The Iberian Golden Age
European Expansion: Exploration And Colonization, 1400-1650
Author: Allen Pikerman
Date: 2002


During the fifteenth century, Europe began a process of unprecedented
expansion that by 1650 had affected all areas of the world. This was actually
part of a global tendency towards complexity among many human societies.
Matching the empires of the Aztecs, the Inca, and the West Africans were
rising states on the Eurasian fringes such as Japan or the European monarchies
in England, France, Spain, and Portugal. In Eurasia, developing navigational
technology, along with expanding trade, encouraged long sea voyages by Arabs,
Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans. But only the Europeans linked up all the
continents in a new global age, when sea power, rather than land-based armies,
was the main force in empire-building.

Overseas expansion was obviously related - both as cause and effect - to
the European transition from medievalism. The Crusades and the Renaissance
stimulated European curiosity; the Reformation produced thousands of zealous
religious missionaries seeking foreign converts and refugees seeking religious
freedom; and the monarchs of emerging sovereign states sought revenues, first
from trade with the Orient and later by exploiting a new world. Perhaps the
most permeating influence was the rise of European capitalism, with its
monetary values, profit-seeking motivations, investment institutions, and
constant impulse toward economic expansion. Some historians have labeled this
whole economic transformation "the Commercial Revolution." Others have used
the phrase in a narrower sense, referring to the shift in trade routes from
the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Interpreted either way, the Commercial
Revolution and its accompanying European expansion helped usher in the modern

The Iberian Golden Age

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the full impact of the
Commercial Revolution had not yet been experienced in Europe. Neither the
Portuguese nor the Spanish, who were dominant overseas until the late 1500s,
could maintain their initial advantages over the long term. Portugal lacked
manpower and resources required by an empire spread over three continents.
Spain wasted the wealth of the New World in continuous wars, while neglecting
to develop its own economy. Yet the fabulous "Iberian Age" brought a momentous
transition, as Lisbon and Seville received the world's wealth in gold, silver,
slaves, and spices. In 1503 Portuguese pepper cost 80 percent less than that
which came through Venice and the eastern Mediterranean. ^1 During the
sixteenth century, Spanish bullion, flowing into northern banks and markets,
provided a major stimulus to European capitalism and prepared the way for
empire-building by the Dutch, English, and French after 1600. Iberian
expansion also inspired other Europeans with hope and confidence while
effecting a mixing of peoples, a diffusion of cultures, and an
intercontinental exchange of plants and animals such as the world had never
seen before.

[Footnote 1: Daniel J. B. Boorstin, The Discoverers, (New York: Random House,
1985), p. 178.]

Conditions Favoring Iberian Expansion

A number of conditions invited Iberian maritime expansion in the
fifteenth century. Muslim control over the eastern caravan routes,
particularly after the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, brought rising
prices while emphasizing European weaknesses against Turkish land forces. But
the sprawling Islamic world lacked both unity and intimidating sea power.
China after 1440 abandoned its extensive naval forays into the Indan Ocean.
Portugal and Spain, still involved in their centuries-old struggle with
Muslims in the Mediterranean, were thus encouraged to seek new sea routes to
the east, where they might find the Turks vulnerable or drain the rich ports
of sub-Sahara Africa and southern Asia.

By the 1400s, the Iberian states were already proficient in new naval
technology and tactics. Like other Europeans, the Portuguese and Spanish and
long since adopted the compass and astrolabe, thus partially freeing
themselves from land-hugging on long voyages. They were skilled cartographers
and chartmakers, especially the Portuguese. But their main advantages lay with
their ships and naval guns. The stormy Atlantic required broad bows, deep
keels and complex square rigging for driving and maneuvering fighting ships.
Armed with brass cannons, such ships could sink enemy vessels, without ramming
or boarding at close quarters. They could also batter down coastal defenses.
Even the great Chinese junks, although often much larger than European ships,
could not equal European maneuverability and firepower.

In addition to their superior ships, the Iberians were aided by an unique
psychological orientation. Long and bitter wars with the Moors had left the
Portuguese and Spanish with fanatical religious obsessions, which encouraged
them to covert heathen and destroy infidels in the name of Christ. Sailors
with Columbus recited vespers every night, and Portuguese seamen were equally
devout. Maritime missions were regarded as holy crusades.

For two centuries hopes that Ethiopia might become a powerful ally
against the Muslims had encouraged Iberian religious prejudice against Islam.
European crusaders had met Ethiopian pilgrims in the Holy Land since the
twelfth century; other Ethiopians had later visited Rhodes and Cyprus, where
they boasted of their emperor's power and his prowess against the infidels.
Such tales helped generate the myth of "Prester John," a mighty Ethiopian
king, somewhere on the other side of Africa, who might help launch another
crusade. After 1400, a few Europeans reached Ethiopia. The results of their
efforts are unrecorded, but in 1450, Zara Yakob, the reigning Negus, sent a
delegation to Naples and Rome. His envoys conferred with the pope and enlisted
European artisans, who returned with the delegation to Ethiopia.

This dream of war for the cross was sincere, but it also helped
rationalize more worldly economic concerns. Both Spain and Portugal
experienced dramatic population growth between 1400 and 1600. The Spanish
population increased from five to eight and a half million; the population of
Portugal more than doubled, rising from nine hundred thousand to two million,
despite a manpower loss of 125,000 in the sixteenth century. ^2 Hard times in
rural areas prompted migration to cities, where dreams of wealth in foreign
lands encouraged fortune-seeking overseas. Despite the obvious religious zeal
of many Iberians, particularly among those in holy orders, a burning desire
for gain was the driving motivation for most.

[Footnote 2: Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population
History (New York: Penguin, 1978), pp. 100-103.]

The structures of the Iberian states provided further support for
overseas expansion. In both, the powers of the monarchs had been recently
expanded and were oriented toward maritime adventure as the means for raising
revenues, diverting the Turkish menace, spreading Catholic Christianity, and
increasing national unity. The Avis dynasty in Portugal, after usurping the
throne and alienating the great nobles in 1385, made common cause with the
gentry and middle classes, who prospered in commercial partnership with the
government. In contrast, Spanish nobles, particularly the Castilians, were
very much like Turkish aristocrats, who looked upon conquest and plunder as
their normal functions and sources of income. Thus the Portuguese and Spanish
political systems worked in different ways toward similar imperial ends.

Perhaps the most significant factor furthering Iberian expansion in
America was disease. Having lived for centuries in contact with diverse
Eurasian and North African populations, the Spanish and Portuguese has
acquired immunities against infectious diseases such as small pox and measles,
which they carried to the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. In these areas,
native Americans died by the thousands, greatly facilitating their conquest
and domination.

Staking Claims

During the fifteenth century, Portugal gained a long lead over Spain,
staking claims along the entire coast of West Africa. But in 1492 the Spanish
monarchs conquered Granada, the last Moorish state in the peninsula, and
completed the unification of their country. They now turned attention to the
west. The resulting historic voyage of Columbus provided a basis for Spanish
claims to most of the western hemisphere.

The man most responsible for the brilliant Portuguese exploits was Prince
Henry (1394-1460), known as "the Navigator" for his famous observatory at
Sagres, where skilled mariners planned voyages and recorded their results. As
a young man in 1411, Henry directed the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta, a Muslim
port on the Moroccan coast, near the Mediterranean's western entrance. This
experience imbued him with a life-long desire to divert the West African gold
trade from Muslim caravans to Portuguese ships. He also shared the common
dream of finding in Ethiopia Christian allies against the Turks on the other
side of Africa. Such ideas motivated Henry for forty years as he sent
expeditions down the West African coast, steadily charting and learning from
unknown waters.

Before other European states began extended explorations, the Portuguese
had navigated the West African coast to its southern tip. Henry's captains
claimed the Madeira Islands in 1418 and the Azores in 1421. They had explored
the Senegal River by 1450 and then traced the Guinea coast during the next
decade. After Henry's death in 1460, they pushed south, reaching Benin in the
decade after 1470 and Kongo, on the southwest coast, in 1482. Six years later,
Bartholomew Diaz rounded the southern tip of Africa, but his disgruntled crew
forced him to turn back. Nevertheless, King John II of Portugal (1481-1495)
was so excited by the prospect of a direct route to India that he named Diaz's
discovery "the Cape of Good Hope."

Spain soon challenged Portuguese supremacy. The specific controversy was
over the Canary Islands, some of which were occupied by Castilians in 1344 and
others by Portuguese after the 1440s. The issue, which produced repeated
incidents, was ultimately settled in 1479 by the Treaty of Alcacovas, which
recognized exclusive Spanish rights in the Canaries but banned Spain from the
Madeiras, the Azores, the Cape Verdes, and West Africa. Spanish ambitions were
thus temporarily frustrated until Columbus provided new hope.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), a Genoese sailor with an impossible
dream, had been influenced by Marco Polo to believe that Japan could be
reached by a short sail directly westward. Although he underestimated the
distance by some 7000 miles and was totally ignorant of the intervening
continents, Columbus persistently urged his proposals upon King John of
Portugal and the Spanish monarchs. He was most successful with Queen Isabella
of Spain, who was captivated by Columbus' dream and became his most steadfast
supporter until her death in 1504. Having obtained her sponsorship, Columbus
sailed from Palos on August 3, 1492, in three small ships. He landed on San
Salvadore in the West Indies on October 12, thinking he had reached his goal.
In three more attempts, he continued his search for an Asian passage. His
voyages touched the major Caribbean islands, Honduras, the isthmus, and
Venezuela. Although he never knew it, he had claimed a new world for Spain.

[See Christopher Columbus: An engraving showing Columbus landing at
Hispaniola. Columbus made four voyages to the New World but died believing
that the islands he explored were off the coast of China.]

Columbus' first voyage posed threats to Portugal's monopoly in the
Atlantic and called for compromise if destructive war was to be averted. At
Spain's invitation, the pope issued a "Bull of Demarcation," establishing a
north-south line, about 300 miles west of the Azores. Beyond this line, all
heathen lands were open to Spanish claims. The Portuguese protested, forcing
direct negotiations, which produced the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). It moved
the line some 500 miles farther west. Later explorations showed that the new
line gave Spain most of the New World but left eastern Brazil to Portugal.

[See Voyages Of Discovery]

The Developing Portuguese Empire

The Portuguese developed a world maritime empire while maintaining
commercial supremacy through the first half of the sixteenth century. They
established posts around both African coasts, in Brazil, and across southern
Asia, driving Muslims from the Indian Ocean and dominating the spice trade of
Southeast Asia.

Two voyages at the turn of the sixteenth century laid the foundations for
the Portuguese empire in America and in the Orient. In 1497, Vasca da Gama
(1469-1524) left Lisbon in four ships, rounding the Cape of Good Hope after
ninety-three days on the open sea. While visiting and raiding among East
African ports, da Gama picked up an Arab pilot, who brought the fleet across
the Indian Ocean to Calicut, on the western coast of India. By the time he
returned to Lisbon in 1499, da Gama had lost two ships and a third of his men,
but his cargo of pepper and cinnamon brought sixty times the cost of the
expedition. Shortly afterward, Pedro Cabral (1468-1520), commanding a large
fleet on a second voyage to India, bore too far west and sighted the east
coast of Brazil. The new western territory was considered so unpromising that
it was left unoccupied until 1532, when a small settlement was established at
Sao Vincente. In the 1540s it had attracted only some 2000 settlers, mostly
men, although a few Portuguese women came after the arrival of the Lord
Protector's wife and her retinue in 1535. The colony served mostly as a place
to send convicts in the sixteenth century. By 1600, it had a population of
only 25,000 Europeans; fifty years later this number had increased to 50,000.

Brazil was neglected in favor of extensive operations in the Indian Ocean
and Southeast Asia. The most striking successes there were achieved under
Alfonso de Albuquerque, eastern viceroy between 1509 and 1515. He completed
subjugation of the East African sultanates and established fortified trading
posts in Mozambique and Zanzibar. After a decisive naval victory over an Arab
fleet, Albuquerque captured Ormuz, thus hampering Arab passage from the
Persian Gulf. In 1510, the Portuguese acquired Goa on the west coast of India;
it became a base for aiding Hindus against Indian Muslims and conducting trade
with the interior. The next year a Portuguese force took Malacca, a Muslim
stronghold in Malaysia, which controlled trade with China and the Spice
Islands, through the narrow straits opposite Sumatra.

Although dominant in Indonesia, the Portuguese were mostly supplicants on
the Asian mainland. Portuguese adventurers acquired temporary influence in
Laos and Cambodia, but they were expelled from Vietnam and enslaved in Burma.
Their arrogance and violence caused them to be banished from Chinese ports in
1522 and 1544. The Chinese gave them trading rights at Macao in 1557, but only
under strict regulations. From then until they were expelled at the end of the
Ming dynasty, the Portuguese in China conformed to law, serving as traders,
advisors, and missionaries. In Japan, after the 1540s, they prospered,
furnishing guns to the warring daimyo. Jesuit missionaries were also
successful in converting thousands of Japanese. But as the country approached
political unity, these conditions steadily worsened until all Europeans were
forced out in the 1630s.

Long before this, the Portuguese empire had begun to decline. It did not
have the special knowledge or skills required to maintain a global empire.
This deficiency originated in Albuquerque's time, when he failed to recruit
females from home to provide social stability and breed a Portuguese elite.
The problem was magnified in the early seventeenth century by a sharp decline
in Portuguese population. Portuguese men mated with native women in Africa,
Brazil, India, Indonesia, and China. Sometimes they achieved meaningful and
lasting relationships, but more often the women were exploited as prostitutes,
slaves, or harem concubines and treated little better than household pets or
work animals. After the turn of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese were
on the defensive against the Turks in East Africa, the Spanish in the
Philippines, and the Dutch everywhere. In the 1630s, the Dutch forced them
from most of Indonesia, West Africa, and Brazil. Despite a later mild revival,
the Portuguese empire never regained its former glory.

The Growth Of New Spain

While Portugal concentrated on Asian trade, Spain was winning a vast
empire in America. Shortly after 1492, Spanish settlements sprouted in the
West Indias, most notably on Haiti (Hispaniola) and Cuba. In time, as the
passage to Asia remained undiscovered, a host of Spanish adventurers - the
famous conquistadores - set out for conquest in the New World. From the West
Indies, they crossed the Caribbean to eastern Mexico, fanning out from there
in all directions, toward Central America, the Pacific, and the vast
hinterland of North America.

Unstable conditions within the Aztec Empire, a federation of recently
conquered tribes who were forced to pay tribute and furnish victims to satisfy
the Aztec obsession with human sacrifice worked to the Spaniards' advantage in
Mexico. A recently revived legend about the white-skinned and bearded
Teotihuacan god Quetzalcoatl, who had been exiled by the Toltecs because he
forbade human sacrifice and would return from across the sea to enforce his
law, also facilitated the Spanish conquest. The Aztec emperor Montezuma II
faced impending revolts by his resentful subjects and eroding morale among
superstitious Aztecs, including himself.

In 1519, Hernando Cortes (1485-1574) arrived in Mexico from Cuba with 11
ships, 600 fighting men, 200 native servants, 16 horses, 32 crossbows, 13
muskets, and 14 mobile cannon. Before marching against the Aztec capital at
Tenochtitlan, he destroyed his ships to prevent his men from turning back. In
a few battles, the Spanish horses, firearms, steel armor, and tactics produced
decisive victories. Cortes was also able to exploit the Quetzalcoatl legend,
which caused the Spaniards to be regarded as gods and helped gain allies among
the Aztec tributaries. As the little army marched inland, they were welcomed,
feasted, and given Indian women, including daughters of chiefs, whom Cortes
distributed among his men. One woman named Malinche, later christened Dona
Marina, became an invaluable interpreter, as well as Cortes' mistress, who
later bore him a son. The thousands of Indian warriors who fought and died for
Cortes contributed significantly to the Spanish victory. Without his Indians,
Cortes would have been doomed.

When he reached Tenochtitlan, a city of more than 100,000 people, Cortes
became a guest of Montezuma. Surrounded by thousands of armed Aztecs and
fearing treachery, Cortes decided to seize the Indian ruler. Malinche then
informed Montezuma, as if in confidence, that he must cooperate or die. The
bold scheme worked temporarily, but soon the Aztecs rebelled, renouncing their
emperor as a traitor, stoning and killing him when he tried to pacify them,
and driving a battered band of Spaniards from the city in a bare escape.
Later, having regrouped and gained new Indian allies, Cortes wore down the
Aztecs in a long and bloody siege, which saw some of the Spaniards sacrificed
at a distance but in full view of their comrades. Toward the end of this
ordeal, the Spaniards fought their way, street by street, against Aztec
warriors, both women and men. Finally, after fearful slaughter, some 60,000
exhausted half-starved defenders surrendered. Most tribes in central Mexico
then accepted Spanish rule; many who resisted were ultimately enslaved.

Tenochtitlan, rebuilt as Mexico City, became the capital of an expanding
Spanish empire. Conquistadores steadily penetrated the interior, but the
fierce Mayas of Yucatan and Guatemala were not subdued until the 1540s. By
then, settlements had been established thoughout Central America. The first
colony in North America was founded at St. Augustine, on Florida's east coast,
in 1565. Meanwhile, numerous expeditions, including those of Hernando de Soto
(1500-1542) and Francisco de Coronado (1510-1554), explored what is now
California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, and
Alabama. Spanish friars began a mission at Santa Fe in 1610, providing a base
for later missions. All of these territories, known as "New Spain," were
administered from Mexico City after 1542.

The vice-royalty of Mexico later sponsored colonization of the
Philippines, a project justified by the historic voyage of Ferdinand Magellan
(1480-1521). Encouraged by the exploits of Vasca de Balboa (1479-1519) who
crossed Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, Magellan sailed from
Spain in 1520, steered past the ice-encrusted straits at the tip of South
America, and sailed ninety-nine days to the Philippines, where he was killed
by natives. Only one ship completed this first circumnavigation of the world,
but it established a Spanish claim to the Philippines. It also prepared the
way for the first tiny settlement at Cebu, in 1571, of four hundred Mexicans.
By 1580, the capital at Manila had been secured against attacking Portuguese,
Chinese, and Moro fleets, and the friars were beginning conversions which
would reach half a million by 1622. The colony became moderately prosperous in
trade with Asia but remained economically dependent upon annual galleons from
Mexico. Here, as in Mexico, Spanish males, as a tiny elite, spawned an
inter-racial population in liaisons with Filipino and Chinese women.

Development Of Spanish South America

Like the conquest of Mexico, Spanish operations in Peru began another
continuing process of empire-building. In both instances, a handful of daring
adventurers destroyed a complex civilization. Each conquest initiated
extensive explorations which won most of a continent for Spain.

This all began with a surprisingly easy victory over an Inca state of
three million people scattered through Peru and Ecuador in hundreds of
mountain towns and coastal cities. But like the Aztec Empire, the Inca state
had only been recently unified and was torn by civil war between two princely
contenders for the throne when the Spaniards arrived. This bitter "war of the
brothers" had almost destroyed the last semblances of imperial unity.

Francisco Pizarro (1470-1541), the son of an illiterate peasant,
conquered Peru in 1531, after two failures, with an army of two hundred men
and sixty horses. Pizarro started inland soon after Altahualpa, one of the
contending princes, defeated his brother. As Pizarro marched he appealed to
both sides. At Cajamarco, he met and captured Altahualpa, forcing the Inca
ruler to fill a room with gold as tribute. Then, having collected the ransom,
Pizarro executed his royal prisoner and marched to the capital at Cuzco, where
the Spaniards were welcomed as deliverers. Pizarro next secured tentative
control of the country by proclaiming as his puppet-emperor the young son of
Altahualpa's dead brother.

For two more decades, political anarchy reigned in Peru, while
conquistadores fought, explored, and plundered. Indian rebellions and wars
raged within the country and on distant borders, but fights among the
Spaniards were equally violent and destructive. Meanwhile, expeditions moved
south into Chile and north through Ecuador into Colombia. Expeditions from
Chile and Peru settled in Argentina, founding the city of Buenos Aires.
Conquistadores and Indian women produced a new mestizo (Spanish-Indian)
population in Paraguay. But despite this dynamic activity, there was no
effective government at Lima, the capital, until the middle of the sixteenth

Amid the terrible hardships of this male-dominated era, women played
significant roles. As in Mexico, Indian women were bearers and camp-following
concubines; they prepared food and bore children; when necessary, they fought
beside the men. Generally, Spaniards did not take Indian wives, preferring
Spanish women, who began arriving after 1534. Among their number were society
matrons, estate managers, nuns, and shopkeepers. Some were present on all the
pioneering ventures and others were direct participants in the intrigues,
protests, and fearful sacrifices of the civil wars. In the first tumultuous
decades after Pizarro's conquest, they found opportunities to defy convention
and act independently.

By 1600, the two vice-royalties of Mexico and Peru were well established,
governing over two hundred towns with a Spanish and mestizo population of
200,000. Nevertheless, the empire was already in decline. Peruvian silver, the
main source of Spanish wealth, was either running out or requiring very
expensive mining operations; the Indian labor force was depleted, while
African slaves were both expensive and scarce. Even more serious problems were
Spain's deteriorating home economy and waning sea power.


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