European Exploration of Central America

Note : as Panama administratively formed part of Spanish South America and was a critical transit stage for communication and trade between Spain and Pacific Spanish South America, it is treated as part of the latter.

Cuba, the staging point for the exploration of Central America, was conquered by the Castilians, under the command of Diego Velasquez, in 1511. Stretches of the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua may have been visited earlier. In 1517 Governor Velasquez of Cuba sent an expedition under Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba with the task to conquer Yucatan, which, then, was believed to be an island. The Maya inhabitants resisted successfully, and Cordoba returned, leaving behind a number of men as Mayan captives. A second expedition under Juan de Grijalva in 1518 explored the coast of Yucatan and further north to the Rio Panuco. A third expedition, under Hernan Cortez was charged with establishing contact with the Aztecs. Having picked up a freed Spanish captive, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who had learned the Maya language, and a slave girl named Malinche (Dona Marina) who spoke Mayan and Aztec, and who quickly would learn Spanish. Cortez exceeded his authority, convinced his expedition to attempt the Conquest of the Aztec Empire and executed that plan 1519-1521. Nicaragua was conquered from Panama by Gil Gonzalez de Avila in 1522, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-1525. Pockets little affected by the Spanish conquest, notably in the humid lowlands along the Caribbean coast, from Yucatan to Nicaragua, continued to resist for centuries.
The Spanish constructed port cities at Acapulco and Navidad, from which they undertook further explorations. In 1533, Fortun Jimenez sailed as far as Baja California, were he and 20 of his men were killed. In 1539 an expedition under Francisco de Ulloa established Baja California to be a peninsula. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo reached the coast of Alta California (San Diego Bay) in 1542.
Governor Velasquez in 1519 also had charged an expedition under Alonso Alvarez de Pineda with the exploration of the waters (coast) between Florida and Mexico.

European Exploration : Voyages of Discovery, from California History Online
Spanish Texas, from TSHA Online
REFERENCE Chapter Eight : The Conquest of Central America, pp.108-123, in : Angus Konstam, Historical Atlas of Exploration, 1492-1600, NY : Checkmark Books 2000 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 27th 2003, last revised on May 11th 2006

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