Spanish Exploration

1508-1550: Spain grew its territory into lands beyond its earliest claims in the Caribbean

Though Columbus was no longer searching for a route to Asia, Spain found the region that Columbus discovered to be worthy of exploration. They began sending out teams of explorers to areas all throughout the Americas.

Change of Power

For several years Nicolas de Ovando was the governor of the Spanish territory in the Caribbean. During this time, he commissioned Juan Ponce de León to explore Puerto Rico. In 1508 León founded the city of San Germán. He was known for his tight regulations, which kept settlers in check.

Between 1502 and 1509, the population on Hispaniola jumped from 300 to between 8,000 and 10,000. To feed these settlers, food production also increased. However, Ovando also reduced the crown's share of the discovered gold from 50 to 20 percent. This encouraged entrepreneurial travelers to increase their gold production. Subsequently, 1509 was the peak of production.

Ovando also dealt roughly with the Taínos and harshly put down any uprisings. His severe control of both the settlers and the native islanders led the island to prosperity during its early history. However, in 1509 Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus' son, took leadership of the island, as should have been his hereditary right.

Shortly after taking the governorship of the region, Diego Columbus sent two men to begin colonizing Jamaica. Juan de Esquivel became Jamaica's governor, with Pánfilio de Naraváez as his second in command. They settle in Sevilla Nueva (New Seville) near St. Ann's Bay, where Columbus was stranded during his final voyage.

At this time, the crown also commissioned explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa to explore more of the region. Ojeda explored much of what is now Colombia, while Nicuesa traveled the coastline of Central America.

Colonial Problems

By 1512, there were Spanish colonies in all four of the Greater Antilles, but the two most important were on Hispaniola and Cuba. The settlements on both Puerto Rico and Jamaica were all but abandoned by settlers due to the lack of gold. Those who chose to settle Cuba struck it rich, and a number of people came to the island to find their fortunes.

Diego Columbus' leadership was hardly less disputed than his father's, and in 1512 an Audiencia, a royal court, was sent to Santo Domingo to look into the disputes between the settlers and Columbus.

There were other disputes, as well. The Taínos revolted against their Spanish controllers in Puerto Rico, aided by the Caribs, who fought any Spanish attempts to settle on their own islands. But the revolt was put down. When Ponce de León was removed as Governor of Puerto Rico, he went on to explore more of the region and eventually landed in Florida.

Taíno Slaves

One of the biggest economic problems in the colonies was the rapidly dwindling number of Taínos to serve as slaves to the Spanish colonists. To ensure a continued labor force, the King of Spain authorized slaving expeditions throughout the Caribbean in 1511. In an attempt to slow the population, the King attempted to limit the hours per week that labor could be enforced. He also nominated inspectors and attempted to regulate food and shelter.

However, it was nearly too late by the time this occurred in 1512, and little actually changed on the islands.

Date Population (est.)
1492 200,000 to 300,000
1508 60,000
1510 46,000
1512 20,000
1514 14,000
1548 Less than 500
1570 Two villages

In 1516, Bartholomé de las Casas was named the Protector of the Indians, after giving up his own slaves the previous year and beginning his outspoken campaign to free the Indian slaves. However, settlers justified the enslavement of the Caribs because of their cannibalism. By 1520, the Lesser Antilles, from the Virgin Islands to Barbuda, with the exception of St. Kitts, had been depopulated. Indians from Bonaire and Curaçao, Barbados, St. Lucia, and Tobago had also been removed to Hispaniola.

While many of the Taíno died from epidemics of European diseases such as smallpox, many others were simply worked to death. Another large number committed suicide to escape the conditions they found themselves in.

Though it would hardly help their situation, Indian slavery was abolished in 1542, and the encomienda system was banished in 1550. One of the ways that las Casas worked to ease the troubles of the Indians was to request the importation of African slaves. Though he later came to regret this request, at the time he had hoped to improve the situation.

Sugarcane's Growth

The sugarcane that Columbus brought with him flourished in the Caribbean. While gold was hard to find, land perfect for growing sugarcane was easy to come by. In fact, by 1518 sugarcane was widely grown throughout Hispaniola. But this was a labor-intensive industry.

Milling the sugar was one of the hardest parts of the process. New technology began spreading throughout the colonies in 1516 to make this chore easier. Two manners of milling improved upon the previous method - crushing the sugarcane with wooden instruments. The trapiche was a sugar mill powered by animal (or, occasionally, human) strength, while an ingenio was a mill powered by water.

Of course, each method had limits. The trapiche owner had to be able to afford the animal to turn the mill, making this the more expensive option. On the other hand, the ingenio needed to be built near running water. However, the ingenio was said to be twice as efficient as a method of extraction.

The sugarcane industry quickly spread throughout the Spanish colonies with this new technology, bringing wealth with it. By 1523 Jamaica had 30 ingenios, and Puerto Rico built 10 by 1528. Despite the money generate by this industry, there was cause for economic concern: The islands tended to grow sugarcane for export, while importing all other foods. This would continue throughout much of Caribbean history.

Expansion and Exploration

Expansion continued on the territories claimed by Columbus. Havana, Cuba and San Juan, Puerto Rico were founded in 1511. Havana later became one of the most important cities in the West Indies as trade routes begin passing by. Havana experienced a gold rush in 1512 that significantly added to the island's population, and two years later Santiago was founded on the island.

Even though Columbus did not reach Asia as he'd intended, Spanish adventurers found plenty to explore in the Caribbean. They also found plenty of gold. While other European nations were occupied elsewhere, the Spanish dominated this region for years. During this time they attained a great deal of territory.

By 1518 a majority of the colonists from Jamaica and Puerto Rico had returned to Hispaniola. Neither Jamaica nor Puerto Rico was of any real importance to the Spanish crown at the time. Jamaica was left as a colony where the nearby colonies could gather supplies, since the livestock on the island had fared so well.

In 1519 two groups of colonists, those from Jamaica under Garay and those from Cuba under Velazquez, each left their colonies and headed to Mexico to join the Spanish who were already there. An attempt to settle on Curaçao was also made in 1525.


Meanwhile, the exploits of Ojeda and Nicuesa in South and Central America met harsh ends at the hands of the Indians, who were less friendly to the newcomers than the Taínos in the Caribbean islands. Under the leadership of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the remaining members of both exploratory forces joined together in 1513 in Darien, a region of Panama that touches Colombia.

Balboa lead the explorers across the isthmus of Panama and found himself at the Pacific. That same year Pedro Arias de Ávila (usually called Pedrarias) was sent as Royal Governor of the colony. Panama, too, became an extremely important colony for Spain. Panama City was founded in 1519, though this was also the same year that Pedrarias beheaded Balboa.

Pedrarias eventually stepped down from his position as Governor in Panama. However, by this time in 1529, there were so few Indians left in the region that settlers had to import slaves. The native people of Panama fared no better than the Taínos had under Pedrarias' harsh leadership.

Mainland Claims

The Spanish claimed a large area of the mainland of Central and South America as they explored.

Date Current Name of Colony Location
1511 Darien (Panama)
1519 Panama, Costa Rica
1522 Nicaragua
1523 Guatemala
1524 Honduras
1525 Ecuador
1526 Peru
1527 Venezuela, Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico at Cancún)
1528 Florida

Between the establishment of the colony in Darien and the other Panamanian and Costa Rican colonies, much of Mexico was explored and claimed. The Yucatán Peninsula was claimed much later.

Though Spain worked hard to claim much of the region in these early years, it wasn't long before their Central American gold attracted the attention of the rest of Europe, and many nations began scrambling to get their hands on any land - and riches - that they could.

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