Social Reasons: In 1477, Ptolemy’s Geography became available in print. The circulation of travel literature and books on cosmography and geography created widespread interest among the Europeans, right through the fifteenth century. Ptolemy had suggested that the world was spherical, but he underestimated the width of the oceans. Europeans imagined that it would take a short voyage to cross the Atlantic to reach land. There were many who were ready to take risks to explore the lands beyond the known seas. The Portuguese and the Spanish were the pioneers in the fifteenth century voyages of exploration.
Economic Reasons: The European economy was in decline between mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. Plague and wars resulted in depopulation in many parts of Europe. Trade grew slack. There was a shortage of gold and silver, used for making European coins. After the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, long distance trade declined and became difficult. Italians managed to do business with Turks, but were now required to pay higher taxes on trade.
Religious Reasons: Many devout Christians were lured by the possibility of bringing many more people under the fold of Christianity. Such people were ready to face the risks of voyages beyond the unknown seas.
Many were of the view that if trade could be followed by political control, with European ‘colonies’ in regions with warmer climate, they would benefit further. They saw a possibility of finding gold and spices in West Africa.
Portugal: Portugal took the lead in this pursuit. Prince Henry of Portugal organized the coasting of West Africa and attacked Ceuta in 1415. After that, more expeditions were organized. The Portuguese established a trading station in Cape Bojador in Africa. They started capturing and enslaving the Africans.
Spain: Economic reasons encouraged individuals in Spain to venture across the oceans. This started the practice of contracts, called capitulaciones. Under these contracts, the Spanish ruler claimed rights of sovereign over newly captured territories. The leaders of expeditions were rewarded with titles and the right to govern the conquered lands.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506): He submitted his plans to the Portuguese Crown, but his plan was turned down. But the Spanish authorities sanctioned a modest expedition for him. Columbus set sails from the port of Palos on 3 August 1492. After 70 days, they sighted land on 12 October 1492. Columbus thought it was India, but it was the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas. The Arawaks gave a warm welcome to the crew of Columbus.
Columbus planted a Spanish flag in Guanahani, held a prayer service, and proclaimed himself viceroy. He took help of local people in pressing forward to the larger islands of Cubanascan (Cuba) and Kiskeya (Hispaniola). Before they could get very far, the expedition was overtaken by accidents and had to face the hostility of the fierce Carib tribes. They return voyage proved more difficult as the ships were worm-eaten and the crew tired and homesick.
It was followed by three more voyages. In the course of these voyages, Columbus completed his explorations in the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, the South American mainland and its coast.
The display of military strength and with the use of gunpowder and of horses helped in Spanish expansion. The local people were compelled either to pay tribute or to work in gold and silver mines. The greed of gold led to violent incidents which provoked local resistance. Ravages of diseases further compounded the problems for the locals. The Arawaks died in large number because of diseases of the Old World.
Within half a century, the Spanish had explored and laid claim to a vast area of the western hemisphere. Before this, the Spanish conquered lands of two great empires of the region. This was largely the work of two individuals: Herman Cortes (1488-1547) and Francisco Pizarro (1478-1541). The landed gentry, officials of municipal councils and noblemen financed these explorations. Those joining expeditions supplied their own equipment, in exchange for a share of the booty expected from the conquests.
In 1519, Cortes set sail from Cuba to Mexico. In Mexico, he made friends with the Totonacs. The Totonacs wanted to secede from Aztec rule. The Aztec king, Montezuma, sent an official to meet him. Montezuma was terrified at the aggressiveness of the Spanish, their gunpowder and their horses. Montezuma was convinced that Cortes was the reincarnation of an exiled god who had come back to take revenge. Tlaxcalans were fierce fighters, but they submitted after stiff resistance. After that, the Spaniards marched to Tenochtitlan. Montezuma cordially received Cortes, and showered him with gifts. Cortes placed the emperor under house arrest and attempted to rule in his name. He also installed Christian images in the Aztec temple. Montezuma suggested a compromise and placed both Aztec and Christian images in the temple. After that, Cortes gave charge to his deputy and went back to Cuba.
The high-handedness of the Spanish occupation and their incessant demands for gold provoked a general uprising. Alvarado ordered a massacre during the Aztec spring festival of Huizilpochtli. When Cortes returned on 25 June 1520, a full-blown crisis was staring at him. The causeways were cut, the bridges were taken away and the net closed. This had created acute shortage of food and drinking water for the Spaniards. Cortes was forced to retreat.
Montezuma died under mysterious circumstances. The Aztecs continued to fight the Spaniards. In what is now called the ‘Night of Tears’, 600 Spaniards and many more of their Tlaxcalan allies were killed. Cortes made a retreat to Tlaxcalan to make a fresh plan against the newly elected king, Cuatemoc. Cortes moved into Tenochtitlan for the final onslaught. The Aztecs thought they could see bad omens. The Emperor chose to give up his life because of this.
Cortes became Captain-General of New Spain in Mexico. From Mexico, the Spaniards extended their control over Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Honduras.
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