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During the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea became the focal point of European efforts to reach the riches of Asia by a sea route, rather than depend on the dangerous, costly and time-consuming ancient trade routes through the Middle East.Tiny Portugal emerged as the original leader of this effort. The most influential figure in the rise of Portuguese maritime strength was Henry the Navigator, who marshaled experts and information to found an empire.Neighboring Spain was slower to respond to the challenge due in large part to disunity. The defeat of the Moors also freed the monarchs to support exploratory ventures, including those of Christopher Columbus.The four voyages of Columbus (between 1492 and 1504) served to open the door to European exploration, colonization and exploitation of the New World, although Columbus himself never set foot in North America. By the time the English began active colonization, the Spanish had already explored large portions of North America, especially in the South and Southwest.The Spanish explorers encountered three major civilizations in the New World: the Incas in present-day Peru and the Mayans and Aztecs in Mexico and Central America. The conquistadors were truly amazed by what they found — immense wealth in gold and silver, complex cities rivaling or surpassing those in Europe, and remarkable artistic and scientific achievements.Spanish conquest in the New World was driven by the three `G`s—gold, glory, and gospel. The natives contracted malaria, Smallpox and measles from the Europeans, but passed on syphilis to the invaders in a morbid exchange.In 1494, shortly after Columbus’ first voyage, the pope divided the newly discovered lands between Spain and Portugal — both Catholic nations, but fierce rivals. The line of demarcation crossed through the hump of South America. The most profitable Spanish activities in the New World occurred in the southern portions, while less rewarding ventures took place in northern areas.
See Map of Spanish America.