We will begin with a look at how the world was viewed by fifteenth-century Europe. It is important to note that at that time, Italy, Germany, and eastern Europe were still in the throws of ‘Balkanization’ and serfdom. The fact that Spain Portugal, France and England were the only distinct polities had significant bearing on the later founding of wheat would become the great overseas empires.
By the 1400’s, most educated Europeans were vaguely aware that the earth was round, but influenced by the second-century geographer, Ptolemy, they still assumed that the only continents that existed were Europe, Africa and Asia (which they called the Indies), and that there was one great ‘Ocean Sea’. What was missing from Ptolemy’s world were the Americas and the huge Pacific Ocean.
There was increasing interest in finding sea-routes circumnavigating Africa and, then, heading eastward to the Indies for the gold, jewels, silk and spices that were known to be in such abundance. There existed between Portugal and Castile a long rivalry along the African coast and in the Atlantic. The small Portuguese nation, limited by how much money it could raise for expeditions to find new sea trade-routes to Asia, had to confine itself to exploration around the Cape of Good Hope rather than venturing westward across the Atlantic, still referred to at that time by its Arabic name, the ‘Sea of Darkness’. Many a sailor was highly discouraged by the tales of this body’s profound darkness, high waves, dangerous winds, many storms and frightening monsters that inhabited it, and they contented themselves with sailing resolutely close to the coasts.
Columbus was influenced both by Ptolemy’s view of the world and by that of the famous Italian astronomer, Toscanelli. He believed that the shortest and easiest way to reach the Indies would be to sail west across a relatively narrow Atlantic Ocean. He never imagined that, in fact, a whole continent lay between Europe and Asia! Approaching first John II of Portugal in 1483 or early 1484, Columbus claimed that he could find Cipangu (Japan) and India by sailing west. The Portuguese king rejected his proposal then, and again, four years later (after Bartolomeu Dias discovered an eastern route around Africa, thus opening the eastern route to India). It is important to note that, as early as 1480, Columbus had broached his plan to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, but they, like the Portuguese) did not share his belief in a comparatively short Atlantic crossing, and in 1487 Columbus was again rebuffed.
It was only in 1492 that the Spanish monarchs finally agreed to sponsor his expedition. This was because it was only early in that year that the last of the Moorish rulers Boabdil, surrendered Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella. When Spain finally overcame this last stronghold of the Moors (whose occupation of Andalusia had lasted some 700 years), it could then focus its attention on increasing its commerce with other nations. It was Queen Isabella in particular, who was receptive to Columbus’s plan and agreed to finance his enterprise, to grant him the titles he requested along with one-tenth of all revenues from his discoveries.
Columbus’s obsession to reach the land of spices was not only a result of his eagerness to test out his geographical speculations, but was also greatly determined by his religious zeal. His plan, as presented to the Spanish monarchs, included using revenues gained from his voyage to the Indies to finance the recovery of Jerusalem from the Moors. He firmly believed that his mission to navigate the Atlantic Ocean was supported by Cod, and that he was, indeed, empowered by the Holy Spirit to set out and find this earthly paradise.
As a result of his four voyages from Spain and back, he discovered and explored the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, encountered the great South American land-mass, and coasted the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama, all the time believing that the Indies were ‘Asia’ and that he had reached the earthly paradise upon landing on the coast of South America .
We begin with Columbus because it was his four voyages which inspired other explorers to venture into new frontiers, thus playing a major role in the subsequent colonization of the New World. One of the greatest of these explorers was Hernando Cortés.