33  The New World



As Europe grew increasingly powerful, it began to focus its attention on the rest of the world. Primarily motivated by trade, the Portuguese sought a path by sea to gain direct access to the spice markets of Asia. With great effort, they managed to sail around the southern tip of Africa and reached India, where they established colonies on the coastline. As this endeavor proved highly profitable, they soon established colonies all over the world, creating the first global empire.

Around the same time, Columbus, sailing under the Spanish flag, moved westward to find yet another route to Asia. Instead, he found an entire continent, which came to be known as America.

We begin the chapter with an overview of earlier great voyages in world history.


The Pacific

Exploration has been a part of mankind from its early days. Homo Sapiens emerged out of Africa in various waves. The first waves were unsuccessful and eventually died out, but the wave between 70-50,000 years ago produced all present-day populations outside of Africa. They quickly spread along the Asian coastline, reaching Australia around 65-50,000 years ago. Europe was reached perhaps around 55,000 years ago and America around 19,000 years ago. The Pacific was colonized the last, likely between 5000 and 2500 BC. Around that time, the Polynesians managed to populate extremely distant islands in the Pacific Ocean. The furthest island they settled on was Easter Island, which is a stunning 10,000 km from Asia. When the Europeans discovered the Polynesians in the 16th century, they were puzzled how these relatively simple people could have possibly found these small islands in such a vast ocean.

Today we know that the Polynesians deliberately set out from Asia in search of these islands, taking with them their families, crops, and domesticated animals. They found their way without a compass or maps. Instead, they navigated by the stars and by interpreting clouds, wave movements, bird flights, and fish schools. Some tribes even maintained a trading network spanning more than 1500 kilometers.

There is even some evidence that the Polynesians reached the Americas. For instance, the sweet potato originated in South America, but it was already found in the Pacific islands around 1000 AD. Also, chicken bones from 1300 AD have been found in Chile, even though chickens are not native to the Americas.

Fig. 77 – The famous Easter Island Moai statues (c. 1100 – 1700 AD) (Aurbina, PD)


The Vikings discover America

Another group of exceptional explorers were the Vikings, also known as the Norsemen, who originated in Scandinavia. During the eighth century, they left their homeland and terrorized Europe. Being able to sail on open water without land in sight, they often caught their enemies by surprise. Their first significant attack occurred in 793, when they attacked and looted the monastery of Lindisfarne, located on an island off the English coast. Monasteries were a common target of the Vikings, as they contained much wealth and weren’t well defended. The famous scholar Alcuin of York wrote about the incident:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. […] The pagans desecrated the sanctuaries of God, and poured out the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope, trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the street. [87]

Starting in the late 8th century, the Vikings also invaded the west coast of France, which came to be known as Normandy (derived from the word “Norseman”). From 830, they invaded Ireland, where they founded Dublin. In 1013, around the time the Vikings converted to Christianity, Sweyn Forkbeard (960–1014) conquered England, becoming king over the North Sea Empire, consisting of Denmark, Norway, and England. His victory, however, was short-lived. His son, Cnut the Great (c. 995–1035) conquered England once more in 1016. This time, the Vikings managed to stay in control until 1042. In 1066, the Norman William the Conqueror (c. 1028–1087) conquered England yet again in the famous Battle of Hastings (see Fig. 78), making French the court language of England. The Vikings also journeyed eastward, reaching as far as Turkey and Iraq. In Constantinople, they even managed to get employed in the Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors.

The Bayeux Tapestry: Vikingeskibsmuseet i Roskilde

Fig. 78 – William the Conqueror on his dragon ship approaching England, depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century). The full tapestry is 70 meters long and tells the story of the battle of Hastings (Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, France)

The Vikings also began an exploration of uncharted territory. Around 860, they discovered and then populated Iceland. In the early ninth century, the Vikings also chanced upon Greenland when one of their ships was blown off course. Erik the Red (c. 950–1003), after being expelled from Iceland for murder, became the first to settle on the island. He gave the island the appealing name “Greenland,” hoping a favorable name would attract settlers. The community he started would last for more than four centuries.

Around 985, Bjarni Herjulfsson set off to join his family in Greenland. However, he was also blown off course and instead reached the coast of Canada. Bjarni didn’t go ashore but spoke about what happened back home, making others eager to explore. One of them was Leif Eriksson (c. 970–1020), son of Erik the Red, whose explorations at sea were recorded in the Saga of the Greenlanders. Leif reached North America in 1001 AD with 35 men and called it Vinland, meaning land of grapes.

One or two years later, Leif’s brother Thorvald (10th century) also made the journey to Vinland, where he encountered and fought with Native Americans, who approached them in “three hide-covered boats with three men under each of them.” The Vikings reacted with aggression, “capturing all of them except one. […] They killed the other eight.” [88] In a later encounter, Thorvald was killed by one of their arrows:

An arrow flew between the edge of the ship and the shield into my armpit. Here is the arrow, and this wound will cause my death. [88]


Fig. 79 – Oseberg Viking ship discovered in a burial mound (9th century) (Vassia Atanassova, CC BY-SA 4.0; Viking Ship Museum, Norway)

Have In 1006 AD, a colonizing expedition followed, but it was abandoned not long after as clashes with the natives persisted. In recent years, remains of Norse settlements have been found in Newfoundland, Canada, giving us direct evidence of their travels.


The Travels of Marco Polo

In the Late Middle Ages, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo managed to travel to China, where they were welcomed in the court of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (1215–1294), grandson of Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), in modern-day Beijing. On a second voyage, Maffeo took his 17-year-old son Marco Polo (1254–1324), who would spend the next 25 years of his life there. Once he returned to Italy, he wrote down his adventures in a book called The Travels of Marco Polo. According to this work, Marco became a member of Kublai Khan’s council and served as a tax collector. He was also sent to other parts of China, Burma, and India. His book gave European readers a peek into a totally different world. He discussed their culture, politics, business, and religion, as well as their technical innovations, such as coal and paper currency.

Polo died at the age of 70. We are told that on his deathbed, he was urged to confess to having made up all his stories. Marco instead replied, “I have not told half of what I saw!” [89] In the centuries after his death, many people would continue to doubt his story, believing it to be a mere fable, but most modern historians believe Marco actually visited China.

Fig. 80 – Woodblock thought to represent Zheng He’s ships (17th century)


Zheng He’s gigantic fleet

Around the time when the Portuguese had just started their expeditions, the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He (c. 1371–1433) embarked on a series of seven ambitious naval expeditions to some 30 different countries, including Sri Lanka, India, and East Africa. The goal, we are told, was to establish relations with these foreign countries, to impose control over the Indian Ocean trade, and to look for exotic treasures for the imperial court. An account of these voyages known as Ying Yai Sheng Tan (“Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore”) was written down by Ma Huan, a Chinese Muslim who served as a translator. According to this text, each of these expeditions comprised of a stunning 300 ships and employed 30,000 men. In comparison, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama only had four ships with about 170 men when he reached India about a century later. Zheng He’s largest ships were five times longer than those of his European competitors (and would not be exceeded until the Industrial Revolution).

With these fleets, the Chinese could easily have outcompeted the Europeans and conquered the world, but in 1433 AD, the Chinese government declared the voyages an unnecessary waste and argued that they violated Confucian principles. Both the fleet and most of the records of Zheng’s voyages were destroyed, and eventually even laws were passed to make it illegal to build oceangoing ships. As a result, China allowed the Europeans to dominate the Indian Ocean virtually unchallenged.


Gunpowder empires

In the 15th century, Europe vastly improved their ships, creating effective oceangoing vessels to explore the world. Combined with gunpowder and cannons, which had recently been adopted from China, these ships made Europe the dominant power on the world stage. The first European country to take advantage of these new technologies was Portugal, which became determined to find a new trade route to Asia. Before their expeditions, the Portuguese accessed the Asian spice trade through middlemen in Venice and Genoa, who sometimes charged five times the purchase price. Other overland trade routes were also problematic as they were in the hands of the Ottoman Turks. To solve this problem, the Portuguese attempted to find a new route to India by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. At the time, it was unclear if this was even possible, as Ptolemy had argued that Africa was connected to the bottom of the world.

Starting in 1419, the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) sponsored expeditions to expand Portugal’s reach along the west coast of Africa. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) reached further south than any of his predecessors, but then he got caught in a 13-day storm. When it finally subsided, he realized that the African coast was suddenly to his west. As a result, he concluded he must have sailed around the tip of Africa, which he named the Cape of Storms. The Portuguese king later renamed it the Cape of Good Hope.

Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524) extended the journey even further, reaching India in 1498 after a full year of sailing. Being this long at sea, his crew developed scurvy as a result of vitamin C deficiency (the symptoms of which are swollen feet and hands, bleeding gums, aching teeth, and finally death). When going ashore in India, they were surprised to meet two Muslims able to answer them in Spanish. The Portuguese told them: “We come in search of Christians and spices.” They managed to get hold of a large batch of pepper and cinnamon, enough to pay for their expedition 60 times over.

On a follow-up expedition, launched in 1500, Vasco da Gama began to use violence to assert his dominance over the Indian Ocean. Most notably, his men bombarded the Indian city of Calicut and captured a ship of Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca, murdering its passengers. A few years later, in 1505, Portuguese India was established, consisting of a string of Portuguese fortresses and cities along the Indian coast. In time, Portugal established colonies all over the world, forming both the first global trade network and global empire (see Fig. 81).

Areas of the world that were once part of the Portuguese Empire

Fig. 81 – Areas of the world that were once part of the Portuguese Empire (Gabriel Ziegler, CC BY-SA 4.0)



Perhaps the most archetypal voyage of discovery was that of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506). Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, and spent much of his early life at sea. In his twenties, he was caught in a sea battle near Portugal where his boat sank, forcing him to swim to shore. He also went on expeditions to Iceland and Guinea.

In the 1480s, he became convinced he could find yet another route to India, this time by sailing west. Intellectuals at the time already knew the Earth was spherical in shape, but the Atlantic Ocean was believed to be too large to reach India without running out of supplies. Columbus thought differently based on a few meager clues and a few irrational guesses. It was said that Aristotle believed India could be reached from Spain in just a few days. Strabo (c. 64 BC–24 AD), a Greek geographer, claimed that some Greeks had even made an attempt to cross the ocean. There was also contemporary evidence. It was said a Portuguese sailor had picked up a carved piece of exotic driftwood, which Columbus imagined to be bamboo from India, as described by Ptolemy.[8] Other evidence came from the Azores, islands quite far out in the Atlantic Ocean, where two bodies were said to have washed ashore with faces that were interpreted as “Chinese.”

To estimate the distance, Columbus rejected the commonly accepted circumference of the Earth as calculated by the Greek Eratosthenes in favor of the value obtained by the Muslim scholar al-Farghani (c. 800–870). Ironically, al-Farghani had predicted an even larger circumference than Eratosthenes, but since Columbus used a wrong unit of distance, he found a circumference 75% smaller than the current value. Ptolemy had estimated that the Eurasian continent reached about half-way around the globe (which is already an overestimate), but Columbus instead cherry-picked the work of Marinus of Tyre (c. 70–130) who believed the continent covered about 63% of the Earth, which he extended to 65% believing Marinus had used an erroneous unit. He then added another 8% based on descriptions by Marco Polo, another 8% for the reputed distance between China and Japan, and 3% for the distance to the Canary Islands, reducing the distance between Europe and Asia to a mere 17% of the globe (the actual percentage being over 50%). [90]

As you might have noticed, Columbus cherry-picked the circumference of the Earth to be as small as he could get away with (thereby reducing the size of the Atlantic Ocean), while preferring the largest possible distance for the length of the Eurasian continent. Clearly, this line of argumentation is illogical, but Columbus had no problem twisting the facts to convince himself India was just around the corner. We see this same obsession in the notes he made in the margins of various books. When an author proposed a distance too large for his liking, he wrote: “not so.” [90] At another instance, we read: “India is near Spain.” In these notes we also find Columbus interested in gold, pearls, elephants, and even legendary monsters.

Columbus’s next task was to convince one of Europe’s rulers to finance his expedition, but this turned out to be one of the hardest things he would ever do in his life. For eight years, Columbus lobbied at royal courts, but his plans kept being rejected on the grounds that his calculations were far too optimistic. Later in life, he would often look back with bitterness at the ceaseless rejection and ridicule he faced during those years. He made his first offer to the Portuguese Don Joao II (1455–1495). A historian at his court called Columbus “very boastful in his affairs” and the king gave him “small credit.” “They all considered the words of Christovao Colom [Columbus] as vain, simply founded on imagination, or on things like that Isle Cypango [Japan] of Marco Polo.” [90] His second attempt was with Isabella of Castille (1451–1504) and Ferdinand of Aragon (1452–1516) of Spain, but they were too busy reconquering Granada from the Arabs. They did allow a commission to examine his proposal, but “all of them agreed that what the Admiral said could not possibly be true, [but] contrary to what appeared to most of them, the Admiral persisted.” The plan “rested on weak foundations, and […] appeared uncertain and impossible to any educated person.” Despite the negative outcome, the king and queen did advise Columbus to try again after the war with Granada.

Meanwhile, he sent his brother Bartholomew (c. 1461–1515) to England, where the counselors of the king “made game of what Columbus said, and held his words to be in vain.” His brother next went to France, where the reaction was also negative. When Columbus was about to give up and leave Spain, a friend in court offered to finance his fleet, after which the king and queen finally endorsed his plans.

Columbus was given three ships, called Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, and a crew of 90 men. They left with provisions for at least one year. Isabella and Ferdinand gave Columbus “royal letters of recommendation for the Grand Khan, and for all the kings and lords of India.”

Columbus described his journey in his diary titled Book of the First Navigation and Discovery of the Indies. The original manuscript has unfortunately disappeared, but his biographer Bartolome de Las Casas (c. 1480–1566), who later became the first ordained priest of the New World, quoted long passages. Near the start, he wrote:

Your Highnesses […] ordered that I should not go by land to the east, as had been customary, but that I should go by way of the west, which up to this day, we do not know for certain that any one has gone. […] Your Highnesses gave orders to me that with a sufficient fleet I should go to the said parts of India, and for this they made great concessions to me, and ennobled me, so that henceforward I should be called Don, and should be Chief Admiral of the Ocean Sea, perpetual Viceroy and Governor of all the islands and continents that I should discover and gain, and that I might hereafter discover and gain in the Ocean Sea, and that my eldest son should succeed, and so on from generation to generation forever. [90]


The first voyage

In 1492, Columbus departed from the Canary Islands, which were in the hands of Spain. Geographically, the Azores seemed a more obvious choice, as these islands were located further off from the European coast, but they were in the hands of their competitor Portugal. But as luck would have it, a departure from the Canary Islands gave them access to the trade winds, while a departure from the Azores would have resulted in failure.

After three days of sailing every trace of land had disappeared. About this momentous event, Columbus wrote in his log:

This day we completely lost sight of land, and many men sighed and wept for fears they would not see it again. [...] I comforted them with great promises of land and riches. [91]

To estimate the distance he had covered, he guessed his speed by following bubbles or gulfweed as it floated by. To not upset his crew, he consistently reported a lower distance, making his crew believe they were less far from home (although, ironically, we now know his reported distance was closer to the correct value). During their journey, they were often tricked by false indications that land was close. Mid-ocean, they saw two birds fly over and a little later they found a piece of gulfweed and a crab, but this was false alarm. On one occasion, the captain of the Pinta, Martin Alonso Pinzon (c. 1441–1493), yelled out: “Land, land, sir! I claim the reward.” Columbus fell on his knees to thank God, the crew sang Gloria in excelsis Deo, but it was again false alarm. Eventually, the crew became anxious. What if food and water would run out? Columbus had to calm them down, reminding them of the great wealth of India and the favors they would receive back home. At some point Columbus had covered his estimated distance to Japan, but still there was no land. Now the anxiety among the men turned into open mutiny. This time, Columbus promised to return within two or three days if they would not sight land. Then things started to turn in their favor. A flock of birds flew over, which they decided to follow, which turned out to be a good call. A little later, Nina picked up a green branch with a little flower and Pinta a carved stick, which they believed must have been carved by an Indian. Then, before sunrise, Columbus saw a light in the distance, which was confirmed by a crew member. “[It] was like a little wax candle rising and falling.” Someone else also saw the light and screamed that he had found land. Whatever it was they saw, it again turned out to be false alarm (although this “sighting” somehow won Columbus the prize for being the first to spot land). Later, Rodrigo de Triana on the Pinta reported a white sand cliff gleaming in the moonlight, then another, and a dark line of land connecting them. “Tierra, Tierra,” he shouted. Martin Alonso Pinzon fired his gun to alert the other ships. As soon as Columbus approached, he shouted “Senor Martin Alonso, you have found land!” [90] After 33 days of sailing, they had reached an island of the Bahamas which Columbus named San Salvador.

When Columbus went ashore with the royal standard displayed, they saw “naked people”, whom he called Indians—after the Indies, which, at the time, referred to Asia as a whole. They then kneeled on the ground, thanking the Lord that they had made it. Columbus wrote about the natives:

[In order that] we might form great friendshipfor I knew that they were a people who could be more easily freed and converted to our holy faith by love than by force— [I] gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure, and made them so much our friends that it was a marvel to see. They afterward came to the ship’s boats where we were, swimming and bringing us parrots, cotton threads in skeins, darts, and many other things; and we exchanged them for other things that we gave them, such as glass beads and small bells. In fine, they took all, and gave what they had with good will.

It appeared to me to be a race of people very poor in everything. They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows, except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white. Some paint themselves white, others red, and others of what color they find. Some paint their faces, others the whole body, some only round the eyes, others only on the nose.

They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their darts being wands without iron, some of them having a fish’s tooth at the end, and others being pointed in various ways. [92]

At a later time, the natives approached their ships “in dugouts which are fashioned like a long boat from the bole of a tree, and all in one piece, and wonderfully made […], and so big that in some came 40 or 45 men.” [90]

Hilariously, Columbus had hyped himself up so much by fake reports of fantastical beasts in faraway places, that he wrote:

In the islands so far, I have found no monsters, as some expected. [93]

Columbus soon learned that the natives, the Taino, were a bit too friendly for their own good, as they were no match for the neighboring Caribs who occasionally raided them from the Caribbean Islands and took them as slaves:

I saw some with marks of wounds on their bodies, and I made signs to ask what it was, and they gave me to understand that people from other adjacent islands came with the intention of seizing them, and that they defended themselves. I believed, and still believe, that they come here from the mainland to take them prisoners. [94]

To his disappointment, not much gold was found, except for some small nose jewelry. As a result, Columbus returned to sea, taking with him (or “kidnapping” according to his biographer Las Casas) six natives with him as guides and translators.

Fig. 82 – The reconstructed paths of the four voyages of Columbus, which departed in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502 (Phirosiberia, CC BY-SA 3.0, mod.)

On another island, they found a man wearing a big gold nose-plug with letters on it, which Columbus hoped might be Chinese or Japanese. Interested in the object, Columbus offered to trade, but the native did not want to part with it. They then reached another much larger island which the natives called Colba (Cuba). Mistaking the name of the center of Cuba, called Cubanacan, for “El Gran Khan,” he believed he had finally reached Japan. He was so convinced that he actually sent an embassy hoping to meet the emperor of China. The embassy only found a small village. Once there, they entered a large house, which contained carved seats. When they entered, women and children kissed their hands and feet, believing them to be “men from heaven.” The embassy did make their first acquaintance with nicotine and they also found small amounts of gold.

Columbus then visited the island Hispaniola, which today consists of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There, the crew captured a woman with another golden nose-plug, who later turned out to be the daughter of the local leader. They “sent her ashore honorably,” although she declared she would rather stay with the “men from heaven.”  Ashore, they found a large village and were soon surrounded by some two thousand natives. Again, Columbus remarked on how docile these people were:

For I, with these people aboard [my ship], who are not many, could overrun all these islands without opposition. […] They bear no arms, and are all unprotected and so very cowardly that a thousand would not face three; so they are fit to be ordered about and made to work [and we can] teach them to go clothed and to adopt our customs. [90]

The docility of the Taino would later be wildly exploited. In fact, the only Indians of the Caribbean to survive in any significant number were those willing and able to defend themselves.

When Columbus went ashore on a different part of Hispaniola, the Santa Maria hit a coral reef and shipwrecked. A friendly local Taino leader, would “from time to time [visit] the weeping Admiral to console him.” He entered Nina “and almost weeping said that he must not show grief, that he would give him all he had, and that he had given the Christians who were ashore two very big houses, and would give more if necessary. […] To such extent are they loyal and without greed for the property of others. […] Four pieces of gold as big as the hand were brought. […] The [Taino] king rejoiced to see the Admiral happy. […] He would give him as much gold as he wanted.” [90] Using the planks of Santa Maria, Columbus then built a tower and a fortress and named the settlement La Navidad.

The center of Hispaniola was called Cibao, which Columbus mistook for “Cipango” (Japan). He was told there was a great quantity of gold there. On an expedition there, he indeed found his first virgin gold in a river (which he named “Rio del Oro”) and he also discovered what he believed to be mermaids, although “they were not as beautiful as they are painted” (they were in fact sea cows). On his last stop on the island, which they called Las Flechas (“The Arrows”), they had their first dangerous encounter. There, they were shot at by (in their words) very ugly natives whose faces were stained with charcoal and who wore parrot feathers in their hair.

Columbus returned home, leaving the crew of the shipwrecked Nina behind at the fort. The ride home was much tougher than their outward journey due to bad weather. For days and days, heavy storms caused cold water to smash on the deck, from which Columbus developed arthritis, which crippled him for the rest of his life. They also lost sight of the Pinta. Its captain, Martin Alonso Pinzon, reached Spain first and contacted the sovereigns hoping to take credit for the discovery of America. Luckily for Columbus, Isabella and Ferdinand declined to meet Pinzon, waiting to hear from the Admiral himself. After his death, the Crown would use Pinzon’s testimony in an attempt to take away Columbus’s titles, which by that time had gone over to his son.

Columbus had taken his native guides with him to Spain and showed them to the public in Seville, where his biographer Las Casas (then still a young boy) laid eyes on them. Las Casas, who became one of Columbus’s biographers, had been a slave owner earlier in his life, but later developed a strong conviction that the natives were their equals and should be treated humanely. He strongly criticized the excesses of the later colonizers, and also critiqued Columbus where he went astray, although he generally respected him. He described Columbus as a devout Christian and a kind man, although he too would make some crucial mistakes, as we will later read. Casas eventually managed to convince the Crown to demand better treatment of natives and even got Pope Paul III (1468–1549) to issue the Sublimis Deus, which stated that Indians were fully rational human beings who should not be enslaved, who have the right to private property, and who should only be brought to the faith peacefully. The colonizers, in response, banished Las Casas from Hispaniola. In 1522, he started his own colony in Venezuela, where he intended to treat the natives with respect, but the mission turned out a disaster. The natives burned down his community and killed nearly everyone. Back home in Spain, he would continue to lobby for equal rights for the natives. In 1542, he even won a case against slavery, although it was repealed the same year (under the pressure of powerful landowners and nobles).

Back home in Spain, the consensus was that Columbus had in fact reached the Indies. Columbus would remain convinced of this till the end of his life. In 1493, Peter Martyr (1457–1526) did speak of a “New World” when discussing Columbus’s newly discovered islands, but he still envisioned these islands to belong to Asia.

After Columbus’s first voyage, both Portugal and Spain had found their own trade route to the Indies—Portugal by sailing east and Spain by sailing west (to what was actually America). Both satisfied with their own routes, they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which divided up the world amongst them. The treaty described a dividing line across the Atlantic Ocean, midway between Cape Verde on the African coast and the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. Any new lands to the east would become part of Portugal, while lands to the west would become part of Spain (see Fig. 83). Notice this made the yet undiscovered Brazil part of Portugal.

Fig. 83 – The earliest surviving map showing the Portuguese colonies across the globe. The Tordesillas line is the vertical line depicted on the left side of the map, crossing Brazil (1502) (Biblioteca Estense, Italy)


The second voyage

Columbus quickly gained approval for a second voyage, this time with a fleet of 17 vessels and over a thousand men, including soldiers. The prime object of the voyage, however, was not conquest, but to convert natives to Christianity, for which they brought Friar Bernardo Buil. The sovereigns demanded that the Indians were “treated very well and lovingly.” They were told not to steal their property and those who maltreated the natives were to be punished. Other objectives were to establish a trading colony, to further explore Cuba to see “whether it was an island or mainland,” and to look for gold.

When they returned to the Americas, they went ashore on yet another Caribbean island. Entering a hut, they found human flesh, young castrated Taino captives who were being fattened for their meat, and captive girls who were used to produce babies, who would also serve as food for the Caribs. Abhorred by these practices and in an attempt to defend the Taino, they captured some of the Caribs, whom they now identified as the enemy. Columbus also let one of his crewmembers keep a “very beautiful Carib girl” as a slave.

When they finally returned to Hispaniola, they discovered that all their men had been killed and their fort was burned to the ground. They soon learned a rival Taino leader called Caonabo was to blame. Columbus then tried to find a suitable spot for a new settlement, which they called Isabella. Due to persistent winds, they were forced to settle at a second-rate spot (they would later move to a more suitable spot, which they named Santo Domingo, which became the first permanent European settlement in the Americas). In the meantime, sickness had spread widely among the crew. Combined with the hard work to establish Isabella, the majority of the settlers became discontented and wanted to go home.

The crew also moved inland and constructed Fort Santo Tomas as a base camp from which to mine gold. When Caonabo attacked the fort, Columbus sent 70 men for its defense under the leadership of Alonso de Ojeda (1468–1515). This was a bad call, as Ojeda was not as kind and forgiving as Columbus. When he heard Spaniards were robbed of their clothing by natives, he cut off an ear of a Taino man and sent a local leader in chains to Isabella. According to Las Casas, these were “the beginnings of the shedding of blood.”

Columbus then left with a small crew to further explore the region, putting his brother Don Diego (c 1479–1526) in charge of Isabella. This was another huge mistake, as Don Diego didn’t have the leadership qualities to cope with the unruly colony, especially with Ojeda, who kept handing out savage punishments to the natives. While Columbus had ordered no harm was to be done to the natives, the commander of the fort, Pedro de Margarit (c. 1455–1505) extorted gold from the natives, raped their women, and took young boys as slaves.

On his journey, Columbus was disappointed to discover that Cuba was an island and therefore not the mainland of Asia. He then discovered Jamaica, where Nina shipwrecked.

When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, he discovered natives were ambushing his men. In response, he took 1500 islanders captive and brought them to Isabella. With only a small amount of gold to show for, he decided to send these captives back to Spain as slaves, against the wishes of the sovereigns. In order to finance the expedition, Columbus also decided to have the natives of Hispaniola pay tribute in gold. They had to work so hard to reach their target that many took cassava poison to end their lives.

Meanwhile, Friar Buil had left for Spain, where he complained that Columbus was mismanaging his colony. In response, five vessels commanded by Juan Aguado were sent to investigate these claims. Aguado found a colony where almost everyone was sick or discontented, while healthy people were looting or catching slaves.


The third and fourth voyage

On his third voyage, in 1498, Columbus sailed further south. He first landed on the island of Trinidad and then had his first sight of the mainland, although at the time he still assumed it was another island. Ojeda would later call the land Venezuela (“Little Venice”), as the natives often lived in dwellings on poles. There, he was soon surrounded by “an infinite number of canoes.” With the natives he drank icha, a fermented drink made from maize, and he also spotted some natives wearing golden disks around their necks. These natives were more sophisticated than the Taino, as evidenced by their expert cotton clothing and metallurgy. Another sign of higher culture was the appearance of big freighting canoes with a cabin amidship. He then found enormous amounts of freshwater streaming from four rivers into the ocean, which he took as evidence that he might be sailing along the mainland (he had found the mouths of the Orinoco River). Columbus claimed he had found an “other world” unknown to either the ancients or Marco Polo, yet he still assumed this land belonged to Asia:

I believe that this is a very great continent, which until today has been unknown. And reason aids me greatly because of that so great river and fresh-water sea. [90]

Columbus was so impressed by Venezuela that he believed he had found Paradise. He was strengthened in his belief since the Bible mentioned Eden as a place in the East, complete with four rivers.

When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, he again found the island worse off. He allowed the slave trade to resume, but provided the victims were genuine prisoners of war. To make matters worse, a group of Spaniards had broken off in rebellion and joined a local cacique named Behechio, but Columbus eventually managed to make peace.

In 1499, Ojeda set sail to South America on his own expedition. On board was a Florentine named Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), who would later write an account of the voyage (without naming his captain). Vespucci also claimed he made a trip to the American mainland in 1497, predating Columbus’s arrival in Venezuela, but given inconsistencies in his story and a lack of evidence, this is commonly viewed as a fabrication. Even his contemporary Las Casas suspected Vespucci made up this voyage to position himself as the first European to discover the mainland of America. In 1503, in his Mundus Novus, he declared South America to be a “new world, because our ancestors had no knowledge of [it]. Once there, we determined that the new land was not an island but a continent.” Based on this report, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller (c. 1470–1521) announced the discovery of a “fourth part of the world,” which he named “America” after Amerigo Vespucci.

When another rebellion broke out, Columbus put it down by force, as was necessary to bring back order to his colony. Yet just at this time, another scout from the Spanish Crown came over to check up on the colony. On his arrival, he saw gallows on which were hanging the corpses of seven rebel Spaniards. As a result, Columbus was taken back to Spain in chains. He was removed from his position as governor and replaced by Nicolas de Ovando (c. 1460–1511), who ironically acted with far greater severity both toward Indians and the colonists. Columbus was also barred from visiting Hispaniola.

During his fourth (and last) voyage, Columbus set out to find a passage to India. On the Bay Islands, near Honduras, they found their first cacao beans, which the natives used as currency. In Nicaragua, they found “a great palace of wood covered with canes, and within some tombs, in one of which was a corpse dried and embalmed […] with no bad odor, wrapped in cotton cloth; and over each tomb was a tablet carved with figures of beasts.” In Panama, Columbus established his first mainland settlement, but it was abandoned when it came under attack. Unbeknownst to him, Columbus was here only about 60 kilometers away from the Pacific Ocean, which would be discovered a few years later, in 1513, by Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475–1519).

On the route back to Hispaniola, his ships began to rot as they were infested with worms, and they were short on provisions. One ship, after being damaged by a coral reef, was also continuously filling up with water, which had to be pumped out. Unable to keep the ships afloat, Columbus decided to run them ashore on Jamaica. They received food from the natives, but had no way to rebuild their ships and with 116 mouths to feed, the natives could not help indefinitely. The only solution was to send a messenger in a canoe to Hispaniola, which was over 500 kilometers away. Miraculously, the messenger managed to survive the trip, but was then detained in Hispaniola by Ovando for another seven months. Ovando eventually sent a small ship, but only to spy on Columbus. Finally, the messenger was released and arranged their rescue and final return to Spain.


The Columbian Exchange

The encounter with the New World brought the Europeans potatoes, tomatoes, corn, squash, tobacco, cacao, vanilla, rubber, peanuts, cashews, chili peppers, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, cranberries, strawberries, avocados, and many other products, which greatly enriched the rather scant European diet. The Europeans, in turn, brought horses, sheep, cows, and pigs (the only domesticated four-legged animals in the Americas were dogs and llamas). But the exchange wasn’t all positive. The Europeans also brought diseases, such as colds, measles, smallpox, cholera, and typhus, which devastated the local population. Some 85% of Native Americans are believed to have been wiped out in several generations, much more from infections than from combat. It is also possible Columbus and his crew brought a dangerous strain of syphilis back to the Old World, as his men had a disease with similar symptoms and the first epidemic of syphilis in Europe was recorded in 1495 (although some form of syphilis must have existed in Europe also, as evidenced by a small number of skeletons with bone damage related to the disease).


Magellan circumnavigates the globe

The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480–1521) led a crew that became the first to circumnavigate the globe (Magellan himself was killed midway). After being rejected by the king of Portugal, he switched to Spain with a plan to travel westward to the Spice Islands (now called the Moluccas), giving Spain access to Asia, while technically honoring the line of Tordesillas.

Magellan departed in 1519 with five ships. After arriving in South America, he sailed southward to look for a possible westward passage to Asia. With great difficulty, he reached a channel near the southern tip of South America, now called the Strait of Magellan. After more than a month, he finally came out on the other side, reaching what he named the Pacific Ocean (“Peaceful Ocean”) for its mild and warm weather. Around this time, Magellan also spotted unfamiliar galaxies only visible in the Southern Hemisphere, which, to this day, are called Magellanic Clouds.

Magellan hoped he would quickly reach the Spice Islands from here, but the Pacific Ocean turned out to be twice the size of the Atlantic and took him 99 days to spot land. During their journey, supplies ran out to such an extent that they were forced to eat leather, which they soaked and grilled to make it more palatable. The first land they reached was the small island of Guam, where they had a violent encounter with natives. They next reached the Philippines, which they claimed for Spain.

At Cebu Island, Magellan converted the natives to Christianity. As an act of goodwill, he promised to defeat their enemies, but he was killed in the process. His crew, sailing without their captain, finally reached the Spice Islands, where they bought cloves. They then returned to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. The total voyage took three years, and only one-fifth of the crew survived, but having traveled 15 times the distance of Columbus’s first voyage, it is surprising that anyone did. Back home, the spices were sold for an enormous sum of money.