Colonization of America
author Maxim Pretula, July 2016
Although Christopher Columbus is considered to have discovered America, the Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive on the north-east coast of North America.

Please support History Lapse by making a $5 donation (PayPal, credit card or bitcoin).

bitcoin: 1PpagscXKttC5FidgV2WQNRaBgSPwjvP9Z
Although Christopher Columbus is considered to have discovered America, the Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive on the north-east coast of North America. Thus, beginning from the Dark Ages, many European peoples began to navigate the seas and oceans in order to discover new lands and new riches. These people were: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians, Norwegians, Dutch, and English.

The Vikings were the first great European navigators to explore the Atlantic Ocean. They founded colonies in Iceland. Later, they sailed west, discovering Greenland and the territory now called Newfoundland. They also founded a colony there, called Vinland, but conflicts with the native Americans led them to abandon the colony.

Under the rule of one of the king’s heirs at that time, Henry - also called the Sailor - the Portuguese began what came to be called The Era of Discovery. Motivated by greed, they began to explore the West Coast of Africa. The explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to pass through the Cape of Good Hope. He demonstrated that the Atlantic and Indian Ocean are connected.

Exploring the world by voyaging on the seas raised great problems, starting with the contradiction about the shape of the planet. Even before this time, there were opinions that the Earth was spherical. Eratostene from Cirene calculated, with relative precision, the circumference of the earth in the third century AD. Even so, the theory stating the the earth was flat strongly influenced the reticence of sailors to venture into the Atlantic.

Vasco da Gama was the Portuguese explorer who, following the route of Bartolomeu Dias, took his fellow countrymen to India. The spices of Asia, gold, silver, textiles but also slaves, were goods which kept the Portuguese sailing the seas. Thus, they discovered more and more territories.

Christopher Columbus was the first European who proposed a journey across the Atlantic to arrive at the riches of Asia. A large part of the experts of those days admitted the possibility of sailing to Asia across the Atlantic. They agreed with the theory of the earth being spherical, but they considered such a journey to be impossible, since the sailors would be left without food and water long before arriving in Asia. Columbus persevered, being helped by an error in calculation. The diameter of the earth was calculated to be much smaller than it really is, so the distance to Asia was estimated as being much shorter. This strengthened his decision to go west.

Right from the start, Columbus met much opposition to his plan to sail to Asia, that is to the Indies which were rich in spices. His plans were rejected in Portugal and initially in Spain too. The historic context eventually contributed to his success. The kings of Spain, Fernando of Aragon and Isabella of Castilia, were impressed by the discoveries of the Portuguese explorers and the riches they brought from across the seas. They were also motivated by the spread of Catholicism in the world. Because of this, they gave Christopher Columbus the financial and material support necessary for the trans-Atlantic journey.

On the evening of the 3rd of August 1492, Christopher Columbus set off on his first trans-Atlantic voyage. This would be the first of four voyages made by the explorer. At the end of these, the Spanish crown had become the main colonial power in America. At the same time, the so-called columbian exchange began. This was a process in which people, plants, animals, but also ideologies and religious beliefs were transferred from the Old World to the New and vice-versa.

The first voyage of Christopher Columbus’ fleet, made up of three ships: Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina, was the hardest. The Spanish sailors were terrified of being left without provisions and water. Even so, five weeks after they left, land was sighted by one of the lookouts of the ships. Although he believed he had arrived in Asia, Columbus had discovered the Bahamas.

The second journey took place one year later. This time, due to the the success reported from the first journey, the kings of Spain gave Columbus the command of a fleet of 17 ships with enough people and provisions to establish permanent colonies in the New World. Following a more southerly course than in his first voyage, Columbus discovered the Antilles islands, the Virgin Islands, and the island of Puerto Rico. He continued to Hispaniola and Cuba. In this second voyage, Jamaica was discovered.

On his third transAtlantic voyage, Christopher Columbus reached the South American continent for the first time, on the Paria peninsula in Venezuela. At that time, he was firmly convinced that the newly-discovered land was part of Asia. On this expedition, Columbus also discovered the islands of Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada and Margarita.

Columbus’ heritage was a controversial one. On the one hand, he was seen as a great explorer. On the other hand however, many historians credit him with countless atrocities committed against the native population of the islands discovered in the Caribbean Sea. There is ample proof confirming brutal treatment of natives by Columbus’ men. It can also be proven that the local population was exploited in order to obtain gold, sugar and other precious resources for Europe.

Getting over this psychological difficulty, Columbus’ fleet continued their journey. They arrived on the shores of Cuba and Hispaniola. The Spanish called the natives they met “Indians”, because they were convinced they had arrived in India. Initially, the inhabitants of the islands were impressed by the Europeans and their weapons. However, they quickly discovered that their intentions were not entirely peaceful.

The fourth and last expedition of Christopher Columbus had the goal of discovering the so-called Malacca strait. It was believed that this strait linked the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The Spanish fleet first arrived in the already-discovered archipelagos. Then they went west, trying to reach the Central American coast. In Panama, Columbus found out about a strait leading to another ocean, however due to several problems with his ships, he was forced to turn back. A powerful storm wrecked the fleet off Jamaica. They had to stay on the island for a year before being able to return to Spain.

Columbus’ expeditions profoundly influenced the period in which he lived, and the future of the entire world. The technological advantages of the European colonists over the native population allowed them to spread with ease and speed over the new lands. The establishment of colonies, and later colonial empires, decisively influenced both European history and that of the New World. This influence was felt through profound cultural, social and economic changes.

Information about the newly discovered territories, especially about the riches of these lands, spread fast through the Old Continent. This sparked the interest of the European regents, but also of explorers and adventurers. They wanted to rule those lands and become rich. The era of discovery, begun by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 15th century, was going full speed ahead.

John Cabot was the first European after the Vikings to explore the eastern coast of North America. Sailing under the flag of England, he discovered the island of Newfoundland. He continued his journey until the area of the Chesapeake estuary.

Samuel de Champlain was a French sailor. He mapped the Canadian coast and founded the first French settlements around the Saint Lawrence river. Also called ‘The Father of New France’, he was the governor of the Quebec province. During this time, he organized an efficient trade with continental France.

The name ‘America’ was given to the new lands due to the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who took part in four expeditions to the New World. After these voyages, he concluded that the new lands were not part of Asia, but were a whole new continent. He also mapped a number of constellations, such as Alpha, Beta Centauri and Crux. These constellations had been known in Ancient Greece. However, with the Earth’s movement, they had passed beyond the horizon of the European continent and could no longer be observed.

Henry Hudson was an English explorer. He proposed finding a way of getting to China through Northern America, crossing the Arctic Circle. He explored the east coast of modern-day USA, in the area of New York, which was initially called New Amsterdam. Hudson named the Hudson River.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first European who, exploring the Panama isthmus, entered the Pacific Ocean from America. Like many other European explorers, his policy was of systematic conquest and exploitation of native tribes. His goal was to obtain gold and other resources.

Giovanni da Verrazzano is known as being the first European after the Viking expeditions, to explore the east coast of North America, from Florida to New Brunswick.

With few exceptions, contact between European explorers and the native population was violent. Cultural, social and religious differences, together with the economical and political interests of the newcomers, caused military conflicts which ended with the destruction of the great Amerindian civilizations and the division of the discovered territories amongst the great powers of Western Europe.

As the avangarde of New World discoveries, the Spanish were the first to found a colonial empire in the Americas. After occupying most of the islands in the Caribbean Sea, under the leadership of conquistador Hernan Cortes, they reached the eastern coast of Mexico. Here they discovered the Aztec civilization. Hearing of the riches of this empire, Cortes made alliances with the tribes which were enemies of the Aztecs, and headed towards their capital, Tenochtitlan.

Cholula was the first Aztec town conquered by Cortes. The Spanish, allied with the Tlaxcalan tribe, enemies of the Aztecs, entered Cholula without meeting opposition, after the order given to the local captains by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma the second. Shortly after entering the town, Cortes was warned that the Aztecs were planning to massacre his troops at night. Deciding to act first, he ordered his troops to arrest all the nobles in the town. These, together with a large number of inhabitants, were executed and the town was burned. Historians later called this event the ‘Massacre of Cholula’.

News of the massacre spread fast through the towns controlled by the Aztecs. The newcomers, already considered by the Aztecs to possess supernatural powers, began to be feared. The Aztec emperor officially invited Hernan Cortes and his troops to Tenochtitlan. Initially, relations between the two were cordial. However, the apple of contention was the Spanish insistence to raise a cross and a statue to the Virgin Mary next to the altars of the Aztec gods. The Spanish discovered that the Aztecs had murdered seven Spanish soldiers left behind on the coast of Mexico. Being at a disadvantage numerically, Cortes ordered the arrest of Moctezuma, taking him hostage.

Although he was a hostage, Moctezuma continued to fulfil his role as leader of the Aztecs. Loyal to Cortes, he warned him that Spanish troops had landed on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The troops had been sent to arrest or kill Cortes, since his initial mission was only to explore Mexican lands. Cortes left the Aztec capital and, after a daring military move, managed to convince the soldiers sent against him to join him.

Returning to Tenochtitlan, Cortes discovered that the soldiers left behind had massacred a large number of Aztec nobles. This caused the entire population to revolt. Cortes and his men were forced to flee the town. Thus, they lost a great part of their stolen treasures and suffered great loss of human lives.

Shortly afterwards, strengthening his forces, Cortes returned with a large army. The army was mostly formed of his Tlaxcalan allies. Tenochtitlan, one of the greatest towns of the world at that time, was under siege for eight months. The siege ended with the destruction of the town and the assimilation of the Aztec empire into the new colonial Spanish empire. From that moment, Cortes and his men began a systematic campaign of enlargement of the colonial empire. They fought battles in northern Mexico with the Chichimeca tribes and advanced south, towards the Mayan territories.

After the defeat of the Aztecs, the Spanish headed south. They began a military campaign to conquer the Mayan towns. The campaign proved to be much more difficult than the one against the Aztecs: the last Mayan town was conquered almost a century later. Even so, the Spanish advanced rapidly along the coasts of Central America, since they had the advantage of maritime travel. They arrived in modern-day Peru, where they discovered the Inca Empire.

The Spanish advance into the territory of modern-day Peru coincided with a civil war fought at that time between two descendents of the Inca emperor, Huayna Capac. Francisco Pizarro was commanding an army of only 168 soldiers. He arrived close to the spring residence of Cajamarca, which belonged to Atahualpa, one of the two sons of the emperor. Atahualpa had just received news from his generals that his brother’s army had been defeated, and his brother, Huascar, captured.

At first, Atahualpa, the new Sapa Inca - king of the Incas - received the Spanish cordially. They wanted him to acknowledge the sovereignty of the king of Spain and of Catholicism as a religion. This request caused what some historians have called The Battle of Cajamarca, while others have called it the Cajamarca Massacre. The Spanish were prepared for the ambush. They opened fire at the moment of Atahualpa’s refusal to acknowledge the supremacy of the Catholic faith. They killed hundreds of Incas and took the emperor prisoner.

Thus, Pizarro gained an advantageous position. He forced the Inca army, which was much larger, to give up their attack on the Spanish. He promised Atahualpa he would be freed in exchange for considerable quantities of gold. The Spanish, however, had different plans. After he was persuaded to convert to Christianity, Atahualpa was executed. Shortly afterwards, Pizarro, receiving backup, occupied the capital of the empire, Cuzco. The Spanish had a considerable number of allies on their side, from the tribes which opposed the Inca rule. Thus, the resistance of the Incas was crushed. The Spanish installed Atahualpa’s brother, Tupac Huallpa on the throne as a puppet emperor.

Tupac Huallpa died shortly afterwards and rule of the Inca state was turned over to Manco Inca Yupanqui. At first, he declared himself the ally of the Spanish. However, profiting from the dissatisfaction of the generals left in the north, the new leader rebelled and laid siege to the former Inca capital, Cuzco. The Spanish held superior arms, and there was no unity among the Inca leaders. At the same time, the Incas suffered losses after their first contact with the Europeans. For these reasons, Manco Inca Yupanqui’s revolt was suppressed. He was forced to retreat into the west Andes where he led a small Inca state for several decades.

The definitive defeat of the Incas took place approximately 40 years after the arrival of the Spanish. The conquerors not only imposed their political will over the inhabitants, but also systematically replaced the Inca religion with Catholicism, at the same time replacing all the other cultural and traditional elements of the Incas with Spanish traditions. The riches of the newly-conquered lands considerably strengthened the position of the Spanish crown in Southern and Central America. This fact was also felt in the struggle with the other great European powers on the Old Continent.

The colonization of North America was a more difficult process than that of Central and South America, for various reasons. On one hand, both the climate and the level of development of the local cultures were different. On the other hand, from the moment of the first explorations of the eastern coast, several different European powers disputed their right to occupy the western lands. These powers were: Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

The first to penetrate the North-American continent were the Spanish. They founded a colony in Florida. Hernando de Soto was the conquistador who participated in the campaign against the Incas. He led an expedition from Florida, through southern USA, to the Mississippi river. The Spanish were concentrated on colonizing the territories they had conquered in central and southern Mexico. However, they did not extend their influence in North America until much later, after the French colonial empire collapsed in North America.

The first French colonies were founded around the St. Lawrence river. Expeditions ordered by the king of France were led by the sailor Jacques Cartier. The goal of founding these colonies was the exploitation of natural resources, especially pelts. In contrast to other European colonists, the French developed amiable relationships with the native populations. This was due, in part, to the reduced numbers of colonists. On the other hand, the goal of the French was solely to extract and commercialize resources, and not to actually rule the land. This led to the spread of French colonies from what is now northern Canada, along the Mississippi river, down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The British, Dutch and Swedish founded colonies on the eastern coast of modern-day USA. Their purpose, as for the French, was to extract and sell valuable resources discovered on the new lands. In contrast to the French, the colonies founded by these nationalities were intensely populated from the beginning by different social and religious groups from the old continent. Besides their desire to become rich, these groups were looking for a land in which they could practice their cultural and religious convictions without persecution.

Contact between Europeans and native populations on the North American continent was the same as in Central and South America: violent. Diseases brought by Europeans into the New World, to which the natives had no immunity, had a devastating effect. The economical interests of the colonists and the cultural and religious differences led to countless conflicts. After these conflicts, the natives gradually retreated to the west. The socio-cultural development of the indigenous people stagnated.

100 years after the founding of the first European colonies in North America, three great powers had divided the continent between them. These were: Great Britain, France and Spain. There began to be armed conflicts between the French and English over the control of resources. The natives could not remain neutral. They took part in confrontations, either on the side of the French, or the English.

On the 7th of June 1494, Portugal and the Spanish Crown signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. According to this treaty, the New World was divided, consecrating Spanish and Portuguese hegemony in America for the next four centuries. Today’s Latin America is the result of a process of fusion. Thus, Spanish, Portuguese and also African cultural elements would fuse with those of the native populations. African slaves were brought to exploit the conquered lands. Thus, a complex social, cultural and linguistic system was created, with great implications in the world’s geopolitical dynamic.

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire and the Mayan towns around the Yucatan peninsula and the Guatemalan mountains, the Spanish began organizing their new territories. They spread towards northern Mexico and towards the southern part of South America, towards modern-day Argentina. At the same time, they organized a transoceanic system of commerce. In this way, they sent the resources they extracted to Europe, especially silver and gold.

The first colonies founded by the Portuguese in South America were on the Brazilian coast. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas, the West Indies, Central America and most of South America were under the rule of Spain. The eastern coast of South America, however, was under Portuguese influence. Thus, the Portuguese were able to found settlements and commercial centers.

The territory occupied by the Spanish was organized in several viceroyalties. Each viceroyalty was ruled by a viceroy named by the Council of the Indies. This was one of the councils of the Spanish crown and had executive and legislative powers. After the subjection of the local populations, the Spanish founded towns, such as: Ciudad de Mexico, Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. These towns became economic and cultural centers in which the Spanish culture gradually fused with that of the natives.

Laws were passed which tried to protect the natives from exploitation through forced labor. The goal was to regulate relationships between the colonists and the native population which was already decimated by war and European diseases. Because the need for a work force was growing and the native population was drastically reduced, the Portuguese and Spanish began to bring African slaves from the west coast of Africa. Thus, the slave trade began, which continued until the 19th century. At the end of this period, approx. 10 million people had been transported to America for forced labor.

Both the Spanish kingdom (later the Spanish empire) and the Portuguese kingdom accumulated great wealth after exploiting the territories of Central and South America. These riches strengthened their role as European powers.

The French and Indian wars, as they have been called by American historians, represent a series of conflicts between France and Great Britain. The goal was to control the lands of the north-eastern part of the North American continent. The French and English took allies from the native populations. The French allied with the Algonquin tribes, and the British with the Iroquois people. Although Great Britain emerged victorious, occupying the French colonies, the Amerindian peoples suffered irremediable demographic, economic and cultural losses.

The first war between the French (together with their allies from the Algonquin tribes) and the Iroquois tribes was called the war of the Beavers. This name was due to the fact that both sides wanted to control the hunting areas and strategic trade routes for pelts and furs. At first, the Iroquois tribes gained victories which allowed them to extend their territory over a huge area of the eastern USA. Later, however, they were defeated by the French and their allies. They were forced to give up the hunting grounds they occupied.

The first conflict in which the British were victors was the so-called Queen Anne's war. After this, the French lost Acadia, Newfoundland and the Hudson Bay. The Spanish were also involved in this war, since the British attacked their colonies in Florida. Although the war did not lead to significant changes in territory, the native populations in the area were almost decimated.

The peace signed after the war of the Beavers didn’t last long, since the British intervened in strength. From that moment, conflicts between the French and British on the North American continent coincided with military conflicts carried out on the European continent. The surface area of land controlled by the French was much greater than the British colonies. Even so, the British had a numerical advantage. The French colonists were 60,000 in number, while the population of the British colonies reached almost a million inhabitants.

The third intercolonial war, as these conflicts were also called, initially broke out between the Spanish and the British. However, the French stepped in too. The reason for this war was the conflict on the old continent deciding the legitimacy of the ascension of Maria Tereza to the throne of Austria. This conflict took place between Spain, France and Prussia on the one side, and Austria, supported by Great Britain, on the other.

The final victory of the British over the French took place after the fourth intercolonial war. Then, France ceded its American colonies to Britain. The Spanish occupied Louisiana, and the British took New France. This contributed significantly to the consolidation of the 13 British colonies. After the War for American Independence, these colonies would found the United States of America.

After the wars with France, the British obtained a favorable outcome. This created the conditions for political stability, which favored the rapid development of the 13 British colonies in North America. Other elements which contributed to their development were: the system of administration, the economic system and the abundance of resources, and the social and cultural peculiarities of the colonists. Thus the colonists began to rival, from an economic standpoint, the motherland, Great Britain.

According to a mercantile policy, the British colonies could only trade inside the British Empire. Thus, the British governor controlled the 13 colonies on the east coast of North America. The purpose was to fuel the coffers of the Empire. However, this policy was disadvantageous for the colonists. For this reason, they began smuggling, selling their wares to the French, Spanish and Dutch.

Political control of the American colonies was provided by a governor, who answered to the British government and monarchy. Many executive functions were gained by election, since there was no class of aristocrats in America. The colonists did not go to America to create a democratic system. However, due to this circumstance and the cultural characteristics of the population which arrived, the tendency to institute a democratic system became stronger and stronger.

Most of the inhabitants of the American colonies were protestants from countries in north-western Europe. The majority were English, but there was also a significant number of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, German, Swedish and Dutch. Each of the 13 colonies practiced trade and labor with slaves. Life conditions were better here than in other colonies in Central and South America. For this reason, the number of slaves grew significantly, reaching approx. four million around the American Civil War. This war was fought over the issue of the abolition of slavery.

The culminating point of the smouldering conflict between the colonies and the British Crown was the so-called Boston tea party. This was considered the spark of the American Revolution. At this event, the colonists threw a cargo of tea destined for Great Britain into the Boston port. The British government reacted swiftly. It passed laws which greatly limited the power of the colonies to govern themselves. On their side, the colonies ignored these laws and began to form independent legislative bodies. Through these, they expressed their desire to become states independent of the British Empire.

Due to economical and commercial considerations, there was a political will which became more and more independent of the British Crown. Thus, the 13 colonies strengthened the ties between each other, beginning to work together more. The colonists were dissatisfied with the policies brought by London. According to this policy, taxes on goods were set arbitrarily, and trade with other states was forbidden. The general feeling that the British government and crown was neglecting the colonists began to grow, and the idea of gaining independence gained more and more strength.