The Exploration and Conquest of the New World

Exploration and Conquest of the New World

Initial voyages to the New World by Columbus spurred an era of exploration and invasion by other European empires.

Learning Objectives

Examine the causes and consequences of European exploration and expansion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Spanish exploration of the New World was led by Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de Leon, who invaded and colonized great parts of what would become South, Central, and North America.
  • The French Empire, led by Jacques Cartier and Giovanni da Verrazano, focused predominantly on North America.
  • The Dutch in New Netherland confined their operations to Manhattan Island, Long Island, the Hudson River Valley, and what later became New Jersey.
  • British explorations of the New World were led by John Cabot and Sir Walter Raleigh. Trading companies, such as the Plymouth and London companies, were granted charters to develop and expand British settlements.
  • The course of New World explorations was deeply affected by the settlers’ interactions with indigenous groups—interactions that, through a combination of violence and disease, resulted in massive declines in indigenous populations.

Key Terms

  • British Empire: The United Kingdom, together with its dominions, colonies, dependencies, trust territories, and protectorates became the Commonwealth of Nations following the independence of many of its constituent countries.
  • New World: The continents of North America and South America combined.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, supported by the Spanish government, undertook a voyage to find a new route to Asia and inadvertently encountered “new” lands in the Americas full of long established communities and cultures. Other European countries quickly followed suit and began to explore and invade the New World. Jacques Cartier undertook a voyage to present-day Canada for the French government, where they began the settlement of New France, developing the fur industry and fostering a more respectful relationship with many of the inhabitants. The Spanish conquistadors invaded areas of Central and South America looking for riches, ultimately destroying the powerful Aztec and Inca cultures. The course of New World explorations was deeply affected by the invaders’ interactions with indigenous groups—interactions that, through a combination of violence and disease, resulted in massive declines in indigenous populations.

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Christopher Columbus on the Santa Maria in 1492: Painting by Emanuel Leutze. On the evening of August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera with three ships: a larger carrack, the Santa María ex-Gallega (“Galician”); and two smaller caravels, the Pinta (“Painted”) and the Santa Clara, nicknamed the Niña (“Girl”) after her owner Juan Niño of Moguer.

The Spanish Empire

Colonial expansion under the Spanish Empire was initiated by the Spanish conquistadors and developed by the Monarchy of Spain through its administrators and missionaries. The motivations for colonial expansion were trade and the spread of the Christian faith through indigenous conversions.

The Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon was an early invader of the Americas, traveling to the New World on Columbus’ second voyage. He became the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1509. Upon the death of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish did not allow Christopher’s son, who like his father had committed atrocities upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, to succeed him. Instead, the governors were replaced with successors from Spain. Leon found a peninsula on the coast of North America and called the new land Florida, chartering a colonizing expedition. His presence there was brief, however, as he was attacked by American Indian forces and subsequently died in nearby Cuba.

By 1565, Spanish forces looked to expand their influence and Catholic religion in the New World by attacking the French settlement of Fort Caroline. The Spanish navy overwhelmed 200 French Huguenot settlers and slaughtered them, even as they surrendered to Spain’s superior military. Spain formed the settlement of St. Augustine as an outpost to ensure that French Huguenots were no longer welcome in the area. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in North America.

The French Empire

Major French exploration of North America began under the rule of Francis I, King of France. In 1524, Francis sent Italian-born Giovanni da Verrazano to explore the region between Florida and Newfoundland for a route to the Pacific Ocean. Verrazano gave the names Francesca and Nova Gallia to that land between New Spain and English Newfoundland, thus promoting French interests.

From the middle of the 16th century forward, France tried to establish several colonies throughout North America that failed due to weather, disease, or conflict with other European powers. A major French settlement lay on the island of Hispaniola, where France established the colony of Saint-Domingue on the western third of the island in 1664. Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Antilles,” Saint-Domingue became the richest colony in the Caribbean at that time. This colonial era ended with a slave revolt in 1791, which began the Haitian Revolution and led to freedom for the colony’s slaves in 1794 and complete independence for the country a decade later. France also briefly ruled the eastern portion of the island, which is now the Dominican Republic.

French habitants, or farmer-settlers, eked out an existence along the St. Lawrence River. French fur traders and missionaries, however, ranged far into the interior of North America, exploring the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi River. These pioneers gave France somewhat inflated imperial claims to lands that nonetheless remained firmly under the dominion of indigenous peoples.

The Dutch Empire

Seventeenth-century French and Dutch colonies in North America were modest in comparison to Spain’s colossal global empire. New France and New Netherland remained small commercial operations focused on the fur trade and did not attract an influx of migrants. The Dutch in New Netherland confined their operations to Manhattan Island, Long Island, the Hudson River Valley, and what later became New Jersey. Dutch trade goods circulated widely among the native peoples in these areas and also traveled well into the interior of the continent along pre-existing native trade routes.

The British Empire

Shortly after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, the British Empire funded an exploratory mission of its own led by John Cabot. Cabot explored the North American continent, correctly deducing that the spherical shape of the earth made the north—where the longitudes are much shorter—a quicker route to the New World than a trip to the South Islands where Columbus was exploring. Encouraged, he asked the English monarchy for a more substantial expedition to further explore and settle the lands. He was successful in obtaining the expedition and the ships departed, never to be seen again.

England also took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland (including the New Amsterdam settlement), which was renamed the Province of New York in 1664. With New Netherland, the English also came to control New Sweden (now Delaware), which the Dutch had conquered earlier. In the north, the Hudson Bay Company actively traded for fur with the indigenous peoples, bringing them into competition with French, Aboriginal, and Metis fur traders. The company came to control the entire drainage basin of Hudson Bay, which they called Rupert’s Land.

At the start of the 17th century, the English had not established a permanent settlement in the Americas. Over the next century, however, they outpaced their rivals. The English encouraged emigration far more than the Spanish, French, or Dutch. They established nearly a dozen colonies, sending swarms of immigrants to populate the land. England had experienced a dramatic rise in population in the 16th century, and the colonies appeared a welcoming place for those who faced overcrowding and grinding poverty at home. Thousands of English migrants arrived in the Chesapeake Bay colonies of Virginia and Maryland to work in the tobacco fields. Another stream, this one of pious Puritan families, sought to live as they believed scripture demanded and established the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Haven, Connecticut, and Rhode Island colonies of New England.

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Early Map of the Atlantic Ocean: This map illustrates early notions of the geography of the Atlantic Ocean, which directly influenced Columbus’s plans.

Disease in the New World

European exploration and invasion of the Americas brought with them many foreign diseases, causing widespread depopulation among indigenous cultures.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the consequences of the European and Native American encounter

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As Europeans and African slaves began to arrive in the New World, they brought with them the infectious diseases of Europe and Africa.
  • Rampant epidemic disease, to which the natives had no prior exposure or resistance, was one of the main causes of the massive population decline of the indigenous populations of the Americas.
  • Diseases like smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza were responsible for the destruction of large segments of the Caribs, Arawaks, Beothuks, and Mesoamerican and other indigenous empires.
  • The scope of the epidemics over the years was tremendous, killing millions of people possibly in excess of 90% of the population in the hardest hit areas.

Key Terms

  • epidemic disease: A widespread illness that affects many individuals in a population.
  • depopulation: The act of reducing a population; the destruction or expulsion of inhabitants.

Infectious Diseases in the New World

Different European colonial settlements in the New World exposed indigenous populations to Christianity, forced labor, expulsion from their lands, and foreign diseases. Rampant epidemic disease, to which the natives had no prior exposure or resistance, was one of the main causes of the massive population decline of the indigenous populations of the Americas. As Europeans and African slaves began to arrive in the New World, they brought with them the infectious diseases of Europe and Africa. Soon after, observers noted that immense numbers of indigenous Americans began to die from these diseases. The scope of the epidemics over the years was tremendous, killing millions of people—possibly in excess of 90% of the population in the hardest hit areas.

This death toll was initially overlooked or downplayed because once introduced, the diseases raced ahead of European invasion in many areas. Disease killed off a sizable portion of the populations before European observations and written records were made. After the epidemics had already killed massive numbers of indigenous Americans, many newer European immigrants assumed that there had always been relatively few indigenous peoples.

One of the most devastating diseases was smallpox; other deadly diseases included typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, mumps, yellow fever, and pertussis (whooping cough). The indigenous Americas also had a number of endemic diseases, such as tuberculosis (although once believed to have been brought from Europe, skeletal remains found in South America have since provided evidence of tuberculosis before the Spanish arrival) and an unusually virulent type of syphilis, which became rampant when brought back to the Old World. The transfer of disease between the Old World and New World was part of the phenomenon known as the Columbian Exchange.

The diseases brought to the New World proved to be exceptionally deadly to the indigenous populations, and the epidemics had very different effects in different regions of the Americas. The most vulnerable groups were those with a relatively small population and little built-up immunity. Many island-based groups were annihilated: the Caribs and Arawaks of the Caribbean nearly ceased to exist, as did the Beothuks of Newfoundland. While disease swept swiftly through the densely populated empires of Mesoamerica, the more scattered populations of North America saw a slower spread.

Population Decline

Estimates of the pre-Columbian population have ranged from 8.4 million to 112.5 million persons, while estimates of indigenous deaths generally range from 2 to 15 million. Before the arrival of Columbus in Hispaniola, the indigenous Taíno pre-contact population of several hundred thousand declined to 60,000 by 1509. The population of the indigenous peoples in Mexico declined by an estimated 90% (reduced to 1-2.5 million people) by the early 17th century. In Peru, the indigenous pre-contact population of approximately 6.5 million declined to 1 million by the early 17th century.

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Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops: While epidemic disease was by far the leading cause of the population decline of the American indigenous peoples after 1492, there were other contributing factors–all of them related to European contact and colonization. One of these factors was warfare.

European Empires in North America

From the 15th century onward, European nations invaded the New World and began establishing empires throughout the continent.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the goals of Spanish, British, and French exploration in the Americas

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Spanish Empire between 1492 and 1892, expanded across most of Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and much of North America. In its conquest of the New World, the Spanish subdued and defeated the Inca civilization of Peru, the Aztecs of Central America, and the Maya civilization of the Yucatan.
  • England’s forays into the New World began in 1497 with John Cabot’s journey to North America. British exploration of the New World centered on searching for a Northwest Passage through the continent.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Hudson were notable British explorers who established early settlements in Virginia and New York.
  • The search for a northwest passage to Asia and the burgeoning fur trade in Europe drove the French to explore and settle North America.
  • Samuel de Champlain began the first permanent settlement of New France and Quebec City in present-day Canada and created a prosperous trade with the American Indians for beaver pelts and other animal hides.

Key Terms

  • conquistador: A conqueror, but especially one of the Spanish soldiers that invaded Central and South America in the 16th century and defeated the Incas and Aztecs.
  • Inca civilization: The Andean population made up a loose patchwork of different cultures that developed from the highlands of Colombia to the Atacama Desert.
  • Maya civilization: A Mesoamerican culture noted for the only known, fully developed, written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for their art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems.

While the Americas remained firmly under the control of indigenous peoples in the first decades of European invasion, conflict increased as colonization spread and Europeans placed greater demands upon the indigenous populations, including expecting them to convert to Christianity (either Catholicism or Protestantism). The Spanish, English, and French were the most powerful nations to establish empires in the new lands.

Conquest of Latin America by the Spanish Empire

Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish Empire expanded for four centuries (1492–1892) across most of present-day Central America, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and much of the rest of North America. The empire also claimed territory in present-day British Columbia; the states of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon; and the western half of South America. Colonial expansion under the Spanish Empire was initiated by the Spanish conquistadors and developed by the Monarchy of Spain through its administrators and missionaries. The motivations for colonial expansion were trade and the spread of the Christian faith through indigenous conversions.

Columbus’ initial landing and first mainland explorations were followed by a phase of inland expeditions and conquests in the Caribbean and South America, where the first European settlements occurred in the New World. After the forming of Nueva Cádiz in Venezuela and Santa Cruz on the present-day Guajira peninsula, explorers led by Vasco Núez de Balboa conquered areas on the coast of present-day Colombia in 1502. This area was inhabited by the Chibchan speaking nations, including the indigenous Muisca and Tairona people. The Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon traveled to the New World on Columbus’ second voyage. He explored areas to the north, looking for a Fountain of Youth, and landed on a peninsula on the coast of North America, which he named Florida.

Attack on the Aztecs and Mayas

The conquistadors, believing they held considerable military and technological superiority over the native cultures, attacked and destroyed the Aztecs in 1521. This campaign was led by Hernán Cortés and featured the Tlaxcala and other indigenous peoples allied against the Mexica/Aztec Empire. The Spanish conquest of the Maya civilization—based in the Yucatán Peninsula of present-day Mexico and northern Central America—was a much longer campaign, lasting from 1551 to 1697. The day Hernán Cortés landed ashore at present-day Veracruz, April 22, 1519, marked the beginning of 300 years of Spanish hegemony over the region.

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Cortes Conquest: This map illustrates the route taken by Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico, from the Gulf of Mexico to Tenochtitlan.

By the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors had penetrated deep into Central and South America. European explorers arrived at Río de la Plata in 1516. Buenos Aires, a permanent colony, was established in 1536, and in 1537, Asunción was established in the area that is now Paraguay. Buenos Aires suffered attacks by the indigenous peoples that forced the settlers away, and in 1541, the site was abandoned. A second and permanent settlement was established in 1580, by Juan de Garay.

Attack on the Incas

In 1532, at the Battle of Cajamarca, a group of Spanish soldiers under Francisco Pizarro and their indigenous Andean Indian allies, ambushed and captured the Emperor Atahualpa of the Inca Empire. It was the first step in a long campaign—which took advantage of a recent civil war and the enmity of indigenous nations the Incas had subjugated—that required decades of fighting to subdue the mightiest empire in the Americas. In the following years, the conquistadors and indigenous allies extended their control over the greater Andes region, leading to the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Perú in 1542.

The brutal practices of the conquistadors (known as the Black Legend), as recorded by the Spanish themselves, were applied through the encomienda, a system ostensibly set up to protect people from warring tribes as well as to teach them the Spanish language and the Catholic religion. In practice, though, it was tantamount to slavery.

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Spanish colonization of the Americas: The red in this image illustrates the Spanish Empire under the House of Bourbon in the late 18th century; pink illustrates the regions under Spanish control or influence at various times; lavender illustrates the territories lost at or before the Peace of Utrecht (1714); and purple illustrates the Portuguese possessions ruled jointly under the Spanish sovereign (1580-1640).

The British Empire

John Cabot

England’s forays into the New World began in 1497 (just a few years after Columbus’ initial voyage) with John Cabot’s journey to North America. British exploration of the New World centered on searching for a northwest passage through the continent. Cabot explored the North American coast and correctly deduced that the spherical shape of the earth made the north—where the longitudes are much shorter—a quicker route to the New World than a trip to the islands in the south, where Columbus was exploring. Encouraged, he asked the English monarchy for a more substantial expedition to further explore and settle the lands that he found. Cabot’s ships departed, never to be seen again.

England remained preoccupied with internal affairs for much of the 16th century. Cabot’s adventures failed to spark much interest, and England’s break with the Catholic church in 1533 led to decades of religious turmoil. However, by the beginning of the 17th century, under the rule of Elizabeth I, the empire had consolidated much of the British Isles and was becoming a much more formidable force on the world stage. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England replaced Spain as the dominant world power. This led to the gradual decline of Spanish influence in the New World and the widening of English imperial interests.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh sought to establish an empire in the New World after having gained considerable favor from Queen Elizabeth I by suppressing rebellions in Ireland. On March 25, 1584, the Queen granted Raleigh a charter for the colonization of the area of North America known as Virginia. Raleigh and Elizabeth I intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. Raleigh himself never visited North America, although he led expeditions in 1595 and 1617 to South America’s Orinoco River basin in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado. Supplying the colonists became troublesome due to continuing war with Spain. The end of the colony in 1587 is unrecorded; as a result, the Roanoke settlement is referred to as the “Lost Colony.” There are multiple hypotheses as to the fate of the colonists, including integration into local indigenous tribes.

Henry Hudson

Henry Hudson was an English sea explorer and navigator in the early 17th century. Hudson made two attempts on behalf of English merchants to find a prospective northwest passage via a route above the Arctic Circle. He explored the region around the modern-day New York metropolitan area and is known for exploring the river which eventually was named for him, thereby laying the foundation for Dutch colonization of the region. In 1611, Hudson discovered a strait and immense bay on his final expedition while searching for the Northwest Passage. After wintering on the shore of James Bay, Hudson wanted to press on to the west, but most of his crew mutinied. The mutineers cast Hudson, his son, and seven others adrift, and they were never seen again.

French Exploration

Giovanni da Verrazzano

The search for a northwest passage to Asia and the burgeoning fur trade in Europe drove the French to explore and settle North America. Major French exploration of North America began under the rule of Francis I. In 1524, Francis sent Italian-born Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore the region between Florida and Newfoundland for a route to the Pacific Ocean. Verrazzano gave the names Francesca and Nova Gallia to that land between New Spain and English Newfoundland, thus promoting French interests.

Jacques Cartier

Later, in 1534, Francis sent Jacques Cartier on the first of three voyages to explore the coast of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River, to investigate whether Asian lands could be reached from the north. His journey in 1534 retraced many of the voyages of the Vikings and established contacts with American Indians in modern-day Canada. He explored some of northern Canada, established friendly relations with the American Indians, and discovered that the St. Lawrence River region had neither abundant gold nor a northwest passage to Asia. Cartier attempted to create the first permanent European settlement in North America at Cap-Rouge (Quebec City) in 1541 with 400 settlers, but the settlement was abandoned the next year after bad weather and native attacks.

Champlain and New France

During the 16th century, the taming of the Siberian wilderness by the Russians had brought about a thriving fur trade, which created a great demand for fur throughout Europe. France was quick to realize that North America held great potential as a provider of fur. Samuel de Champlain began the first permanent settlement of New France and Quebec City in present-day Canada and created a prosperous trade with the American Indians for beaver pelts and other animal hides. Meanwhile, further to the south, French Protestants, called Huguenots, had the opportunity to leave hostile European lands while advancing French claims to the New World. Settlements in present-day Florida and Georgia created tension with Spanish conquistadors, who after conquering Caribbean lands, would begin to expand northwards in search of new territory. From the middle of the 15th century forward, France tried to establish several other colonies throughout North America that failed due to weather, disease, or conflict with other European powers.