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Explorers of Latin America
What is Latin America?
There are a number of definitions for Latin America. Some are based upon the languages spoken. Some are based upon geography. The one which I prefer to use is that Latin America refers to all countries and territories in the Americas south of the United States.
Where are the Americas?
The Americas are the continents of North and South America in the Western Hemisphere.
Who explored Latin America?
Among the explorers of Latin America were Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, Rodrigo de Bastidas, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa. This article provides some interesting facts about these five men.
Christopher Columbus (1451 - 1506)
Christopher Columbus was a 15th century explorer born in Italy. He has often been given credit for the European discovery of the Americas in 1492, but it is now believed he was preceded by Leif Ericson, who is thought to have landed on Newfoundland nearly 500 years earlier.
Columbus proposed to reach India and East Asia by sailing on a then-unexplored westward route. The eastward sea and land routes to East Asia had existed for centuries. Columbus convinced the Spanish monarchy to finance a voyage to what he thought would be the East Indies.
Columbus made four trips to the Americas between 1492 and 1502, landing on Caribbean islands and parts of Central and South America. He was appointed Viceroy to administer the newly-discovered lands, but his administration was controversial, and he was replaced. Columbus spent most of his later years in attempts to obtain from the Spanish crown what he considered compensation for his discoveries, but he met with little success.
Amerigo Vespucci (1454 - 1512)
Amerigo Vespucci, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, was born in Florence, Italy. As a young man, he engaged in various business ventures in Florence, but later moved to Seville, Spain. Vespucci had business connections with merchants who had outfitted Columbus, and after Columbus returned from one of his voyages to the Americas, Vespucci had the opportunity to meet him. Vespucci became interested in exploring the New World, and knew that the Spanish monarchy was interested in financing more explorations of that region.
According to a letter he wrote, Amerigo Vespucci embarked on an expedition with Spanish ships in 1497 and landed in Central America. Some scholars question whether or not Vespucci wrote the letter—or even if the expedition actually took place.
In 1499, Vespucci began a second expedition under Portuguese auspices to what is now Guyana and Brazil. He apparently discovered the mouth of the Amazon River.
On his third voyage in 1501, Vespucci explored the Atlantic coast of South America as far south as the region of Patagonia in the southern part of the continent, passing the present-day site of Rio de Janeiro.
On his fourth and final voyage in 1503, he discovered what is now the state of Bahia in Brazil and the island of South Georgia. The fourth voyage is also disputed. The only evidence of the voyage is a letter that Vespucci wrote. Scholars have concluded that the letter may have been a forgery.
Vespucci died of malaria in Spain at age 58.
Amerigo Vespucci is widely thought to be the inspiration for the place name "America." In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüler, who with other authors was working on a geography book, suggested that the area now known as Brazil be named after Vespucci, using the feminine form of Vespucci's latinized first name—Americus.
Decades later, the map maker Mercator labeled both the North and South American continents "America."
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (1475 - 1518)
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba was a Spanish conquistador—explorer / adventurer—living in Cuba in the early 16th century. He is best known for his 1517 expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It is thought that the purpose of the expedition was to acquire slaves to work in Cuba.
After encountering a huge storm, and losing track of their position, Córdoba's three-ship expedition sighted land—the Yucatan. They spotted people and substantial buildings. Since many of the buildings were pyramids, they assumed the people they spotted were Muslims, since Muslims were the only culture besides Christians who they thought were capable of such creating such structures.
Indians in 10 large canoes rowed out to greet Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and his 100 men. The Spaniards, using sign language, attempted to learn the indian name for the land mass they had discovered. The indians responded Yucatan, which the Spaniards later learned meant "I don't understand." in a local Mayan dialect. The landing area was later referred to as Catoche.
The day after the Spaniards discovered the Yucatan, the local Mayan chief invited Córdoba and his men to come ashore. The Spaniards rowed their own launches ashore, taking muskets and crossbows with them as a precaution. After moving a distance inland, the Spaniards were ambushed by the Mayans. The Spaniards put up a fight, and the Mayans fled.
Two Mayans were captured by the Spaniards. The indians, who were renamed Julianillo and Melchorejo, were taught Spanish in Cuba. They were used as interpreters in further contacts with the Mayans.
The Spaniards lost half their men in a battle at Champotón–Potonchán in the Yucatan when they went ashore seeking water and were attacked by a large number of indians. In desperate need of water, the survivors headed to Florida, only to be attacked once again by indians. They beat the indians off, returned to their ships with the water, and sailed back to Cuba. Córdoba died a year later from wounds suffered during the expedition. Gold artifacts brought back from Champotón–Potonchán encouraged further expeditions in the Yucatan, and eventually led to the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
A Shift in Plans
The original purpose of Spanish and Portuguese explorations was to find a western route to Asia. Successive explorations along the land mass of the Americas began to convince the explorers that there was no westward water passage, at least between 32S and 16N latitudes, so the focus shifted to exploring the Americas.
Rodrigo de Bastidas (1460 - 1527)
Rodrigo de Bastidas was a wealthy Spanish notary who obtained a license from the Spanish crown to discover new lands in the Americas. He had already sailed to the New World with a previous expedition, and in 1500 he set out with two ships. In his company was Vasco Núñez de Balboa. They reached land in what is now Venezuela, and along the top of South America to what is now Colombia.
Along the way, Bastidas traded trinkets to the indians for gold. They continued west along the Atlantic coast of what is now Panama, and Bastidos and his crew accordingly are deemed the discoverers of that area. At this point, the ships began leaking as the wooden hulls were being attacked by sea worms, so Bastidas turned back eastward and headed for Santo Domingo in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola. A storm drove them to Jamaica instead, where they landed and obtained wood for repairs and water, and headed east again. The leaks became worse, and they barely made it to what is now Haiti, at which point the ships sank. Bastidas split his group into three parties to go overland to Santo Domingo, dividing the gold among the parties to trade for food.
Venezuela and Colombia
Back in Santo Domingo, Bastidas was imprisoned for exceeding his license to trade with the indians, but he was eventually pardoned. On a further expedition into Colombia to trade for gold, he angered some of his men because of his policy of not sharing the gold. Some of his men stabbed him while he was sleeping. He tried to sail to Santo Domingo to get medical attention, but was diverted by bad weather to Cuba, where he died of his wounds.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa (c1475 - c1517)
Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a member of Rodrigo de Bastida's expedition from Spain. After a little exploration of the Colombian coast, Balboa used his profits to attempt farming in Hispaniola, but he failed at that. Trying to escape creditors, Balboa stowed away on a ship that was part of an expedition led by Martín Fernández de Enciso. He was discovered aboard ship, but avoided being killed or arrested because it was thought his knowledge of the Panama coast would be useful.
Balboa suggested a location to set up a permanent settlement, where he said the land was fertile and the indians were less warlike. His suggestion was accepted, but upon reaching the site in 1510, 500 indian warriors were waiting for them. The Spanish won a difficult battle, and after the indians withdrew, the Spanish founded Santa Maria, the first permanent European settlement on mainland America.
Balboa later became Spanish governor of the surrounding territory. There followed for the next few years a series of expeditions into the Panamanian interior where Balboa used force, diplomacy, and negotiations to subdue the various indian groups.
Upon hearing claims from the indians of "another sea," Vasco Núñez de Balboa launched an expedition in 1513 across the Isthmus of Panama, and made the European discovery of the Pacific Ocean, which he called the South Sea. (The South Sea was later renamed the Pacific Ocean by Ferdinand Magellan.)
Pedrarias Dávila, a new governor of the Santa Maria area arrived, and a power rivalry between Balboa and Dávila ensued. Balboa was arrested and executed by decapitation in 1519.