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Spain in the Age of Discovery

Although Spain had allowed Columbus to die neglected and almost forgotten, she was not slow to follow up his discoveries. She continued to send ships and men to the new shores, and Portugal, too, began to send out explorers. Spain, having gained the glory of discovering a New World, was not the nation to let slip any advantage within her grasp. Possessed, herself, of a mild climate, it was natural that she should give her attention to the southern or warmer portions of the continent her sons had discovered, leaving other nations to wrangle over the colder and less inviting sections. Hence her continued conquests and discoveries in the regions south of the Equator.For nearly one hundred years after Columbus's discovery Spain and Portugal had no rivals. Spaniards and Portuguese explored Cuba, Hayti, Porto Rico, and Jamaica, and later Mexico and Peru.

A halo of romance lingers around the name of Ponce de Leon. He was a noted Spanish soldier, a companion of Columbus on his second voyage, and belonged to an ancient and noble family. Although his locks bore the frost of many winters, and his shoulders were bending under the weight of years, his eye was bright, and the ambition of youth burned in his veins. A strange story came to his ears from the Indians in Southern America, who told of crystal fountains and streams, and of a miraculous spring, whose waters brought back youth and vigor to all who bathed in or partook of them. losing their strength, his white locks were growing thin, and the passing years were pressing heavily upon him. He resolved to go in search of it. So, early in the spring of 1513, De Leon sailed from Porto Rico for the Bahamas, in quest of the wonderful fountain. The happy discoverer gave the name of Florida to the new country.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa was a young Spanish adventurer of noble family, but so impoverished that, in 1501, he crossed the ocean to the West Indies in the hope of repairing his fortunes. He met with only partial success in Haiti, or Hispaniola, and once more fell into debt. After many mishaps, Balboa landed at a village on the banks of a river, which the natives called Darien. Balboa heard accounts of an immense ocean to the westward, where gold was as abundant as pebbles on the seashore. Balboa was fired with the ambition to make the great discovery, and to gather the enormous reported wealth, which no white man had yet claimed, for none knew of its existence. Just before noon, on the 26th of September, 1513, Balboa halted at the base of a rocky mountain peak, and ascended the promontory alone. When he reached the highest point, Balboa gazed upon the mightiest ocean of the globe. Balboa made several voyages along the Pacific coast, and learned of the rich kingdom of Peru, which was afterwards conquered by Pizarro, one of the most cruel and avaricious of men. Nearly all of the early Spanish explorers treated the natives with revolting barbarity. A rival, named Davila, brought charges against Balboa, and beheaded him at Acla, in Central America, in 1517.

Spanish adventurers and conquerors, following the pioneer pathway of Columbus, destroyed the aborigines of Central and South America, and left a trail of fire and blood. In rapid succession, there came Cortez, Pizzaro, Coronado and other conquistadores, bringing with them a rabble of soldiers and common adventurers. The names of Cortez, Pizzaro, and the valorous chieftains who had followed them on their strange careers, were in the mouths of all, and their deeds the wonder of all Christendom.

Ferdinand Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, where he found people of much higher culture than he had met with before in America. But he had only 600 men and ten small cannon, besides some muskets and horsemen. The Mexicans were astonished by the sight of the white men, whom they deemed beings of a higher order. But, driven by the cruelty and covetousness of the Spaniards to insurrection, they compelled them to quit the city. After having received a reinforcement of troops, Cortez besieged Mexico, and took it in 1521. They disgraced their victory by revolting cruelty. They put the inhabitants to the rack in order to extort treasures from them. When he was governor in the conquered land, he acted even more cruelly. Cortez, after all the services he had rendered to the king, Charles V, was, like Columbus, persecuted at home.

Francis Pizarro who, from a swine-herd, had, in the name of Charles V, become the conquerer of Peru in 1529 AD, was still more savage. As the Inca (king) was contending with a relation for the throne, he made use of the strife as a pretext in order to take him prisoner. The former promised in vain to fill up an entire room with gold for his freedom. Pizarro took the gold, and nevertheless executed the Inca. When the treasures were divided, every foot-soldier received 30,000 florins, every horseman twice as much, the officers still more; and over a million was sent to the king of Spain. Pizarro, at last, was killed by his own men.

In Mexico and Peru the long looked-for gold and silver had been discovered. Thousands of men eagerly crossed the ocean and pressed farther and farther into the interior of these countries. They found them inhabited by powerful tribes of half-civilized Indians, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru, who united in an effort to drive out the invaders. Spain sent over men and ships so fast that the resistance of the Indians was useless. The most daring and brilliant of the Spanish conquests were made by Cortez in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, but the Spaniards treated the natives with great cruelty. By the aid of superior weapons of war they won crushing victories over the tribes in possession; they then seized the rich mines, and thus created a new and wealthy empire for Spain.

In this time the first sailing around the globe took place (15191522 AD). Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese, in the Spanish service, sailed with three miserable ships from Sevilla to South America, passed the winter in Patagonia, and then, through the straits bearing his name, entered Balboa's "South Sea." Magellan found the water so calm that he gave it the name Pacific. Here they suffered an indescribable famine. They ate not only biscuit mixed with worms, but even roasted leather, saw-dust and mice, paying half a ducat apiece. Almost the whole crew fell sick; several died. He continued to sail westward, and finally reached the East Indies. Unfortunately he was killed in the Philippine Islands. Finally they reached the Moluccas. The Portuguese who were here trading commenced hostilities against the navigators, the crew of one ship being compelled to surrender, the other to quickly depart. One of his vessels continued the voyage, passing round the Cape of Good Hope, until it reached Spain. There was great excitement when this ship came into port. It was the first vessel that had sailed around the world. Out of more than two hundred persons only eighteen returned to Spain.

The great wealth controlled by Spain might have made that country the greatest of modern powers, had it been guided by a wise administrative and fiscal policy, but such wisdom was lacking and the Spanish decline was only slightly less rapid and complete than that of Portugal. The excessively strict regulation of the colonial trade crippled commerce with the mother country and invited smuggling; a cruel and wasteful system of native labor lessened productivity in the colonies; the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain lost her the possession of her monied classes, while repudiation of debts forced the withdrawal of German credit; religious bigotry and fiscal exaction lost the rich province of the Netherlands; the Inquisition crushed out all individual originality and initiative; and the loss of the Armada in 1588 meant the end of Spanish naval supremacy. At the beginning of the 17th century Spain was becoming that second-rate power which she long remained.






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Page last modified: 26-08-2012 19:02:25 ZULU