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Portuguese and Spanish Empires: Growth in the New World & Asia

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  • 0:02 Motives for Exploration
  • 1:21 The Portuguese Set Out
  • 1:51 A Focus on Trade
  • 3:07 The Spanish Take Off
  • 4:07 A Spanish Empire
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will explore the motivations, foundations, and growth of the Portuguese and Spanish empires in the New World and Asia. We will also meet a few famous Portuguese and Spanish explorers.

Motives for Exploration

The 15th and 16th centuries have often been labeled the age of exploration, discovery, and expansion. Indeed, the Renaissance world was looking outward. People were curious, interested, and eager for fresh experiences and observations. They were looking for something new and different, and they were ready to push beyond Europe to find it.

The world was opening up, and people were realizing how big it really was. There were new places to explore, room to spread out, and cultures and economies to discover and even control. European countries started to think about forming empires, spreading Christianity, and ruling the world.

Perhaps the key motivator behind exploration in this era was economic. Europeans longed for the luxuries of the Far East, including silks, pepper, and spices, but the Far East trade was dominated by Muslims and Venetians who hauled the goods over land, making them extremely expensive. Europeans wanted to find their own trade routes and cut out the middle men, and with their better ships, maps, and navigational tools, they finally had the technology to do it. The time was ripe to explore, discover, and expand.

The Portuguese Set Out

The Portuguese took the lead. Inspired and backed financially by Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese explorers sailed south, down the coast of Africa, in hopes of finding a route to the Far East. Along the way, they discovered plenty of ways to make a profit from their voyages, and pretty soon they were leaders in the gold and slave trades. They established posts in Guinea and Angola and a few island plantations to support their business ventures.

A Focus on Trade

The Portuguese did not emphasize colonization in their new territories. They were far more interested in trade, and before long, they had carried millions of Africans away from their homes as slaves. The money flowed freely, but they still hoped to find a way to the East.

In 1488, Bartholomeu Dias managed to make his way around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. He might have gotten all the way to India if his crew hadn't mutinied. Finally, Vasco de Gama arrived in India and came back with a nice, profitable load of spices in 1499. The Portuguese were very pleased by this achievement, and they soon dominated the East Indies trade. Spices, fabrics, and other luxuries flowed into Portugal and out to other European countries, and the Portuguese treasury swelled.

Almost as an afterthought, the Portuguese turned west to Brazil in the 16th century and began settlement in 1533. The Jesuits attempted to covert the natives to Christianity, but most of the other colonists were more interested in pushing west to find gold and silver. They were hoping to get rich, like their Spanish neighbors.

The Spanish Take Off

Nearly everybody remembers that 'In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue,' and indeed, Christopher Columbus, sponsored by Spain, did make his first voyage in 1492 and bumped into a completely new continent on his way to the Far East. Columbus made a total of four voyages to the New World, but he honestly believed for the rest of his life that he had found the Far East.

It didn't take long for other Spaniards to realize that Columbus had stumbled upon something completely new, and they decided to stay. There was plenty of room to spread out, interesting cultures and landscapes to explore, natives to Christianize, and even better, economic opportunities galore, including new sources of gold and silver. The Spanish quickly set out to explore, conquer, and colonize, which was bad news for the Amerindians who got in their way as they launched their empire.

A Spanish Empire

Over the next two centuries, a string of explorers and conquistadors, or military conquerors, claimed territory after territory for the ever-widening Spanish empire. They started in the Caribbean with a settlement at Santo Domingo on Hispaniola in 1496 and moved on to other islands. Vasco Núñez de Balboa traveled across Panama in 1513 and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

In 1521, Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztecs in Mexico, gaining a territory that was larger than Spain itself. South American settlement began in 1523 in Venezuela, and in 1524-1526, the Spanish marched through Central America, exerting their control from Guatemala to Nicaragua.

The Spanish looked south in the 1530s and 1540s. Francisco Pizarro subdued the Incas of Peru in 1533. Ecuador and Columbia fell to Spain later in the 1530s, and Chile succumbed in the 1540s.

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