In the 15th century, trade had opened up around the world, yet the Europeans who profited the most were the Italian city-states along the Mediterranean. Not to be outdone, Western Europeans were determined to seize their own opportunities for procuring wealth in the East. It was due to these efforts that directly led to the discovery of the new world in 1492.
Explorers in the 15th century didn’t have among their goals the discovery of a new world in the Americas. All they wanted was to gain wealth by finding a new trade route to China that would bypass the Mediterranean.
The Portuguese Lead the Way
With the underwriting of Prince Henry the Navigator, a member of the royal family of Portugal, the Portuguese sponsored a series of expeditions that proved not just that it was possible to sail into the Mediterranean and make profits, but that it was also possible to sail south around the coast of West Africa and find one’s way to riches. By 1488, the Portuguese had explored and mapped the African coastline down to the Cape of Good Hope. And in 1498, the Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama brought a Portuguese fleet around Africa and directly to India.
Now, of course, these adventures and these explorations were very costly, but the returns were fabulous. By using an unobstructed sea route, by not relying on any middlemen or any land routes, da Gama not only cut the time and the labor involved in trade, but he also returned to Portugal with a cargo of goods from India that netted a profit of 600 percent for his backers and investors.
The Spanish Break-Through
The Spanish were right behind the Portuguese in breaking out into the Atlantic. In 1492, a navigator from the Italian Trading Emporium of Genoa, named Christopher Columbus, persuaded the king and queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, to experiment with the idea of sailing not east into the Mediterranean or even south around Africa, but due west into the Atlantic, so that an expedition might possibly arrive directly at China’s back door. Early expeditions sailing west into the Atlantic had already discovered islands like the Azures and rediscovered islands like the Canaries, which had been lost to European knowledge for centuries. Well, if it worked for the Azures and the Canaries, why not push beyond them?
This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Now, the great obstacle to this plan was not the story invented by Washington Irving that everyone except Columbus believed that the world was flat, and that sailing westward into the Atlantic would send Columbus off the edge. Rather, the difficulty was that no one knew exactly how far the distance across the Atlantic to China would be, or whether there were other islands in between. Marco Polo, after all, had described to people the island chain of Japan. Would that be in the way? If so, where? Nevertheless, the Spanish had few options if they wanted to cash in on the great rush to trade with the East. Because of this, Queen Isabella parsimoniously awarded Columbus three ships.
Columbus’s Famous Voyage
Columbus set sail from Spain in August of 1492, and on October 12, made landfall on an island off the coast of China, or rather, what he thought was the coast of China. It was probably Watlings Island in the Bahamas. Columbus, however, was an exceedingly complex and puzzling individual, and it’s hard to understand exactly what it was he had thought he had found. He called the island natives “Indians,” which was a logical thing to do if he thought he had arrived at islands off the coast of India. He wrote of his islands as the West Indies.
By the time of his death in 1506, though, it was clear to a good many others that Columbus had discovered neither China nor Japan, but instead, two mysterious, unpredicted, and enormous continents stretching from north to south like a great barrier—across the Atlantic that Columbus had hoped to cross. Barrier is just the image, too, because the discovery of these continents was met with disappointment rather than joy; this reaction was because they constituted a major obstacle to the real goal, which was reaching China or India. I’m afraid it’s not very flattering to our own self-image as Americans today, but the truth is that the American continents appeared, first, to the Spanish as a problem, not an opportunity. They were not glad to discover America.
For a while, they tried their very best to find a way around America. An expedition under Ferdinand Magellan sailed southwards around South America and into the Pacific, only to find that South America and the Pacific were immensely more huge than anyone had thought the path to the East would be. Vasco Nunez de Balboa led an expedition across what is now Panama, in hopes that there might be a waterway that would allow Spanish ships to ease their way through the American continents, and get to the Pacific. Unfortunately, there was none. In fact, there would be none until Theodore Roosevelt had a waterway dug in the 20th century. That was the Panama Canal.
Other Explorers Follow
Other European adventurers—Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Martin Frobisher—probed northwards along the North American coast, looking for a northwest passage through North America. So little were the Europeans interested in America for America’s sake, that they found even the physical appearance of North America frightening. When no such path appeared to be open through the American continents, the European states turned their attention elsewhere, to such fun things as making war at each other, which they did with great gusto in a series of bloody religious wars from 1520 until 1648.
Thus, it was not European governments, but rather, individual freebooters, who took a second look at America and decided that there was more there than first sight had suggested.
In 1519, a one-time law student with a thirst for fast living named Hernando Cortés, jumped off from Cuba with 600 men, bound for the coast of Mexico. There, Cortés challenged the Aztec Empire. In a two-year campaign marked by pillage, theft, and massacre, Cortés toppled the Aztec Empire and its Emperor—Montezuma—and captured several kings’ ransoms worth of gold and silver. By the time of his death in 1547, the Aztec Empire was a Spanish province, and Cortés one of the wealthiest men in Europe. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro mounted a similar campaign against the Inca of Peru. He, too, rampaged and pillaged the Inca Empire, seizing up to $65 million in Inca treasure.
This treatment of indigenous peoples was only the beginning, as new Spanish adventurers swarmed destructively over Central America and the modern American Southeast, looking, mostly in vain, to repeat the example of Cortés and Pizarro.
Operating as they did, with only minimal state oversight, these freebooters found America to be a place where traditional European ideas of society and behavior no longer applied. All the rules were, so to speak, suspended. As one Englishman later put it, America was a place where one could go to “live bravely,” in other words, to live without restraint. Now, that could mean, on the one hand, that since America had no formal social structures, Europeans could build their own and dabble in social and political experiments, which were unthinkable in the “high baron” cities of Europe.
On the other hand, suspending the rules could also mean unbridled greed; enormous accumulations of wealth through what was little better than organized thievery; and brutality, slavery, and massacre for the Indians. Now, some of this was not entirely the fault of the Spaniards.
On the island of Hispaniola, the island where Columbus established the first European military outpost in the Western Hemisphere, the Indian population stood, in 1496, at about 1.1 million. Less than 50 years later, there were only 200 left alive on Hispaniola. Some of this was sheer, heartless slaughter and exploitation by the Spaniards, who enslaved conquered Indians and put them to work to support Spanish enrichment. Most of it, though, was due to European diseases, like smallpox, which sliced through the unprepared and unexposed Indian populations like fire.
Now, does all this make the Spaniards, and Columbus in particular, a criminal? Some people have thought so. In 1990, just before the 50th anniversary of the Columbian discovery, and just before the celebrations for it were about to get underway, one national church organization declared that a celebration is not an appropriate observance of this anniversary since the consequences of this invasion were genocide, slavery, ecocide, and exploitation.
All of that may be true, but it also may be beside the point. No one would have been more surprised by celebrations of his discovery than Columbus himself, since none of the consequences, both good and ill, were even close to what he had in mind in the first place. It would not be the last time in American history that the theme of irony would be evidenced; just as throughout these lectures, you will see the irony of consequences wholly unlike the original intentions of the people who planned the events that became history. With the search for a direct route to India, the constant theme of irony was just beginning—as we will see throughout the years of American history.