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Why Did Europeans Want to Explore and Colonize America?

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

The printing press of Gutenburg

The printing press of Gutenburg

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.

Landing of Columbus, by John Vanderlyn

Landing of Columbus, by John Vanderlyn

Religious Zeal

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.

Technological Innovation

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.

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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.

Questions & Answers

Question: What did the colonizers do when they encountered these new civilizations?

Answer: That's a good question. It depends on which colonizers - as there were many, from many different cultures. And even within one culture, colonizers could behave very differently. For example, Spanish colonizers tended to enslave the Natives or convert them to Christianity (or both), but some Spanish colonizers were against this and advocated for Native rights. Even the English differed on how they should interact with Natives - some were afraid, others saw trade opportunities, and still others just wanted to conquer or kill them. There are many answers, and I suggest reading some of the accounts of colonizers (you can find many of these documents online for free) to get a better sense of what happened.

Question: Why would Europeans want to move to the American colonies?

Answer: Please see this article: -- several of the answers are there. Additionally, Europeans individually moved to the American colonies (I assume you mean the British ones, as there were also French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies) for many reasons. These included escaping persecution (religiously or politically), a chance to create a larger estate and personal/family wealth than was available back home, adventure, personal freedom, etc.

Question: What were the effects of the American exploration and colonization on the rest of the world?

Answer: The effects were huge and long-lasting. Even today, Europeans' exploration and colonization of the world is still felt. Effects included the spread of disease; exchange of crops, crafts, ideas, etc.; religious conversions; forced removal of Native American tribes from their land; warfare; new economic trade routes; and the growth of new cultures and merging of old ones. Even today, the effects of colonialism are still felt, such as seen in debates on whether Columbus was a 'good' man or whether his ambitions and realities are responsible for the continued poverty and socio-economic issues of Native peoples. I highly recommend a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., which has several galleries that explore native cultures and the impacts that colonization have had on them.

Question: Why did the Europeans want riches and gold?

Answer: European countries were constantly in power struggles with each other, always needing to find a way to outmaneuver their opponents. Given that the European continent is rather small in terms of resources - and that Asian / Middle Eastern / African resources were already claimed by significant empires - the Europeans attempted to look elsewhere to get such riches. However, finding “riches and gold” wasn’t a primary factor - they more desired a way to get to the East (China, Japan, and the Spice Islands) that did not involve going through (and paying) middle-men such as the Arabs.

Question: What famous men sailed from Spain?

Answer: Many! I suggest you look up “Spanish conquistadors” and you will find many stories of Spanish explorers in America.

Question: How were European people more superior to the Native Americans during the colonization of America?

Answer: They were not. Europeans and Native Americans developed over millennia on drastically different continents. This does not make one more superior than the other. The idea that’s Europeans we’re superior was promoted by Europeans to assert their dominance and avoid the hard questions of why they conquered Natives and the damages they wrought.

Question: What did we do to help the Europeans come to America?

Answer: You need to define "we." If "we" means modern Americans, then there is nothing we did to help them because we were not alive. If "we" means Native Americans living in America at the time, then the answer is still nothing - because Europeans were the ones who came. They were not invited.

Question: What issues might the Europeans have faced when they got to America?

Answer: Many issues. First, the land was geographically unknown to them. Though Europe still had many wild places, it was nothing compared to the vastness of the American continents. Second, language barriers - when they did encounter Native groups, the two would need to develop ways to communicate. There were no translators, up until the time that Manteo was kidnapped backed to England and - for his own survival - learned English and became a translator. A third issue would be disease - while it is common knowledge that European diseases ravaged Native populations, the Natives also introduced Europeans to many diseases - including syphilis! It actually became an epidemic in Europe after American contact. Finally, there was simply the issue of distance - Europe was a long way off, and with no readily available stores or governments, the Europeans who colonized America were basically on their own for weeks at a time, with sparse communication and resupply from the European continent. In the case of the Roanoke colony, this proved fatal.


taylor on September 05, 2019:

amazing article! really helped me! even if it is from 8 years ago!

mj on August 28, 2018:

great thinking

ray on February 21, 2018:

i think it was interesting

Worker on December 21, 2017:

I think it was interesting

Blah on December 21, 2017:

I have no idea

Emma Kizrack on October 24, 2017:

This was a but long but at least I got my answer,answered.

worker on October 02, 2017:

lengthy but instructive and informative

Mackenzie on September 27, 2017:

Super long.....But it did help.

I would recommend a short couple sentence answer but this works too

Vihhj on August 10, 2017:

This was an outstanding article, truly.

homework doer on February 16, 2017:

why do Europeans want to take over every thing ? its our debate now in societies and individuals im a black loyalist

kinsey on September 21, 2016:

this was great, thank you.

Winston C. Moses on March 13, 2015:

It would've happened eventually. As a Native American, I already know what the Europeans done and should've done, but any people: From Europeans to Asians, would've came here and infected millions with their alien diseases. This work was very informative, and helped me better understand why we were invaded in the first place. Thank you.

OyVeyItsDaveyJ on December 05, 2014:

Available land would likely have been what attracted most colonists, although other factors such as religious persecution were obviously at play.

Europe by the end of the 1400's had a high population, and an entrench landed elite. It was impossible for average people to get their own land, and therefore this limit an individuals ability to advance in society.

To a society were land is scarce, and not only this land ownership represented wealth and prosperity, having an entire continent which they deemed to be mostly empty would have been a tantalizing proposition.

Tiffany Isselhardt (author) from USA on October 25, 2014:

Thank you, Brandon! I'm very glad it was able to help you!

Brandon guevara on October 23, 2014:

This was really interesting and it really helped me in the history homework

ajithknn on March 01, 2014:

They were wanting to going to east,but they went west by mistake. But when they reach new places primitive, so they start new system which is similar to companies mercantilism and slavery. At there current condition if they had reached east, i feel they would have lost half of their empire . The European kingdoms dire needed money to survive for wars . If they would gone wars in east and west, it would a collapse of the whole europe...

Tiffany Isselhardt (author) from USA on December 02, 2013:

I could have, but there are plenty of sites that try to provide one answer. There is no real answer, because archaeologists and historians are constantly finding new evidence that changes our understanding of history. As a historian, that is what I try to communicate in my articles as well as sharing as much up to date knowledge as possible. But thank you.

kameron on December 02, 2013:

You could have just summed it up like for the little kids who go on the web site check

Paul Swendson on October 13, 2011:

Thanks. This is very well written.

Given the cultural differences between Europeans and Native Americans and the many advantages on the European side, it's hard to imagine any result but the European conquest. It seems as inevitable as anything in history.

VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA from India. on July 01, 2011:

In the 14th century it would have been the same madness for additional land area, to serve the growing population and changes in people's living style. From time immemorial, man tried to win over the land of another man. In the 14th century, when Europeans started their voyages towards east, in search of India's wealth, Chinese silk for their trade. Some came to the east and some were driven by winds towards west, where they found an enormous virgin lands, full of natural resources. For a man who was in the stage of asphixiation due to overpopulation in Europe, American virgin lands would have shown him heavens. Those who went for trading, to America, never returned and settled there to found a new world. At that time, they would not have thought that they were colonising America.

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