1499: Hojeda Explores Northern South America:
After the return of Christopher Columbus
from his first voyage
in 1492-3, there was great excitement in Europe to further explore the lands to the west, still believed by Columbus and others to be part of Asia. Columbus was sent back almost immediately and the Kings of Spain and Portugal began financing expeditions of exploration. After Columbus himself, one of the most famous captains in Europe was Alonso de Hojeda, a veteran of Columbus’ second
voyages. In 1499, Hojeda himself was commissioned to explore the Caribbean and northern South America.
Alonso de Hojeda:
A native of Cuenca, Castile, Hojeda was a brash but promising young ship’s officer when he sailed with Columbus on his second voyage in 1494. He was small but well-built and handsome and had friends in high places, including Queen Isabela
and Bishop Fonseca. On his voyages, Columbus came to trust him and often gave him important tasks. Hojeda, like many others, was brutal with the Indians: he often accompanied Columbus on slave-capturing raids on Hispaniola. Due to his experience, he was a logical selection for the King of Spain in 1499 to entrust with a new expedition.
Hojeda was given four ships. He recruited talented sailors and navigators, among them Columbus’ cartographer Juan de la Cosa and Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci
, who would himself one day achieve great distinction as a New World explorer. The expedition departed from Cadiz
on May 18, 1499 and stopped in the Canary Islands before making the final ocean crossing. The journey to the New World took just over three weeks.
Most of what is known about the journey comes to us from a letter purportedly from Vespucci to his friend, Pierfrancesco de Medici, sent upon his return to Europe. Although some of Vespucci’s “letters” are believed to be fakes, this one is considered genuine or at least based on a letter he did, in fact, write.
Arrival in the New World:
The ships sailed around the Islands of the Caribbean and northern South America for a while, and Vespucci was impressed by the beautiful, dense green foliage. Like Columbus before him, he believed that perhaps they had discovered nothing less than the Garden of Eden. He mentioned the parrots and birds as well as the strong rivers and currents.
The expedition’s first major encounter with New World natives occurred on the Island of Trinidad. Vespucci was impressed by their nudity and lack of shame. The natives of Trinidad were cannibals, and the men were shocked to see human bones and skulls lying about. Vespucci went to great lengths to show that the people were friendly in spite of their cannibalism. They only ate captives from other islands and generously fed the visitors (although not human meat, presumably). After leaving Trinidad, they visited a small village on the Gulf of Paria where the natives gave them food, pearls and parrots.
The South American Coast:
The expedition explored the north-eastern coast of South America. Sailors would disembark and explore rivers and inlets in smaller craft. They saw many wild animals, including an enormous snake more than twenty feet long, which terrified the men. They also fought native warriors, including one skirmish where twenty-six Europeans armed with swords and muskets fought off hundreds of native warriors. They visited another island where they found “giants:” Vespucci says the men were taller on their knees than the Europeans were standing up.
Hispaniola and Back to Europe:
The men were growing weary, so they set sail for Hispaniola, where Columbus and his brothers had founded Santo Domingo
a few years before. There was apparently some bad blood by this time between Columbus and Hojeda and violence was only averted by the intervention of cooler heads. Meanwhile, Vespucci and de la Cosa captured 232 slaves from various small islands for sale in Europe and returned via the Azores.
Legacy of the Hojeda Voyage:
Hojeda's journey was important for many reasons. It greatly expanded the mapped area of the New World, making future journeys easier. It was the first to visit many areas, including a lovely bay where natives had homes on stilts like Venice: they named the place "Venezuela," or "Little Venice" and the name stuck.
It was also an important journey because of the participation of Vespucci. It inspired Vespucci to continue exploring, and he would lead an exploration of his own in 1501. Vespucci became convinced while on the Hojeda expedition that Columbus was wrong: the lands he had discovered to the west were not, in fact, a previously unmapped part of eastern Asia but rather something completely new and unknown to ancient historians.
Genuine or not, Vespucci's letters were published in Europe after his 1501 - 1502 expedition and caused a sensation. His descriptions of native nudity fired the repressed imaginations of men and women and his theories concerning the newness of the recently discovered lands led printer Martin Waldseemüller to christen the new continents "America" on a 1507 map. This proved decisive for the naming of the new lands, which have been North and South America ever since.
Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.