The Old World in the New
In the summer of 1492, a daring Genoese navigator set his sails westward from Palos, Spain, his three tiny ships flying the banners of his royal benefactors, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Christopher Columbus was sailing west into the unknown to reach the fabled Cathay of the East. Behind him lay the familiar shores of Europe; ahead stretched two mighty continents whose virgin lands, dense forests, untapped mineral resources, and aborigines were almost completely unknown to him and the civilizations of Europe and Asia. The Old World had earlier made some contacts with the New. Venturesome Norsemen, under Leif Ericson and other leaders, founded Vinland and explored elsewhere along the North Atlantic coast. And fishermen from France may have periodically visited the banks and shoals of Newfoundland. But none of these contacts yielded any permanent fruits.
Such, also, might have been the result of Columbus' heroic voyage but for a variety of factors. In the 15th and 16th centuries, for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was ripe for exploitative expansion. It was undergoing cataclysmic changes. The Crusades to save the Holy Lands, in the 11th and 12th centuries, had strengthened and unified the European principalities; the plunder that footmen and knights had hauled back from the opulent East introduced Europeans to new luxuries and stimulated the reopening of trade.
The revival of trade between Western Europe and the East was inevitable, and the commercial revolution that revitalized the stagnate society of the Western Worldsparked by the voyages of discovery in the 15th centurywas almost as certain. A merchant class arose to serve the demands of commerce, and cities grew up to protect and serve the merchants. An ascendant Western Europe resented the exorbitant prices charged by merchants in the Italian city-states, who dominated trade with the East, and sought to break their monopoly by finding other trade routes.
The intellectual awakening of the Renaissance, which came to full flower in the 15th and 16th centuries, opened new horizons of interest in the sciences and arts. It stimulated learning and the recapture of classical knowledge, and fostered a fresh curiosity and a more pragmatic way of thinking. In the wake of the Renaissance emerged a movement to reform the "universal" church. The Reformation, beginning early in the 16th century, introduced wide-scale religious conflict, ruptured the medieval unity of Christendom, and produced a sectarian fragmentation of the Christian religion. These interrelated changes in European society spelled the doom of the feudal system of the Middle Ages. Feudalism yielded to a stronger political force, the rise of national states.
The four movementseconomic, intellectual, religious, and socio-politicalmight have exhausted their strength in Europe had it not been for Spain's accidental discovery of a New World while seeking a better route to the East. This discovery resulted in a major shift in the world trade pattern and gave Europe mastery of the globe for centuries to come.
Who would have believed a few centuries earlier that the "barbarian" heirs of the great Roman Empire in Western Europe would some day dominate the earth, or that their culture would influence all peoples from the Volga to the Yalu and from Lapland to Tasmania, or that London and Paris rather than Mecca and Istanbul would be the cultural and financial centers of civilization? Even more preposterous would have been any idea that some yet unfounded English-speaking nation born on a strange continent would be a world powerthat a nation then undreamed of would rise from those distant shores to join the vanguard of civilization.
The New World provided Europe with a vast frontier of expansion and, perhaps even more important as a stimulus, an incredible source of wealth. Within two decades after Columbus' discovery, Spain was importing more than a million dollars a year from the "Indies"; by the end of the first half-century, gold and silver treasures poured into Madrid from the Aztec and Inca fields and increased the expendable wealth of Europe some fifteenfold. Had the rewards not been so immense, the Spaniards might not have been so daring and persistent in their exploration.
From his initial voyage (1492-93), Columbus returned with gold bracelets and ornaments, as well as tales of greater wealth farther west. On this first voyage and three subsequent ones (1493-96, 1498-1500, and 1502-4), he explored extensively throughout the West Indies. Yet he died in 1506, only 2 years after his last voyage, not realizing that he had discovered a continent. But the promise of abundant gold, silver, and other treasure that could be wrenched from the arms of natives enticed adventurous Spanish conquistadors (conquerors), strengthened by long conflict in their homeland with the intrusive Moors, to the New World in search of gold and glory. Missionary padres sought to serve God by converting the native masses.
Within a few decades, Spanish navigators became familiar with the northern coast of South America, the Isthmus of Panama, the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic shore of North America, and ultimately the general outlines of most of the New Worldthough for some time enough hiatuses existed in their knowledge so that the dream of a Northwest Passage persisted. The Spanish benefited from the earlier pioneering efforts of the nautical-minded Portuguese, especially those of Prince Henry, "The Navigator," to find a water route to the East. Though King John II of Portugal turned a deaf ear to the pleas of Columbus for sponsorship, between 1429 and 1460 Portuguese seamen had explored 2,000 miles of Africa's northwest coast. In 1498, Vasco da Gama pioneered a route to India around Africa's southern tip. While Portugal directed her energies to the south and east, Spain pursued opportunities to the west, a division of interest formally recognized in 1494 by the Papal Line of Demarcation.
Spain, of all European nations, was particularly qualified to exploit the opportunities. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1469, had united the Houses of Aragon and Castile, and started the country on a spectacular rise to power. The two monarchs finished driving the Moors from the country, consolidated royal power, diminished the pretensions of the lesser nobility, conquered new lands, and advanced homogeneity of religion. Spain became Europe's strongest power. Treasure poured into her coffers as Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire and Pizarro overran the Peruvian Incas. Little wonder, then, that Spain was spurred to ever-quickening exploration or that the other nations of Europe dared to send their own expeditions into the unknown hemisphereor to plant their flags on soil that Ferdinand and his haughty Hapsburg successors claimed for Spain.
The acquisition of colonies was an integral part of the economic policy of mercantilism, to which many European powers in the course of time adhered. According to mercantilistic theory, gold, silver, and precious gems were the prime measurement of national wealth and power. To obtain these, a nation should export to the maximum extent and restrict imports. The theory further held that colonies, important as sources of raw materials and as captive markets for the mother country's products, should be rigidly controlled.
Because of national pride, too, monarchs vied with one another in subsidizing exploration and colonization. Monarchs and individuals alike sought wealth in precious metals, furs, and other natural resources. Other individual motives were escape from religious, political, and economic oppression and the devastation of the seemingly endless wars in Europe; the desire to convert the pagan Indians to Christianity; land hunger; and the lure of adventure.
During the 16th century, navigators of all nations sought a water passage around or through the American continental block to the fabulous East while overland expeditions searched North America for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold or other easily conquered and wealthy empires like those of the Aztecs and Incas. Spain, from well established bases in the New World, explored extensively along both coasts of North and South America; and, in addition to exploring much of the Southeastern and Southwestern parts of the present United States, founded at St. Augustine, in 1565, the first permanent settlement by Europeans in what is now the United States.
French explorers claimed the land between the Carolinas and the St. Lawrence, and Huguenots attempted to settle in South Carolina, Florida, and Nova Scotia. Though late in the preceding century John and Sebastian Cabot had provided Henry VII of England with a New World claim, English "sea dogs" preferred to raid Spanish treasure galleons making their cumbersome voyages to Seville's treasury rather than colonize the empty coasts of North America.
Notable exceptions were Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, who late in the 16th century threw their fortunesmostly Spanish goldinto settlement attempts in Newfoundland and "Virginia." Ironically, England's decisive sea victory in 1588 over Philip II's "invincible" armada indirectly caused the doom of Raleigh's colony at Roanoke in "Virginia" by seriously delaying John White's return trip with supplies. But, over the years following the defeat of the armada, the "Spanish Sea" was opened to all corners.
In the next century, imperial rivalry for control of the New World increased in intensity, as other European powers sought to catch up with Spain. The British founded a permanent settlement at Jamestown in 1607; the French at Quebec in 1608; and the Dutch at Nieuw Amsterdam in 1626. During the century, the British spread staunch colonies on the Atlantic coast from South Carolina to Maine. In 1638, the Swedes settled the Delaware Bay region and in 1654 lost possession to Peter Stuyvesant, Director General of New Netherland. Stuyvesant, a decade later, watched in frustrated anger as the English raised their flag over Nieuw Amsterdam and renamed the surrounding area for its new owner, the English Duke of York. Meanwhile, the French pushed up the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes waterways into the heart of the continent, following such intrepid leaders as Samuel de Champlain to the Great Lakes and La Salle to the mouth of the Mississippi.
The frontiers of three mighty colonial empires now stood in dangerous proximity, and in the 18th century imperial rivalries flared into a vital struggle for control of North America. In a series of four wars, beginning with King William's War (War of the English Succession) in 1689 and ending in the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which ended the French and Indian War (or Seven Years' War), France was forced off the continent. The wars were fought largely in Europe and all except the fourth stemmed from European power struggles, but they resulted in a reshaping of the North American map. England and Spain divided the spoils, the English claiming the eastern third of the present United States and the Spanish the area west of the Mississippi.
Little did the rulers of England and Spain dream that their vast New World empires were to be shattered in paroxysms of revolution or that new nations would arise from the feeble colonial beginnings. But this was to beand in the course of time the young United States of America grew strong and mature by molding into the vibrant mainstream of her British legacy the diverse heritages of Spain, France, Holland, Sweden, and other European nations.
Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005