Scandinavian seafarers reached the New World centuries before Columbus. At their peak they sailed as far east as Constantinople and raided settlements as far south as North Africa. They established limited colonies in Iceland and Greenland and, around the year 1000, Leif Erikson reached New Foundland in present-day Canada. But the Norse colony failed. Culturally and geographically isolated, some combination of limited resources, inhospitable weather, food shortages, and native resistance drove the Norse back into the sea.
Then, hundreds of years before Columbus, the Crusades linked Europe with the wealth, power, and knowledge of Asia. Europeans rediscovered or adopted Greek, Roman, and Muslim knowledge. The hemispheric dissemination of goods and knowledge not only sparked the Renaissance but fueled long-term European expansion. Asian goods flooded European markets, creating a demand for new commodities. This trade created vast new wealth, and Europeans battled one another for trade supremacy.
European nation-states consolidated under the authority of powerful kings. A series of military conflicts between England and France–the Hundred Years War–accelerated nationalism and cultivated the financial and military administration necessary to maintain nation-states. In Spain, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille consolidated the two most powerful kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. The Crusades had never ended in Iberia: the Spanish crown concluded centuries’ of intermittent warfare–the Reconquista–by expelling Muslim Moors from the Iberian peninsula in 1492, just as Columbus sailed west. With new power, these new nations–and their newly empowered monarchs–yearned to access the wealth of Asia.
Seafaring Italian traders commanded the Mediterranean and controlled trade with Asia. Spain and Portugal, at the edges of Europe, relied upon middlemen and paid higher prices for Asian goods. They sought a more direct route. And so they looked to the Atlantic. Portugal invested heavily in exploration. From his estate on the Sagres Peninsula of Portugal, a rich sailing port, Prince Henry the Navigator (Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu) invested in research and technology and underwrote many technological breakthroughs. His investments bore fruit. In the fifteenth century Portuguese sailors innovated the astrolabe, a tool to calculate latitude, and the caravel, a ship well-suited for ocean exploration. Both were technological breakthroughs. The astrolabe allowed for precise navigation and the caravel, unlike more common vessels designed for trading on the relatively placid Mediterranean, was a rugged, deep-drafting ship capable of making lengthy voyages on the open ocean and, equally important, carrying large amounts of cargo while doing so.
Blending economic and religious motivations, the Portuguese established forts along the Atlantic coast of Africa during the fifteenth century, inaugurating centuries of European colonization there. Portuguese trading posts generated new profits that funded further trade and further colonization. Trading posts spread across the vast coastline of Africa and by the end of the fifteenth century Vasco de Gama leapfrogged his way around the coasts of Africa to reach India and lucrative Asian markets.
The vagaries of ocean currents and the limits of contemporary technology forced Iberian sailors to sail west into the open sea before cutting back east to Africa. So doing, the Spanish and Portuguese stumbled upon several islands off the coast of Europe and Africa, including the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the Cape Verde Islands. They became training ground for the later colonization of the Americas.
Sugar, a wildly profitable commodity originally grown in Asia, had become a popular luxury among the nobility and wealthy of Europe. The Portuguese began growing sugar cane along the Mediterranean, but sugar was a difficult crop. It required tropical temperatures, daily rainfall, unique soil conditions, and a fourteen-month growing season. But with the Atlantic Islands, the Portuguese had found new land to support sugar production and new patterns of human and ecological destruction followed. Isolated from the mainlands of Europe and Africa for millennia, island natives—known as the Guanches—were enslaved or perished soon after Europeans arrived. Portugal’s would-be planters needed laborers to cultivate the difficult, labor-intensive crop. Portuguese merchants, who had recently established good relations with powerful African kingdoms such as Kongo, Ndongo, and Songhai, looked to African slaves. Slavery had long existed among African societies. African leaders traded war captives—who by custom forfeited their freedom in battle—for Portuguese guns, iron, and manufactured goods. From bases along the Atlantic coast, the largest in modern-day Nigeria, the Portuguese began purchasing slaves for export to the Atlantic islands. Slaves would work the sugar fields. Thus were born the first great Atlantic plantations.
Spain, too, stood on the cutting edge of maritime technology. Spanish sailors had become masters of the caravels. And as Portugal consolidated control over its African trading networks along the circuitous eastbound sea route to Asia, Spain yearned for its own path to empire. Christopher Columbus, a skilled Italian-born sailor who studied under Portuguese navigators, came calling.
Educated Asians and Europeans of the fifteenth century knew the world was round. They also knew that while it was therefore technically possible to reach Asia by sailing west from Europe–thereby avoiding Italian or Portuguese middlemen–the Earth’s vast size would doom even the greatest caravels to starvation and thirst long before they ever reached their destination. But Columbus underestimated the size of the globe by a full two-thirds and therefore believed it was possible. After unsuccessfully shopping his proposed expedition in several European courts, he convinced Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to provide him three small ships, which set sail in 1492. Columbus was both confoundingly wrong about the size of the Earth and spectacularly lucky that two large continents lurked in his path. On October 12, 149, after two months at sea, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria and their ninety men landed in the modern-day Bahamas.
The indigenous Arawaks populated the Caribbean islands. They fished and grew corn, yams, and cassava. Columbus described them as innocents. “They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal,” he reported to the Spanish crown. “Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people … They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing.” But Columbus had come for wealth and he could find little. The Arawaks, however, wore small gold ornaments. Columbus left thirty-nine Spaniards at a military fort to find and secure the source of the gold while he returned to Spain to great acclaim and to outfit a return voyage.
Spain’s New World motives were clear from the beginning. If outfitted for a return voyage, Columbus promised the Spanish crown “as much gold as they need” and “as many slaves as they ask.” “They would make fine servants,” Columbus reported, referring to the indigenous Caribbeans. “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” It was God’s will, he said.
Columbus was outfitted with seventeen ships and over 1,000 men to return to the West Indies (Columbus made four total voyages to the New World). Still believing he had landed in the East Indies, he promised to reward Isabella and Ferdinand’s investment. But when material wealth proved slow in coming the Spanish embarked upon a vicious campaign to extract every possible ounce of wealth from the Caribbean. The Spanish decimated the Arawaks. Bartolome de Las Casas traveled to the New World ten years after Columbus. He would later write that “My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write.” Las Casas said the Indians were peaceful, but “our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy.” He said, “they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.” When the enslaved Indians exhausted the island’s meager gold reserves, the Spaniards forced them to labor on on their huge new estates, the encomiendas. Las Casas described European barbarities in cruel detail. By presuming the natives had no humanity, the Spaniards utterly abandoned theirs. Casual violence and dehumanizing exploitation ravaged the Arawaks. “The admiral, it is true,” Las Casas said, referring to Columbus, “was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians….” The Indian population collapsed. Within a few generations a whole island had been depopulated and a whole people exterminated. Historians’ estimates range from fewer than 1 million to as many as 8 million (Las Casas estimated the pre-contact population of the island at 3 million). In a few short years, they were gone. “Who in future generations will believe this?” Las Casas wondered. “I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”
Despite the diversity of native populations and the existence of several strong empires, native Americans were wholly unprepared for the arrival of Europeans and biology magnified European cruelties many times over. Cut off from the Old World and it’s domesticated animals and its immunological history, Native Americans lived free from the terrible diseases that ravaged populations in Asia, Europe and Africa. But their blessing now became a curse. Native Americans lacked the immunities that Europeans and Africans had developed over centuries of deadly epidemics and so when Europeans arrived, carrying smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, measles, and hepatitis, plagues decimated native communities. Many died in war and slavery, but millions died in epidemics. All told, in fact, some scholars estimate that as much as 90 percent of the population of the Americas perished within the first century and a half of European contact.
Though ravaged by disease and warfare, Native Americans forged middle grounds, resisted with violence, accommodated and adapted to the challenges of colonialism, and continued to shape the patterns of life throughout the New World for hundreds of years. But the Europeans kept coming.