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Great Explorers of Spain and Portugal: Aims & Discoveries

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  • 0:05 Columbus and Reasons…
  • 2:27 South and Central America
  • 3:41 Exploration Turns to Conquest
  • 4:26 Northern America
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the New World explorations of Spain and Portugal. It will list explorers from both of these countries while also highlighting the motivations behind European exploration.

Columbus and Reasons for Exploration

Like the starter's gun at the Olympics or the checkered flag at the raceway, the voyages of Christopher Columbus signaled the start of the Age of Exploration. He (and his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria) began the race for the Americas, a contest in which Spain and Portugal ran neck-and-neck toward the first-place prize. In today's lesson, we'll discuss these gold-medal contestants while highlighting the famous explorers from both countries.

Before we begin listing off explorers, let's review what Spain and Portugal hoped to gain through their explorations. First and foremost, European countries and monarchs were seeking wealth, while individual explorers were seeking fame and fortune. Along with these materialistic motives, Christian Europe desired to bring faith to the lost savages of the new lands. All of these motives are summed up in this great quote by Castillo, a 16th-century explorer. When speaking of exploration, he exclaimed: 'To serve God, to give light to those who were in darkness and to grow rich as all men desire to do.'

With that being said, let's start our roll-call of explorers with the famous Columbus. Christopher Columbus, although Italian-born, sailed under the Spanish flag of Ferdinand and Isabella. He set sail seeking a faster trade route to India and China. Believing that the Earth's circumference was smaller than others estimated, he set out to reach the East by sailing west.

Unfortunately for this maverick, two things went a bit awry. First, his calculation of the world's size was a bit too small. Second, an undiscovered ocean and continent lay in his path. Although his journeys never saw him reach India and China, he stumbled upon the Americas, lands rich with open space, new crops, and the chance for gold! By the end of his days at sea, Columbus claimed the lands of Cuba, Antigua, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas for Spain. Ironically, we still call these areas the West Indies, playing off Columbus' erroneous belief that he had reached the waters of India.

South and Central America

When word got out that there were new lands to be had, the rest of the world joined the race. Not wanting to settle for silver, Portuguese ships headed west. In the year 1500, the Portuguese Pedro Alvares Cabral became the first European to reach Brazil. With this, Portugal began establishing a vast and profitable colony that would become larger than Portugal itself.

Although competition was fierce, Spain kept up its quest for first place. In 1513, Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa traveled beyond the Isthmus of Panama, becoming the first European to 'dip his toes in the Pacific Ocean.' Not satisfied with just enjoying the waters, he claimed them and all the lands that touched them for his precious Spain.

In 1519, the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan began the journey that would take him through the Straits of Cape Horn to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Upon reaching the Pacific, he and his crew continued west to the Philippines where, unfortunately, Magellan died. However, his crew returned to Europe, being the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe, a 'win' Magellan is still credited with to this very day.

Exploration Turns to Conquest

Unfortunately, the race for the Americas was also a deadly one. Around the year 1520, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire of Mexico for Spain. Of course, this was a great win for Spain and its economy but was devastating to the native populations. In the 1530s, his fellow countryman, Francisco Pizarro, dealt the same fate to the Incas of Peru, scoring another win for Spain. With each territory conquered, Spain sent royal representatives to administrate the newly conquered lands. Cruelty ensued as the Spanish disregarded ancient cultures, forced conversions to Christianity, and gathered gold for the crown.

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