Text and photos courtesy of Michelle Mock

16th Century

In 1504, Amerigo Vespucci wrote about his voyages to the New World (primarily the eastern coast of South America).  Although Christopher Columbus reached the coast of Venezuela the year before Amerigo Vespucci, Amerigo explored most of the South American coast.  This discovery identified a large continent that was separate from Asia.  In 1507, the New World became known as America after Amerigo Vespucci.  The name stuck.

The 16th century was the beginning of the exploration and conquest of the South American contact by Europeans.  In 1513, the Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and found the Pacific Ocean.  Exploration led to the discovery of the gold and other riches of the native civilizations.  Even advanced civilizations like the Incas in South America and the Aztecs of Mexico, were outmatched by the horses, weaponry and armor of the Europeans.

Spanish conquistadores were seeking fortunes in gold and land.  Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru between 1532 and 1534, leading to the decline of the Incan empire.  In 1572, the final Inca emperor, Topa Amaru, was captured and executed.  Spaniards also colonized Venezuela between 1521 and 1549.

In 1520, Portuguese navigator Fernando Magellan found a waterway at the tip of Chile and Argentina that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Named after the explorer, the Magellan Straits separates the South American continent from the large island that includes Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn.

The Germans attempted to colonize Venezuela around 1528.  For approximately three decades, through an agreement with Spain, they would extract as much wealth as they could from the land.

Around 1530, adventurers from Portugal, the smaller country on the west coast of Spain, began colonizing Brazil.  Rio de Janeiro was founded a year later.  Portuguese is still the official language of Brazil.  In 1542, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana sailed along the Amazon River.

During the 16th century, before the corresponding countries were countries, several major South American cities were founded.  In 1535, Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Lima (Peru) were established.  Asunción (Paraguay) was founded in 1536.

In 1542, Spanish King Carlos I (also known as Charles V) set forth laws abolishing enslaving of the native peoples in the Spanish colonies, limiting colonist control.  Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia explored Chile between 1540 and 1544.  Silver was discovered in Peru in 1545.  Silver became the chief export from the Americas around 1560.  Although Spain was not the only European staking claims in the Americas, the Spanish Empire was growing and gold and other riches from the conquests were sent back home to Spain, to the glory of the conquerors.  It was said that at that time, "the sun never sets on the Spanish Empire".

World  South America


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