The expansion of Spain and Portugal overseas in the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries was one of the most important achievements in world
history, an enterprise for which Hispanic people had been prepared by their
past and by the changes and opportunities attending the close of the Middle
Ages. The medieval heritage of a military society, frequently thinking
in terms of divine warfare and crusading, used to living on the boundaries
of Latin Christendom and ever pressing back these boundaries, provided
cultural and psychological training that was no doubt indispensable for
the role played by the Hispanic peoples in the expansion of Europe. Desire
for glory and riches had been a major incentive in the reconquest since
the eighth century, but fifteenth-century society had become more self-conscious
about such goals and had better information about how to attain them. In
Castile, especially, aspects of late medieval humanism developed a very
conscious stress on individual fame and glory as inducements to great deeds.
Direct striving for such goals was clearly in the minds of the sixteenth-century
For centuries the expansion of the faith was inextricably intertwined with military glory and economic profit. Because of this it is idle to ask, as is frequently done, whether the Portuguese pioneers and Castilian conquistadores were motivated more by greed or by religious zeal. In the Hispanic crusading-expansionist ideology, the two went together. In Castile, particularly, wealth was based on  conquest and dominion, which in turn was the result of the expansion of Christendom against the Muslims. It was accepted by most as axiomatic that God made such wealth available because the expansionists were engaged in a righteous cause. Religious belief was whole and complete, and rarely admitted the possibility of any contradiction between worldly profit and religious aims in the expansion of Christian dominion, at least until the mid-sixteenth century. Crusading and profit were largely viewed as harmonious and complementary.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there had developed a new demand among the upper classes of Europe for luxury goods that could be supplied only from the Orient, goods such as cotton cloth (India), fine silks (China), exotic precious stones (India, Ceylon. Tibet), and pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves to flavor foods, especially tainted meat. During the fourteenth century, Italian and Catalan merchants had enriched themselves as middlemen in the trade for such goods, channeled through the Near East. By the fifteenth century, achievements in maritime technology and navigation, coupled with demand from a broader market and the marshalling of economic and administrative resources for long-range enterprise, raised the possibility of direct communications overseas with the sources of exotic goods. In the process, new items of trade and wealth were acquired--west African pepper, Guinean gold, ivory, valuable new woods, and of fateful importance, African slaves.
The Catalans had been the first of the Hispanic peoples to expand overseas, in the creation of their Mediterranean thalassocracy during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the process, the Aragonese-Catalan empire developed key institutions--the viceroyalty and the organized consulate, or board of trade--that were imitated to some extent in both the Portuguese and Castilian empires. At the height of the Catalan expansion, some of their seamen and adventurers ranged far beyond the ordinary ambit of European commerce. Catalan explorers reached the Sudan and were among the first to get to the Canary Islands. In 1346, Jaume Ferrer rounded the northwest tip of Africa and sailed down as far as Rio de Oro (below southern Morocco). For several generations, Catalan commerce dominated the northwest African trade. Catalan shipping was basically Mediterranean in style and construction, consisting of galleys and sail-driven round boats, but at its height rivaled that of Genoa in skill and soundness of construction. Catalan technicians made significant contributions to the development of the rudder and to new navigational devices, especially in cartography. Italian and Catalan sailors were the first to use regular navigational charts, and the school of cartography  at Palma de Mallorca, staffed mainly by Jewish experts, was the best in the world of the late fourteenth century, producing the outstanding Catalan Atlas of 1375. Yet by the fifteenth century, the economic decline of Catalonia made it impossible for seamen and merchants to exploit the broader commercial opportunities that the Catalans had done so much to open up, so that in general, Catalan activities did not transcend the traditional avenues of Mediterranean commerce.
The initiative of Portugal and Castile in transatlantic expansion was due first of all to the exceptionally favorable geographic position of the peninsula's western and southwestern coasts. By the end of the fourteenth century, the Castilian fleet had surpassed that of Catalonia in size and scope. It was most strongly developed in the Basque and Castilian ports of the Biscay coast of the north, whose shipping routed English naval forces several times, exploited the French and Flemish trade, and gave Castile its first age of maritime glory, helping to establish Castilian as a commercial lingua franca in some west European Atlantic ports. After the Christian population had become firmly established for several generations in the coastal regions of western Andalusia, a fleet developed there also, mainly in fishing and in coastal trade. By the early fifteenth century it had ventured farther, building an important commerce of the Canaries and later moving down the Guinean coast of Africa. Genoese merchants and entrepreneurs played a key role in the commerce of the southern coast, establishing themselves first when the Christians took Seville and then becoming more and more influential during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Many Genoese commercial families were Castilianized or Lusitanized after several generations and became a major part of the new commercial elite.
It must be emphasized again that neither in Portugal nor much less in Castile did economic and mercantile affairs attain predominant importance. They were the concern of small commercial and maritime groups in the port towns. Society continued to be dominated by the aristocracy, and aristocratic ideals tended to dominate thinking and values. The maritime society of the southwestern coasts of the peninsula obviously could not compete with the genuinely important commercial centers of the period. The combined activity of these towns was very small beside that of the north Italian or Flemish towns, but they did develop nuclei of trained sailors and shipbuilders and just enough capital and commercial experience to provide a base for further activity. Though the coastal societies could hardly be called cultured or advanced in terms of the more developed regions of late medieval Europe, they developed significant technology, most notably in ship design and construction. By the fifteenth century the  slender, graceful designs of the Basque pinnace and Portuguese caravel had produced boats much faster and more maneuverable than the slow, clumsy round boats traditionally used for Mediterranean commerce. These ships were planned for coastal navigation, but soon proved capable of a greatly extended radius of maritime activity.
C. R. Boxer has suggested that Portuguese expansion arose from four fundamental motives: 1) crusading zeal; 2) desire for precious metals (especially gold from Guinea in the fifteenth century); 3) the quest for Prester John (the mythic Christian prince of the East) and the establishment of a stronger geopolitical position in relation to the Muslim world; and 4) the search for commercial wealth, especially through the spice trade.
Under Joâo I (1384-1433), Portugal achieved a unity and concentration of resources never before realized. It was still a small kingdom that counted for little in European affairs, but it was modestly prosperous and in a unique strategic position. Moreover, the crown's tradition of patronizing shipping and commerce was expanded under the new Aviz dynasty.
Direct and continous outward expansion was begun with the Portuguese conquest of the north Moroccan port city of Ceuta in 1415. This expedition had been encouraged by the Moroccan civil war of 1411-1412 that left Ceuta without support from the interior. Seizure of Ceuta offered an attractive prospect because it opened the door to a variety of new opportunities: a) its position opposite the straits of Gibraltar gave its possessor leverage in the Mediterranean trade and control of one of the main outlets of the trans-African Sudanese gold trade; b) it could serve as a base for naval activity and piracy in several directions; c) it offered a new outlet for the petty nobility to win wealth and glory, an important consideration in view of the limitations on domestic income for much of the Portuguese aristocracy in the fifteenth century; and d) it could enable Portugal to flank its most dangerous rival, Castile, whose further expansion to the south and west might choke off Portuguese opportunity. The chief promoter of the Ceuta expedition was Joâo Afonso, royal overseer of finance and principal representative of the bourgeoisie in the government. The expedition required a major mobilization of Portuguese resources but won a quick, dramatic success and established the Portuguese in a lucrative and strategic trade mart.
Expansion into the Atlantic was actually begun a few years earlier by
Castile, when soon after 1400 several small groups of adventurers of Norman
and Castilian origin occupied and began to settle three of the outlying
Canary islands. They did official homage to the Castilian crown, which
had won a vague title to the archipelago two generations before. In the
1420s, the transoceanic Portuguese expansion  began with the
settlement of the Madeira Islands, which at first were prized for their
wood (whence the name). In little more than thirty years the Madeiras were
converted into a lucrative source of cane sugar, for which there was a
great market in Europe. In the mid-1420s, the Portuguese crown sponsored
efforts to occupy the largest island in the Canary archipelago, Gran Canaria,
but these expeditions were beaten off by the warlike islanders. A half-century
of competition with Castile ensued for control of the Canaries, until Portugal
finally withdrew in 1479 according to the terms of the Treaty of Alcaçovas.
Occupation of the larger islands was not completed by Castile until 1493.
The land and native population of the Canaries was divided up among the
Castilian conquerors by a semifeudal system of bequests (encomiendas
and repartimientos), which foreshadowed the subsequent system of
land grants and division of the native population in much of Spanish America.
The Canaries played a growing role in Castilian commerce in the 1480s and
During the greater part of the fifteenth century, the main target of Portuguese expansion was not transoceanic dominion but the coast of Morocco. Within Morocco itself there were a variety of useful goods: grain, cattle in the north, sugar, some textiles, as well as fish, hides, wax, and honey. These helped compensate for the grain deficit that had developed in Portugal and were added to the lure of the Sudanese gold trade.
Almost more important was the fact that under the Aviz dynasty there had arisen an aristocracy of modest origins with commercial connections and looking for honor and profit overseas. For much of the nobility, the income from new senhorios or from raiding and piracy would compensate for the relative decline in their modest seigneurial dues. It is scarcely an exaggeration to speak of an early fifteenth-century Portuguese crisis of the nobility, whose small fixed-rent income from land was being reduced by inflation. Whereas the military aristocracy had opposed the Ceuta expedition of 1415, advocating instead a direct land expedition against Granada, within two decades its position had changed and it became a champion of raiding and expansion in northwest Africa. Along with this grew a new sense of chivalry and crusading spirit among the fifteenth-century aristocracy, the product of conscious cultivation of aristocractic norms by fifteenth-century culture. The ideal of the crusade against the infidel had been less prominent in Portugal than in Castile, but it received emphasis in late medieval chivalric culture.
Royal policy under King Duarte (1433-1438) was more strongly sympathetic to the military aristocracy than it had been under Joâo I. A firm money policy -- unlike that of Joâo's reign -- was adopted, accompanied by an attempt at revaluation which benefitted a nobility  living from rents. Royal decrees established the inviolability of the entailment (morgadio) of aristocratic estates. Moreover, new establishments in the Madeiras were set up on the basis of seigneurial domain, contrary to the practice of Joâo's reign. Until 1433, the crown had received one-fifth of the profits of all expeditions, but after that date the royal fifth was limited to the profits of commercial voyages and did not accrue from military raids, and nobles became more active in outfitting pirate expeditions. Younger sons began to concentrate on fighting in Morocco, for which they expected special mercês (endowments) from the crown even though they might not be able to establish seigneuries in Morocco.
Thus the territorial aristocracy played a major role in the second great Moroccan expedition--the disastrous campaign against Tangier in 1437, an ill-organized, poorly led campaign designed to provide booty and lay the foundation for direct territorial expansion. Since it was not supported by merchants and moneylenders, the crown had to raise taxes to finance it.
After Duarte's premature death in 1438, Portuguese affairs were plunged into crisis. His heir, Afonso V, was but six years of age. The middle classes and townspeople in general were eager to affirm the regency of Duarte's eldest brother, Pedro, who was well educated, clear minded, and prudent. Dom Pedro was opposed by the territorial aristocracy, led by Joao I's bastard Afonso, for whom the duchy of Bragança, the first dukedom in Portuguese aristocratic history, had been created by the crown. A revolt by the Lisbon population in 1439 was necessary to win the regency for Pedro. Under his leadership navigation and overseas expansion received decisive encouragement.
The key period of maritime innovation was the half-century between 1420 and 1470. During these years the rapid, long-ranging caravel was perfected, and lateen sail rigging, greatly increasing speed and flexibility, was developed. Navigational devices, chiefly the perfected astrolabe, were introduced which made possible the great voyages of the last years of the century. The greater share of this technical achievement was accomplished by the Portuguese, though with considerable assistance from Spaniards and Italians.
The most celebrated figure in Portuguese maritime development was the Infante D. Henrique, one of the younger sons of Joâo I. Don Henrique was not, as he has sometimes been painted, a monomaniac, nor is it clear that he himself knew much about the science of his day. He did possess geographical curiosity, and he was concerned about prosecuting the offensive against the Muslims and converting the heathen. He was also keenly interested in profit from gold, sugar, and slaves, and since he was not in line for succession to the throne, in building the honor and power of his own household. As govenor of  the port of Lagos and grand master of the Order of Christ, wealthiest and most important of the Portuguese crusading orders, he led in the outfitting of expeditions into the Atlantic and down the west coast of Africa. Had it not been for special resources of the Order of Christ and sometimes of the crown, these exploratory voyages could not have been continued, for during the first decades they were operated at a considerable loss. Keen professional cost accountants like the merchants of Venice would probably never have developed the facilities for circumnavigating half the world, as did the fifteenth-century Portuguese, for it was not a profitable business. In this respect, the Hispanic crusading impulse was a factor of great significance, encouraging the expansion during its most difficult phase. Prince Henrique's influence was probably most important in the early 1430s during the effort to round Cape Bojador, successful in 1434. The difficult currents in that region made voyaging past the cape unattractive to commercial enterprise, and without special incentive and encouragement Portuguese mariners would surely not have ventured so far at that time. In 1436 Henrique turned his attention toward leading the expedition against Tangier the following year, however, and its crushing failure cast grave doubt on his capacity as a military leader.
More concerted encouragement to Atlantic exploration was given by the regency of Pedro, who had traveled widely, collected maps, and was a classical scholar. Dom Pedro opposed destructive raiding and fighting in Morocco, and championed commerce and exploration instead. Until 1441, there had been only three long Atlantic voyages down the African coast, but during the six most active years of Pedro's regency (1441-1447), there were twenty such major expeditions, and no new military ventures in Morocco.
Meanwhile efforts were going ahead to colonize more distant Atlantic islands. The Portuguese reached the Azores either in 1427 or 1431 and began to settle there in 1439. Settlement progressed more rapidly during the 1450s, and the Cape Verde Islands, farther down off the northwest coast of Africa, were colonized in the 1460s.
In 1443, D. Henrique was given sole authority to approve further African voyages, but expeditions were in fact inspired by a variety of initiatives, and the prince was personally responsible for only one-third of the maritime explorations organized during the seventeen years until his death. During eight years of D. Pedro's regency, 198 leagues of African coastline were discovered. Subsequently, during the last twelve years of D. Henrique's career (1448-1460), only 94 leagues of new coastline were explored. There were no major expeditions between 1448 and 1456, and when they were resumed, it was not primarily at the initiative of D. Henrique.
The regency of D. Pedro was ended in 1449 by a reaction of the military aristocracy, who encouraged the pro-aristocratic Afonso V  (1438/1449-1481) to seize the reins of government himself. Afonso was an attractive prince but given to rather irrational decisions in matters of major policy. He was urged to imprison or banish his uncle, and in a brief battle that followed between the royal forces and retainers of the ex-regent, the learned, prudent, and far-sighted Pedro was killed.
During the reign of Afonso V, the Portuguese nobility enjoyed great influence and prestige. They were recategorized according to the typical rankings of the French aristocracy, and for several decades the bastard ducal house of Bragança was the wealthiest and most influential force in the kingdom. There was further concentration of land in seigneurial estates, and more estates in the south were cultivated as latifundia with peasant (and later sometimes African slave) laborers.
During the mid-fifteenth century, the Portuguese nobility succeeded in fully imposing its consciously developed style and values on Portuguese society and culture. The ideals of chivalric honor and crusading developed by the early fifteenth century, together with a living standard of great luxury, became the norms of aspiration and achievement. It was within this psychological framework of elite society that the technical achievements of the expansion were carried out. Such a scale of values, still questioned during the reign of Joâo I, carried the day in Portugal during the second half of the century. The wisdom and justice of an attack on Morocco had to be seriously analyzed in 1415, but during the reign of Afonso V and for the century following, such enterprises were accepted as self-justifying crusades for religion, chivalry, and honor. The justice of Negro slavery was debated in the first years when slaves were brought back from the Guinea coast, and children of the first African slaves in Portugal were set free, but by the end of the fifteenth century the ethics of perpetual slavery for Negroes were rarely questioned.
Afonso V reflected fully the zeal of the military aristocracy for carving out a land empire in Morocco. During his reign there was proportionately less interest in oceanic exploration and expansion, but so much energy was spent on raiding and territorial expansion in Morocco that the king became known as Afonso o Africano (the African). With their metal accoutrements and firearms, the Portuguese enjoyed a certain advantage in military technology over the Moroccans, but their attacks upset economic relations and limited the possibilities of commerce. As early as the 1440s, this had diverted the vital Sudanese gold trade from Morocco down to the Guinea coast. Nor did the Portuguese military aristocracy give up plans for a major campaign against the emirate of Granada; in 1465, the Granadan port of Málaga was briefly besieged.
 The bibliography of the expansion is the most extensive
of any segment of Hispanic historiography. Perhaps the best single volume
on the expansion of Europe is John H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance
(New York, 1963). Pierre Chaunu, L'Expansion européenne du XIIIe
au XVe siécle (Paris, 1969), provides an excellent synthesis
of the Hispanic expansion of the fifteenth century. The outstanding single-volume
account of the Portuguese empire is Charles R. Boxer's The Portuguese
Seaborne Empire: 1415-1825 (New York, 1969), and Boxer has also written
a useful brief survey, Four Centuries of Portuguese Expansion, 1415-1825
(Johannesburg, 1965, Berkeley, 1969). There is more detail in the composite
História da expanslo portuguesa no mundo, 3 vols. (Lisbon,
 Major works on the Portuguese discoveries include Luis Albuquerque, Introduçao a história dos descobrimentos (Coimbra, 1962); Jaime Cortesao, Descobrimentos portugueses, 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1958, 1961); and Damiâo Peres, História dos descobrimentos portugueses, 2 vols. (Porto, 1943, 1946). The best study of the economics of the early phase is Vitorino de Magalhâes Godinho, A economia dos descobrinientos henriquinos (Lisbon, 1962). On the socio-economic background of fifteenth-century Portugal, see A. de Sousa Silva Costa Lobo, História da sociedade em Portugal no século XV (Lisbon, 1903); António Borges Coelho, Raízes da expansio portuguesa (Lisbon, 1964); Magalhâes Godinho's Os descobrimentos e a economia mundial, 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1963-65); M. Nunes Días, O capitalismo monárquico portugués(1415-1549), 2 vols. (Coimbra, 1963-64); and Veiga Simoes, Portugal, o ouro, as descobertas e a criaçio do Estado capitalista (Lisbon, 1938).
The most important works dealing with Portuguese shipping and nautical science are Gago Coutinho, A náutica dos descobnmentos, 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1951-52); A. Fontoura da Costa, A marinharia dos descobrimentos (Lisbon, 1934, new ed., 1960); and Quimo da Fonseca, A caravela portuguesa (Coimbra, 1934).
On Portuguese expansion into the Atlantic islands, see Magalhâes Godinho's A economia das Canárias nos séculos XIV e XV (Sao Paulo, 1952); Damiâo Peres, A Madeira sob os donatários séculos XV e XVI (Funchal, 1914); and Jules Mee, Histoire de la découverte des iles Açores (Ghent, 1901).
There is a succinct account of the Portuguese in Morocco by Brig. Gen. Vasco de Carvalho, La Domination portugaise au Maroc (Lisbon, 1942), which may be supplemented by David Lopes's article, "Les Portugais au Maroc, 1415-1769," in the Revue d'Histoire Moderne 14 (1939), pp. 337-68. Economic factors are studied in E. W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (Oxford, 1958), and two works by Magalhâes Godinho, História económica e social da expansâo: Marrocos (Lisbon, 1947), and O "Mediterráneo" saariano e as caravanas do ouro séculos XI-XV (Sao Paulo, 1955).
For Portuguese expansion into Africa see J. W. Blake, European Beginnings in West Africa, 1454-1478 (London, 1937); T. G. McCall, The Portuguese in South Africa, 1505-1795 (London, 1927); Eric Axelson, South-East Africa, 1488-1530 (London, 1940); and C. F. Rey, The Romance of the Portuguese in Abyssinia (London, 1929).
There is a general introduction to the Portuguese in the East by M. de Faria e Sousa, Asia portuguesa, 3 vols. (Porto, 1945). On the long voyages, see Julio Gonçalves, Os portugueses e o mar das Indias (Lisbon, 1947), and S. E. Morison, Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge, 1940). Standard accounts of the Portuguese in south Asia include K. G. Jayne, Vasco da Gama and His Successors (London, 1910); R. S. Whiteway, The Rise of the Portuguese Power in India (Westminster, 1899); H. M. Stephens, Albuquerque (London, 1892); and Edgar Prestage, Afonso de Albuquerque (Watford, 1929). A. Martins Janeira, O impacte portugués sobre a civilizaçio japonesa (Lisbon, 1970), studies Portuguese cultural influence.
The two best general accounts of the Spanish empire overseas are J. H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (London, 1966), and Charles Gibson,  Spain in America (New York, 1966). An older account that emphasizes administrative history is C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (New York, 1947). The major study of Spanish navy and shipping is Cesáreo Fernández Duro, Armada española desde ía unión de los reinos, 9 vols. (Madrid, 1895-1903). For Cantabrian shipping, see Antonio Ballesteros y Beretta, La marina cántabra y Juan de la Cosa (Santander, 1954). Ruth Pike, Enterprise and Adventure: The Genoese in Seville and the Opening of the New World (Ithaca, 1966), deals with the Genoese.
The best general Spanish account of the discovery and conquest of Spanish America is Francisco Morales Padrón, Historia del descubrimiento y conquista de América (Madrid, 1963). There are many books on Columbus. The best is S. E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 2 vols. (Boston, 1942). J. Pérez de Tudela Bueso, Las armadas de Indias y los orígen es de la política de colonización (Madrid, 1956), is also useful. F. A. Kirkpatrick, The Spanish Conquistadores (London, 1934), is still probably the best brief introduction to the conquerors. On the Spanish in Asia, see John L. Phelan, The Hispanization of the Philippines (Berkeley, 1959).
1. This agreement was not altered until the Castilian occupation of the Philippines in the 1580s, during the period of dynastic union between Spain and Portugal (1580-1640) when the rules of demarcation were no longer so clear.