American History – Colonization of the New World

Europeans colonized the New World out of selfish motives. The migration to the New World was led by break-up of the feudal system by the Commercial Revolution, the Reformation and the Renaissance. European explorers were looking for a shorter route to India when they discovered the New World. Spaniards discovered Mexico and Peru and looted their precious metals.

Emigration to the New World was stimulated by bad economic conditions like low wages, high prices and widespread unemployment. There was also the religious persecution that was widespread. In England, the majority were against the Anglicans while in France, the Catholic King was against the Protestants.

English settlers in the New World had religious and political freedom and established 13 colonies. The Spaniards and the Portuguese with the blessing of the Papacy conquered the Southern part of the New World. The Spaniards enlarged the spiritual domain of Catholics and accumulated precious metals. The Portuguese were satisfied with the commercial opportunities on the eastern coast of South America. The French built trading posts in the valleys of Mississippi and St. Lawrence and also a permanent settlement in Eastern Canada.

Discovery of the New World

In 1492, Italian captain Christopher Columbus discovered America by accident under the orders of the Spanish monarchy. The Spaniards wanted to find an alternate route to India because of the opposition by Italians and Arabs. India gave the Europeans Spices, perfumes and silks. Portuguese sailors sailed along the coast of Africa down south in hopes of finding a new route to India. Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic and found the Caribbean Islands. Thinking this was India he named the Islands the Indies and he people there, Indians.

Before Columbus, the Vikings had already discovered America and even colonized Greenland in the 10th century. Led by Leif Ericson, a band of Vikings explored North America. However, since they did not leave any settlements, the Europeans had no idea about this in the 15th century.

Columbus did not realize that he had discovered a New World and only though the islands were off the coast of Asia. Later explorers found this to be false and thus the New World was discovered by Columbus. Other explorers still wanted to sail westward to find out an alternate route to India. They knew a large continent lay in their way but they were looking for a way through America.


Importance of the discovery of the New World

  • Italians merchants no longer controlled International trade; other traders began to make a fortune.
  • Monarchies of Western Europe became stronger politically and economically owing to the treasure the conquerors had plundered from Mexico.
  • The oppressed people of Western Europe found a place to go to where they would have political and religious freedom.
  • The middle class empowered by trade and commerce began to oppose the church.
  • The prosperity of the times encouraged new ideas.
  • The middle class thought that the church which supported a feudal system was against commercial progress. This made them turn to Protestantism which was begun by Martin Luther in 1517. This Reformation plunged Europe into a century and a half of religious struggle. There was not only a feud between the Catholics and the Protestants but also between different sects among Protestants. The widespread religious persecution and the resultant suffering made the people migrate to the New World.
  • The Reformation led to the Renaissance which gave man a new outlook into the ideas and events of the world around him.
  • Finally, the invention of the printing press helped spread new ideas. Both the reformation and the Renaissance encouraged man to take steps towards political freedom.


Growth of the idea of political freedom was seen first in England. These people were among the first to migrate to America. England began sprouting democratic roots long before the 16th century. The Magna Carta (1215) which checked the powers of the King led to a bicameral legislature by 1400. By 1700, after a century of civil wars between the King’s men and the parliamentary forces, England had won a constitutional monarchy and a Bill Of Rights. This was when the rest of Europe was still under monarchy rule.

The economic life in England however was not as good. People who were dispossessed by “enclosures” (used for raising sheep) moved to the city in hopes of finding work. However, this was also the time where there was an influx of skilled labor from France, Germany and the Netherlands. Englishmen found political freedom without economic security useless.

Political democracy but no religious freedom

Religious persecution became widespread in England too. King James I persecuted Puritans and Pilgrims during his reign (1603-1625). During the Commonwealth (1649-1660), Catholics were persecuted. Europeans began to emigrate due to economic insecurity and religious intolerance. Other motives for emigration were:


  • Greed for precious metals found in the New World
  • The zeal of the Roman Catholic Church to spread Christianity among the natives of the New World
  • The ambition of rulers to conquer distant lands.


Explorers who followed Columbus’s example:

  • In 1497, John Cabot, an Italian under the service of he King of England discovered the Newfoundland. Cabot’s discovery gave England a foothold in the New World.
  • In 1500, Portuguese captain Cabral discovered Brazil.
  • In 1513, Balboa and his sailors struggled across the Isthmus of Panama where they became the first white men to look upon the Pacific Ocean from the shores of America.
  • In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan found this narrow passage.
  • In 1524, Italian Verrazano was sent by the French King to find out a shorter route to the Pacific.
  • In 1534, Frenchman Jacques Cartier sailed into the mouth of St. Lawrence’s river and concluded there was no passage to the East.
  • Martin Frobisher voyaged into the Arctic Ocean thrice to find a way to Asia but he failed.
  • In 1609, Henry Hudson an Englishman under the orders of a Dutch King founf the Hudson River.

Spaniards settled first in Hispaniola

Columbus made the island of Hispaniola the new world headquarters of Spain which made many settlers move there. From Hispaniola, explorers explored the nearby islands and the mainland America. Hernando Cortes, a plantation owner from West Indies got a mission to lead an expedition to Mexico. Cortes and his men won gold and glory but only after ‘ceaseless toil’ and ‘great exertions’ like he had promised his men. In 1519, after landing in Veracruz and destroying his ships, Cortes led his little army to Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Red Indians. The Aztecs ruled a large part of Mexico and invited the Spaniards to visit their city. They regarded the visitors as gods as they had not seen white men, horses or metal armor and guns. Montezuma, the Aztec ruler commanded that a palace be built for the Spaniards. A few days later, The Spaniards captured Montezuma and asked a huge ransom from the Aztecs. Montezuma was killed and the Aztecs defeated in the battle that ensued. The Spanish became the sole lords of Mexico and Central America with the help of Indian tribes who hated the Aztecs, cannons, guns and the Knowledge of the Art of War.

Francisco Pizarro became the ruler of Peru after killing the Supreme Inca. He was later killed by his own men. Silver and gold mined from Peru was sent back to Spain and Lima became the center of Spanish rule in South America.


Spanish Empire in the New World

Spanish adventurer de Soto discovered the Mississippi river in 1541. Coronado, another adventurer explored what is now the South-Western United States. Spanish control extended over West Indies, Central America, parts of South America and North America. The Empire was divided into two each rules by a viceroy, a representative of the King of Spain. First, the Spaniards ill-treated the conquered Indians and made them work in the mines and on the estates. However, they later began to import negro slaves from Africa to work for them.