Thayer Watkins

The Spanish and Portuguese
Conquest of the Americas

In 1484 Christopher Columbus tried unsuccessfully to interest King John II of Portugal in voyages of discovery to the west. Columbus then offered his services in leading such an explatory voyage to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of what later became Spain. Queen Isabella in 1492 after the defeat of the last Muslim stronghold in Spain agreed to finance such a voyage and named Columbus as the admiral, viceroy and governor of any lands he should find. On August 3, 1492 Columbus' fleet of three ships left Spain and made landfall in the Bahamas on October 12th, about two months later. The fleet then sailed to the northeast coast of Cuba and turned to eastward to the island of Hispanola, which now contains the countries of Haiti and the Bominican Republic. There Columbus lost his flagship, the Santa Maria. He then returned to Spain to report his findings.

When word of Columbus' discoveries reached Portugal its king charged the Spanish with encroachment into the Portuguese realm. Ferdinand and Isabella then appealed to the Pope in Rome, who was in origin a Spaniard. In 1493 the Pope issued a proclamation (a Bull) which assigned all lands which were more than 100 leagues (345 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands to Spain and the land east of that line to Portugual. King John II of Portugal was not satisfied with this division, which he felt jeaprodized Portuguese interests in the South Atlantic so he negotiated a treaty with Ferdinand and Isabella 270 leagues (930 miles) farther to the west. This treaty was called the Treaty of Tordesilla.

Columbus returned to Hispanola in 1493 with 17 ships and 1200 colonists. There was dissatisfaction with Columbus' leadership among the colonists and in 1496 Columbus returned to Spain to report his new discoveries and answer the charges brought against him by the colonists.

In 1498 returned on a third voyage in which he explored the area off the north coast of South America. He discovered the Island of Trinidad and the mouth of the Orinoco River. When Columbus went to Hispanola he found the colony in chaos the colonists in rebellion against him. To placate the colonists he granted pardons and gave them land and control over groups of natives. But despite Columbus' efforts to bring calm to the colony King Ferdinand appointed a new governor for the colony, Francisco de Bobadilla. Bobadilla arrested Columbus and sent him in chains back to Spain. Columbus was freed and made a fourth voyage to the Americas but he was not allowed to land on Hispanola.

Meanwhile other explorers were in the area. In 1499 Alonso de Ojeda sailing for Spain visited the mouth of the Orinoco River which Columbus had found on his third voyage. Accompanying Ojeda was an Italian whose presence was to have a profound impact on the region. His name was Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci in 1501-02 led another expedition to the region of the Orinoco for the King of Portugal. A Portuguese navigator, Pedro Alvares Cabral, had sighted the northeast coast of Brazil in 1500 and the Portuguese king was interested in what else was nearby. Vespucci concluded that the sightings were of a new continent and stated this in letters he wrote about his explorations. Those letters were published and widely read in Europe. A cartographer in Germany, Martin Waldseemuller, assigned the name America to what is now Brazil on his maps in honor of Amerigo Vespucci. So the original America was South America.

(To be continued.)

Philip II and his Spanish-Portuguese Empire

Philip's father, Charles V was the heir of the Habsburg Empire who additionally inherited the Spanish crown. Charles moved to Spain and began governing the Spanish Empire without speaking Spanish. He married a Portuguese princess, the mother of Philip. Philip was born in Spain and thoroughly Castilian in culture. In his old age Charles abdicated and divided the Habsburg Empire between his brother Ferdinand and his son Philip. Ferdinand got basically the Holy Roman Empire and founded the Austrian branch of the Habsburgs and Philip got Spain and its Empire and the Low Countries, what is now Belgium and the Netherlands. The latter was sometimes characterized as The Fatal Inheritance for all the problems it created for Philip.

Philip became King of Spain in 1555. Later the throne of Portugal was vacated by the death of the king and Philip successful claimed the throne of Portugal on the basis of his mother rights. In 1580 Philip began the rule of the joint empires of Spain and Portugal. Philip died in 1598 but the joint monarchy of Spain and Portugal continued until 1640 when the Portuguese declared a Portuguese to be the King of Portugal.

Philip chose in 1561 to make his capital in the geographic center of his kingdom of Spain and Portugal. Madrid was the small town located at that point and it rose to be a great metropolis as a result of its status of capital. Philip built his palace, San Lorenzo del Escorial, about thirty miles from Madrid. Escorial means slag heap, as is found outside of a mine. The Escorial was not a palace of luxury; it more like a giant file cabinet to house the records of Philip's empires. It had 85 miles of corridors, 86 staircases, 1200 doors and 2000 windows. But the Escorial was more than an archive for public records. It had a strong religious character. There were 15 cloisters and numerous religious artifacts that were parts of the bodies of saints. Philip's spartan office adjoined the church altar.

Philip had the Escorial built to collect the information needed to make informed decisions about his empires. He perceived the inefficiencies of his father and previous kings as being due to a lack of information and organization. Philip himself worked very hard to make his system of governance work. He had chronically red eyes from reading so much.

But despite Philip's notable ability and willingness to work all of the time the system did not really work. The empires were too complex and far flung for central control from Madrid. Philip's attempt to gather information delayed the governance of the empire even more that it was under his predecessors. To make matters worse Philip procrastinated as he tried to figure out what his right action should be. One individual remarked upon the great delays in getting any action from Madrid by saying, "If Death is sent to us from Madrid we will live a very long time."

Philp's failures at governance perhaps came from his taking on too many monumental tasks. He took it upon himself to stop the Ottoman Turk invasion of Europe. After several naval defeats his navy finally destroyed the Turkish navy at Lepanto in the Mediterranean in 1571. He also took it upon himself to counter Protestantism. He married Mary Tudor, Queen of England, and was technically the King of England until her death. Perhaps because of Philip's attempted defense of Catholicism in England and the Netherlands he was thoroughly disparaged by English writers and historians.

This literary exaggeration of the faults of Philip and Spaniards in general is part of what is called The Black Legend of the horrors of the colonial Spanish Empire.

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