Colonization of the New World

Since the voyages of Christopher Columbus, no region has been more profoundly shaped by colonialism than the Americas. Small European states settled their disputes on the vast American landscape, competing with each other and with the vibrant indigenous societies they encountered. Portuguese, French, Spanish, British, and indigenous influence continues to shape the continents’ history to this day.

The Indigenous Landscape

Although specific population estimates vary wildly, the Americas were home to tens of millions of people before the arrival of Columbus. Indigenous American societies ranged from small hunter-gatherer groups to large, technologically advanced polities such as the Incan Empire and the Aztec Triple Alliance. Many indigenous cultures had advanced mathematics and architecture, sophisticated food systems, and a detailed understanding of their surrounding environment.

Regardless of their political organization or cultures, almost all indigenous societies were devastated by the arrival of European settlers. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years, indigenous Americans had no immunities to measles, smallpox, typhoid, and other crowd diseases. Contact with Europeans exposed these peoples to these diseases, leading to the most devastating series of pandemics in human history. Historians estimate that 80-95% of indigenous peoples died from European diseases alone. These pandemics explain why Europeans were able to conquer so much of the Americas so quickly despite initially inferior numbers.

Despite these pandemics, many indigenous cultures managed to resist European dominion throughout the colonial era. The Mapuche people of southern Chile, for example, successfully fought off Spanish invaders and remained independent until the late 19th century. Indigenous communities in Patagonia, western Brazil, and much of northwestern North America also resisted Western hegemony for centuries.

Silver, Sovereignty, and the Spanish Empire

Spain established what was by far the largest empire in the Americas, extending from southwestern North America to northern Chile. The Spanish administered their territory directly, dividing it into two regions: the Viceroyalty of New Spain in North and Central America and the Viceroyalty of Peru in South America. The Spanish benefited from the legacy of the Incan and Aztec empires, which provided a template for administering and profiting from large portions of the Americas. The Catholic Church was intimately involved in the empire, providing social services and pressuring indigenous subjects to convert to Christianity.

Much of Spanish economic activity was geared toward obtaining precious metals, especially after the discovery of large silver deposits in the Andes Mountains. Spain used the forced labor of indigenous peoples to mine this silver, quickly becoming the largest producer of silver in the world. Large silver exports allowed Spain to trade with Ming China and rapidly become the wealthiest country in Europe. In the long run, however, mass silver imports caused runaway inflation. Combined with frequent, indecisive wars, this weakened the Spanish Empire, allowing other countries to gain the upper hand in European disputes. Despite this decline, Spain maintained control of most of its American colonies until the early 19th century.

The Portuguese Empire

Although the Portuguese focused most of their colonial efforts in the Indian Ocean, the Treaty of Tordesillas granted them a small territory in western South America. Portugal gradually expanded this territory, creating the core of what is now the nation of Brazil. During the colonial period, Portuguese dominion in this region was largely limited to the coast. Disease and indigenous resistance prevented the empire from taking control of most of the interior, though Portuguese settlers managed to gradually move west.

Like Spain, Portugal administered Brazil directly, using it to produce cash crops and sell them to Europe. Chief among these crops was sugarcane, which was in high demand both to flavor drinks and to make rum. Sugarcane production was dangerous and labor-intensive, prompting the Portuguese to rely on forced labor, first from indigenous peoples and later from enslaved Africans. Portuguese Brazil imported nearly half of all slaves brought to the Americas, and many historians believe that enslaved peoples in Brazil worked in worse conditions and had shorter lifespans than in most other mainland American colonies.

Portugal lost control of much of Brazil to the Dutch during the Luso-Dutch War, a protracted conflict that lasted for much of the 17th century. The Portuguese managed to retake Brazil after 24 years of Dutch control, and continued to rule the colony until the early 19th century.

The French Empire

In theory, France possessed a vast empire in the Americas known as New France. Extending from northern Canada to New Orleans, New France covered 8 million square kilometers, making it larger than the Roman Empire at its height. In practice, however, this region was more of a French trading zone than an empire. Indigenous societies controlled most of the territory but traded with the French, providing them with furs and other valuable goods that they could sell in Europe. There were, however, small French settler colonies, particularly in Quebec, which maintains its French heritage to this day.

Whatever influence France had in North America was gradually eroded over the course of the eighteenth century in a series of wars with Britain. By the end of the Seven Years War (1754-1763), France had lost all of its North American territories. It briefly regained control over part of New France during the Napoleonic Wars, but promptly sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase (1804).

In South America, France established the small colony of French Guiana, which it continues to control to this day. Guiana is now a French overseas department, meaning that it has the same status as mainland France.

The British Empire

Britain’s colonization of the Americas is unique in that Britain was not a unified state when it began its colonial project. The development of British colonies in America mirrored that of the British state in Europe. England established colonies along the eastern coast of North America, which gradually became profitable over time. Scotland also attempted to establish colonies, first in Canada and later in Panama, but was unsuccessful. England’s successes and Scotland’s failures contributed to England’s gradual domination of Scotland, culminating in the Acts of Union (1707) to combine the two countries under a single state.

Whereas the Spanish and Portuguese administered their colonies directly, British colonies in North America were largely autonomous. As long as they paid taxes and followed British trading laws, the colonies were free to make their own decisions. Many were run by democratically-elected legislatures, though only white men who owned property could vote. Britain’s colonies in America were considered a haven for persecuted religious and political groups from Europe. Puritans fled to New England, Quakers to Pennsylvania, French Huguenots to South Carolina, and British Catholics to Maryland.

Economic activity varied throughout Britain’s colonies, but agriculture became an important feature early on. Tobacco was widely grown in Virginia, while South Carolina provided Britain with rice and indigo. The demand for agricultural labor led the British to import indentured servants from Europe and enslaved people from Africa. Unlike Spain and Portugal, the British did not try to incorporate indigenous peoples into their colonies, but instead killed them or drove them off their land. Indigenous communities fought back against British incursions and were often successful during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press

The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, Macmillan International Higher Education

A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, Cambridge University Press

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