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Europe's Empires Expand
What were the motivations of the private adventurers who claimed land for European countries?
This week's big question
What were the motivations of the private adventurers who claimed land for European countries?
Learning outcomesAt the end of this week you should be able to:
- describe some of the major locations and bases for European overseas expansion in the 15th through 17th centuries;
- explain something of the different motivations for overseas expansion;
- explain the basis for the integration of the New World into the emerging Atlantic economy;
- outline some of the major economic, political, and cultural reasons for overseas exploration and colonization.
Questions to consider, and learning activityRemember what you've learned about secondary sources and "historiographical thinking" from the Lessons just before Reading Week on Agricultural Revolutions? Once you've read over this page, begin your preparation for the Week's Forum by reading the chapter from Appleby. In your discussions with your Forum colleagues, keep Appleby's perspectives and interpretations in mind as you use your reading and analysis of 3 to 4 of the primary sources to answer one or more of the questions below.
Also remember to try your best to fulfill the criteria for a good Forum contributions that you can find in the course syllabus.
- How would you characterize the motives of these writers for colonizing the New World? Drawing on the cultural and political ideas you’ve seen in the first module (e.g., the Great Chain of Being, or Catholic vs Protestant views about authority), do you see some of those influences at work in the discussions of colonization? Do you see patterns of similarity among the different writers? Differences?
- What can the images included on this page tell us about early modern understandings of the New World? What did early modern viewers “see” when they looked at these images? Discuss different ways the maps can help us understand the process of imperial expansion. Do the maps speak to the same motivations as the texts?
- How did these authors justify their plans to take over these newly discovered lands?
- Why did Parkhurst urge English colonization of Newfoundland? Why was he writing to Hakluyt? How is he similar/different from what we read in Hakluyt? Was Newfoundland different than the other cases?
- Biard was a Jesuit missionary -- how does that influence how we should interpret this document?
- None of our primary sources, including images, were produced by Indigenous Americans. What does that tell us about the sources we use? Are they, in fact, primary sources? And if they are primary sources how might we qualify their importance? What does this mean for our (i.e. Western) understanding of early modern American history?
- How was America drawn into the Atlantic world?
BackgroundParalleling the development of the centralized state and the agricultural revolution, western European states also began utilizing improvements in map-making, navigation devices, and ship construction that allowed them to explore further along the coasts of Africa and ultimately to venture further to the west. We will not, in this course, pursue these technological questions relating to navigation. Instead we will focus on the question of what encouraged Europeans to venture further afield, and what motivated them to colonize the Americas. An interesting dimension of this early exploration is who was leading these expansive movements. While we often speak of these states as actors –- that is, that England (or France, or whatever) did things (explored, colonized, whatever) –- it was not the states themselves leading the way but private adventurers acting in the name of these states. This in part explains why some of the most famous “explorers” were Italian seamen such as Cristoforo Columbo (who in English we call Christopher Columbus) and Giovanni Caboto (who we call John Cabot) sailing for Spain and England respectively. Our questions this week focus on these adventurers’ motivations for exploring, what value they saw in the new lands, how they encouraged their sponsoring states to continue to support their endeavours, and ultimately what motivated the states to support expansion.
In other words, our topic this week is the rise of European colonialism, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is very much one of those longer-term stories that we discussed in past weeks. But the exact parameters aren’t clear. We might be tempted to say this story began with Columbus arriving in the Caribbean in 1492 –- and certainly in many ways it did –- but of course all that really happened on those voyages was that Europeans learned that there was another continent across the ocean, what they came to call the New World. And while significant consequences began very quickly in places like Mexico and the Caribbean, the emergence of European power in the Americas, Africa, and Asia did not begin that day. It took centuries to reach the point that we might now recognize as the colonial world being under the control, or domination, of Europe. When we can begin to speak of a European dominance of the Americas is not clear.
This raises several big questions: Why did the European empires form outside of Europe? Why did European colonization take place? Why did it take so long? And if it took so long, and is not especially clear as to why it happened, how can we even understand it as a story? We won’t answer that question this week. Indeed, historians don't completely agree on the answers anyhow, but as we proceed over the next few weeks we’ll begin to see some patterns.
This week, we’ll emphasize two features of this story. First, that much of the “imperial expansion” of Europe looked quite different on the ground than it did in the minds of (and as seen on the maps of) the European powers. There are five early modern European powers that we should keep in mind: England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal. While the Spanish and Portuguese did make significant inroads in terms of conquering and controlling territory in the Caribbean and South America, France, Holland, and England’s place on the ground in North America was much less impressive –- especially much less impressive than its cartographers imagined. As we’ll see in a few weeks, New England and the other British colonies would grow quickly, but even by the time of the American revolution -– almost 300 years after Columbus! -– they remained tightly enclosed along the Atlantic seaboard. Similarly, French maps depicted their control of much of eastern North America, but the actual place of French power was limited to a few enclaves along the St. Lawrence River.
Second, what the European states and their private adventurer-proxies thought the best actions on the ground were not always the same things, and often not at all compatible. While private adventurers had to maintain the good graces of their Old World political supporters, in the New World they had a lot of latitude on the ground. There was no army –- i.e., no state force -– there in the New World or in Africa to enforce the expectations of Kings or legislators. Thus, these merchant-adventurers were taking risks if they tested their rulers' authority, but the lure of profit –- and power –- could be great. Moreover, again as will become clear in future weeks, even that limited presence could have profound consequences.
Before you read this Lesson's sources, make sure you review the Toolbox entries from the Lessons of Module 1. In the First Module you practiced the effective analysis of primary and secondary sources, and you also learned about the importance of paying attention to the different perspectives historians take when they analyze sources. Don't forget what you've learned in these Lessons. Your goal should be to build on your skills throughout the course.
In your Forum entries for this week's Lesson, you will continue to practice the analysis of primary sources. Pay particular attention to the perspectives in each document. In a way similar to historians having different interpretations of the same questions, so too did people in the past have different interpretations of their worlds. You can consider questions such as:
- Who was the author and what economic or social or religious or political interests did that person have?
- When did he or she create the source?
- What is the source about and what did the author think about that subject?
You can probably think of other general questions that will help you to think about the perspective in any source. These are questions that are related to the skills of "sourcing" that you learned about in Module 1. To find our more about the general kinds of questions you should always have in mind when you consider a source's perspective, see the two Historical Thinking worksheets available through the link. The particular questions to think about for this week (in the Lesson above) will also help. Together, these general and particular questions will guide you as you look for differences (and similarities) in the perspectives of each primary source.
Primary sourcesRead any 3 or 4 of the following documents (and, to be clear, 3 doesn’t allow you to read less –- it means read some of the longer docs). Pay attention to the bibliographical details below (e.g., page numbers).
- Christopher Columbus to Luis de Sant Angel [a high-ranking minister to King Ferdinand of Spain], 1493.
- Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: of the Commodities and of the Nature and Manners of the Naturall Inhabitants (1585), 5-9.
- Richard Hakluyt, the elder, “Inducements to the Liking of the Voyage Intended towards Virginia ”, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume III (London, Macmillan, 1979), 64-69.
- John Cotton, God’s Promise to his Plantation (1630).
- Letters from Anthony Parkhurst, Newfoundland, 1577 and 1578, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume IV (London, Macmillan, 1979), 5-10.
- Stephen Parminius to Richard Hakluyt the Younger, Newfoundland, 6 August 1583, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume IV (London, Macmillan, 1979), 21-2.
- “Petition of Merchants of London and Bristol for a Newfoundland Charter, 1610”, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume IV (London, Macmillan, 1979), 131-2. [in the same file as Parminius]
- Pierre Biard, “Reasons why the Cultivation of New France ought to be Undertaken in Earnest”, Rueben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, volume IV (Cleveland, 1894), 111-7.
- John Brereton, A Briefe Relation of the Description of Elizabeth's Ile [Cape Cod] (London, 1602).
Secondary sourcesJohn C. Appleby, "War, Politics, and Colonization", in Nicholas Canny, ed., The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, vol. I of The Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford, Oxford University press, 1998), 55-78.
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The Columbian Exchange
This week's big question:
What was the significance of non-human agents in the making of the Atlantic world?
Learning outcomesAt the end of this week you should be able to:
- Explain the basic outline of the Columbian Exchange;
- Understand something of the significance of the Columbian Exchange in the development of the Americas and of Europe;
- Explain the significance of the movement of new organisms into the New World;
- Describe early modern people’s understanding of the significance and the meaning of exchanging of biological organisms.
Questions to consider, and learning activityThis week (like last) read the secondary text (this time by Crosby) before you read the primary documents.
- How did early modern people understand the presence of diseases in their worlds?
- How did Amos Adams and Pierre Biard understand the demography of early America? What does Sahagun’s narrative tell us about the Spanish conquest of Mexico?
- Why was disease still a problem for Indigenous peoples in Nebraska in the 1830s?
- Crosby reminds us that early colonizers didn’t want Indigenous peoples to die; they wanted them to become labourers who would produce goods for European markets, and customers for European goods. The mass deaths brought about by infectious diseases changed that. Discuss the significance of these developments for the different peoples of the Atlantic World.
BackgroundOur examination of the early modern trans-Atlantic world emphasizes the movement of people and trade goods, but historians in the past few decades have also begun to highlight the movement of other organisms – plants, animals, and even microbes. Science and archaeology show us that the biology – the flora, the fauna, and the microbial worlds – of the Americas and that of Europe and Africa were quite different. There are lots of reasons to explain this, but the most obvious is that while Africa, Asia, and Europe have many biological differences, their proximity to one another means that there was nevertheless a good deal of movement of peoples, animals, plants, and microbes across the regions. Whether carried by the wind, or by ships, biological agents crafted a broadly similar ecology across the vast sweep of three continents. The Americas, however, were completely apart. For a million years, the Atlantic Ocean had separated the New and Old Worlds; now exploration, trade, and settlement brought these two separate ecological zones into contact for the first time. Historians have come to call this movement of biological agents, and its important transformative effect, the Columbian Exchange.
By far the most important of these exchanges involved microbial diseases. Both Indigenous Americans and Europeans had their own diseases, but European ones were particularly powerful. Unlike Europe, Africa, and Asia, America had no domestic beasts of burden (cows, horses, and so on). Because most people lived in relatively close proximity to domestic animals, the diseases common to livestock – and thus ultimately some level of immunity to such diseases – were widespread. No such immunities existed among Indigenous Americans, and the results were catastrophic. Estimates vary considerably, but even fairly cautious writers maintain that at least 50 per cent (and some argue as much as 90 per cent) of the Indigenous populations of the east coast of the Americas was wiped out by the arrival of European diseases in the first few decades of contact.
This was an astounding and profound catastrophe for Indigenous societies. Some societies were devastated; others simply disappeared. Recall that when John Cotton (1630) argued that Englishmen found in America “a vacant soyle”, he meant in part that Indigenous peoples did not farm it in the manners Europeans did – that is, did not fix properties, build fences, and maximize their yields – but he also meant simply that there were no people. Apologists ever since him have maintained that America was under-utilized, and that because God wanted the land to be productive, it was therefore good that Christians "improve" the land – i.e., settle and farm it. We will not, in this course, debate God's will, but there is little doubt that the land had only very recently been vacated, and not in any voluntary sense.
This new age of global trade also produced a much less traumatic, but no less dramatic, exchange of plants and animals. Horses and cattle were introduced into the Americas, offering fantastic new labour-saving possibilities, but also dramatically altering the landscape of the Americas. Raising grain and cattle required large grasslands and that meant either dyking extensive coastal marshlands (as the French Acadians did in Nova Scotia, or the English settlers in early Virginia), or cutting large expanses of forests (as English settlers did in the mid-Atlantic colonies). Sheep created their own grasslands, literally transforming huge swaths of central Mexico, overgrazing it to the extent that much of the region became an arid wasteland. Exchanges went both ways. New products, notably coffee and cochineal, were exported back to western Europe. And new crops were introduced into Europe, notably corn, potatoes, and tomatoes, altering not only the diets of Europeans (can we even imagine Italy without polenta, gnocchi, or tomato sauce?), but also in some cases offering peasants new market possibilities which some historians argue eroded the power of aristocratic landowners in the 17th and 18th centuries. Rice – which would later become a major slave-produced staple of the New World – was an African crop introduced to the Americas and domesticated by slaves.
The Columbian Exchange also offers us a window on the world of unintended consequences – that is, of historical outcomes that do not appear to have been planned. It reminds us that humans are not all powerful, and that while we may be the dominant species on this planet, nature is a powerful force, and one that we can only sometimes control. This also raises controversial issues of human agency. Some social commentators now argue, for example, that Europeans cannot be blamed for bringing diseases to the New World: no one understood how germs worked – at least not this well – and so Europeans can hardly be blamed for what happened to Indigenous peoples. And yet others argue that while this may well be true, Europeans knew it was happening, took full advantage of the situation, and passed it off as God’s will – a feeble alibi for what remained enormous sins or crimes. Our readings this week take us to some examples of those exchanges where we can pursue some of those questions.
- Excerpt on smallpox epidemic from book 12 of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, General History of the Things New Spain, in Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, eds., The war of conquest: how it was waged here in Mexico: the Aztecs' own story (Salt Lake City, University of Utah, 1978).
- Pierre Biard, “On their Marriages and the Sparseness of Population”, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, volume III, Rueben Gold Thwaites, ed., (Cleveland, 1894), 99-113.
- Amos Adams, A Concise Historical View of the Perils, Hardships, Difficulties, and Discouragements which have Attended the Planting and Progressive Improvements of New-England (Boston, 1769), 9-13.
- Paul Le Jeune describes the Huron response to epidemics, 1638, in Jesuit Relations, volume 15, pp. 37-51.
- Two American reports on "Indian" health from the 19th century: Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, History of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Their Present Condition and Prospects, and a Sketch of Their Ancient Status, 1857. Report of Smallpox in 1837, pp. 486-7; and Thomas S. Williamson, “The Diseases of the Dakota Indians”, Northwestern Medical and Surgical Journal 4 (1874), 418-9.
- Note: Schoolcraft and Williamson are both on the same page.
- Alfred W. Crosby, “Infectious Disease and the Demography of the Atlantic Peoples,” Journal of World History 2:2 (1991), 119-33.
- Interview with Alfred Crosby (if the interview does not show up right away, use the link to go to the Smithsonian site, and then search for "Alfred Crosby")