Wars and Empires

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Wars and Empires

As the fifteenth century was drawing to a close, the nations of western Europe began a process of expansion that would lead, over the next several centuries, to the development of colonial empires in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. The urge to explore, conquer, and settle beyond the boundaries of Europe was manifested in the medieval Crusades to the Middle East, but the major stimulus to overseas expansion came from the discovery in southern and eastern Asia of exotic and valuable goods, especially spices, that became prized objects of trade. The desire of monarchs and merchants in western Europe to gain direct access to these commodities, avoiding Italian and Arab middlemen, encouraged competition to open new sea routes and establish overseas colonies, justified by a commitment to spread the doctrines of Christianity.

The Portuguese and Spanish were leaders in exploration eastward and westward from Europe, and in the sixteenth century they created great maritime empires in Asia and the Americas. Other powers followed where they had led, and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries England, France, and the Netherlands established colonial dominions in the Americas.

The first real colonization began with Spain. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) sailed west from Spain in 1492, believing the world was not as wide as it actually is at the equator. He thus "discovered" the Caribbean Islands rather than Japan and East Asia. Soon thereafter, other explorers sought a seaborne passage through or around the Americas and began to map the extensive coastlines of the New World.

Columbus's return to Spain in 1493 put Portugal and Spain on a potential collision course as King João II (1455–1495) of Portugal worried about the value of Portugal's expeditions around Africa, and Ferdinand (1452–1516) and Isabella (1451–1504) of Spain wanted to exploit Columbus's discovery. After appealing to the pope, and tensing for a fight, the Iberian neighbors recognized the need to compromise, and they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. It established a line of demarcation, some 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. West of that line, Spain could establish colonies, and this included all of the New World except Brazil. East of the line of demarcation, Portugal could dominate in Africa and in Asia. The exact line was never clearly established, and the other western European nations did not feel bound by this pact. However, the Treaty of Tordesillas did reduce the chances of conflict between Spain and Portugal, and it created a boundary that was largely respected, with Spain concentrating on the New World and Portugal focusing on Africa and Asia.

European colonization was usually achieved by making war on native peoples. Between about 1500 and 1540, Spain gained a great empire in the Americas by engaging in several wars of conquest, of which the most famous were those conducted in Mexico and Peru. The Spanish wars of conquest invariably succeeded in overcoming much larger Indian forces, thanks to the superiority of European weaponry and other factors, including Spanish efforts to make alliances with Indian kingdoms, nations, or groups in campaigns against their dominant Indian enemy. This was also true for the Portuguese in Brazil, and the French, English, and Dutch in North America. Spaniards and Portuguese were fighting Indians (with Indian and African assistance) throughout the colonial era. According to John Hemming, "All the Indian wars exploited fatal rivalries between tribes. No Portuguese ever took the field without masses of native auxiliaries to attack their traditional enemies" (1978, p. 178).

In general, the sixteenth-century wars of conquest between Europeans and Native Americans tended to be quite short and of relatively slight mortality (much greater mortality came from epidemic diseases). The fighting between the European colonial powers in the New World also occurred on a very small scale during the sixteenth century, being largely limited to raiding along Spanish trade routes and at poorly guarded ports. European contest for empire in the Americas became more serious in the seventeenth century, as the English and French settled areas neglected by Spain, and the Dutch briefly seized Portuguese territories in Brazil; nonetheless, these occupations were invariably peaceful, because Spain did not have the resources to resist

In 1519 Hernán Cortés (ca. 1484–1547), after participating in the conquest of Cuba, sailed to the coast of Mexico with six hundred soldiers, one hundred sailors, and some horses. He landed near present-day Veracruz, Mexico, and strengthened by Indian allies, he conquered the Aztecs in their capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). A decade after Cortés's conquest brought the lands and peoples of Mexico under Spanish rule, Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) learned of the riches of the Inca empire. In 1533 he seized the Inca capital at Cuzco. Two years later he founded Lima, and thereby initiated the Spanish conquest and colonization of Peru. From these centers, the Spaniards fanned out into neighboring territories, often using violence to overcome native kings and take control of their lands and peoples, while at the same time unintentionally spreading a variety of Old World diseases that decimated the Native American populations of the New World and undermined their ability to resist.

The French moved into North America following the waterways and animals whose fur had value for coats and hats. Private companies had moved up the Saint Lawrence River by the end of the sixteenth century seeking valuable furs. In 1603 Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570–1635) explored the area and founded Quebec. In the 1670s Louis Jolliet (1645–1700) moved along the lakes and rivers, found the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and floated down to the Ohio River, claiming the entire basin for New France. The French sent few settlers, and fur trappers and soldiers frequently coupled with Native American women.

Finally, the English arrived, seeking to recreate parts of the societies they had left. The first English colony, established in 1587 on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina, disappeared mysteriously. In 1607 the English established a second colony at Jamestown in Virginia. In 1620 English Puritans seeking freedom to follow their religion settled at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. William Penn (1644–1718), a Quaker, spurred settlement of Pennsylvania in the 1680s, and during the mid-1600s Lord Baltimore (Cecil Calvert, ca. 1605–1675) established Maryland as a refuge for Catholics.

Settlers soon moved from Virginia into North Carolina, then to South Carolina, and thereafter across the Cumberland Gap into present-day Kentucky and the great lands across the Appalachian Mountains. There were small pockets of Dutch and Swedish settlement, but the English soon overran them. While Penn, a devout Quaker, signed treaties with Native Americans and tried to befriend them, relations between European settlers and Native Americans were generally difficult, marked by fighting, allegations of massacres, and profound cultural differences.

As Europe engaged in several hundred years of warfare, those conflicts evidenced themselves in the New World. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European wars tended to spill over into the Americas, especially into the Caribbean, but increasingly into North America as well. Colonization halted briefly during the years of conflict between Spain and England and the appearance in 1588 of the Spanish Armada, a fleet of warships sent to invade England. Four major conflicts ensued in Europe; these were complemented by wars between the French and British colonists in North America.

The first three wars—King William's War (1689–1697), Queen Anne's War (1702–1713), and King George's War (1744–1748)—resulted in few changes in the colonies. The British gained Acadia (in eastern Canada) from the French during Queen Anne's War, and renamed it Nova Scotia. Generally, however, despite depredations along the thinly settled frontier between the British colonies in New England and French and Indian areas in French Canada, there was little change.

The fourth war, known as the French and Indian War (1754–1763) in America and the Seven Years' War (1756 to 1763) in Europe, resulted in a total British victory after the capture from the French of Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania and Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in 1758, Quebec in 1759, and Montreal in 1760. France also subsequently ceded New France to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Louisiana had been transferred to Spanish control a year earlier. When Europeans came to fight one another for empire in North America in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth century, what are known as the "French and Indian" wars actually amounted to "European and Indian" wars that involved African and black soldiers, militia, and various rebels as well.

Britain amassed large debts during the French and Indian War, and expected its North American colony to pay its share for the removal of the French and Indian threat. The change in British policy met with strong colonial opposition, shaping a movement of protest and resistance that ultimately led to the American Revolution. From 1763 through 1775, it became increasingly clear that a mature English society and polity had developed in North America, and the bonds of empire were broken. Fighting between British soldiers and American colonists began in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and thereafter a series of campaigns indicated the depth of the challenge facing the British. After the surrender in 1777 of British General John Burgoyne (1723–1792) at Saratoga in New York, France openly supported the American rebels, and Great Britain found itself involved in a broader conflict. In 1783 Britain conceded independence to the thirteen colonies.

More important than the fate of Britain's North American colonies were the valuable island holdings in the Caribbean. There, slave labor helped satisfy profitable markets in sugar and other commodities that were rare in Europe. When enslaving Native Americans proved inadequate to labor demands, as it did for the Spanish in America, European nations engaged in a lively slave trade with West Africa, forcing the migration of millions of sub-Saharan Africans to the New World. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, British privateers (ship captains chartered by the English Crown) preyed on Spanish treasure ships laden with gold and silver returning to Spain, although weather was as much a threat as piracy. Later, as sugar plantations spread, European navies led attacks on different islands to secure better port anchorages, to gain improved farm lands, and to defend other holdings.

The Napoleonic Wars of the late 1700s and early 1800s further weakened colonial power in the Americas. A slave rebellion begun in 1791 in Haiti eventually succeeded, and Haiti gained independence from France. Although the French received help from Spanish and British forces, none of whom were eager to see slave revolts hurt lucrative holdings in the Caribbean, the slave army, commanded mostly by Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743–1803), achieved its final victory at Vertiéres, and Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) conceded Haitian independence in 1803. Without Haiti as a gateway, Napoléon forced the retransfer of Louisiana from Spain and then sold the vast territory between the Mississippi River and the Continental Divide, including the port of New Orleans, to the United States for $15 million.

As the Napoleonic Wars ended, and as the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) sought to impose stability and restore the old order, the New World continued to evolve. Napoléon had sold French Louisiana and thus he created a potential juggernaut, which soon would push for West Coast ports and access to the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish Empire was straining at the seams, as Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) and José de San Martín (1778–1850) led independence movements that would liberate Central and South America. The nineteenth century would bring even greater changes to the New World. The "Indian wars" continued in the Americas until the late nineteenth century, not only in the United States, but in Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

see also Buccaneers; Treaty of Tordesillas.


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