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Setting the Stage

Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In the process of searching for a new route to the Indies (South and Southeast Asia), Columbus discovered a region of the world Europeans did not know existed. This region, including the Caribbean and North and South America, came to be referred to by Europeans as the New World, the West Indies, or the Americas. Although new to Europeans, these lands were home to millions of indigenous peoples including the Arawak, Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations and hundreds of Native American tribes. From early on, much of the New World's value was based on its potential to provide wealth in the form of the precious metals gold and silver. As a result of the European quest for land and riches, the native populations endured violent attacks, forced labor, and the spread of European diseases.

As Spanish explorations continued in the 16th century, Spain's New World empire expanded. In 1521, Spanish conquistador (conqueror) Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs (who occupied present day Mexico) and renamed their lands "New Spain." Word spread as Cortes began sending to Spain amazing gold and silver objects belonging to the native population. The Spanish soon discovered gold and silver mines in both New Spain and South America. They mined the precious metals and brought them to Spain aboard merchant ships. The wealth generated by these precious metals allowed Spain to become the most powerful nation in Europe.

Ships from rival countries such as England, France, and the Netherlands began trying to seize these Spanish ships as they made their way towards Spanish ports filled with treasure. Spain responded by requiring the merchant ships to sail in fleets or convoys escorted by armed warships for protection. This fleet system began in the 1530s and was in use for more than 200 years. Although traveling in armed convoys provided some protection from enemy ships, this system could not save convoys from unpredictable storms or dangerous shoals and reefs. As a result, some ships and their cargoes inevitably were lost. Two of the worst disasters in the history of the treasure fleet system occurred in 1715 and 1733 when violent hurricanes off the coast of Florida decimated the treasure-laden fleets as they struggled to return to Spain.



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