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Joan R. Gundersen
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The Opening of a New World
The European discovery of America was not an accident which occurred outside of the main current of human affairs. It was the logical result of a series of happenings which began centuries before. The leading Continental powers that participated in the exploration and occupation of the New World were England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal. England was to prove the most successful. Their activities were complicated and shaped by the fact that the "New World" was itself an old world, home to somewhere between 50 and 100 million people with greatly varying traditions, languages, and economies. For them, this unsought-contact would transform their familiar lands into a truly new world.
The Background of European Expansion
The Crusades had taken Europeans to lands on the western edge of Asia and had introduced them to previously unknown material goods. This contact encouraged a trade in Asian wares. Europeans especially sought spices and fine fabrics to relieve the sameness of coarse foods and clothing then in common use. Nevertheless, the difficulties of overland shipment from distant places, trade monopolies, and the numerous times such goods changed hands, kept supplies limited and prices high. It was almost inevitable that Europeans would some day look for an all-water route to the sources of the Asiatic trade.
As European business activity increased and profits accumulated in the hands of merchants and bankers, they invested the surplus in new businesses and credit became more available. Without this credit and "investment capital," new overseas ventures could hardly have been undertaken.
The growth of seagoing traderequired geographical knowledge, ships, and seamanship. These were steadily improved during the late Middle Ages. From ancient geography and from astronomy, men knew the shape and approximate size of the earth, and they had had centuries of experience in sailing in European waters. In the late Middle Ages they colonized several Atlantic islands and they eagerly read Marco Polo's accounts of China. Shipbuilding innovations gave sailors new confidence. The Portuguese "Caravel," could sail against the wind faster and more efficiently than older ships. New and more accurate charts and the wider use of the "astrolabe" for finding latitude and the magnetic compass for steering made finding one's way much easier.
The expansion of business was not the sole motive of the wandering medieval mariners. The struggles for control of the Mediterranean between Europeans and Moors were fresh memories. Treasure acquired in exploration could finance new Crusades and discover mighty Christian kings who would serve as allies in the effort to free the Holy Land from Moslem control. Columbus had exactly such hopes. Likewise, Christian missionaries dreamed of extending their faith.
At least as significant for the occupation of the New World was another religious contest. Europe was in the earliest phases of the Reformation, or Protestant revolution. The reformation shattered religious uniformity and eventually sent many to seek new homes where they could create a community reflecting their religious beliefs.
Parallel to these economic and religious changes, Europe faced a great political revolution, the rise of national states. The new states denied any hold of the old Holy Roman Empire. Monarchsconsolidated power by overawing or defeating local rivals among the nobility in military campaigns financed by taxes on local merchants and bankers. In return the kings provided the peace necessary for flourishing international trade. The most important of these national states for the development of American history were Portugal, Spain, France, and England.
Thus the changing ways of material life, of business, of navigation, of religion, of politics, all made clear the way for great seamen to steer for unknown havens beyond the curve of sea and sky.
Stretching European Horizons to America
First of the western peoples to search the Atlantic were the Portuguese. Directed by Prince Henry (1394-1460), called "the Navigator," founder of a school of navigation, the Portuguese searched for African wealth and for an African route to the silks and spices of the East. Decade by decade they mapped the coast of Africa; they rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and at last reached India in 1498 led by Vasco da Gama. Portuguese sailors used the new equipment, tested the new ships, raised chart-making to a science, and gained great and valuable experience in long passages. All these things were necessary to the art and science of navigation which made the European exploration of America possible.
But no Portuguese discovered America. That was reserved for Christopher Columbus, an Italian in the service of Spain. Columbus was convinced that he would come upon Japan at about the place where later explorers found Florida, and after many unsuccessful attempts elsewhere he finally secured outfitting and financing from the Spanish King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella. He hoped to finda sea route to Asia, to carry missionaries there, and to gain wealth and honors for himself and family, as "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." In three ships his expedition steered west, pushed by the southeast trade winds and found land on October 12, 1492. But it was not Asia, although Columbus died thinking that it was. He had found an incredibly rich and varied area unknown to Europeans.
There have been more than a dozen claims that explorers reached America earlier than Columbus. The only claim supported by positive evidence is that of the Norsemen of Scandinavia who probably found the mainland of North America in the tenth century. But their voyages led to no permanent results, and thus left historic focus on Columbus.
New World Peoples
The lands thus mapped, described, and claimed by European explorers were hardly empty, although a rapid
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