Why Did Europeans Want to Explore and Colonize America?

Updated on June 10, 2016
Southern Muse profile image

I hold a Masters in Public History, and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

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 | Source

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.

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


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • profile image

        ray 2 months ago

        i think it was interesting

      • profile image

        Worker 4 months ago

        I think it was interesting

      • profile image

        Blah 4 months ago

        I have no idea

      • profile image

        Emma Kizrack 6 months ago

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

      • profile image

        worker 6 months ago

        lengthy but instructive and informative

      • profile image

        Mackenzie 6 months ago

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

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

      • profile image

        Vihhj 8 months ago

        This was an outstanding article, truly.

      • profile image

        homework doer 14 months ago

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

      • profile image

        kinsey 19 months ago

        this was great, thank you.

      • profile image

        Winston C. Moses 3 years ago

        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 profile image

        OyVeyItsDaveyJ 3 years ago

        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.

      • Southern Muse profile image

        Tiffany R Isselhardt 3 years ago from USA

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

      • profile image

        Brandon guevara 3 years ago

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

      • ajithknn profile image

        ajithknn 4 years ago

        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...

      • Southern Muse profile image

        Tiffany R Isselhardt 4 years ago from USA

        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.

      • profile image

        kameron 4 years ago

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

      • Freeway Flyer profile image

        Paul Swendson 6 years ago

        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 profile image

        VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 6 years ago from India.

        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.