Spain led the other great outward thrust of exploration westward across the Atlantic Ocean.  Like, Portugal, the Spanish were also partially driven in their explorations by certain misconceptions.  While they did realize the earth is round, they also vastly underestimated its size and thought it was seven-eighths land, making Asia much bigger and extending much further west. 


Spain and the exploration of the West (1492-c.1550)

Educationl Video: Discovery of America | Happy Learning

  • This was especially true of a Genoese captain, Christopher Columbus, an experienced sailor who had  sailed the waters from Iceland to the African coast.  He had the idea of a smaller planet  and the shortest route to the Spice Islands was by sailing west.  The problem was that most people believed such an open sea voyage was still too long for the ships of the day.Getting support for this plan was not easy. Spain was preoccupied with driving the Moors away from their last stronghold of Granada.  The Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope so there was a great competition between Spain and Portugal. Therefore, when Granada fell  in 1492, Spain was able to accept Columbus’ plan.Columbus set sail August 3, 1492 with two caravels, the Nina and Pinta, and a carrack, the Santa Maria .  They experienced perfect sailing weather and winds.    Columbus even lied to his men about how far they were from home (although the figure he gave them was fairly accurate since his own calculations overestimated how far they had gone).  By October 10, nerves were on edge, and Columbus promised to turn back if land were not sighted in two or three days.  Fortunately, on October 12, scouts spotted the island of San Salvador, which Columbus mistook for Japan.              


  • Further exploration brought in a little gold and a few captives.  But when the Santa Maria sank Columbus decided to return home.  A lucky miscalculation of his coordinates caused him to sail north where he picked up the prevailing westerlies.  The homeward voyage was  rough,  but Columbus reached Portugal in March 1493. It caused a dispute over who controlled what outside of Europe, which led to the pope drawing the Line of Demarcation in 1494.
  • Ferdinand and Isabella, although disappointed by results of the voyage, were excited by the prospects of controlling the Asian trade.  They gave Columbus the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the Islands that he hath discovered in the Indies.”  Over the next decade, they sent him on three more voyages to find the Spice Islands.  Each successive voyage put even more of the Caribbean and surrounding coastline on the map, but the Spice Islands were never found.  Columbus never admitted that his discovery was a new continent.  He died in 1504, still convinced that he had reached Asia.

  • However, by 1500, many people were convinced that this was a new continent, although its size and position in relation to and distance from Asia were by no means clear.  

  •  In 1513, the Spanish explorer, Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, having no idea of its immensity .
  • In 1519, Charles V of Spain gave five ships and the job of finding a southwest passage around South America to Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who had been to the Spice Islands while serving Portugal.  Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe was one of most epic events in history.  After sailing down the South American coast, he faced a mutiny and then entered a  group of islands at the southern tip of the continent known  as the Straits of Magellan.  Finding his way through these islands took him 38 days. Then they emerged from the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific “Sea”. Journey was dangerous.  They reached the Philippines, which they claimed for Spain.  Unfortunately, Magellan became involved in a tribal dispute and was killed.  By now, the fleet had lost three of its five ships. The other two ships, the Trinidad and Victoria, finally reached the Spice Islands in November 1521 and loaded up with cloves.  They faced the unpleasant choice of returning across the Pacific or continuing westward in Portuguese waters. The crew of the Trinidad tried going back across the Pacific, but  were captured by the Portuguese.  Del Cano, the captain of the Victoria, took his ship far south to avoid Portuguese patrols in the Indian Ocean . However, they could not  replenish its food and water.  The Spanish suffered from the cold and hunger in the voyage around Africa. When the Victoria finally came back home in 1522 only 18 crewmen survived.   They had proven that the earth could be circumnavigated and that it was much bigger than previously supposed. 

Interior and coastal explorations (1519-c.1550)

There were two particularly spectacular conquests. 

  • The first was by Hernando Cortez, who led a small army of several hundred men against the Aztec Empire in Mexico.  Despite their small number, the Spanish could exploit several advantages: their superior weapons and discipline, the myth of Quetzecoatl which foretold the return of a fair haired and bearded god in 1519 (the year Cortez did appear), and an outbreak of smallpox which native Americans had no prior contact with or resistance to.  Because of this and other Eurasian diseases, native American populations would be devastated over the following centuries to possibly less than ten per cent their numbers in 1500.


  • The Spanish conquistador, Pizarro, leading an army of less then 150 men, carried out an even more amazing conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru in the 1530’s.  Taking advantage of a dispute over the throne, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor, whose authority was so great that his capture virtually paralyzed the Incas into inaction.  As a result, a highly developed empire ruling millions of people fell to the Spaniards.

The conquests of Mexico and Peru more than compensated Spain for its failure to establish a trade route to the Spice Islands.  The wealth of South America’s gold and silver mines would provide Spain with the means to make it the great power of Europe in the 1500’s. 







Christopher Columbus






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