HIST 1301
Topic Two: European Exploration and Colonization
Columbus did not discover a new world. He established contact between two worlds,
both already old.
--- John H. Parry
During the Middle Ages, the major unifying force in Europe was the Church (now the Roman
Catholic Church). At the end of the Middle Ages, ca. 1400 CE, Europe was almost in a state of
collapse. Famine (starting in 1317), the Black Plague (which entered Genoa in 1347), the
Hundred Year's War (which lasted on and off for 117 years) and various other calamities had
brought the European population almost to its knees. By 1600 CE however, Europeans had
colonies on every continent except for Antarctica. How did the demoralized Europeans, confined
to the Mediterranean Basin in 1400, manage to expand all over the globe within two centuries.
Furthermore, how did this affect the balance of power between Europe, Africa, the Middle East
and Asia? Between the years of 1400 to 1600 Europe was transitioning from the Middle Ages to
the Renaissance. These changes would make the Europeans the dominant power in the world,
a place it still holds today (we can argue that the United States is an offshoot of European
colonization). To put it another way, the Western world has dominated the globe since the year
Transition from Medieval to Renaissance
In the introduction, I might have painted a grim picture of Europe in the 14th century; and it
was grim. On the other hand, by 1300, Europe was overpopulated. Its farmers could not
produce enough to feed the population of the continent. Even marginal land was cultivated for
agricultural use. It sounds harsh, but famine and plague culled the population, and made the
standard of living rise for the common European person (if you survived that is). It is estimated
that 35% of the European population perished in the 14th century. The disruption of social,
political, economic and even religious institutions would have lasting effects on the entire globe.
Political Change
In the Middle Ages, European countries were really decentralized provinces, ruled by local
noblemen. The Black Plague allowed kings (or queens) to concentrate power in the hands of
the monarchy and to break the power of the nobility. These new centralized states relied on
bureaucracy to run these new nation-states. As a matter of fact, this was the first time in
European history that we see national states. What does this mean? Well, the national
government had the means to mobilize state resources for a variety of things: control the
economy, collect taxes, raise and keep a standing army/navy. In addition, politically centralized
national states funded exploration and then colonization.
Economic Change
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade, the only successful military crusade.
What the Europeans found in the Middle East were "luxury items", especially spices. The
problem was that Europe didn't produce anything that the Muslims of the Middle East wanted.
In other words, the Europeans had to PAY in gold and silver for eastern products. The only
continent that still had gold and silver mines was Africa, so Europe traded with Africa for
precious metals in order to buy luxury goods from the East. At first, it was the independent citystates of Italy (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Florence) that benefitted from this trade. In 1452,
however, the Ottoman Turks finally achieved their goal and conquered Constantine's great city.
Now called Istanbul, Constantinople was the hub of trade routes going east and west. The price
of luxury goods in Europe went up because Christian caravans were taxed. European nations
started looking for a way around Constantinople. Since the land route was effectively closed,
this meant going by sea.
Technological Change
The Portuguese especially made great strides in sailing technology. Faster ships, better
navigation tools, lateen-rigged sails and accurate maps assured that the Portuguese (who
became an independent kingdom in 1139) were the first to get in their ships and go out to
explore. Since Portugal faced the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean, it was only natural that they
went outward, and were the first to create a global trading empire (see below).
Religious Change
Because of the horrors of the 14th century, the European population needed the solace of
religion. Historical periods often overlap, however, and the late Medieval period coincided with
the beginnings of the Renaissance. Now is not the time to tell the full story of the Renaissance,
but the Church did start a massive remodeling program starting around 1350, including building
a basilica dedicated to St. Peter in Rome. All of this church building, hiring architects and artists
costs money. At a time when the populace of Europe were suffering psychologically, it seemed
as if their religion just wanted their money. One especially lucrative practice was the selling of
indulgences. An indulgence lessened your time in purgatory (purgatory is the Catholic half-way
house, the place you go if you haven't been really good, or really bad). The more money you
spent, the less time in purgatory, and the quicker you get to heaven. The Church made a horde
of money selling indulgences.
In one of the German states, a Catholic priest and monk (they aren't the same thing)
questioned some of the Churches practices, including the selling of indulgences. His name was
Martin Luther, and in 1517 he wrote a document called the 95 Theses, which he nailed on the
church door of his home town in Wittenberg. The church door was the town bulletin board
since everyone went to church. Wittenberg was a university town, and at first Luther just
wanted to start an intellectual discussion about Church practices. Instead he started a
revolution. Called the Protestant Reformation, Luther caused a major split within Western
Christianity. By the end, 60% of Europe was Catholic (Spain, France, half of the German States)
and 40% was Protestant (England, the Netherlands, the other half of the German States).
There are major differences between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church;
the most tangible one being Catholic priests are to remain celibate, while Protestant ministers
are allowed to marry. For our purposes, the split in Christianity meant that the country
colonizing wanted to spread the correct word of God to the heathens.
The Portuguese were the first to go out and explore. Their motives were fairly simple: they
weren't engaged in the Mediterranean trade, they had a head start on sailing technology, they
concluded their Reconquista in 1179 (they had been a kingdom since 1139) and they had the
backing of the Pope. Portuguese explorers set sail down to the coastline of western Africa,
where they set up feitorias, or factories, that acted as a trading post, navigation center,
resupplying station and customs house (tax collection). Eventually, the Portuguese had over 50
feitorias stretching from Portugal, down the western African coast, up the eastern African coast,
and over to India and China. Goa and Macao are two cities that were once Portuguese feitorias.
At first, the Portuguese established their factories on the west coast of Africa, but couldn't get
around the tip of Africa. Ask yourself why that might be? Finally, a Portuguese explorer, caught
in a storm, was blown around the horn of Africa. His name was Bartolommeo Diaz. Working his
way back west, Diaz mapped the coordinates for the route around the southern tip of Africa.
Using Diaz' map, another Portuguese explorer by the name of Vasco de Gama sailed around
Africa, and made the trip to India. By the way, you didn't make any long term plans if you
were one of these explorers. de Gama's round trip to India and back took three years. The
result of de Gama's trip was that it gave Portugal a monopoly on the African route to India and
China. We don't really think of Portugal as a world power, but by 1520, it was the richest nation
in Europe, bringing back boatloads of luxury goods from the exotic East. The other major
holding that Portugal obtained was Brazil. In 1494, the Pope split the "New World" by drawing a
vertical line on a map. Called the Treaty of Tordesillas, everything to the west of the line would
belong to Spain and everything to the east would belong to Portugal. This is why Brazilians (the
people, not the nuts) speak Portuguese today. The Portuguese Empire fell when Portugal itself
was conquered by Spain in 1580 and ceased to be an independent kingdom. By 1600, both the
Dutch and the English were swooping in the take over the remnants of Portugal's territory in
Africa, India and China.
Christoforo Colombo
In 1496, Ferdinand of Aragon and Ysabel of Castile were married, unifying all of Spain. Under
the two monarchs, the Spanish Reconquista was finally completed in 1491 when the last
Moorish stronghold of Grenada, was conquered. In fact, Ferdinand and Ysabel are best known
for freeing Spain from rule.
Ferdinand and Ysabel did something else however. In 1492, they financed a voyage of
exploration for an Italian sailor from Genoa: a man named Christoforo Colombo, or in English
Christopher Columbus. Columbus was convinced that if a person sailed west from the Canary
Islands, they could reach India. He pitched his theory to various monarchs and governments,
looking for funding for an expedition, but was rejected. You might have been taught in school
that Columbus was refused because people at the time thought that the world was flat; if
Columbus sailed west, his ship would fall of the edge of the world. That is absolutely absurd.
The people of Columbus' time knew that the world was round. They even knew the
circumference of the earth at the equator. That had known this since the time of the Greeks,
and even before. And this is why no one would finance his voyage. Columbus had calculated
that the distance from the Canary Islands to Asia at around 2300 miles. Scientists working for
various monarchies advised that Columbus' figures were way off. And they were; the actual
distance is approximately 7800 miles. No ship at the time could travel that distance without
running out of supplies.
Nevertheless, Isabella and Ferdinand sponsored Columbus' voyage. He set out from the Canary
Islands and five weeks later, running out of supplies, he and his men landed in what is today
the Bahamas. The exact island is unknown, but Columbus named the island San Salvador. He
also took the liberty of naming the natives, the Arawak tribe, indios, or Indians. On that first
voyage, Columbus travelled about the Caribbean for four months, taking natives captives (most
died on the trip back to Spain), gathering species of plants and animals, and making maps of
where he went. Columbus returned to Spain in triumph, announcing that he had indeed found
the westward route to the East.
But wait. Europeans had been to both India and China/Japan. The surviving natives dragged
back by Columbus looked and dressed like no one from the Orient. The animals and plants
didn't seem indigenous to the East either. The maps Columbus had drawn didn't look like any
place in Asia. There was a little bit of confusion and explorers set out to see what Columbus
had found. Columbus himself made three more journeys to "the East". After several
observational journeys starting in 1499 another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, wrote that what
Columbus had found was a brand new continent, not a new world. Vespucci's theory was
generally accepted and the continents (by now, enough exploration had been done to realize
that there were two great land masses) were named after Amerigo's Latinized name, Americus.
Spain complained, but after the famous mapmaker, Gerard Mercator, put America instead of
Columbia on his 1538 world map, the name was fixed. Besides, Columbus had gained a
reputation for being a tyrant, and a bit of a joke: he never accepted the fact that he discovered
new continents. Columbus maintained until the day that he died (1506) that he had found the
route to Asia.
The Myth of Columbus and the Results of his Voyage
Of course, Columbus was not the first human in the Americas. He did not discover America.
There were already some 100 million people living there already when Columbus sailed the
ocean blue. Columbus wasn't even the first European in the Americas. We know from Medieval
records that a Norwegian by the name of Leif Erikson had made the voyage to what is today
Newfoundland in the 10th century, and that other Scandinavians regularly made the trip the
Northeastern Canada to fish. They didn't stay however. Columbus gets the credit because he
claimed the credit, even if he did fall off the merry-go-round at the end. The other reason why
Columbus gained star power, even having a day named after him, is because as a new country,
the United States needed heroes, and Columbus fit the bill. That is why his life and his story
was sanitized and white-washed (in reality, he was all that nice a person) and why lady
Columbia became a symbol for America.
On the other hand, the Europeans had forgotten about the Americas, and Columbus' voyage
reminded the rest of the world that the continents were here. The fact that two continents, full
of people that the Europeans knew nothing about, forced the inhabitants of the "Old World" to
reshape their point of view about themselves and their world. We truly were a global society
Economically, the most important change was something called the Columbian Exchange, or the
transfer of goods, animals, plants, peoples, diseases and technology between the Americas and
Europe/Africa/Asia. From the "Old World" came domesticated animals, such as sheep, pigs,
cows and horses. Technology included gunpowder, guns and the wheel. And of course, the
Europeans brought with them diseases: smallpox, influenza, measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria,
chicken pox, etc. In return, the Europeans got agricultural products such as corn, potatoes,
tomatoes, squash, beans, pumpkins, chili peppers, tobacco, chocolate, sugar and coffee. The
only disease we know for sure that travelled from the Americas back to Europe was the pox, or
syphilis. We now have a global economy.
The Western Passage
It would be a mistake to think that European countries immediately set out to colonize this
Mundus Novum "found" by Columbus. Remember the goal was to get to India and China for
luxury goods. So the earliest explorers sailed up rivers to get an idea of how large these land
masses were, and to see if there was a water route across them. Of course, there wasn't, and
we know how large both North and South America are, except where they are connect by a thin
stretch of land known as Panama. A Spanish explorer by the name of Magellan led an
expedition around the tip of South American and across the Pacific Ocean, then back to Spain.
Although Magellan died in what is today the Philippines, he is given the credit for being the first
European to circumnavigate the globe. What his expedition discovered however, was that the
Pacific Ocean is twice the size of the Atlantic, and the route around the South America was not
feasible for trade. This was when the idea for colonization was born. Since English and French
explorers found nothing of value, Spanish colonization had a fifty year head start on the rest of
The first Spanish colonizers in the Americas were the conquistadores, specialized soldiers who
were sent in to conquer native populations and then prepare territories for colonization. The
two most famous conquistadores are probably Cortes, who subdued the Aztec empire, and
Pizarro, who conquered the Inca empire. After the pacification and conquest of the natives, as
much by disease as by warfare, native European populations could be imported to colonize the
Out of Mesoamerica, the territory that had been occupied by the Aztecs, the Spanish created
New Spain; the Inca Empire was designated Peru. The main thing to realize about SpanishAmerica was the tight control the Spanish government kept over their American colonies.
Madrid literally tried to recreate Spain in the Americas. Political institutions, social customs,
cultural traditions, religious systems, all based on Spanish foundations were built in America.
Mission churches, presidios (military bases), urban towns, roadways (which had already been
established by the Aztec and Inca) and a social hierarchy were established. A medium size town
in central Mexico will still look like a medium size town in central Spain, with the plaza, the
fountains, the Cathedral, the tile roofs, and the architecture.
Spain exercised heavy control over its American colonies because of the tremendous wealth
that those colonies generated for their mother country. The colonies, however, experienced
stagnant economic growth as Spain did not encourage manufacturing or economic development
in its colonies. Furthermore, Spain eventually ruined its own economy by importing so much
gold and silver that it caused severe inflation, leading to its eventual loss of status as the
European superpower.
The French eventually settled in Canada and the Mississippi/Ohio River Valleys. Their economy
was mainly based on the fur trade. Since the bulk of their population consisted of single men,
and that population was out in the wilderness for most of the year, France never felt the need
to build an "empire" like the Spanish in the south. French Canada had only two major cities,
Quebec and Montreal, and one in the south, New Orleans. Since the fur trappers spent nine
months out of the year in the woods, there was no real need to build urban centers, or
institutions like churches or universities. The trappers would winter in one of the few towns,
then head back out into the forests in the spring. One result of this economy was that the
French forged an excellent relationship with the Native Americans in Canada. Eventually, the
French Canadians did settle down and start farming after the French government put in place a
program that imported women for the Canadian men to marry. The population of French
Canada was never very large however.
The Dutch
The Netherlands were under the rule of Spain. The seven northern province (today, the
Netherlands), converted to Protestantism, while the ten southern provinces (today Belgium),
remained Catholic. In 1581, the United Provinces in the north declared their independence from
Spain and will war with that country until 1609. There is a 12 year truce, then war resumes
until the end of the 30 Year's War when Spain recognized Dutch independence.
The Dutch thrive, even during the wars of independence. They are mainly traders because they
don't have sufficient agricultural land and because of their location. Dutch ships travel all over
the world, practicing mercantilism. In 1609, the Dutch princes hire Henry Hudson (who is
English) to explore America. Hudson sailed up the river named for him (a perk of being an
explorer) and claimed that land for the Dutch. The Dutch set up a colony upriver in 1614 that
they named Fort Nassau (later renamed Fort Orange, now named Albany). By 1621, the Dutch
had set up trading posts in the Americas.
In 1625, Peter Minuit, the Governor for New Netherlands, purchased the island of Manhattan
from the Natives for $24 dollars. Manhattan, or Fort Amsterdam, would be the trading hub and
capital for the Dutch colony. It grows very slowly however. Like French Canada, the main
exportable from New Netherlands was furs. The second largest industry in the colony was
brewing. And the colony was not all Dutch. Because of religious toleration and because the
Dutch really didn't care who was killing all those small, furry animals, the colony was a mixture
of Germans, Dutch, Finnish, Swedes, French, English, etc.
The Dutch also established a trading/working relationship with the area natives, the Iroquois.
Established in 1570, the Five Nations of the Iroquois was a ruling council designed to make
treaties with the newcomers to America. Each of the five tribes sent ten representatives to a
representative council, who would work with the Europeans. Why? Because the Iroquois were
at war with their hereditary enemies, the Huron and the Algonquians. And the Huron had allied
themselves with the French. Alliance with the Europeans was a way to get guns AND friends to
make war with your enemies (never realizing of course, who the real enemy was).
The British
We will talk about the British in Topic Three.
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