Spain was clearly the force with which to contend when it came to the European race across the Atlantic, although perspective is important in making this statement. Western Europe and especially northwestern Europe constituted the outermost fringe of what its people regarded as the “civilized world.” The Holy Lands, the Italian States, Constantinople, India, and even China were far more advanced technologically and economically. While the Europeans were keen to access the spice and silk stores of Asia, Asia was in no special hurry to build trade links with England, the Netherlands, or Portugal. Put simply, there was not much that western Europe had that Asia or even the eastern Mediterranean wanted. Relatively poor, often pummelled by wars, and riven by religious differences, western Europe was both highly motivated by the prospect of potential riches in the Americas and, at the same time, accustomed to competing bitterly with rivals from other polities.
The earliest expeditions from Spain inched their way out of the lower Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi basin and across Florida before refocusing on the western flank of South America and the building of New Spain. Portugal’s focus remained on South America and the west coast of Africa. The lands north of Florida were largely open for probes sent out from England, the Low Countries, France, and even Scandinavia.
The model of imperialism that the Iberians introduced took advantage of existing populations and grafted onto it the absolutist, heavily militarized, and severely Catholic features of the European homelands. Many of the Aboriginal societies they encountered were hierarchical and some were strongly influenced by priesthoods of their own. These coincidences played to Iberian strengths and the early colonies did not require large numbers of emigrants from Europe to create working societies anew. In this respect, in most of Iberian America the Spanish and Portuguese were not “colonists” in the biological sense so much as they were managers and rulers.
This model influenced the northwestern Europeans but it was one that they could not follow utterly. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, the English relied on emigration to (re)populate the territories they claimed. France was reluctant to do the same and it lacked the resources and the will to build much more than a replacement society along the St. Lawrence and a few outposts in Acadia and Louisiana. Certainly there are echoes of the Iberian experience in the alliance between the French and the Wendat, but there were no singular Aboriginal civilizations of the stature of Mexico, which the French might dominate, let alone enslave. In short, “colonization” played out differently across the Western Hemisphere: it had different qualities and moved at varying speeds toward distinctive goals.
Set side by side, the French and the English colonies present substantial contrasts. They were, of course, heavily influenced by geography. For the French, the great river and the lakes at its head were a pathway into the interior of the continent. Within slightly more than a century the French had stitched together a chain of alliances and micro-settlements all the way from Placentia to New Orleans. The story of New France is the subject of the next chapter.
absolutist, absolutism: A system of government in which authority is vested in the monarch with no provision for any kind of institutional opposition.
Anglican Church: See Church of England.
aristocracy: A privileged social class whose power is usually derived from birth, heredity, and almost exclusive ownership of land, close connections with the clergy and government, and with the Crown. As a form of government, a system in which a small and wealthy elite holds power to the exclusion of others.
Black Death: Also called simply “the plague,” a highly contagious disease reckoned to have reduced the total human population by 25% and as much as half of Europe’s population in the 14th century. In its aftermath there was social and religious upheaval from China to the British Isles.
chattel slavery: Ownership of a human being as a piece of property.
Church of England: Also known as the Anglican Church, the state church in England established under Henry VIII in opposition to Roman Catholicism.
conquistadore: Term used by the Spanish and Portuguese, meaning conqueror. Covers the military and clergy leaders of the Iberian invasions of the Americas.
divine right of kings: A doctrine based on the belief that the monarch’s power is derived directly from God and not from worldly authorities like a legislature, a council of nobles, or even the Vatican.
Edict of Nantes: A statement of relative religious tolerance in 1598 that brought an end to the Wars of Religion in France and extended civil rights to Protestants (Huguenots).
English Reformation: Term used to describe several events connected to the English break with Catholic Rome under Henry VIII.
Fort Caroline: Reckoned to be the oldest fortified European settlement in what is now the United States; established by the French in 1564.
Hochelaga: St. Lawrence Iroquoian fortified town at or near what is now Montreal.
Huguenots: French Protestants.
Hundred Years’ War: A series of conflicts running from 1337 to 1453 related to royal successions in England and France.
Inquisition: A process and an institution aimed at ensuring Catholic supremacy and religious integrity in Western Europe. In Spain it was geared to eliminating Muslim and Jewish influences at the end of the 15th century and was an important part of the value system carried to the Americas by the conquistadores.
Kingdom of the Saguenay: According to Donnacona and other Stadaconans, a wealthy settlement north of the Laurentian Iroquois territories. Perhaps mythical, perhaps meant to distract or deceive the Europeans, the story may have legitimate roots in an oral tradition now disappeared.
L’Anse aux Meadows: The Viking settlement in northern Newfoundland, established ca. 1000 CE.
Middle Passage: Shipping lanes between Africa and the Americas on which the principal cargo was captive humans, enslaved in west Africa. Mortality rates were as high as 20% on the voyage.
New Spain: From 1522 to 1821, a territory stretching, at its peak, from the north coast of South America through Central America and Mexico to California, and what is now the American Southwest. It also included Florida, which was separated from the rest of New Spain by the French possession, Louisiana.
parliament: Generally, an elective assembly of representatives engaged for the purpose of governing the whole or advising the Crown. Specifically, the English/British elected assembly in Westminster. After 1867, refers as well to the Canadian elected assembly.
Protestant Reformation: Beginning ca. 1517, a movement to reform the Catholic Church and many of its practices. Resulted in a split between reformers and the Papacy and the rise of distinct sects, including the Church of England, the Scottish Presbyterian Church, Methodism, Puritanism, Quakerism, Lutheranism, and many others.
reconquista: Episodes of Spanish-Christian resistance to Spanish/Moorish-Islamic control of the Iberian peninsula, lasting from the eighth or ninth century CE culminating in the surrender of Granada in 1492.
Sapa Inca: Quechua for “the only Inca,” the monarch of the Incan Empire. Atahualpa was the last person to hold this title.
Skraelingar: Term used by the Norse/Vikings to describe Aboriginal North American peoples they encountered between Greenland and Newfoundland. Probably applied to Thule and Innu in particular, perhaps to Beothuk as well.
Stadacona: The village of the St. Lawrence Iroquois at or near the current site of Quebec City.
Treaty of Tordesillas: The division in 1494 of the Atlantic world between Portugal and Spain. The former acquired Brazil while the latter was acknowledged by the other to have a prior claim to the rest of the Americas.
triangular trade: Commercial traffic beginning with goods from northwestern Europe traded into ports along the west African coast for slaves, ivory, and other commodities, which were then shipped across the Atlantic (the Middle Passage) to colonies in the Americas where they were traded for plantation products, which were subsequently ferried north and east back to northwestern Europe.
Vinland: The name given by the Norse/Vikings to the east coast of North America.
Wars of Religion: A series of wars fought in Europe arising ostensibly from divisions within Christianity. The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) distracted the Crown from transatlantic enterprises.
Short Answer Exercises
- Why did Europeans become interested in exploring and colonizing the Americas from 1492 through the 17th century?
- What is the significance of the religious turmoil in Europe between 1400 and 1600?
- What factors contributed to the poor view the French had of North America in the mid-1500s?
- Describe the extent of the impact of the Vikings’ migration to North America.
- What factors held back French and English efforts in the North Atlantic?
- What aspects of the Spanish and Portuguese campaigns in the Americas influenced the French, Dutch, and English?
- Explain the evident failure of Cartier’s expeditions.
- What do we learn about the Laurentian Iroquois from Cartier’s reports?
- Axtell, James. “Trading at the Water’s Edge.” In After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America, edited by James Axtell, 145-181. New York: OUP, 1988.
- Havard, Gilles and Cécile Vidal. “Making New France New Again.”Common-Place 7, no.4 (July 2007). http://www.common-place.org/vol-07/no-04/harvard/
- Loewen, Brad and Vincent Delmas. “The Basques in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Adjacent Shores.” Canadian Journal of Archaeology 36, issue 2 (2012): 213-66.
- McGhee, Robert. “Vikings and Arctic Farmers: The Norse Atlantic Saga.” In The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
- Vigneras, L-A. “The Cape Breton landfall in North America: 1494 or 1497? Note on a letter from John Day.” Canadian Historical Review 38, no.3 (1957): 219-28.
This chapter contains material taken from History in the Making: A History of the People of the United States of America to 1877 by Catherine Locks, Sarah K. Mergel, Pamela Thomas Roseman, and Tamara Spike. It is used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 US licence.