The significance of the Columbian Exchange and sharing of foodways, technology, and cultures that resulted can hardly be overstated. A profound economic revolution shook both hemispheres as the influx of crops, diseases, animals, and metals to the Old World changed patterns of trade, the medium of exchange, and ideas about the use and distribution of wealth.
Similarly, traditional ideas about the structure and inhabitants of the world were put aside as Europeans and Indians encountered and ultimately learned from each other. Ethnicities were intertwined as Europeans, Africans, Indians, and their children created a complicated hierarchy of race and class in the colonies. The world had been turned upside down, perhaps for the first, if not for the last, time.
Early Spanish control of the American hemisphere developed from their discovery and early exploration of the region. During this period, Spanish experiences largely defined early European knowledge of the Americas and Indians. The Spanish empire grew rapidly in the first fifty years after 1492, expanding throughout the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and the Andes. Time and distance constituted two of the main challenges the Spanish faced in establishing and administering their new empires. 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 for not only the Spanish, but for all European imperial powers.
Over the next hundred years, the Portuguese, the French, and the Dutch established colonies and areas of influence in the American hemisphere. Portugal, like Spain, sought to establish a settlement colony, controlled through direct political ties. Culturally, religiously, and socially, the colonies were deeply influenced by the mother country. The French and Dutch established very different models of colonial control. Both of these nations took a primarily economic interest in the American hemisphere, and shaped their models of colonial administration largely around trade. 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 economically weakening the Spanish through piracy.