Voyages of Discovery & Encounters (1400-1700)

The traditional narratives of the great explorers--Columbus, Vespucci, Cabral--are well known. With a combination of advanced technology, pluck, and luck, these legendary men sailed fearlessly towards the horizon, risking (and sometimes losing) their lives in the pursuit of riches, knowledge, and glory. They "discovered" a New World, one which would encourage Europeans to improve their technology, rethink their scientific methods, and reconsider their very place in the universe. Before long, Europeans were using the oceans to consolidate vast overseas empires, spreading their people and culture to every corner of the earth.

This perspective, we are now aware, is based on a misleading and Eurocentric point of view. Recent scholarship has highlighted the fact that the Americas already possessed highly advanced civilizations with detailed knowledge of their environs long before their supposed discovery by outsiders. As historians such as Colin Calloway have noted, the novel situation following European/Indian contact created what were in effect new worlds for American Indians as well. The Huejotzingo Codex included in this topic's sources is a vivid example of Mesoamerican culture and technology in an early stage of hybridization. Although the nuances of these new worlds differed based on local populations and circumstances, Indian groups and Europeans both engaged in an active exchange of ideas, technology, and biota, making the post-discovery Americas a cultural milieu unique in the annals of history (Calloway 1997). Despite the fact that Native Americans would eventually be dispossessed of their territory by disease and conquest, the Europeanization of the Americas was by no means a forgone conclusion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The rather tragic aftermath of European discoveries should not, however, belittle the remarkable and consequential achievements of the explorers themselves, or of the specialists that created the ships and navigational instruments that made their voyages possible.

According to historian Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, the renowned Iberian explorers quested for cosmographic knowledge within the context of a baroque mentality. They were thus understood to be a sort of modern knight, whose chivalric quests were for knowledge and a universal Catholic empire. Men like Vespucci and Magellan, both portrayed in the sources, conceived of themselves as armored crusaders, brave warriors who had traded in their lances for astrolabes and their horses for ships (Canizares-Esguerra 2006).

Seaworthy ships were, after all, a sine qua non of transoceanic discovery. Marine historian Roger C. Smith considered the Portuguese caravel, a fusion of shipbuilding styles from Northern Europe and the Mediterranean, to be perhaps the single most important piece of technology of the early modern period. Caravels, like those in the source showing Cabral's fleet, were the basis for the Iberian sailing ships of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, combined with new navigational instruments and improved maps, enabled Iberia to explore and conquer Latin America (Smith 1993).

Maps and precise instruments for determining a ship's position had long been used by Chinese, Arabic and European mariners, yet the discovery of America provided an unprecedented impetus for Europeans to further develop these technologies. Spain institutionalized the techniques and instruction of cartography and navigation in order to create a standardized knowledge system, ensuring that all pilots understood oceanic travel in a similar way. Instruments like astrolabes and backstaffs (whose use are shown in the source Mariners Sighting) gave navigators the ability to determine their latitude at sea with more accuracy than ever before.

Most importantly, the voyages of discovery fomented the practice of empiricism, a manner of conducting scientific inquiry that proved foundational to Europe's scientific revolution. Mariners encountered numerous challenges while at sea, both in terms of navigating to a specific location and getting there quickly, safely, and with a lot of cargo (often, sadly, human chattel). To overcome these difficulties, sailors and pilots experimented with novel techniques, conducting hands-on tests of the latest innovations in order to see which ones were the best at solving a given problem. Experimentation as a mode of knowledge gathering would fuel Spain's American empire and, later, the Age of Reason.

Questions for further exploration:

1. The discovery of the New World led to incredible advances in the technology used to cross the ocean quickly while transporting goods. Look at any one implement (ships, compasses, clocks, etc.) and trace its evolution from before 1492 through the end of the early modern period. What (if any) impact did the necessities of New World contact and colonization have on this object?

2.    The source of Dona Marina shows one example of how language, a technology often associated with Indian women in this era, was integral to the contact era. Were any other female technologies important to this self-consciously masculine age of conquest and exploration? Why or why not?

3. Compare the two sources on Magellan and Vespucci, both of which were published in 1585. What traits are emphasized in the portrayal of these two men, both of whom were considered heroes? Are there any differences? Although the entire images should be considered, focus on the technological and scientific elements in them.

4. Did contact with American Indians have an impact on the scientific aspects of the voyages of exploration? If so, what were they? If not, why not?

5. Many historians of science considered the sea voyages of the age of exploration to have been the proving grounds of empirical scientific practices. Do you agree with this theory? If so, cite specific examples. If not, what was the catalyst for empiricism?

Further reading:

Calloway, Colin G. New World's for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations in the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Cohen, J.M., Ed. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being his own log-book, letters and dispatches with connecting narrative drawn from the life of the Admiral by his son Hernando Colon and other contemporary historians. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

Smith, Roger C. Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 

Vigneras, Louis-Andre. The Discovery of South America and the Andalusian Voyages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Amerigo Vespucci

Date: 1585
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This engraving depicts Amerigo Vespucci consulting astronomical and geographical instruments after landing on the continent of South America. In 1499, Vespucci posited that European explorers had encountered a new continent and not merely the eastern extremities of Asia, a revelation for which he was rewarded by having his name forever associated with the Americas. According to historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto, Vespucci was by no means the most accomplished explorer of his era nor the man to "discover" the New World, but the fact that cartographers began to associate his name with the western continents made the naming process a fait-accompli. Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 map (seen in the Cartography topic) was the first to use the term "America," and the name stuck (Fernandez-Arnesto 2007).

The scene here represents Vespucci's voyage to South America in 1502, when he first witnessed and documented the constellation of the Southern Cross. Although Vespucci was ostensibly the first European to see the southern skies, Dante-- in his Divine Comedy written almost 200 years earlier-- had described the Southern Cross as a constellation visible from Purgatory. Dante is pictured in the upper left corner of this image. It is unknown how Dante knew of the Southern Cross, but Vespucci took pride in being the first European to set eyes on what Dante described.

While his men are sleeping, Vespucci is using the cutting edge instruments of the early sixteenth century to make precise observations about his newly-discovered southern skies. Among the tools are a quadrant, dividers, and an armillary sphere, a model that was meant to represent the earth's position in reference to the heavens. The image's inclusion of a crucifix, boat, and swords bears witness to the less scientific elements that also played a huge role in the era of exploration.

Reference: Fernandez-Arnesto. Amerigo: The Man Who Gave his Name to America. Random House, 2007.

CITATION: Collaert, Andrianus, after Joannes Stradanus. "Amerigo Vespucci." c. 1585. The Granger Collection, New York. 0011343.



Black Sailors

Date: 1800
Owner: Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT
Source Type: Images


This drawing from c. 1800 depicts black sailors operating a small vessel off the coast of the Caribbean. Although, by the late eighteenth century, many sailors in the Americas were slaves who were ordered to work at sea by their masters, black seamen--both slave and free--had been an integral part of Iberia's trans-oceanic exploration during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many of the most scientifically skilled navigators in both Spain and Portugal were Moors, a people integral to transmitting classical knowledge about astronomy and advanced instruments to Iberia. It was also common to find black men among the crews of sailing ships.

Despite the large role that black men played as navigators and mariners during the age of exploration, blacks on Iberian ships are still most closely associated with the slave trade. The Portuguese were the main slave traders of the early colonial period but, throughout the early modern period, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch vessels all participated in freighting millions of black men, women, and children across the infamous "middle passage" to South America, North America, and the Caribbean, a pitiless journey in which much of the human chattel died. Modern estimates are that out of the 14 million Africans sold into slavery, 5 million died during the process of being sent to the New World (that is, between the stages of capture, shipment, and acclimitization). The slave trade, like gold mining or sugar plantations (both of which were fueled by slave labor), was an immensely profitable enterprise resulting from the Iberian voyages of discovery and helped to fund and provide manpower for the further expansion of overseas empires.

Reference: Klein, Herbert S., Stanley L. Engerman, Robin Haines, and Ralph Shlomowitz. "Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave trade in Comparative Perspective." In The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (Jan., 2001), pp. 93-118.
CITATION: Speightstown boat, by George Tobin, 1800. Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut. In Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.



Cabral's Fleet

Date: 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


Ships were literally the vehicles of Iberia's overseas empires, and Portugal's empire relied on oceangoing vessels even more so than Spain's. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had delineated the western half of the unknown world for Spain, a hemisphere that was dominated by the American continents and allowed Spain to develop a land-based empire. Portugal, however, was given the east, a region whose power and resistance to European diseases precluded the type of conquest occurring in the Americas. Portugal's incredibly profitable empire was based instead on a large number of trading factories established throughout Brazil, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and state-of-the-art ships were necessary in order to conduct efficient and profitable trade with these outposts.

Portuguese ships were a fusion of Arabic and North European technologies, the former learned in the Mediterranean and the latter along the Atlantic coast. The two quintessential vessels of Portuguese mariners were the caravel, a small and fast ship like those pictured in this source, and the galleon, a larger and sturdier vessel meant to carry huge loads of spices from the East and support the heavy cannon often used to secure those spices.

This image shows the fleet of Pedro Alvarez Cabral, the Portuguese navigator sent (after Vasco de Gama) on the second voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India. En route, Cabral landed in Eastern Brazil (which he believed to be an island), and upon discovering that it lay within the Portuguese half of the globe, claimed it for the king. He did eventually arrive in India, where--after bombarding the port town of Calicut--he managed to secure two boatloads of pepper. Of the thirteen ships with which Cabral set out, only five made it back to Lisbon; this drawing shows the destruction of some of these vessels.
CITATION:  "Pedro Alvares Cabral Fleet." 1500. The Granger Collection, New York. 0007381.



Ferdinand Magellan

Date: 1520
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), a Portuguese navigator, led the Spanish expeditionary fleet that was the first to circumnavigate the planet. Although he was killed by Pacific Islanders in the midst of the voyage, he is remembered as the first captain to prove that the earth was round and that, by oceanic navigation with advanced ships and instruments, its entirety could be explored.

This image, from 1585, depicts Magellan as what Jorge Canizares-Esguerra calls a knight cosmographer, warrior-scholars who embodied the Iberian approach to knowledge gathering in the age of discovery. In pursuit of universal monarchy, the aggressive acquisition of information became a chivalric pursuit, a decidedly masculine affair in which baroque values fused with the practical (often scientific) affairs of building an empire. Thus Magellan is shown in full body armor while carrying navigational instruments (compass and armillary sphere) and a sword. The fact that he is guided by Apollo and besieged by a variety of mythical beasts makes it clear that voyages of discovery were understood as quests, no less fantastic and noble than those of bygone knights like El Cid. This violent and idealistic manner of understanding the pursuit of knowledge proved very influential to northern European explorers in the seventeenth century, most notably captain John Smith.

Reference: Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. "Chivalric Epistemology and Patriotic Narratives: Iberian Colonial Science." In Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

CITATION: "Ferdinand Magellan." 1585. The Granger Collection, New York. 0009480.



Ferdinand and Columbus

Date: c. 1500
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This image from c. 1500 shows King Ferdinand II of Spain administering the newly discovered lands across the Atlantic that, in this picture, are concurrently being settled by a Columbus-led armada. According to historian Juan Pimentel, the kings of Spain sought detailed knowledge of all aspects of America and its nature, but they did so within a baroque context. The Catholic kings of early modern Spain aimed at nothing less than leading a universal catholic monarchy, one that could be achieved through aggressive, though well informed, expansion. Following the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, in which the Pope granted all lands west of eastern Brazil to Spain, the Spanish Crown could indeed claim rule over what was soon understood to be a vast new continent.

On the other side of the Atlantic in this picture, we see naked Indians fleeing in fear. Indeed, they were wise to do so. After Columbus's second voyage, in which cattle and over 1,000 settlers were exported (with their hitherto unknown diseases) to Hispaniola, Columbus set up a viceroyalty on the island and enslaved well over 1,000 Arawak Indians. 560 of these he sent to Spain. Yet the tenets of Spain's peninsular monarchy, as an ostensibly universal one, provided the same legal protection (at least in theory) to American subjects as Spanish ones, and thus these slaves--except the 200 who died en route--were sent home as freemen. The dream of a universal monarchy continued to fuel Spain's quest for territory and knowledge and was key to developing the infrastructure for processing information, especially the Casa de Indias and Casa de Contratacion, that served to encouraged more knowledge and further conquest.

Pimentel, Juan. "The Iberian Vision: Science and Empire in the Framework of a Universal Monarchy, 1500-1800." In Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise. (2000), pp. 17-30.

CITATION: Ferdinand II, King of Spain, pointing across Atlantic to where Columbus is landing with three ships amid large group of Indians. ca. 1500. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-43535.



Huejotzingo Codex

Date: 1531
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


The Indians living in Huejotzingo presented this document to the conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1531 for use in a legal dispute with the Spanish Crown over the excessive tribute being exacted from them. It was hand painted by Indian artists on amalt, a native American paper made from tree bark, and used traditional Mesoamerican pictographs to depict the types of tribute which they were forced to provide. As one of the groups that had allied with Cortes against the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan, the Huejotzingo people had cause for complaint about their subjection. The paintings show the Indians providing the viceroyalty with bricks, stones, woven cloth, food, and even slaves.

Perhaps the most interesting element in the Huejotzingo Codex is on page one, which shows a banner made of gold and feathers depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Not only is it significant that Iberian religious symbols were co-opted a mere ten years after the conquest, but the banner was made with gold and feather-work, an indigenous medium. Hybridization of culture, ideas, and technology apparently occurred very quickly in the post-conquest era.

This document, and the cultural and technological hybridization it embodies, is an important reminder that European explorers and settlers were not the only group that had to come to grips with a strange new world. While the "discovery" of America was key to the evolution of European science and technology, it had an even larger impact on that of Indian groups. Although many Indian technologies merged with European ones, others were destroyed or forgotten, and much of the Mesoamerican way of understanding nature has been forever lost. For both Europeans and Indians, post-1492 America was undoubtedly a New World.

CITATION:  Huejotzingo Codex, on Amatl paper, 1531. Harkness Collection, Special Collections, Library of Congress.



La Malinche

Date: 1892
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


This image from 1519 depicts a fundamental part of Cortes' conquest of the Aztecs--intercultural communication--a necessity that would have proved far more difficult without the aid of the woman pictured here, Dona Marina (also known as La Malinche). The Iberian voyages of discovery are most often remembered as distinctly masculine affairs in which courageous men overcame many obstacles, both at sea and in bizarre new countries, with the help of European technology. To be sure, there is much truth in this, but Indian women also played a crucial, even technological, role in the various New World campaigns.

Many Indian women from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries acted as both concubines and interpreters for conquering Europeans. Dona Marina was given as a slave to Cortes and proved his constant aid in negotiations with Moctezuma and other Indian leaders throughout Mexico. Historians recognize her as an expert linguist, but only recently has language been disassociated from "technology," a term that has come to connote "manly" pursuits, especially engineering (Oldenziel 1999). In terms of which technologies were the most crucial to the era of American exploration, the largely female skill of translation should be considered equally important as firearms and navigation.

Oldenziel, Ruth. Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999.



Source References

Web Sites

Columbus and the Age of Discovery (Millersville University of Pennsylvania): Page dedicated to the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage.

The European Voyages of Exploration (Applied History Research Group): Site with essays, images, and artifacts from the era of European exploration.

Explorers of South America (Andre Engels)

Exploring the Early Americas (Library of Congress)

Champlain's America: New France and New England (The John Carter Brown Library)


Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Calloway, Colin G. New World's for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford: University of California Press, 2006.

Cipolla, Carlo M and Ricardo Gonzalez. Conquistadores, Piratas, Mercaderes: La Saga de la Plata Espanola. San Diego, CA: Fondo de Cultura Economica USA, 2001.  

Cohen, J.M., Ed. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus: Being his own log-book, letters and dispatches with connecting narrative drawn from the life of the Admiral by his son Hernando Colon and other contemporary historians. New York: Penguin Bo

Cortes, Hernan. Letters from Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Fernandez de Oviedo, Gonzalo. Sumario de la Natural Historia de Las Indias. San Diego: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1979.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration. New York: WW Norton & Co, 2006.

Goodman, Edward J. The Explorers of South America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Keay, John. The Spice Route: A History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Metcalf, Alida C. Go-Between and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500-1600. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Pagden, Anthony. Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present. New York: Modern Library Publishers, 2003.

Phillips, William D. and Carla Rahn Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Pomeranz, Kenneth and Steven Topik. The World that Trade Created. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.

Restall, Matthew. The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Smith, Roger C. Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 

Symcox, Geoffrey and Blair Sullivan. Christopher Columbus and the Enterprise of the Indies.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Syme, Ronald and William Stobbs. Francisco Pizarro: Finder of Peru. New York: William Morrow, 2000.

Vigneras, Louis-Andre. The Discovery of South America and the Andalusian Voyages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. 

Whitman, Sylvia. Hernando de Soto and the Explorers of the American South. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 1991.


Films and Videos

1492: Conquest of Paradise (Paramount Pictures, 1992)

Aguirre, Wrath of God  (New Yorker Films, 1971)

Cabeza de Vaca  (Concorde Pictures , 1992)

Chichen Itza: The Fall of the Mayan Empire   (Films for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1991)

Columbus and the Age of Discovery (WGBH Boston, 1991)

Fall of the Aztec and Maya Empires (Questar, 1999)

Spain in the New World (Films for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 1986)

World Map by Juan de la Cosa

Date: 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This world map from 1500 was drawn by Juan de la Cosas, owner of the Santa Maria and a skilled navigator and cartographer. Although the outlines of the western continents of Europe and Africa have faded (they are barely discernible), many land marks remain clear in each of them. To the east, de la Cosa drew a rough outline of what he imagined the coasts of north and South America to look like, as well as a more detailed depiction of the Caribbean islands, which he would have known well from travels with Columbus and other explorers. This map places north at the top of the map and has several roses and rhomb lines.

De la Cosa participated in a total of seven expeditions to the New World. During Columbus' second voyage, in which a concerted effort was first made to found a colony on Hispaniola, de la Cosa traveled westward throughout the islands in an effort to find China (he later signed an affidavit claiming that Cuba was the Asian mainland, though he may have been coerced by Columbus to do so). In subsequent voyages, de la Cosa surveyed the coasts of Colombia and Central America; he was eventually killed by Native Americans in Colombia during his seventh trip to the New World.

The speed with which Spain set about exploring and colonizing the Americas after 1492 is extraordinary. The energy of men like de la Cosas, who made several voyages in search of gold and explored as they went, was crucial to this effort. The fact that the Crown collected the explorers' information, especially maps, concurrently with their riches, set the foundation for the massive American empire that developed in the mid sixteenth century.
CITATION: "Nina: World Map." 1500. The Granger Collection, New York. 0007646.