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6: European Exploration and Conquest

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  • Europe was not a particularly important place, in the context of global empires, economics, or cultural influence during the medieval period. While it invaded the Middle East during the crusades and the European states themselves warred against one another almost constantly, on balance Europe was quite weak and poor compared to other regions farther east. China and India are both outstanding examples of regions that produced far greater wealth, had far larger populations, and were far more militarily powerful than any European kingdom was; in the case of China under the Ming dynasty of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Chinese Empire was probably more powerful than all of Europe put together. Likewise, China’s cultural influence on its neighbors was profound.

    • 6.1: Prelude to European Exploration and Conquest
      The long expansion of European power from Europe itself to the rest of the world began in the fifteenth century. One of the great world-historical conundrums is why European states expanded so rapidly and aggressively, while other powers like that of China, the Ottoman Empire, or the Indian kingdoms did not. Why was it Europe that took over the Americas (and, much later, much of the rest of the world) rather than Persia, the Ottoman Empire, India, or China?
    • 6.2: Africa and India
      Europeans did, of course, know about North Africa. The Mediterranean had served as the crossroads of the civilized Western World since ancient times, and despite North Africa being ruled by Muslim kingdoms, Europeans regularly traded with Muslim merchants. As noted above, there were many lucrative commodities (like gold and ivory) that Europeans coveted and were only available from North African merchants. Europeans only knew that these commodities originated somewhere across the Sahara desert.
    • 6.3: Spain, Columbus, the Great Dying, and the Columbian Exchange
      The most important voyages of discovery of the early modern period were undertaken by agents of the Spanish monarchy, starting with that of Christopher Columbus in 1492. They were inspired by religious fervor as much as a practical desire for riches – fresh off the successful Reconquest, Queen Isabella agreed with Columbus’s vision of flanking the Muslim forces of the Middle East and recapturing the Holy Land as much as she also wanted new trade routes to Asia.
    • 6.4: The Conquistadors
      The Conquistadors were the military explorers sent by the Spanish crown to the Americas to claim land, convert "heathens," and enrich both themselves and the crown. They were usually poor noblemen with few prospects back in Spain; in the first generation of explorers many were essentially unemployed knights. Some conquistadors simply launched expeditions to the New World without royal authorization, hoping to seize enough plunder to receive retroactive royal approval.
    • 6.5: New World Wealth
      The Spanish discovered huge sources of wealth in South and Central America. The most important source of wealth in all of the Americas for the Spanish crown was discovered in 1545: the mountain of Potosi in present-day Bolivia. Potosi had the most enormous silver deposits in the world at the time, producing thousands of tons of silver for the crown. It also represented a horrible site of slave labor for the native peoples of the entire extended area, in which the Spanish forced them to toil.
    • 6.6: Conclusion
      The Spanish and Portuguese invasions of the Americas were nothing less than a catastrophe for the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Whole cultures were obliterated, empires fell, and the survivors found themselves at the mercy of conquerors whose major priorities were the extraction of mineral wealth and the exploitation of labor. To those ends, the Native peoples were frequently enslaved outright to work on plantations or mines. The use of slave labor only grew over time.

    Thumbnail: Conquistadors exhort their supporters. (Public Domain; Margaret Duncan Coxhead via Wikipedia)

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