European Exploration of the Gulf of Mexico Global Studies
Region: Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean
Question: How did the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean get explored and colonized by Europe in the early 15th and 16th centuries? Early European exploration has had an enormous impact on the history of present-day Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Understanding, wonder, thirst for knowledge, wealth, power, land dominance and control are all reasons for colonization. Most people only understand the only motivation of colonialism to be because of economic, political, and religion. The region was discovered and explored by several different historical European explorers whose motivations varied. These explorers helped aid in the first stages of European colonization in this area. The first expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean were very long and dangerous. Explorers got lost and came upon new land as a mistake. Colonization was created as a result of explorers’ expeditions, their battles for land dominance, and drive for more resources. The drive for power and control of land motivated people to spread to this region and colonize. The first explorers were: Christopher Columbus who discovered the Caribbean and Cuba, Amerigo Vespucci, who was part of the first actual expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, and Francisco Hernández de Córdoba who spent his time in the Yucatán Peninsula. These men and the knowledge they helped bring back to Europe was the key factor in early colonization. The Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico region was colonized by mistakes made in travel, resources exploitation, discovery, and military overpowering the people and the places they discovered.
Hundreds of lives have been put on the line for the sake of discovery. Ancient people, as well as modern, have a powerful thirst for knowledge. Before satellite and GPS cartographers had to walk or sail where they wanted to map in order to map the world. Christopher Columbus was one of the most famous explorers of the 15th Century. As many know, he is the explorer credited with discovering America. His thirst for discovery lead him to make many explorations across the Atlantic. His voyage helped discover new things that directed Europe’s colonization and growth across the world. Columbus exemplifies how these explores embraced mistakes and adversity. Voyages took months of travel where specific location was largely uncertain. Many of the discoveries of new land was come upon by mistake. Planning to sail to Asia, Columbus came upon the Caribbean islands. Not knowing he had not found Asia, he brought back many treasures such as gold, rocks, plant samples, and wildlife. He explored the islands for months, mostly Cuba and Hispaniola. Hispaniola is known today as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He found that the islands were not uninhabited. there were many different tribes and native people on the land. The people he discovered were much less advanced than the Europeans. They were honest, generous, and traded with the explorers. He left 31 of his men behind to colonize a small village called Navidad. Columbus tried to take some of the native people back with him to Spain, but few survived the journey. Even though Columbus wanted to travel to Asia he found new land and because of his mistake ended up colonizing there. Columbus would return to the Caribbean to further his exploration and colonization of the land. The founding of Santo Domingo, in August 1496, was the Spaniards first functional base of operation in the Caribbean. In the next many years, the Santo Domingo base was used as an important base of operations to launch explorations, colonization, and military. (Lovell)
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Although not as famously known, Amerigo Vespucci was another great explorer of the 15th century. Vespucci explored to Cape Santo Agostinho, the shoulder of Brazil, the Maracaibo, and Hispaniola. Amerigo Vespucci was a very accomplished man. He was the first explorer to reach brazil and to cross the equator. Although not entirely certain, Amerigo Vespucci was also the first to discover the mouth to the amazon river. He Died from malaria, caught after one of his expeditions. Vespucci’s main motivation to brave crossing the Atlantic was the promise of exploitable land and resources. In these times power and control of the undiscovered was coveted. A countries strength was often in direct correlation with its size. More size generally meant there were more usable resources like farmland and building materials. More land meant a greater population and income. More prosperous land and people meant bigger size and power of their respective army. Although Europe’s land was vast, it was also being rapidly populated, and all the land was already controlled by a specific nation. With no more room to grow, the nations were forced to grow across the oceans if they were interested in expansion. The New World had seemingly endless resources and land area. This ability to be able to create large amounts of food could contribute to the concept that a nations problem could be solved by resource exploitation of a new place. Eventually we learned that the world is not flat and endless, and we were forced to learn how to start conserving resources.
Other than expedition to claim land that has been untouched and unexplored by any man, is to take over another nation to claim its people and resources. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, a Spanish conquistador is known in history for his expedition to Yucatán Peninsula in 1517. His goal was to find new land with exploitable resources to help build Europe’s growth and prosperity. His expedition was the first to the Yucatan Peninsula with 100 men aboard his ships. Unique to this expedition was the first found advanced civilization in the Americas. Columbus and other explorers found many small civilizations that were no threat. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba found the Mayans. They were the first civilization found to have a complex social organization, and advanced building technology. The Spaniards were awestruck and called it, El gran Cairo. The Mayans were ruthless people who did not fear the Spaniards. The explorers were first greeted with kindness and helped ashore. They were unsettled on the shore by many Indians with crossbows and muskets. Their fears were realized shortly after as they were ambushed, while being “escorted” through the city. This was named the battle of Catoche. There were few casualties and injuries, but they captured two Indians who became important individuals to the European nations. Renamed, Julianillo and Melchorejo they became the first Roman Catholic Indians after being baptized.
They later became the first Mayan language interpreters, which proved to be invaluable for later expeditions and colonization of this region. The Spaniards tried to retreat but, they had a hard time replenishing food and water stores for the long journey ahead of them. The ships were trapped and Indians were waiting to attack. Retreat was not an option. The Spaniards knew that the Indians were being replenished with new men, water, and weapons continually. The natives had the upper hand and the power to neutralize any attack from the starving Spaniards. They were vastly outnumbered and outmatched. Seeing no alternative, the Spaniards attacked. The Indians were ready and particularly merciless in attacking Hernández de Córdoba, who was hit by ten arrows.  With only about 50 men remaining from the original 100, they Headed to Florida deeming it the safest route back home. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds, barely reaching Cuba. The expedition was a great success. The men plundered pyramids and came back with Mayan idols, gold, copper, and a wealth of knowledge. The knowledge that another civilization that could match Europe’s countries in intellect and power was troubling. These successes and discoveries of encouraged additional expeditions. Many men came back to challenge the Mayans. The drive for power lead even more Europeans to sail across the sea, leading to further colonization of the area. Many returned to discover more. The Incan and Aztec civilizations were found shortly after the original voyage of 1517. Because of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, important expeditions lead by Juan de Grijalva and Hernan Cortes were taken to the peninsula. These expeditions led to exploration, military invasion, and settlement and colonization. The Spanish eventually conquered the Aztec empire and created the first colonization in current day Mexico.
A common result of military takeover in ancient history is the accumulation of women and children as slaves. Slavery was practiced in this time and slaves were a form of property so therefore wealth. When the Europeans learned that there were many native people to take advantage of, slave trade became another motivator for colonization of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Columbus, Amerigo, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and Hernan Cortes all came upon islanders and attempted to take them back to their country. Later, these islands became some of the largest slave trade locations.
Europe’s competitive history was the driving forces for the lack of contempt that they felt with their current standings. The nations of Europe could not settle to be any less than the other nations they came upon. Spanish colonialism was particularly violent. Hernan Cortez was another Spanish conquistador. Cortez also made important contributions to the growth and exploration of the world. After Francisco Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition, Cortez led another expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula where he took many ships and men to take over the Aztec empire. As the Aztec empire fell, much of Mexico fell under the rule of king Ferdinand III. King Ferdinand III was one of the most successful kings of castile, a region of Spain. Later Cortez was put in charge of an important expedition to further colonize current day Mexico for Spain. He was given allowance for this expedition from the Governor of Hispaniola named Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar.
Due to disagreements Velazquez revoked Cortez’s permission, charter. Upset, Hernan Cortez left anyways. On a mission to finish what he started, he made stops along the way to recruit more man power. He was Accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses, and a small number of cannons. When Cortez landed on the Yucatan Peninsula he headed towards Mayan territory and lead a full scale battle. “In March 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown. Then he proceeded to Tabasco, where he met with resistance and won a battle against the natives. He received twenty young indigenous women from the vanquished natives, and he converted them all to Christianity.” There was a lot of resistance along the way but Cortez was prepared and successful. Cortez went on a very successful mission with Velazquez to conquer Cuba as well. Cortez was successful and became the mayor of the capital of Cuba. Although Columbus, Vespucci and Francisco Hernández helped discover the land and people who lived there, Hernan Cortez was the first to invade and colonize the land for Europe. Cortez was brought across the sea because of these men to continue what they started. He was attracted by the ability to overpower native people with the Spanish army.
All these men and events throughout history fit together to colonize the region. In this paper we have tried to understand the motivation behind European Colonization. We reviewed 4 very important men in history. Christopher Columbus who discovered the Caribbean and Cuba, Amerigo Vespucci, who was part of the first actual expedition to the Gulf of Mexico, and Francisco Hernández de Córdoba who spent his time in the Yucatán Peninsula and Hernan Cortez. To brave the unforgiving ocean. Columbus had a thirst for discovery but came upon a lot of things by mistake. Through interpreting and understanding the human mind behind the various causes of European colonialism. colonization became a solution for the problem of survival among the European states.
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