granada, it freed them up to focus on exploration.

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Question

What did the conquistadors do to introduce Catholicism in the New World?

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Answer

The conquistadors promised the native people salvation and eternal life if they converted to Christianity and built churches in the middle of towns. 

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Question

What were the Laws of Burgos designed to do?

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Answer

The Laws of Burgos were designed to protect the spiritual and material welfare of the indigenous communities of colonised lands.

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Question

What age is exploration credited with bringing about?

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Answer

The Golden Age

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