Why Did Europeans Want to Explore and Colonize America?
Rising from the Ashes: Classical Learning and Literacy
It is the mid-to-late 1400s. Europe is rising from the ashes of a black night: the Middle Ages, or Medieval Period. People have died, suffering from plague after plague born on ships from far countries and caused by poor hygiene and public sanitation. The muck and grime of city streets haunts the ill, creating tunnels of death and cries of fear at a God who seems to have forsaken them.
It has also been plagued by war: the Crusades, having taken most hardworking men far from their homes, uncertain of return; and fierce provincial battles between Lords for control over land and the peasants who work it. But out of the death and devastation will arise a new era, one which will change the world forever.
In the 1400s, Europe's lust for Arabian soil, its hardships under provincial loyalties and prolonged plagues, and its darkness from the learning of the Ancient world came to a close. While the Crusades had brought about prolonged warfare, especially in a time when disease rampaged those at home, it also brought the key to Europe's salvation: classical learning. Exposure to the Arabian world inadvertantly exposed Crusaders - and the monks, scholars, and officials who accompanied them - to the preserved classical learning of the Ancient Worlds. The works of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and many others once again were returned to European soil and copied by the monks who slaved in monasteries over texts day after day.
But while the reacquisition of classical learning was a key, it was not the only key. Johann Gutenberg provided the next step in Europe's journey when he invented movable type - the precursor of the printing press - in the 1440s. Over the next several years, written knowledge spread further and faster than ever before, as the age of handwritten copies came to an end. Access to knowledge increased as texts were no longer written in the traditional Latin and instead published in vernacular (common) languages. Literacy was no longer limited to the royalty and upper classes. The Crusades had generated the need for portable religion that could be understood by commoners - another reason for the publication of the Bible in English.
Fascination with the East
The Crusades had also generated a curiosity about the world beyond Europe, leading to the expansion of trade routes and new links with previously mythical lands. Second sons of wealthy nobles, afforded an education but no rights to inherit their father's property due to existing laws which favored firstborn sons, now sought their fortunes in exploration. They devoured works of foreign lands, raised on stories of the final Crusades and the worlds beyond their manors. This fascination with the East, and increasing demand for the spices, gold, and silk which it offered, was the first major motivation for European exploration.
New, Rich Monarchs
These explorers approached the new monarchs - the Tudors, Louis XI of France, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain - to gain ships and men to find better trade routes to Asia. These monarchs were more than willing and able to provide the sponsorship - and funding - for such expeditions. In their new centralized political authority, they recruited armies, supported new organizations, created national taxes and effective national courts, and amassed a wealth and dominion over European lands not seen since Roman times. It was only natural that, once their kingdoms had settled, they would turn their eyes towards bypassing the Arab trade routes - and the increasingly profiteering Arabian middle men - for sea passages to Africa, Asia, and beyond.
A final factor that opened the Age of Discovery was religious zeal. Christianity had arisen to become a world power in itself during the Dark Ages. Through publication of religious texts in common languages and the missionary zeal of the Crusades, many Christians believed it was their duty to spread their faith. In light of this, monarchs and missionaries looked to spread religion as much as to convert others as to enhance their own esteem. Supported by European monarchs (except in England...), the Catholic Church encouraged exploration in order to bring all of humanity under God's rule.
Yet all of these reasons still did not make the trip to the East - or to anywhere long-distance - feasible. What did was the technological revolution of the Renaissance. Monarchs provided the funding and support needed for inventors to work long hours on projects that may not prove fruitful. Yet their gamble paid off. During the 1500s, significant advances were made in charts and mapping, allowing for more efficient and detailed communication of navigational information. Additionally, technologies in ship building - including triangular sails (which moved better against the wind) and the stern-post rudder (which made a ship more maneuverable) - made it possible to travel farther distances. The increasing exposure to classical learning and the sense of scientific exploration generated during the Renaissance also led to a deeper understanding of the trade winds, which ships utilized to make the journey to the East faster. Finally, the importation of the compass from the Chinese allowed sailors to better understand where they were going and where they were, taking out much of the uncertainty of sailing.
But why colonize?
Once Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, the world changed forever. Monarchs, and their subjects, were now entranced by the New World. It teemed with resources that Europe had long lost, filled with new species and plants, and had a readily accessible guide and labor source in the natives who befriended them.
Despite the legacy of the conquistadors and the decimation of native populations, initial counters were far from hostile. In fact, they were encouraged as sources of trade and new tools. Most colonists and explorers were single men - the second sons of nobles or those from the poorest agricultural regions of Europe - who were seeking their fortunes. They often married native populations, producing the mestizo and mulatto populations, and were more tolerant of racial differences than later settlers. Even the natives were peaceful, holding their own in early peaceful trading for metals, communicating through sign language, and generally rejecting attempts to become "civilized" by European standards.
But if they initially got along so well, what changed?
One factor was gender. Europe was a patriarchal society, while the majority of Native American societies were matriarchal. Europeans contacted male natives more, which upset the balance of power in tribes. Women became the protectors of traditional culture, which sanctioned their authority, but were often sabotaged by the lust for European goods. Also, many native societies were polygamous in some respect, due to the frequent warfare between tribes which often claimed the lives of warriors and the ownership of the losers as slaves, thus separating families. European missionaries, however, preached monogamy. Although gender did not seem to play a major role, it did upset the traditional culture of the natives, thus subverting authority when younger natives chose to listen to the Europeans.
Another factor was European ideology. Europeans treated natives as part of "prehistory" - thinking that the natives were people who had been isolated and cut off from humanity, thus unable to be exposed to the civilizing influences of Christianity and classical learning. Many European explorers viewed the accomplishments of earlier tribes - such as the mounds of Cahokia - as being beyond the abilities of the natives they encountered. Instead, their accomplishments were attributed to ancient European visitors or natural features of the landscape. Others attributed the achievements to lost civilizations, which although true led to many theories that these "lost civilizations" had been defeated and murdered by the natives they now encountered. In theorizing this, Benjamin Smith Martin and others opened the doors for conquest to crush the barbarians who had destroyed such rich civilizations.
This was further backed by those, such as George Catlin, who proposed that Jesus had visited the New World, but that the natives had rejected his teachings. Thus, Catlin and others incorporated the idea that Jesus - and possible the apostles - had visited the New World and, because the natives had rejected them, that Christians should reclaim their "lost Possession". This allowed for the European conquest of lands without guilt, much as the Christian ideology of the Crusades had allowed for the prolonged warfare and death in conquest for God's holy lands. This ideology would continue for hundreds of years, into the nineteenth century, despite those who tried to convince the Europeans otherwise.
Whatever the reasons behind conquest, it seems almost inevitable. As Jack Page stated, "An unwritten rule had governed much of human history: those who came upon and conquered other lands had the right of possession - of the land and its riches." Perhaps, then, European conquest was part of human nature: our desire for more, for better, no matter the cost. That may be why myths of cannibalism, of the decimation of previously glorious civilizations like Atlantis, and many other rumors were spread to help shred the guilt of murder and conquest.
Or, perhaps, it would have happened by nature anyway, as new diseases and the uprooting from their traditional lands ravaged native populations and decreased their numbers from millions to only thousands of mixed descent. Smallpox, influenza, and measles were only some of the culprits that thrived in the close quarters of native settlements and slavery quarters. Aided by the Europeans' superior military technology and resistance to diseases through centuries of exposure to foreign lands, it would have been easy to enslave populations that were dying.
In general, however, most historians attribute colonization to mixed causes. The thirst for land. The need for resources to support growing populations in Europe. The desire for new trade routes and luxury goods. The ideology of existing slavery and indentured servitude. The religious backing of a Church whose ideology seems to have changed to fit the circumstances and expand its pockets. And a combination of the right time, the right place, and the right people to not only explore a New World, but to conquer it and thereby change the world as we knew it forever.