The First Transatlantic Voyages and Discovery of the “New World”

The earliest ventures across the Atlantic.

11th century
La Navidad
La Isabela
6 weeks
Pedro Álvares Cabral

The Norsemen's Transatlantic Voyages and Discovery of Vinland

The first transatlantic voyages were undertaken by the Norsemen, who sailed from Scandinavia to North America in the 11th century.

Leif Eriksson is credited with being the first European to set foot on American soil, and his journey was documented in Icelandic sagas such as The Saga of Erik the Red. These stories tell of a land called Vinland which was discovered by Eriksson and his crew during their voyage.

It is believed that this land may have been located somewhere along the coast of Newfoundland or Labrador in Canada. The first Europeans to return to this region of America were Basque fishermen in the early 16th century.

These early voyages did not lead to any permanent settlements, with colonization benning the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Christopher Columbus: The Early Years and Search for Support


Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. He had a passion for the sea from an early age and worked as a sailor on merchant ships before joining the Portuguese navy.

During this time he developed his navigational skills and knowledge of geography which would later prove invaluable during his voyages to the New World.

In 1484, Columbus presented his plan to reach Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic Ocean to King John II of Portugal but it was rejected on the grounds he had vastly underestimated the distance.

Undeterred, he continued searching for support elsewhere, finally receiving the backing of Spain in 1492. The Spanish court shared King John II’s suspicions of Columbus’ miscalculations, yet were willing to take the risk in a competitive climate for exploration.

The Spanish Monarchs and Columbus' Petition


The success of Columbus’ petition coincided with a period of transition and change for Spain.

The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella had ascended the throne in 1479, their marriage dynastically unifying the formerly separate regions of Aragon and Castile.

Their rule also ushered in the end of the Reconquista, a centuries-long struggle between Christian and Muslim forces in the Iberian Peninsula. The fall of Granada in 1492 marked the end of Islamic rule in Spain.

The new monarchs were eager to capitalize on their newfound freedom, and provided Columbus with his own allowance, three ships, supplies and crew members for his journey. In return, they expected to gain access to new lands that could be colonized or used as trading posts.

Columbus' First Voyage and Discovery of the New World

Columbus’ first voyage began on August 3rd, 1492 with three ships – the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, and a crew of around 100 men.


After a long journey across the Atlantic, the crew spotted land on October 12, 1492. They had landed on an island in the Bahamas, which Columbus named San Salvador.

Columbus and his crew explored several other islands in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and encountered the indigenous Taíno people.

On December 25, 1492, the Santa María ran aground on a reef off the coast of Hispaniola. Columbus ordered the ship to be dismantled, and he left behind a group of men to establish a settlement, which he named La Navidad (“The Nativity” or “Christmas”).

Columbus and the remaining crew set sail for Spain on January 16, 1493. They arrived back in Spain in March 1493, and Columbus was hailed as a hero for his discoveries.

Columbus' Reports and the European Response


Upon his return to Europe, Columbus reported back on the new lands he had discovered. He brought with him maps and drawings of the islands he visited, as well as descriptions of their inhabitants and resources.

Columbus also brought back samples of plants, animals, minerals and artifacts from his voyage which provided Europeans with an insight into the unknown world beyond their own continent. These included exotic fruits such as pineapples, tobacco leaves for smoking pipes, gold jewelry from native tribes in Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti), parrots from Cuba and an alligator.

His reports were met with enthusiasm in Spain, though also some disappointment. Columbus had not, after all, found India, nor any significant quantities of gold. With that in mind, the Spanish Crown were keen to sponsor further voyages.

Columbus' Second Voyage: Colonization and Conflict

In 1493, Columbus set sail on a second voyage with 17 ships and over one thousand men. Joined this time by priests, military men, artisans, and farmers, this voyage was designed not only to uncover new navigation routes, but also to establish colonies.

These efforts, however, were largely disastrous. He arrived at Hispaniola in late November to find that the settlement of La Navidad had entirely perished, forced to start a new town to the east, La Isabela.

Columbus’ relations with the Taíno people deteriorated during his second voyage. He imposed harsh conditions on them, including forced labor, and punished those who resisted Spanish authority, including colonists.

By 1495 over 60% of the settlers had died from disease and famine. The same year, Columbus captured 1,500 Arawak natives in order to sell them to slavery.

Columbus' Third Voyage and Reputation Damage


Columbus’ third voyage in 1498 was a final blow to his reputation at home.

Leaving from Spain in May 1498, he arrived in Trinidad in late July, and continued his exploration of the mainland of South America, believing that he had reached the eastern coast of Asia. He explored the Gulf of Paria and the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela.

Columbus was increasingly accused of overseeing a reign of tyranny over Spanish colonists and inhuman brutality towards natives, and frequently seen to use torture and dismemberment.

This news also reached the mainland via Francisco de Bobadilla, a royal commissioner to the island and friend of Queen Isabella. This resulted in his arrest and imprisonment in Spain for a period of 6 weeks.

Only reluctantly did the crown agree to a fourth and final voyage to central America in 1502.

The Treaty of Tordesillas and Portuguese Expansion in Brazil

The Portuguese perceived Columbus’ voyages west to “India” to encroach on their empire, and it became necessary to agree upon how to divide the world.

The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494 between Spain and Portugal, did just that, giving Portugal exclusive rights to explore and colonize lands east of a line drawn 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

As a result, Portuguese explorers began to venture further south along the African coast. In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral became the first European to reach Brazil after being blown off course to India. Claiming this land for Portugal, mistaking it for an island which he named it “Ilha de Vera Cruz” (meaning “true cross”).

The Portuguese quickly settled here and exploited natural resources, setting up trading posts for the Brazilian timber tree. They also brought enslaved Africans over from Africa to work on their plantations which would become an integral part of Brazilian society for centuries. By 1532 they had founded São Vincente, south of today’s São Paulo.

The Fall of the Aztec Empire

While the Spanish and Portuguese began to wield great power in the Americas, they did not do so without resistance. Nor were the Americas lacking indigenous empires of their own.


One such empire was the Aztec Empire, an alliance of three states from the region of the Valley of Mexico which existed in central Mexico during the 15th and early 16th centuries. The “Mexica”, as the empire’s people were termed, had gained a reputation as fierce warriors in the 14th century.

Under the leadership of rulers like Moctezuma I, the Aztecs expanded their empire through conquest, forming alliances with other city-states, and demanding tribute from subjugated peoples.

Despite their military prowess, the Aztecs were ultimately brought to an end by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519.

The Spaniards, led by Hernan Cortes, allied themselves with enemies of the Aztecs and mounted a campaign of conquest that ultimately led to the fall of Tenochtitlan, the empire’s capital, in 1521.

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