The discovery of the New World in 1492 was one of the most important events in world history. Over the next two hundred years, the world underwent a rapid transformation in various areas of knowledge: geography, demographics, botany, anthropology, and history. European nations were also changed and challenged politically as they attempted to exert their control over these new lands. Although what would become the United States of America came to be dominated by English colonies, English models of colonialism were not the earliest or most powerful models of colonial control to emerge in the Americas. This chapter will explore the experience of first contact between the hemispheres in the forms of interactions between Europeans and Indians, developing and differing models of colonial control under the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch, and the process known as the Columbian Exchange: the exchange of people, plants, animals, and diseases that forever changed both the Old and New Worlds.
In the earliest era of contact and conquest, the Spanish dominated the New World. Their experiences largely defined early European knowledge of the Americas and its native inhabitants, the Indians, a group unknown to Europeans. In the fifty years after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, the Spanish expanded throughout the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and the Andes, establishing the basis for a powerful hemispheric empire. Two of the main challenges the Spanish faced in establishing and administering their new empires were distance and time; the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean separating colony and mother country, and the long journey between the two, meant that communication was difficult. The distance between Europe and the Americas played a very important role in shaping colonial administration as well as patterns and methods of imperial control.
The first challenge to Spanish hegemony in the New World came with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the known non-European world between Spain and Portugal. Part of Brazil fell within the Portuguese area of claim, leading to a growing struggle for control in the region between the powers. Later, France and the Netherlands entered the Americas. These two nations took a primarily economic interest in the American hemisphere, shaping their models of colonial administration largely around trade. The French spent much of their energy in conjunction with their political and economic capital building a fur trade in the North American frontier. The Dutch established their foothold in the Caribbean, engaging in both legitimate trade and smuggling under the aegis of the Dutch West Indies Company. Politically, both France and the Netherlands wanted to weaken the Iberian hold on the Americas. The French actively contested Spanish power by trying to establish a colony in Spanish Florida. The Dutch were much less overt in their contestation of Iberian power; instead of establishing large, rival colonies, they concentrated on weakening the Spanish economically through piracy. However, the Dutch took on the Portuguese much more directly, conquering small but important lands in Brazil, wresting these areas from Portuguese control.
3.1.1: Learning Outcomes
After completing this chapter, you should be able to:
- Analyze the motives of such explorers as Christopher Columbus, Pedro Cabral, Hernán Cortés, and Francisco Pizarro in venturing to Meso and South America and the motives of European monarchs in their efforts to reach the Indian Ocean by an all-water route.
- Explain the receptions extended to the Spanish explorers by the Indians of Mexico, Peru, and Brazil and the tactics employed by the Spanish as they attempted to conquer the Aztec and Inca Empires.
- Describe the complexities of the encounter of the Old World and the New, including the exchange of crops, animals, and diseases, as well as the experiences of the conquistadores and Native American as they interacted.
- Explain the dimensions of the Native American Holocaust and Transculturation.
- Discuss the impact of the Columbian Exchange on both the Old and New Worlds.