American History Discussion: PRE-AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Around A. D. 1000, Danish Vikings sailed from Greenland to North America and set up a village on the tip of what is now Newfoundland. The real Vikings were nothing like the Minnesota Vikings! For one thing, they did not wear horned helmets!

The Vikings came from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. From A. D. 800 to A. D. 1100 the Vikings raided Western Europe, from Ireland to Russia. The Vikings were a very warlike people who nonetheless had strong families and a well-developed culture. The Vikings were the first Europeans to settle in North America. No one knows why the settlement disappeared, but in less than 50 years the Vikings disappeared from North America.

If the Vikings were the first Europeans to explore the Americas, Christopher Columbus was the most famous. Born Cristoforo Colombo, between August and October 1451, in Genoa, Italy, Columbus was the eldest son of Domenico Colombo, a small-scale merchant. Columbus was largely schooled at home. Living in Renaissance Italy, Christopher Columbus saw the end of the Middle Age and the beginning of the Age of Exploration.

The Age of Exploration grew out of largely economic impulses. For one thing, two centuries earlier Marco Polo introduced Europeans to exotic spices and teas from China and the East Indies. But Polo’s route was a land route access from Venice, Italy, to Peking, China. However, toward the end of the 14th century, the vast empire of Kubla Kahn was breaking up; thus, merchants could no longer be ensured of a safe-conduct along the land routes. Secondly, the growing power of Islamic Turkey blocked European attempts at trade. Thus, enormous profits could be made by traders who were able to bring even one caravan back from the Orient. At the same time, technological advances made exploration even more possible. For one thing the Portuguese developed a new type of ship called the Caravel. The Caravel was a particularly sea worthy ship that was both fast and dependable. The discovery of the Caravel would be similar to the transformation of air flight from a propeller driven craft to jet airplanes. It was a vastly superior mode of transportation. At the same time, with the further improvement of the mariner’s compass, European traders were now ready to leave the land behind and explore the unknown.

By the 15th Century most educated Europeans believed that the world was round and that one could sail westward to reach China. Sailing there was another matter. Most scientists correctly postulated that the world was too big safely to sail westward to China. Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, along with several scientists, was persuaded that the world was about 25% smaller than it really was. He sincerely thought that he would sail into Cathay in six weeks after he left Spain! Fifty years later it actually took another explorer, Magellan, almost a year!

In 1484, Columbus asked King John II of Portugal to back his voyage west. King John II calculated that it was too risky. The next year, Columbus went to Spain and asked Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon. In January of 1492, after being twice rejected, Columbus finally obtained the support of Ferdinand and Isabella. With the fall of Granada, the last Moorish/Islam stronghold in Spain, Spanish Christians believed they were close to eliminating the spread of Islam in southern Europe and beyond. Isabella and Ferdinand felt that they were ready now to support something more risky.

So, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Columbus’ trip west to find a water-route to the lucrative East Indies.

At daybreak on August 3, 1492, 3 small ships left Palos de la Frontera, Spain, for the East Indies. At 2 A.M. on October 12, 1492, a member of Columbus’ crew sighted land. The world has never been the same again.

Columbus traveled to the New World 4 times. He died without realizing that he had not reached the East Indies after all.

To exaggerate the historical significance of Christopher Columbus is difficult. The world was never the same after his voyages. Although he failed to find a new route to China, Columbus made the lands and peoples of the western hemisphere known to Europeans, setting in motion a chain of events that altered human history on a global scale.

The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines colony as a body of people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state. During the 16th century Spain alone took seriously the colonization of her territories. While other nations of Europe were contenting themselves with occasional voyages of discovery, or with slave-carrying expeditions, the Spaniards extended their dominion in the New World. Colonies were established on the coasts of South and Central America, the Carribean. In 1519 Cortez began his now infamous expedition which soon subjected the Aztec empire of Mexico. From this region the Spanish dominion extended southward to Central and South America, and northward to California and New Mexico, which Coronado invaded in 1540. In a comparatively short time the whole of western South America from the lower boundary of Chili to the Caribbean coast was Spanish territory.

The only other people who showed any colonizing activity in the sixteenth century were the Portuguese. They slowly spread their settlements along the coast of Brazil, until by the end of the century the whole coast from the La Plata River to the Amazon River was full of Portuguese colonies.

France, on the other hand, lost interest in colonization of the New World because their initial attempts at colonization had failed. That is, they failed to find any gold or silver. They found plenty of furs, but not much else. More important, France itself was struggling with internal religious and political problems. France, as contrasted with England and Spain, contained few middle class families, or yeoman farmers who naturally sought to settle in a new agrarian colony. Also, while there were Protestants and other aberrant Christian groups in France, as contrasted with the state church­ Roman Catholic–their number and scope came noo where near the British example. Thus, while New Spain promised instant wealth and New England promised religious freedom, New France promised a few beaver pelts. It was not until the seventeenth century ­when it appeared that France would lose her North American colonies to the English­ that France began American colonization in earnest.

In Nova Scotia the permanent colony of New France was created in 1604. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain (“Father” of New France) founded the first successful French settlement at Quebec. He established friendly relations with the local Indians based on the fur trade.

The French employed a technique called accommodation instead of annihilation (which the Spanish generally employed). Nonetheless, in all the colonies, Native Americans existed for one purpose: to advance the profit goals of Europeans. All European powers subscribed to an economic theory called Mercantilism. Mercantilism posited a theory that in order for a nation to be great, it must have colonies ­colonies too provide natural resources and markets for the home industries. This theory did not really catch hold until the next century, but it nonetheless had an influence on early European strategies of colonization.

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