While Portugal led European explorations of non-European territories, its neighboring Iberian rival, Castile, embarked upon its own mission to create an overseas empire. It began to establish its rule over the Canary Islands, located off the West African coast, in 1402, but then became distracted by internal Iberian politics and the repelling of Islamic invasion attempts and raids through most of the 15th century. Only late in the century, following the unification of the crowns of Castile and Aragon and the completion of the reconquista, did an emerging modern Spain become fully committed to the search for new trade routes overseas. In 1492, the joint rulers conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which had been providing Castile with African goods through tribute. It was only after this victory that the joint rulers decided to fund Christopher Columbus’ expedition in the hope of bypassing Portugal’s monopoly on West African sea routes, to reach “the Indies” (east and south Asia) by traveling west. Twice before, in 1485 and 1488, Columbus had presented the project to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it.
On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera. He first sailed to the Canary Islands, where he restocked for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean, crossing a section of the Atlantic that became known as the Sargasso Sea. Land was sighted on October 12, 1492, and Columbus called the island (now The Bahamas) San Salvador, in what he thought to be the “West Indies.” He also explored the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola. Columbus left 39 men behind and founded the settlement of La Navidad in what is present-day Haiti.
Following the first American voyage, Columbus made three more. During his second voyage in 1493, he enslaved 560 native Americans, in spite of the Queen’s explicit opposition to the idea. Their transfer to Spain resulted in the death and disease of hundreds of the captives, greatly marring Columbus’ reputation. The object of the third voyage was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal claimed was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. In 1498, Columbus left port with a fleet of six ships. He explored the Gulf of Paria, which separates Trinidad from mainland Venezuela. Columbus described these new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured them hanging from China. Finally, the fourth voyage, nominally in search of a westward passage to the Indian Ocean, left Spain in 1502. Columbus spent two months exploring the coasts of Honduras and Costa Rica, before arriving in Panama. After his ships sustained serious damage in a storm off the coast of Cuba, Columbus and his men remained stranded there for a year. Help finally arrived, and Columbus arrived in Spain in November 1504.
Shortly after Columbus’s arrival from the “West Indies,” a division of influence became necessary to avoid conflict between the Spanish and Portuguese. An agreement was reached in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world between the two powers. In the treaty, the Portuguese received everything outside Europe east of a line that ran 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, and the islands reached by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. This gave them control over Africa, Asia, and eastern South America. The Spanish received everything west of this line, territory that was still almost completely unknown, and proved to be mostly the western part of the Americas, plus the Pacific Ocean islands.
Find an error? Take a screenshot, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll send you $3!