Episode 3 Columbus and the Conquistadors

In this episode, I discuss how European colonization began, what inspired it, and who the main players in the game were. 

Europeans were not really interested in land that lay to the West; in fact, they had no idea that there land even existed to the west. They had their eyes fixed on the East. It’s really hard to imagine that Europe became the powerhouse of exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were just recovering from the bubonic plague that took out a third of their population, so they were not exactly in the best position to colonize.

Also, the Catholic church at this time didn’t really appreciate science like astronomy or other advancements in technology. Galileo’s trial occurred in 1633 so they were quite hostile towards anyone whose science contradicted their own. This doesn’t seem to set the stage for global expeditions. Yet, different factors came together to set it all in motion.

It all started in the late 1200s with Marco Polo. He was the son of an Italian merchant and trader who traveled through Asia. He spent 17 years in China alone. A writer eventually assisted him in creating a book of his adventures. It described the wonders of China, the silks, the gold, the spices, the riches, and the splendor that await any person or country willing to trade with them. The book inspired thousands of Europeans for hundreds of years.

The first European to land in North America was not Columbus. Let’s go back to the year 950 AD. A boy who would become known as Erik the Red was born. He is an enigmatic person, known mostly by what has been passed down through Nordic and Icelandic sagas.. His father was banished for manslaughter and moved to Iceland. There Erik grew up. In his adult years, Erick was himself banished from a couple different towns for a couple different reasons, prompting him to leave Iceland all together and move to Greenland.

Now, one of Erick’s sons was named Leif. Leif Erikson, or “Leif the Lucky,” is believed to have traveled from Greenland back to Norway in the year 1000 AD. King Olaf I Tryggvason converted Leif to Christianity and then sent him back to Greenland to spread the faith.

From here, the storylines start to blur a bit. One account reports that Leif sailed off course and landed in North America, at a place he called Vinland. Another account, which scholars say is more believable, states that Leif heard about a place called Vinland from an Icelandic trader named Bjarni Herjulfsson. Leif Erickson is credited with being the first European to set foot on North American soil, although where he first set foot is up to debate.

Europeans wanted access to Asia, be it by land or by sea. By 1453 the Ottomans captured the strategic city of Constantinople and practically closed off European trade with Asia, and they didn’t really like that.One of the countries that need be discussed is Portugal. As you know, Portugal is nowhere close to Asia. It is actually one of the furthest from Asia considering the silk road that was predominantly used for trade. This distance, and the fact they are on the ocean, likely fueled their determination for naval advancement.

Of these advancements was the ship called the caravel. The design changed over the years, so a caravel of 1434 looked much different than a caravel of 1500. It was a smaller and lighter ship than was capable of greater speeds than the larger ships of the time. It was highly maneuverable and capable of going great distances. Little by little Portuguese sailors traveled further and further, creating trading posts along the Western Coast of Africa, and colonizing the Islands in the Atlantic such as the Azores, the Canary, and Madeira Islands.

Bartholomeu Diaz reach the Cape of Good Hope, the Southern tip of Africa, in 1487. By 1498, Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa and made it to India. By 1500 Portugal had bases along West Africa, India, China, and Indonesia, replacing the Italian city-states as the European commercial partner of Asia. Although de Gama made it to the Indies, Columbus thought he already had, six years prior.

Columbus was an accomplished mariner who sailed the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean extensively. He loved the sea and continued sailing to places like Ireland, the West Coast of Africa, and possibly even Iceland. Columbus knew the earth was round, but he significantly underestimated the distance that Asia was from Europe, thinking it was only 3,500 miles away.

In 1484 he started seeking support for an Atlantic crossing to Asia. He sought out patronage from the rulers of Portugal, England, and France, but was turned down by all.  One of the reasons was likely due to people doubting his estimation of Asia’s location. After being rejected numerous times, Columbus captured the interest of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

Anyways it was 1492 when Columbus sailed from Spain with his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, two of which happened to be caravel ships. He had a very lucrative deal with Spain. He was granted ten percent of whatever riches he discovered, the governorship of any land he discovered, as well as the noble title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”  Columbus thought that he found the “Indies,” which is why he named the natives, Indians.

One of Columbus’s biggest legacies is referred to as the Columbian Exchange. It was the exchange of ideas, plants, animals, and diseases between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Crops such as squash, peanuts, potatoes, corn, tobacco, and others were brought to Europe and Africa. Rice, wheat, cattle, sheep, pigs, sugarcane, olives, and others were bought to the Americas. This exchange greatly improved the diet of Europeans.

Most tragically is the disease that the Europeans brought. It is estimated that 90% of the indigenous population of the Americas died, mostly from diseases such as smallpox, influenza, Typhus and others. This is why the population of the Americas declined so much from 1492 to 1776..disease and warfare. The exchange was pretty darn good for Europeans, not so much for anyone else.

People look at what Christopher Columbus did and they say that nothing good comes from Christianity. I am in no way condoning what Columbus did to the indigenous peoples. That being said, what people tend to forget is that the 20th century is referred to by many Sociologists as the age of genocide, because humanity killed more of itself in the 20th century than the previous 19 centuries combined. Oxford has a list of the genocides in the 20th century if you want to look it up.

According to the Propertarian Institute, 160 million people were murdered in the 20th century.

What about the million ethnic Uighurs (Wee-Gurs) being held and sexually abused in Chinese concentration camps TODAY? Where are soldiers of sanctity on that story? Disney thanked the Chinese government for allowing them to film Mulan in the very province the Uighurs are being held in some 260 concentration camps.

Another very important question remains. If Columbus discovered the New World, why don’t we call the continents North and South Columbia, or something like that?

In May of 1499, another Italian merchant by the name of Amerigo Vespucci was part of an alternative expedition commissioned by Spain. Amerigo Vespucci went against Columbus and stated that the land that had been discovered was not Asia, but was a “New World.” He was a skilled cartographer and took note of the stars in the sky, the coastline, the geography, and as a skilled astronomer and cartographer, began to doubt that he was in Asia.

Following Columbus’s voyages, Spain sent numerous conquistadores, who were soldier explorers, to seek out and claim land and treasure for the Spanish Empire. They were typically accompanied by Missionaries so they could convert the people they encountered to Christianity and plant missions.

In 1519, a bold Spanish hidalgo by the name of Hernan Cortez arrived in modern day Mexico and made his way to the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan. In November of 1519, he entered Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital ruled by Montezuma. If you haven’t yet, download episode 2 for more info on Tenochtitlan and Mesoamerica. Cortez defeated the Aztecs once and for all at the Battle of Otumba on July 7, 1520 and regained control of Tenochtitlan by August of 1521.

Another well know conquistador was Francisco Pizarro. In 1532 Pizarro entered the city of Cajamarca, modern day Peru. Following the example of Cortex, Pizarro held Atahuapla (their ruler) hostage and demanded a ransom be paid. After the Incan paid it, Pizarro killed Atahuapla anyway.

As conquistadores continued exploring new lands, they claimed it for Spain. By the mid-1500s, Spain was the top dog. Their empire solidly surpassed the size of the ancient Roman Empire. Tenochtitlan became their New World capital that housed churches, government buildings, hospitals, and even the first University.

They grew remarkably wealthy, exporting 181 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from the Americas to Spain. Funny enough, this led to massive inflation all across Europe as the currency supply surpassed the demand of goods. Prices more than quadruped in Europe in the 1500s as a result.

Catholic Priests followed the conquistadores and started missions all over the place where they converted the locals to Catholicism. Each mission grew its own food and produced what it needed for survival. As the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries spread over the continent, they brought their language, architecture, culture, and faith with them. The legacy is still felt today in many places in the South Western United states and many of the missions that the Spanish formed are still present today.

Dan Ansaldo

Dan was born and raised in the Bay Area of California and currently lives in the Kansas City Metro area with his wife and two kids. Dan is a former teacher and currently works in social work. He loves all things history related, but especially American history and the country's founding philosophies. In his spare time, Dan is an SEO content writer.

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