As we discussed in previous entries, Western Europeans initially took to the ocean to regain access to Asian trade goods. Portugal accomplished this first, then Spain took a risk that Columbus just might have found a way to do it, too. Further explorations after Columbus’ voyages eventually made it clear that what Columbus originally stumbled across was not a series of unknown islands off the coast of Asia … but a new landmass completely unknown to (or, perhaps we could say “completely forgotten by,” in light of the Vikings’ earlier voyages) Western Europe.
This begs the question: why did Western Europeans keep coming back? If it wasn’t Asia—and thus could not provide the silks, spices, etc, craved by Europe—why did Western European nations continue to explore, conquer, and colonize this “new world”? It might seem like an odd question, but Europeans needed a reason to return. They naturally occupied a world in which Europe and Europe’s needs were at the center. Even when their New World colonies had become quite prosperous (as we’ll see later in our series), European countries continued to think of North and South America in terms of how they could meet Europe’s needs. Eventually, this feeling of being perpetual second-class citizens in global empires would help lead to revolutions throughout the New World – first among the Atlantic seaboard British colonies, but eventually among the Spanish colonies from Mexico down through South America, as well. More on that later down the line!
Eventually, we’ll look at the actions and experiences of individual European New World Empires—not to mention the actions and experiences of the New World indigenous nations who don’t exactly just disappear in 1492! But for this entry and the next, let’s stay fairly broad and “big picture.” Today, we’ll examine several general reasons why Western Europeans saw such promise in the Western Hemisphere.
First, while the New World might have been lacking silk or spices, it had a tremendous amount of other resources. Silver and gold flowed into Spanish treasuries. Furs and skins filled British and French trading posts before eventually traveling back to Europe to become popular fashion items. New England lumber and fish became critical to a growing British population and a British crown trying to challenge for supremacy at sea. European demand for new exotic goods like tobacco would single-handedly save some of the struggling colonies that would eventually become part of the United States. Meanwhile, cash crops that Europeans already knew about-- such as sugar, indigo, and rice—grew extraordinarily well in some parts of the New World. In other words, access to the New World wasn’t exactly a consolation prize for those nations without Portugal’s level of access to Asian trade!
Related, Spain’s success in the New World meant that other European nations had little option but to try to follow suit. New World riches would help Spain dominate the sixteenth century. Any nation that wanted to have any hope of not being under Spain’s thumb had to try to replicate its success. Some nations, like the Netherlands, responded to Spanish supremacy by focusing more on trade in the East--though the Dutch will pop up in the New World, as well. But Britain and France (and a few others) tried their hand westward, establishing colonies in what is now the Caribbean Sea, as well as in what is now the United States and Canada. Of course, finding one’s own riches was only one possible solution. Gold- and silver-laden Spanish galleons made tempting targets, and privateers from many nations did their best to intercept New World wealth before it could get back to Europe. Many of the first British New World settlements were essentially raiding bases. Pirates sailing under no nation’s flag got in on the action, as well.
The New World could also provide much needed opportunities for population movement. European nations occasionally used the New world as a dumping ground for unwanted segments of their own population, but there were also a great many people who actively wanted to leave Europe during this time. Some came to the New World for better economic opportunities, such as the indentured servants we’ll meet later in Virginia. Others came to escape religious persecution and conflict. Puritans, Catholics, Quakers, and Hugenots (French Protestants) all ended up in the eastern part of what is now the United States during the colonial period.
But Western Europeans didn’t only come to establish Christian traditions in a less hostile environment than back home. Some also came to spread Christianity to the Native American population. Spain, France, and Britain all had some sort of mission work among Native Americans in what is now the United States, though the Spanish pursued it with the most logistical support and the highest level of zeal. In fact, some Spanish clergy wondered if the discovery of the New World might mean the end of the world was coming soon (this didn’t freak them out; late medieval eschatology wasn’t very Left-Behind-y). Remember the Reconquista from last entry? From the perspective of many Spanish missionaries, Christendom had just been freed from the Muslims, and now God had revealed a great harvest of souls to convert—perhaps even the last great harvest, after which Christ would return!
But missionary work also involved a dose of imperial rivalry—especially after the Protestant Revolution shook Christendom to its core, and plunged Europe into a series of wars inspired at least in part by religious difference for the next several hundred years. In the New World, converting Native American nations to Catholicism or Protestantism (hopefully) made them natural enemies of your enemies. In point of fact, Native Americans nations and individuals who embraced Christianity had very complex reasons for doing so; we’ll explore some of those in a later entry. Nonetheless, especially as events in Europe began to demand more attention and resources, having the right kind of Christian allies near your New World colonies was seen as a huge advantage. Indeed, as we’ll see in future entries, every European New World empire came to rely on Native American allies for its very survival at some points.
Having looked at some of the motivations that led to a continual connection between New and Old Worlds after 1492, we’ll look next entry at some of the general consequences of that unbroken link.