The Precolonial Era (1450–1620)

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The Precolonial Era (1450–1620)

How They Were Governed

Kingdom of Portugal

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Kingdom of Portugal was one of the most powerful empires in the world. Given its geographic location (at the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean) and thriving port cities, Portugal was a natural candidate to pioneer exploration. A Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Dias (1450–1500), was the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa, opening a route to the Indian Ocean that the Europeans had been seeking for decades and making Portugal a leader in the lucrative spice trade. While exploring Africa, the Portuguese became slave traders, exporting Africans first to the Arab nations and Asia, then later to the New World. The Portuguese also established a colony in Brazil, which is the only country in the Americas whose official language is Portuguese.

Henry the Navigator

In 1415 Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460; the son of King John I) became interested in exploring Africa when he took part in Portugal’s invasion of the Muslim city of Ceuta on the North African coast. He was inspired by rumors of a “river of gold” and other riches in the African interior, along with a desire to discover a sea route to the Far East. Contrary to what his name implies, Henry never actually sailed overseas; rather, he financed the voyages of explorers. He also developed a new, lighter ship that could sail the treacherous Atlantic more quickly and easily than the bulky ships that had been used for centuries. Historians disagree about the extent of Henry’s involvement in maritime and geographic education. For many years scholars believed that he established a great university in Sagres for the study of navigation, cartography, and geography; however, more recently historians have argued that the school was part of the mythology that surrounded him and that his role in exploration was limited to financial support, only.

Portugal and the Slave Trade

Henry’s devotion to exploration was revolutionary in that it opened Africa to the Europeans, who up to that point had only touched on the coasts in pursuit of a faster route to India and China. As the Portuguese made forays into Africa, they realized they could use Africans as laborers. The European demand for slaves was limited at the time, but the Portuguese quickly positioned themselves as slave traders to Arab territories and the Far East. By 1460 the Portuguese had explored the west coast of Africa as far south as present-day Sierra Leone, setting up trading posts and sugar plantations, spreading Christianity, and intermarrying with Africans. By the standards of the later slave trade to the Americas, Portugal’s fifteenth-century slave trade was minor, with some 150,000 West Africans traded between 1450 and 1500. However, Portugal’s early entry into the slave trade in Africa gave it a pronounced advantage as the Atlantic slave trade developed with the New World.

The Portuguese Empire

Trade—in goods and people—made Portugal a powerful country despite its small size relative to other European countries. In 1488 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias (1450–1500) had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa, discovering a route to the Indian Ocean and opening the Asian spice trade to the Portuguese, who quickly established colonies near the Persian Gulf, in India, Macao, and Sri Lanka.

When the journeys of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) opened up the Americas for colonization by the European powers, Spain’s monarchs were anxious to block Portugal’s access to the New World. They appealed to Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503), who issued a papal decree dividing the unexplored world in half: Spain would control all the lands west of the Tordesillas Line (some three hundred miles west of the Cape Verde Islands), and Portugal would control those to the east. In return, the countries pledged to convert the natives of these lands to Christianity. When the Portuguese protested the division, on the grounds that it would prevent them from sailing around Africa to the Far East, Spanish and Portuguese representatives negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas, which moved the line several hundred miles farther west of the Cape Verde Islands. As a result, South America was divided along what is now the border of Brazil. The Portuguese landed in Brazil in 1500, and they began to colonize the territory in 1533.

At first, the Brazil colony was divided into territories, the charters to which were given out to royal courtiers known as donatarios. However, the Portuguese crown was soon dissatisfied with the performance of the donatarios, and in 1549 a governor general was installed in the city of Bahia—modern-day Salvador—reporting directly to the crown. As with their holdings in Africa, the Portugal’s primary concerns in administering the Brazil colony were the establishment of regulations with regard to trade—for example, banning any manufacture for export or book printing in the colony, and taxing the colony’s exports of sugar cane, brazilwood, and coffee. Within a century, the Portuguese had become leading slaveholders as well as slave traders, driven by the demand for labor in Brazil’s sugar and coffee plantations and gold mines. It is estimated that approximately 40 percent of the slaves imported from Africa to the Americas were destined for Brazil.

From 1580 to 1640, Portugal and Spain were united under the rule of the Habsburg monarchy, and during that time, the unified kingdom spent its resources defending Spain’s holdings at the expense of Portugal’s. As a result, the Dutch and British gradually usurped Portugal’s holdings in Asia and displaced the Portuguese in the African slave trade. By the time Portugal regained its independence in 1668, most of its eastern empire had been lost.

The discovery of large reserves of gold in Brazil in the late seventeenth century made Brazil the central focus of the Portuguese empire, and the colony’s fabulous wealth fueled Portugal’s economy. In 1808, when Napoleon invaded Portugal, the royal court fled to Brazil, and Brazil became the seat of Portugal’s government. Eventually, in 1822, Brazil seceded from Portugal, and the Portuguese turned the focus of their imperial ambitions to Africa, where they maintained colonies until the 1970s. While Portugal was never again a dominant international force, the country’s colonial period endured until 2002, when its last overseas territory, East Timor, gained independence.

See also Kingdom of Spain

Kingdom of Spain

Spain ruled one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, controlling territories in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania. Spain’s geographical position as part of a peninsula washed by the Atlantic Ocean, the Bay of Biscay, and the Mediterranean Sea—as well as its proximity to Africa and other parts of Europe—had long fostered trade and exploration. When Ferdinand II (1452–1516) and Isabella I (1451–1504)—whose marriage in 1469 united the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile into the Kingdom of Spain—realized the riches that other countries would acquire if they did not act first, they became major sponsors of navigators and explorers who dramatically altered the history of the world.

Columbus Sails West

Early in the fifteenth century, Castile had taken its first steps toward becoming a colonial power, gaining control of the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa in 1402. However, Spain would not begin exploring the world in earnest until much later that century. In 1492 Isabella agreed to sponsor a journey for an Italian-born navigator named Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who had been trying to gain the financial backing of a European court for eight years. Like many people at the time, Columbus believed that no land lay between western Europe and Asia. He was convinced, therefore, that he could more easily reach China and India by sailing west across the ocean than by sailing south and around Africa, as the Portuguese had successfully done in 1488. When Columbus was finally granted an audience with the queen—Ferdinand had little faith in Columbus’s geographical assertions—he promised that his journey under the Spanish flag would bring the country untold wealth and prestige. Isabella consented, granting Columbus the title admiral of Spain.

After first sailing to the Canary Islands for supplies, Columbus sailed west into the Atlantic on September 6, 1492. With no land in sight by October, his crew became frustrated and planned a mutiny, maintaining that Columbus should be thrown overboard and the voyage abandoned. He persuaded them otherwise, and two days later land was sighted. Believing that he had discovered the Atlantic route to India, Columbus claimed the land—which was actually an island in what is now the Bahamas—for Spain. He named it San Salvador and called its indigenous inhabitants “Indians.” From the natives Columbus learned about the island that is now Cuba, to which he sailed later in October. Still believing he was in the Far East, when he reached Cuba he was convinced it was China and that he would soon reach the fabled cities of the East. From Cuba, Columbus sailed to what is now Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola, where he left about forty of his crew members with enough supplies to survive for a year, establishing the first European colony in the New World. He collected tobacco, some precious metals, and several natives to take back to Spain.

In 1494 Columbus took a fleet of seventeen ships, carrying about fifteen hundred people, back to the Caribbean to establish a permanent settlement on Hispaniola. The colonists soon came into conflict with the native population, whom they had begun to force into labor, and appealed to Columbus, as “governor” of the colony, for help. Dissatisfied with his approach to the situation, the colonists filed grievances against him with the Spanish monarchy. In response, the crown imposed its own governance on the colony—and all future Spanish colonies—and began collecting taxes and administering laws, effectively displacing Columbus.

Founding an Empire

Although Columbus never achieved his original goal of reaching the Far East, his journey launched Spanish imperialism across the Atlantic, which in turn provided the country with the resources to expand even farther around the globe. Spain quickly claimed and began colonizing the islands Columbus had reached. Within a year Spain and Portugal were in a frenzied race to claim as much territory as possible. To maintain peace between the two countries, Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) decreed in 1493 that the unexplored world—including the Americas and any other land discovered across the Atlantic—would be equally divided between Spain and Portugal. The document created the Tordesillas Line, or Line of Demarcation, which would run north and south across the globe, dividing the land east and west. Spain could claim all land to the west of the line, while Portugal took the land to the east. This original line interfered with Portugal’s ability to sail southward around Africa’s southern tip, however, so the line was redrawn, and the two countries signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

Spanish Imperialism

The treaty granted the Spanish all of South America with the exception of Brazil, all of Central America, and the southern part of North America. In the years that followed, Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) discovered and subjugated native American civilizations including the Aztec in Central America, the Inca in Peru, and the Maya in southern Mexico and Central America. By the middle of the sixteenth century Spain controlled all of Central America, most of South America, Cuba, and the area that is now Florida and was beginning to push westward across North America to California.

The Spanish brought with them to the New World three things that profoundly affected the indigenous cultures of the region: disease, slavery, and Christianity. Having no prior exposure, and therefore no natural immunity, natives in the Americas began dying of European diseases—particularly smallpox—by the tens of thousands. When the Spanish introduced plantation agriculture (large-scale farming in which the produce was exported for profit), it became critical to secure enough labor to run the farms. The Spanish forced the native populations into slave labor, but disease had drastically reduced the native population and the indigenous people were chronically rebellious. The Spaniards turned to importing African slaves, although the African slave trade in Spanish America never reached the feverish pitch that it did in Brazil. It is estimated that only 17 percent of the slaves imported from Africa went to Spain’s colonies (compared to 38 percent to Brazil and 42 percent to British and Dutch holdings in the Caribbean).

The Catholic Church saw Spanish success in the New World as an opportunity for mass conversion, dispatching priests and monks to the colonies to bring the natives into the Christian flock. Often these missionaries provided vital services to the indigenous peoples, advocating on their behalf against slavery and abuse and providing medical care and formal education. At the same time, their influence strengthened the hold of the church and, thereby, the monarchy, over the new lands, ensuring that the Spanish would maintain control for centuries.

See also Kingdom of Portugal

Kingdom of England

In the precolonial era England underwent massive governmental, religious, and cultural changes that would spur the colonization of the New World and eventually lead to the foundation of the United States. In the twelfth century King Henry II (1133–1189) codified the long tradition of common law. Three centuries later King Henry VIII (1491–1547) split from the Roman Catholic Church—a period that became known as the English Reformation—at the same time the Protestant Reformation was on the rise in Europe. Coupled with the later religious and political upheavals, including a bloody English civil war, these events helped shape the period of persecution and protest that led to a massive exodus from England and, ultimately, to the worldwide success of English imperialism.

Common Law

The “common law” concept evolved during the Anglo-Saxon period (c. 540–1066) from its beginnings in early Germanic cultures in Europe. Essentially it was a system of laws based on tradition—customs that had been followed for generations—or precedent—decisions made by juries of the rudimentary local courts. Communities throughout England tended to have their own legal traditions, and judicial decisions often were based on the outcomes of “trials by ordeal”: individuals on trial were “tested” for the truth of their testimony with painful procedures involving fire or boiling water (the phrase “trial by fire” came from this practice).

When William the Conqueror (c. 1027–1087) took over Anglo-Saxon England in 1066, he established the kind of feudal system that he had known in Normandy, which is now part of France. This system of land ownership was based on a kind of socioeconomic hierarchy. William granted his strongest warriors vast estates in return for military and political service. Called barons, they became lords over their land, which they, in turn, gave to other men of slightly lower social status. These men, who came to be called vassals or knights, repaid their debt to the barons by serving in military excursions. They could also grant land to individuals of still lower status. This system of granting land to tenants meant that barons and vassals had social as well as military obligations to their lords. They were required to attend the courts of their lords for feasts and celebrations and to “give counsel” to their lords. The courts gradually became sites of litigation, however, as the lords’ tenants and subtenants engaged in legal disputes over landholding. Feudal courts were created to handle this litigation, with the king’s court being the highest legal venue.

With the ascension of Henry II to the throne in 1154, the tradition of common law was successfully merged with William’s elaborate feudal court system. Henry eliminated local court customs and unified the common law at the national level. He also refined the jury system and began sending judges from his own court to hear cases in lower courts. These judges based their decisions on local customs; when they returned to London, they took with them knowledge of the legal customs of remote towns and villages. When the decisions were written down, they were consulted by other judges, who would base their own decisions on similar cases that had been previously tried, and the concept of legal precedent came into being. Henry’s national court system also served to weaken the power of the pope’s courts. Four hundred years later, another English king named Henry would use this weakness to his advantage and sever English ties to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Marriages of Henry VIII

A loyal Catholic from birth, Henry VIII did not have troubles with the church until 1527, when he asked Pope Clement VII (1478–1534) to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536). Henry had married Catherine—his brother’s widow and the daughter of the Spanish king and queen—in 1509 with the aid of a dispensation, or exemption, by the pope to ensure the validity of the marriage (at the time, marriage to an in-law was not allowed). Despite numerous pregnancies, however, Catherine produced only one living heir—a daughter, Mary (1516–1558), who would later be Queen Mary I. Convinced that he could still father a male heir, Henry moved to divorce Catherine on the grounds that the marriage had been invalid from the beginning because Catherine had been married to his brother. For largely political reasons, the pope refused to dissolve the marriage. Henry appealed to Parliament, as well as to legal scholars in Europe, for support, which came in the form of a statute that prohibited any more appeals to the pope. It was passed after Henry had secretly married his mistress, Anne Boleyn (c. 1504–1536), in 1533. Shortly thereafter the marriage to Catherine was declared to have been invalid; consequently, Catherine and Henry’s daughter Mary was declared illegitimate by Parliament’s Act of Succession of 1533. That made her no longer eligible for the throne. Pope Clement’s response was to excommunicate Henry. In 1534 Henry was declared Supreme Head of the Church of England by Parliament’s Act of Supremacy; any English citizen who challenged the decree or the legality of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn could be charged with high treason and executed.

Three months after her coronation, Anne gave birth to a daughter—the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603)—but when she failed to produce a male heir after two more pregnancies, Henry had her charged with practicing witchcraft and committing incest with her brother, and she was beheaded in 1536. Henry finally had a son, the future King Edward VI (1537–1553) with his third wife, Jane Seymour (1509–1537). By then Elizabeth had also been declared illegitimate and not in line for succession to the throne. After Jane’s death, Henry married Anne of Cleves (1515–1557) in 1540; the marriage was annulled shortly thereafter. In 1540 Henry married Catherine Howard (1520–1542), who was just sixteen years old. Catherine had an affair with a courtier, which was grounds not only for an annulment but also for execution, and Catherine was beheaded in 1542. Henry’s final marriage was to Catherine Parr (1512–1548), who encouraged Henry to reconcile with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, which ultimately aided in the restoration of their claims to the throne.

The English Reformation

The domestic troubles of Henry VIII had the unlikely effect of altering English religious practice forever and ushering in one of the bloodiest, most contentious, periods in the country’s history. The English Reformation was just one part of the larger European Protestant Reformation that had begun with the teachings of a number of church reformers, including the German monk Martin Luther (1483–1546). Disillusioned with increasing corruption among Roman Catholic Church leaders, in 1517 Luther wrote a document of protest, the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences, specifically rejecting the practice of indulgences, which allowed individuals to pay church leaders to ensure their souls would not spend time in purgatory (a place, according to Catholic doctrine, where souls of those who died experienced temporary suffering and punishment). Within weeks Luther’s Theses were circulating throughout Europe, thanks to the printing press—a new invention at the time. The existence of the printing press also underscored one of the most fundamental issues of the Protestants: the belief that the printed Bible should be accessible to ordinary people, not interpreted for them by church leaders.

In England the movement was more political than religious, beginning with the clashes between Henry VIII and the pope. In 1534 Henry’s advisers began investigating English monasteries, ostensibly looking for evidence of corruption and immorality. In truth they were taking inventory of the monasteries’ land and wealth. In 1536 the dissolution of the monasteries began: royal representatives seized church property and closed the monasteries, sometimes on the pretext of sexual impropriety and heretical acts among monks and nuns. Several violent uprisings against the seizure of the monasteries resulted in numerous executions of protesters. The closures had a major impact on ordinary people throughout England because monasteries frequently ran hospitals, charities, libraries, and other social services. The widespread destruction of monastic libraries is considered to have been a devastating cultural loss for England.

Mary and Elizabeth

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his only son, Edward VI, ascended to the throne at the age of nine. With Henry’s increasingly powerful Protestant advisers in control of the child king, anti-Catholic sentiment increased. Church statues and stained-glass windows were destroyed, and the Catholic mass was replaced with a Protestant prayer service. More executions were ordered.

Henry’s daughter Mary had been imprisoned and threatened with execution because of her ongoing devotion to Catholicism. When Edward died of tuberculosis in 1553, however, she assembled an army and claimed the throne. Once in power, she miscalculated: she mistakenly believed that reconciliation with the pope and the enactment of legislation that made Protestantism heresy would persuade most English people to convert back to what she considered to be the one true religion. Instead, she found the radical Protestants to be highly influential. In response she had Protestants prosecuted under the heresy laws and burned at the stake, earning her the nickname Bloody Mary.

By contrast, Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, was raised a Protestant. To prevent Elizabeth from taking the throne—and sustaining Protestantism—Mary arranged her own marriage to Philip II of Spain (1527–1598), a staunch Catholic. Mary was pressured by church leaders to execute Elizabeth, but fears that the nearest heir, Mary Queen of Scots, would inherit the throne and make England a province of Scotland prevented the execution. Mary’s marriage to Philip failed to produce any children, so when Mary I died in 1558, Elizabeth inherited the throne.

Elizabeth’s commitment to Protestantism was not terribly strong in the beginning of her reign. Many speculated that she might even convert to Catholicism and continue her half-sister’s policies. Strict Protestants hoped she would institute stronger reforms of the English church to eliminate any similarities to Catholicism. Instead, Elizabeth and her regime instituted two acts of Parliament that became known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. The first, the Act of Supremacy, named Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England and compelled clergy to take an oath of loyalty to the queen. The Act of Uniformity established strict guidelines for worship. Although Elizabeth became more vigorously Protestant as she grew older, during much of her reign she was remarkably tolerant of Catholics, refusing to persecute them because of their religion or to institute further reforms. These policies aided the rise of Puritanism during the Elizabethan period.

The Puritans

The term “Puritan” was originally used derogatorily to describe extremists who wanted to “purify” Protestantism of all traces of Catholicism. In the Elizabethan era the Puritans were not a unified group. Early Puritans were strict Protestants who had been forced to leave England during the reign of Mary I (“Marian exiles”). When they returned to England during Elizabeth’s tenure, they introduced to the English church elements of the more stringent European Protestantism known as Calvinism, after the theologian John Calvin (1509–1564). Not all Puritans, however, were Calvinists. At issue for them in the beginning was the role of the clergy of the Church of England in interpreting the Bible, as well as outward religious displays such as the wearing of clerical vestments, which the Puritans found “worldly,” and government enforcement of church attendance.

When Elizabeth died in 1603 the English crown went to the Scottish King James I (1566–1625). James’s Church of Scotland had been influenced by European Calvinism but was still fairly tolerant of more moderate Protestantism and Catholicism. Nonetheless, when he ascended the throne in England he was met with demands from Puritans to enact church reform. James refused to agree to most of their requests, but he did have the Bible translated into English—a translation that became known as the King James Bible, which had widespread influence in the English-speaking Christian world.

James died in 1625, and Charles I (1600–1649) took the throne. Charles invited controversy, and the enmity of Puritans, by first declaring his belief in the divine right of kings (a doctrine stating that the monarch received his directive to rule from God rather than from the people or Parliament) and then by marrying a Catholic. These two acts led, in a roundabout way, to the English Civil War—actually a series of three wars between 1642 and 1651—with Charles attacked by both parliamentarians and Puritans. Eventually Charles was executed, the Commonwealth of England was established, and the country was no longer under the rule of either the monarch or the Church of England. That changed when the monarchy was restored with the ascendancy of Charles II (1630–1685) in 1660.

In the meantime, however, a faction of the Puritans had decided to leave the country altogether and begin a new community, with their own religious direction, in the New World. Known as Separatists because they had separated from the Church of England, they sailed in 1620 to what would become New England on the famous Mayflower voyage. More Puritans—most of them were not Separatists, but Dissenters from the church because they still believed it could be reformed—sailed to New England in 1630 as part of a business agreement with the Massachusetts Bay Company. English trading companies had been engaged in recruiting individuals to migrate to America to establish colonies, from which the companies’ stockholders hoped to earn great wealth. Seeing an opportunity to establish their own religious settlement in the New World, the Puritans purchased all the stock of the company so they would have control of the colony. They landed at Salem, in what is now Massachusetts, in 1630 and quickly resettled to land on the Charles River, founding the city of Boston.

Exploration and British Imperialism

The Puritans were not the first, or only, English citizens to cross the Atlantic, however. Although England was relatively late in exploring the Americas (both France and Spain had landed there and begun to colonize by the early sixteenth century), it did produce some influential world explorers, and its colonization of lands around the world had far-reaching effects. Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) was the first Englishman to sail around the world, and Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618) was a brilliant explorer, writer, and historian in the court of Elizabeth I. Their efforts—plus the courage and risk-taking of thousands of colonists—encouraged British imperialism throughout the world. By 1921 almost one-fourth of the world’s population were subjects of the British Empire, most notably on the Indian subcontinent and in the Far East.

See also Church of England

See also The Puritans

See also Sir Francis Drake

See also Sir Walter Raleigh

See also Massachusetts Bay Company

Kingdom of France

Precolonial France was relatively slow to embrace New World exploration, but its settlements in Canada and the Caribbean had a profound impact on the social and cultural development of North America. After the Hundred Years’ War—actually a series of wars between 1337 and 1453 fought against the English for control of the French throne—as well as several civil and local wars, France was depleted economically, politically, and socially. Repeated outbreaks of bubonic plague (the “black death”) and war-related famines had added to French misery. The Renaissance that had changed attitudes in much of the rest of Europe in the early fifteenth century did not influence the French until later in the century. When they finally expelled the English and secured their claims to the monarchy in 1453, they began to rebuild themselves, leading, ultimately, to their colonization of New France in what is now Canada.

The Hundred Years’ War

The animosity between the French and the English dated to 1066, when William the Conqueror (c. 1028–1087) invaded Anglo-Saxon England and introduced forms of governance and court life common to Normandy (now northern France). Throughout the next three hundred years England and Normandy had separate monarchies, but English kings were subordinate to French kings. During that time the English also came into control of Aquitaine, a valuable piece of land in southwestern France, when Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122–1204) married Henry II (1133–1189). In France a crisis of succession began in 1314, with the death of Philip IV (1268–1314), whose three sons each maneuvered to claim the throne. Charles IV (1294–1328) became king in 1322. Two years later he engaged in a war with Edward II (1284–1327) of England over Aquitaine. The English lost most of it within a month. When Charles IV died in 1328, he left no male heir, but in England his sister, Isabella, was the widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III (1312–1377). As the closest living male relative to Charles, Edward III of England would have inherited the throne of France, but the French nobility refused to permit an English king to rule them or to allow the monarchy to be inherited through the mother’s line. The crown, therefore, passed to Philip VI (1293–1350), who was the grandson of Philip III.

Philip VI tried to take possession of the rest of Aquitaine in 1337, to which Edward III responded by invading France and declaring himself king. Throughout most of the next ninety years the monarchy remained in dispute, with one king after another on both sides claiming he was the rightful heir. In 1428, however, Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431) led the Siege of Orléans, which turned the war in France’s favor. A sixteen-year-old farmer’s daughter from the village of Domrémy, Joan claimed to have been told by the voices of saints to take up arms against the English to secure the throne for Charles VII (1403–1461). When she was granted an interview with Charles, Joan made the journey to him dressed as a man. She tried to persuade him that her mission was directed by God, but he was skeptical. After Joan was questioned by church leaders, Charles agreed to allow her to lead troops into Orléans. All of Joan’s battles at Orléans were successful, and she attended Charles’s coronation later in 1429. In 1430 Joan was captured and sold to England by its allies. She was tried as a heretic in a church court and burned at the stake in 1431.

Orléans, however, was a decisive victory for the French. By 1453 the English retained only Calais, on the English Channel, which was finally captured by the French in 1458, ending the war.

Consequences of the War

The war all but ended English influence in continental Europe, but its effect on France, combined with other events, was devastating. In 1347 the bubonic plague began to spread throughout Europe for the first time. When it reached France from Italy, so many people died that the war stopped for eight years. When the war began again in 1355, both sides had significantly fewer soldiers. To compensate for the lack of troops on the English side, Edward III adopted a military strategy called chevauchée (horse charge). Instead of laying siege to castles or embattlements, soldiers rode through the countryside destroying and pillaging whatever they could. The English slaughtered peasants en masse, stole valuables, and burned entire villages and crops. Consequently most of rural France was in ruins, and starvation was a constant threat to the people.

Perhaps more important from a historical perspective, the Hundred Years’ War marked the beginning of nationalism in both England and France. Rallied around the girl who would become their patron saint—Joan of Arc—French commoners were united with each other, their king, and their country for the first time. Both countries continued to fear an invasion by the other, and when both began colonizing North America in the 1600s, the rivalry was reignited.

Centralized Power

The Hundred Years’ War marked the end of medieval-style feudalism, in which nobles controlled different regions. To revive the country, Louis XI (1423–1483), who became king in 1461, centralized power in the monarchy. A group of dissatisfied nobles formed an alliance—the League of the Public Weal—to maintain the feudal system, mounting a number of insurrections as part of their cause. While Louis made concessions to keep them happy, he ultimately violated all of the treaties he had signed with them. The noble families (called “houses”) who controlled the various provinces within France fought among themselves as well as with the monarchy, making it much easier for Louis to ignore his commitments. His actions, which began as a way of gaining control, eventually turned into the concept of absolute monarchy, with the king as the sole ruler who received his right to rule directly from God.

Consolidating authority made administrative tasks such as tax collection easier, and taxes, which funded wars, were vital to France during this time. Charles VIII (1470–1498) ignited a series of battles that became known as the Italian Wars. Italy at the time was divided into warring provinces, which the rest of Europe wanted to control. Charles invaded Italy and took Naples but was driven back by a coalition that included Milan, Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the pope. The next French king, Louis XII (1462–1515), continued the effort and seized Milan and Genoa in 1499. By 1502 disagreements over control of parts of Italy turned into all-out war. At one time or another most of the major powers of Europe, as well as various popes, were engaged in the fighting, which lasted until 1559, when the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis was signed, giving control of much of Italy to Spain.

While the Italian Wars encouraged the spread throughout Europe of the artistic and intellectual revival known as the Renaissance, they also led France closer to absolute monarchy, which would ultimately result in the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. French interest in New World exploration grew as well. Both the revolution and colonization of North America would strongly influence the formation of the United States.

French Wars of Religion

In the meantime, however, France had its own internal wars to fight: the Wars of Religion (1562–1598) were ostensibly fought between Catholics and Protestants, but they also aligned the nobility against the supporters of the monarchy. As in the rest of Europe at the time, the Catholic Church was virtually synonymous with the monarchy in France; the pope was as much a political leader as a religious leader. The Protestant Reformation had developed followers in France after the German theologian Martin Luther (1483–1456) published his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences in 1517. The French Protestant thinker John Calvin (1509–1564) published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. This work contained the fundamental principles of the kind of Protestant reform that came to be known as Calvinism. French followers of Calvin were called Huguenots, and they were persecuted mercilessly during the reign of Francis I (1494–1547). Calvin was forced into exile in Switzerland.

In 1559 Francis II (1544–1560) came to power at age fifteen. Three noble families saw this as an opportunity to control the monarchy: the Guises, who were Catholics aligned with the crown, and the Bourbons and the Montmorency-Châtillons, who were aligned with the Huguenots. Francis II died after reigning for only one year, leaving his brother Charles IX (1550–1574) to inherit the throne. Because Charles was too young to rule, his mother, Catherine de Medici (1519–1589), ruled for him as regent. Although Catherine was a Catholic, she understood the power of the Huguenots and did not want the Guises to control France. So she issued the Edict of Toleration in 1562, allowing Protestants to worship in certain places.

The toleration was cut short, though, by the Massacre of Vassy, during which some members of the House of Guise attacked and set fire to a Huguenot church, killing men, women, and children worshipping there. The first War of Religion began shortly thereafter; seven more wars would follow. Many historians consider the St. Bartholomew Massacre of 1572 to be a watershed event in the Protestant Reformation because of its brutality. In three days, royal forces and Guise troops slaughtered more than twenty thousand Huguenots. European Protestants began thinking of the Catholic Church as a force of evil rather than merely a corrupt institution in need of reform. Then King Henry IV (1553–1610), who had been raised a Huguenot, converted to Catholicism, partly to gain the throne in 1594. He also issued the Edict of Nantes of 1598, which granted certain rights and protections to Protestants. Those acts brought a period of political unity and religious moderation to France.

New France

Once the country was politically and religiously stabilized, the French could focus on exploring the world beyond Europe. Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) had first set sail in 1534. Like other European explorers of the era, he was looking for a direct route to the Far East. Instead, he found Canada. When he landed in Newfoundland, Cartier claimed the territory on behalf of the French king and established diplomatic relations with native tribes. Cartier went back to France with two sons of an Iroquois chief (whether they went as his prisoners or his guests is unclear). The following year he returned to Canada with the Iroquois boys, reuniting them with their father. Cartier sailed the St. Lawrence River to what are now Montreal and Quebec, where he and his group of settlers spent the winter. Twenty-five of the men died of scurvy. Cartier sailed back to France, where he remained until 1541, when he returned to establish a small colony, Charlesbourg-Royal, near Quebec. The colony did not last, though, and Cartier returned to France disappointed that he had found neither the Northwest Passage to the Far East nor the valuable gems and minerals he had expected.

France did not return to extensive exploration until Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567–1635) sailed for Canada in 1603. Considered the Father of New France, which he called Acadia, Champlain founded what is now Quebec City. He explored a wide area, visiting what are now the Great Lakes and Cape Cod, and documented his travels with the first accurate maps of the area. Champlain made alliances with the Huron and Algonquin tribes, which helped increase revenue from the fur trade (the French had long been engaged in trade with natives for fur pelts, especially beaver fur). The Huron and Algonquin were bitter enemies of the Iroquois, however, and Champlain’s friendly relationship with them eventually entangled the French in wars among the tribes.

Administration of the French colonies at Quebec and Montreal was in the hands of private companies, which had been granted trading monopolies for their areas by the king. Champlain believed the region held great promise not just for the fur trade but also for fishing, mining, lumber, and textiles. However, the French experiment would ultimately prove disappointing: after decades of settlement only the fur trade was lucrative; few French citizens agreed to relocate to Canada; and French missionaries had failed to convert as many Indians to Christianity as they had expected. Not until the mid seventeenth century, when colonial administration was taken away from the trading companies and firmly in the hands of King Louis XIV (1638–1715), did the settlements thrive. Eventually the French expanded south into the Mississippi River valley and what is now the state of Louisiana, where Acadian culture evolved into the famed Cajun culture. French colonization in the West Indies was also successful.

From Acadian to Cajun

Legend maintains that when Samuel de Champlain first landed in what is now Nova Scotia, he called it Acadia, after the mythical paradise the ancient Greeks called Arcadia. The French settlers who relocated to the region, Acadians, developed a distinctive culture, which they spread throughout what are now New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the coastal portions of Maine. The culture survived despite repeated transfer of ownership of the territory between the French and the English. In 1713 the Acadians were made permanent British subjects by the Treaty of Utrecht, but they refused to sign an oath of allegiance to the English crown or to take up arms against the French or their native allies.

In 1755 the British governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, ordered the deportation of Acadians from the region. Thousands were forcibly removed from their lands in what has become known as the Grand Dérangement, or Great Expulsion. The British tried to send them to the American colonies, but their refugee status made them unwelcome. Some were sent to France, some ended up in the Falkland Islands off the coast of South America, and some were sold into slavery in the West Indies. A large number were killed.

One group fled south along the Mississippi River to what is now Louisiana, which was then under Spanish control. Because they were Catholics, the Acadians were welcomed by the Spanish. Intermarriage with groups as diverse as Germans, Africans, native tribes, Spaniards, and French Creoles created the culture now known as Cajun. In 1980 the United States officially recognized the Cajuns as a distinct ethnic group. In Canada the Grand Dérangement is considered by many Acadian descendants to have been a form of genocide. In 2003 England’s Queen Elizabeth II issued an acknowledgment of the events but no apology on England’s behalf.

In the later 1600s the animosity between the French and the English reignited in King William’s War, the first of the French and Indian Wars, which began on European soil and quickly spread to the North American colonies, where they involved native tribes that sided with either the French or the English. Recurring warfare affected French colonization throughout the next century.

See also Samuel de Champlain

The Maya

With a history dating back as far as 2600 BCE, Maya civilization occupied the area from what is now southern Mexico through Central America, reaching its civil, artistic, and scientific peaks between 250 CE and 900 CE. During that time, known as its “classic period” or Golden Age, the Maya developed remarkably sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems, as well as an advanced written language. For reasons that are still unknown, that period ended abruptly. Nonetheless, Maya civilization did survive—although without an organized capital—until the Spanish arrived in the region in 1519. Today approximately six million people in Central America and Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula are descendants of the Maya.

The Golden Age

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Maya began building early forms of ceremonial temples and monuments around 1000 BCE. They also developed sophisticated agricultural methods, cultivating maize, cotton, beans, squash, chili peppers, tobacco, cacao, and fruits. In arid areas they built large underground reservoirs to store rainwater. Their agricultural success, as well as their discovery of valuable metals and minerals, such as hematite, obsidian, and jade, in the volcanic mountains, ensured a lively trade with other peoples.

Trading led to the construction of roads and waterways, which in turn opened the Maya to even more contact with different cultures, creating a richly diverse population. By 250 CE the Maya had begun to construct large city centers around elaborate pyramids, each with a temple at its top. These pyramids—and therefore the cities themselves—became the heart of Maya religion; citizens from rural villages traveled long distances to the cities for religious festivals and ceremonies. A written language, a complex calendar, mathematical and astronomical studies, and grand architecture characterized the Golden Age, one of the most successful of the era. What is perhaps most impressive is that the Maya created their civilization without the use of metal tools, beasts of burden, or the wheel.

Most scholars agree that the Golden Age ended around 900 CE, but they disagree about what caused the decline. Many maintain that a catastrophic environmental event, such as a flood, earthquake, drought, or massive crop failure must have occurred, for they see a relatively sudden change in the Maya world. No record of such an event exists, however. It is known that Maya cities experienced a sudden and dramatic drop in population, fell into decay, and eventually were abandoned altogether. An epidemic or—more likely—climate change could have been a contributing factor. Some historians suggest trade relations may have deteriorated, which, combined with the expense of maintaining the noble class with its taste for warfare and expansion, caused economic collapse. Still others speculate that the desire for greater and greater cities led to a massive revolt by the laboring lower classes.

At the height of the Golden Age, the population had reached perhaps ten million. When the Spanish arrived in the region in the early sixteenth century, the Maya world numbered about five hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand and existed only in a splintered and less politically powerful form. The Spanish conquered them in the 1540s. By the late seventeenth century the diseases the Europeans carried had killed between four hundred thousand and seven hundred thousand Maya.

A Written Language

The written Maya alphabet, which dates back as far as 200 BCE and resembles the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, has approximately 800 symbols that can be combined to form different words. This complex system is what differentiates Maya civilization from most of the other early cultures in the area. Archaeologists have found approximately ten thousand Maya texts, including some on monuments, shards of pottery, and other artifacts and four intact codices, or manuscripts, in which the Maya recorded some of their history. Because of the size and complexity of the writing system, most Maya—even the nobles—were illiterate. Those who were fully literate served as court scribes, a position of prominence.

Social and Government Systems

Like most ancient civilizations, the Maya had a highly stratified social structure based on division of labor. The political structure was based on regional kingdoms that were always in flux because of warfare among them. At the top of the hierarchy were shaman-kings who claimed they could trace their lineage back to a Maya founding ancestor. Below the kings were the nobles and priests, all of whom lived in the urban centers. Skilled professionals, including architects and craftspeople, formed an elite class that was respected by the nobility. Warriors formed their own social class, with farmers and other commoners and slaves making up the lower strata.

After the Golden Age, from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, the large cities were in ruins and the central and southern lowlands of the empire almost completely depopulated. The village became the main form of political organization. Conflicts among villages resulted in a highly divisive atmosphere, especially in the southern highland region.

Conquest and Beyond

The fragmented nature of Maya government made their conquest by the Spanish difficult. Some Maya were never conquered by the Spanish but fell to the British in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Their lands were taken away, and they were forcibly resettled. The colonists created huge plantations to satisfy worldwide demand for sugar, coffee, cocoa, and other crops, exploiting the conquered Maya as cheap labor. More than one hundred years of often violent repression and periodic revolt followed.

The Aztec

Nomadic natives of what is now Mexico, the Aztec settled in the central valley around 1325 and eventually built an empire that extended into present-day Central America. They built their legislative capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island in Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlán was a city-state, a common form of government in the ancient world in which a large city controlled a sovereign region or territory. They developed a sophisticated, if brutal, society. They showed exceptional skill at building canals and dikes, which they used for trading with other city-states. In fact, Aztec architecture and engineering continue to impress modern-day observers. They were also known to be fierce hunters and warriors. Their practices of almost continuous warfare and human sacrifice confounded and disturbed all who came into contact with them. Ultimately those practices would lead to their downfall.

The Triple Alliance

In 1428 the Aztec formed what was known as the Triple Alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopán. This alliance sought to weaken the power of the city-state Azcapotzalco, from which the Tepanec people controlled much of the region. The members of the Triple Alliance originally intended to hold roughly equal power and to split evenly any territory they conquered together. Shortly after forming their alliance, they took control of Azcapotzalco. By 1432 the alliance had also defeated and acquired the city-states Culhuacan, Huitzilopochco, Xochimilco, Ixtapalapan, and Mixquic. The Chalca confederation in southeastern Mexico was conquered gradually between 1456 and 1465. The alliance became an empire, with the Aztec eventually edging out their partners.

An Extended Empire

At its height the Aztec empire stretched from central Mexico south to present-day Guatemala and portions of Honduras and El Salvador, and from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Although ultimate power was centralized, the Aztec typically allowed city-states to remain intact after they had been conquered. Local governors and social and political hierarchies remained, and each city-state engaged in its own trade and commerce. In fact, the empire became a huge bureaucracy, with all of the attendant services and institutions to support. Many territories were brought into the empire by threat: outsiders learned to join the Aztec peacefully or face their notoriously brutal warriors in battle.

Land was not the only, or most important, acquisition. Every conquered group was required to pay tribute—a type of tax—in the form of food, precious metals and stones, natural resources, and weapons. Religious leaders and noblemen were exempt from paying tribute. Tribute supported public and religious institutions, including a complex court system, and helped pay for the Aztec’s many achievements in architecture, engineering, agriculture, science, and the arts. Perhaps most significantly, the wealth amassed through tribute allowed the Aztec to keep waging war and expanding the empire. Because tribute came from vanquished peoples, however, it ultimately engendered bitterness. Furthermore the Aztec habitually imprisoned large numbers of conquered groups for use in human sacrifices—as many as twenty thousand people per year.

The Caste and Calpulli Systems

The emperor Itzcoatl (c. 1380–1440)—the Aztec leader who forged the Triple Alliance—is usually credited with developing the empire’s caste, or social class, system. It ranked people according to their importance: rulers (who were believed to be descended from the gods) were at the top; below them were the nobility and priests, merchants, craftspeople, warriors, farmers, and, at the bottom, slaves. Unlike many societies with class systems, however, the Aztec allowed people to move in and out of the castes into which they were born. Even slavery was not necessarily a permanent state. Heavy debt or commission of crimes could land people in temporary slavery, but their families remained free, and freedom for the enslaved could eventually be purchased. Nobles were not exempt from the punishment of slavery; in fact, they may have been held to a higher standard because of their status. Marriage, hard work, and valor in battle could also result in a move up the social ladder.

Aztec society was also organized into a hierarchy of extended families called calpullis, which controlled land use, ran schools for boys, elected their own governing councils, and collected and distributed tribute among their members. A calpulli essentially functioned as an individual governorship; each even had its own temple and armory. In the capital city-state, Tenochtitlán, calpullis were not necessarily composed of extended families; rather, they were more closely related to geographical divisions used for political or governing purposes. Aztec leaders were chosen from the calpullis. Each calpulli had a leader; together the leaders formed a tribal council. From this council four members were chosen as chief officials, one of whom was elected ruler of the city-state. As the capital city-state grew in size and power, its ruler eventually served as emperor.

Moctezuma II

The emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1480–1520), who is commonly called Montezuma, controlled the Aztec empire from 1502 to 1520, when he was deposed by the invading Spanish. In the early years of his reign Moctezuma focused on waging war and conquering as many lands as possible. He was feared throughout his territories not only because of his constant warring but also because of his tendency to sacrifice thousands of people at once. In 1509 he apparently had a change of heart and began to devote himself to worshipping the gods rather than waging war (prior to his ascension to the throne he had been a priest). According to Aztec legend, he was enraged and terrified by ten years of mysterious catastrophic events, including fires, floods, and comets. Because his oracle readers—a kind of spiritual adviser—could predict nothing but evil omens, he had them all strangled.

Aztec histories, written decades later, claimed that Moctezuma was a great believer in the myth of the god Quetzalcóatl, a fair-skinned deity whose expected return to Mexico from the east was to be foretold with the kinds of omens the Aztecs had been experiencing. Moctezuma received news in 1519 that a fleet of ships carrying light-skinned men had arrived. These were the Spanish, led by the explorer Hernán Cortés (c. 1485–1547), whom Moctezuma supposedly took to be Quetzalcóatl. When Cortés and the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma welcomed them with gifts and feasts and allowed them to stay in the palace. Cortés quickly discovered that many of the people who had been conquered and terrorized by the Aztec were willing to join him in overthrowing the emperor. So he imprisoned Moctezuma at the palace, intending to use him as a puppet leader. Moctezuma was killed in 1520. Different accounts of his death exist, but it is known that he was still in the custody of the Spanish. A power struggle ensued between the Spanish and their allies and those who remained loyal to the Aztec. By 1521 the Aztec empire, which had existed for one hundred years, was destroyed, and a new era began in Latin America, dominated by the European conquerors.

Legacy of the Aztec Empire

Although the Europeans were horrified by the Aztec’s religion, which had many gods and relied on rituals of human sacrifice, they admired the empire—and Tenochtitlán in particular, which they compared with Venice because of its system of canals. Still, by the time their takeover was complete, one of the most magnificent cities in the world was in ruins: after two years of fighting off Aztec revolts, the Spaniards, with their superior weaponry, defeated the Aztec and burned and destroyed most of Tenochtitlán’s temples, pyramids, gardens, and palaces in a matter of days. The dramatic fall of the city signaled the end of the native Indian culture that had existed in the region for thousands of years. In addition the European conquerors introduced a smallpox epidemic that wiped out about a third of the empire’s population; they forced the remaining Aztec into servitude.

Nonetheless, the Aztec bloodline and language did survive. Today many Mexicans are Aztec descendants, and approximately one million continue to speak the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Ruins of the spectacular Aztec pyramids and temples remain objects of pride in the country, as well as popular tourist destinations.

The Inca

The Incan Empire existed from the late twelfth to the late sixteenth centuries, encompassing modern-day Peru and Ecuador and parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. By the time of the Spanish conquest of South America in the 1530s, the Inca controlled the largest empire in the Americas. They excelled at engineering and architecture, building the great city of Machu Picchu high in the mountains and developing a sophisticated highway system on which to move their goods and armies. Their farming practices were especially advanced for the era. The Inca had neither draft animals nor wheeled vehicles, so their building achievements are particularly impressive.

Early History

The Incas never developed a system of writing, so what is known of early Incan history comes mostly from legends passed down through the ages. According to one legend, a small group of natives migrated from the mountains of what is now Peru and settled in a broad valley, where they built their capital, Cuzco. Another story holds that the original Incas traveled to Cuzco from caves under Lake Titicaca. Whatever version is true (or close to true), Incan civilization developed into a powerful regional force by encouraging intermarriage with other peoples and by acquiring land militarily. The city of Cuzco did not attain importance as a seat of government until 1438, when the Inca, led by Pachacuti (?–1471), defeated the Chanca in a dramatic battle. Pachacuti took control of the Inca from his father, Viracocha, who had fled Cuzco during the battle. Beginning with Pachacuti’s reign the Inca made some of their greatest conquests and quickly flourished culturally, socially, and technologically, evolving from a dominant regional force to a full-fledged empire.

Administrative Organization

One of Pachacuti’s first moves as emperor was to reorganize the government and make Cuzco the site of central administration and the residence of the nobility. Although the monarch’s rule was considered supreme (the term Inca actually referred to the king), power was dispersed among several governmental units. Outside Cuzco the administration was divided into four quadrants, each with its own governor: Chinchay Suyu to the northwest, Anti Suyu to the northeast, Kunti Suyu to the southwest, and Qulla Suyu to the southeast. Highways served as physical divisions between the four quadrants and ran into the heart of Cuzco. The quadrants were divided into provinces, and they had a number of local communities, called ayllus, which were small kinship groups with their own leaders. These divisions assured a certain amount of balance in the Incan power structure, even though the emperor was considered divinely appointed. That balance was restricted, however, by Pachacuti’s mandate that only full-blooded Inca could hold high government positions. Hahua Inca—highly respected members of groups that had been conquered by the Inca and absorbed into the empire—were allowed to hold lower posts.

Social Organization

Like most societies of the time, the Incan world was highly stratified, with nobles, priests, artisans, farmers, and soldiers having different ranks. The common good was emphasized over individualism. Because of their communal nature, however, some measure of equality was built into the system. Furthermore not enough full-blooded Inca were available to administer an empire, so they created mita, a form of civil service, to draft people from all levels of society. Teenagers throughout the empire were tested for intelligence and talent. Those with the most promise were sent to schools in Cuzco to learn mathematics, record-keeping, and other skills, after which they would perform administrative work. Those with less promise were trained in such trades as agriculture, textiles, metal work, or the armed services.

Families at the lowest level of the social hierarchy (hatun runa) were expected to pay taxes in the form of labor or services to the government. Almost all property in the empire was owned by the government, except houses and personal household items. In return for the obligatory payment of nonmonetary taxes, Incan citizens received a number of government-run social services. Large stores of food and other necessities allowed the government to provide for widows, orphans, and the elderly, as well as victims of natural disasters. All Incan citizens, regardless of class, were expected to obey the rule of law; nobles were, in fact, held to a higher standard and received harsher punishment for transgressions. Incan citizens did pay a price for the social benefits they received: the government imposed strict controls that covered virtually every aspect of life, including travel and clothing. Even the Incan religion emphasized ritual and organization, with its primary purpose being to enshrine the emperor as a divine descendant of the sun god.

Incan Achievements and Legacy

Perhaps the best-known achievement of Incan civilization is Machu Picchu, a city built in the mountains at an altitude of eight thousand feet. Historians believe Pachacuti built it as a kind of retreat or resort town for the nobility. Construction of its two hundred buildings—crafted from stones so expertly cut and placed that they required no mortar to hold them together—began around 1460. Because of its remote location, Spanish conquerors never knew it existed. In fact, Machu Picchu was not known to the outside world until historian Hiram Bingham (1875–1956) found its ruins in 1911.

In addition the Inca were masters of agriculture, despite the ecological and climatic challenges of their environment (the empire stretched from the mountains to valleys along the Pacific coast to rain forests). To deal with this variety, they developed complex irrigation systems and stepped planting terraces up the sides of mountains. An elaborate highway system, which crossed stone and suspension bridges and followed tunnels through the mountains, allowed them to deliver produce throughout the empire.

The heavily centralized government that had served the Incan people so well proved to be its undoing. In 1531 the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro (c. 1470–1541) arrived in South America, inspired by the conquest of the Aztec by Hernán Cortés (c.1485–1547). Two years later he lured the Incan emperor Atahualpa (c. 1500–1533) to his encampment, where he captured him and tried to use him as a puppet leader. When that failed, he executed him. Although various factions of Inca were able to hold off the Spanish for thirty more years, they were ultimately vanquished and forced into servitude. Their second-class status persisted into the late twentieth century, when a movement arose to protect the rights of indigenous people. Approximately 50 percent of modern-day Peruvians are descended from the Inca.

Eastern Woodlands Indians

In the precolonial era North America was home to hundreds of indigenous tribes, each considered a sovereign nation. They are believed to have migrated in several waves from Asia across the Bering Strait to the area that now includes Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. From there they moved south and east, dispersing throughout North America. Those who eventually settled along the eastern coast of the United States and Canada are known as the Woodlands Indians; their territory stretched westward from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, including the Great Lakes; northward to what is now Montreal; and southward to the Gulf of Mexico. These native peoples had the most contact with and influence on European explorers and settlers.

Differences and Commonalities

Native tribes are categorized according to their language families. Woodland Indians living in the southeast spoke either the Muskogean or Siouan languages, while the northeasterners spoke either Algonquian or Iroquois languages. Tribes could be further divided into sub-tribes; by the time the English colonists arrived, the northeastern region had hundreds of tribes and sub-tribes, each speaking its own language that fell into one of the language categories. For example, the Pequot and Montauk tribes both spoke Mohegan, which was an Algonquian language.

Early Eastern Woodlands Indians were seminomadic, cultivating some plants for consumption but mostly following the herds of deer and other animals that they hunted. By around 600 they had become expert farmers, planting corn, squash, sunflowers, beans, and tobacco. They had also developed methods for making pottery and bows and arrows. They lived in small enclosed villages that varied by climate. In the north they grouped round, domed dwellings called wigwams or long, narrow structures known as longhouses. In the south they built chikees, a kind of shelter that was covered in palmetto leaves but had no walls.

Tribes had strict social hierarchies, usually comprising a chief and his family, a noble class, and commoners. Some tribes, such as those in the Iroquois Confederacy, were matrilineal: kinship passed through the mothers’ family lines, and elderly mothers owned most property and had essential decision-making power.

Eastern Woodlands Indians held similar religious beliefs and practices, most revolving around a sun god, whose worship was related to the harvests, and an earth mother, from whom all life sprang. A common belief held that the mythic figure Manitou re-created the world from mud after a long period of rain and floods. Despite their shared culture, social structure, and religion, warfare among the tribes was common, particularly as land grew scarce when the Europeans began to establish colonies.

Major Tribes and Languages

Among the Eastern Woodlands Indians, Iroquois and Algonquian (also called Algonquian-Wakashan) were the dominant languages spoken. Those who spoke Iroquois included the tribes of the Iroquois League—the Oneida, the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and, later, the Tuscarora. The Algonquian language family included the Abenaki, the Massachusett, the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Pequot, and the Mahican.

The Iroquois tribes steadily inhabited the area of what is now New York State through the height of their alliance, but eventually their territory expanded north into the St. Lawrence River valley and west to the Great Lakes. In the sixteenth century they drafted a constitution—which was transmitted orally rather than written down—that was based on a peace agreement not to kill each other. The Oneida originally lived in central New York State, near what would become known as Oneida Lake. The region inhabited by the Seneca extended from the Genesee River to Canandaigua Lake and possibly as far south as northern Pennsylvania. The Cayuga lived in New York State’s Finger Lakes region, while the Mohawk settled in what is now known as the Mohawk Valley. The Onondaga lived roughly in the center of New York State. The Tuscarora were first located in North Carolina, but as European settlers moved in and land conflicts erupted, the tribe was forced to relocate to New York, joining the Iroquois League in the 1720s.

The tribes that made up the Algonquian language group lived in an area that extended from the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains; however, their major cultural and political stronghold was in the eastern woodlands, where some of their bitterest enemies—including the Iroquois—resided as well. The Abenaki may have migrated from southwestern parts of the continent, although this theory is based on tribal legend rather than archaeological evidence. By the precolonial era they had settled primarily in the areas now known as Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. A relatively small tribe, the Massachusett lived along the coast of present-day New England and are believed to have had the first contact with European explorers in the late fifteenth century. Epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases killed as many as three-quarters of their population early in the colonial period. By 1800 the tribe had all but died out.

The Wampanoag—who lived primarily along Narragansett Bay in what is now Rhode Island and controlled many of the islands along the New England coast—were a historically significant tribe because of their relationship with the English colonists. The great Wampanoag chief Massasoit (c. 1580–1661) established a friendship with the Plymouth colonists—generally known as the Pilgrims—when they arrived in the New World in 1620. By the time his son Metacom (c. 1640–1676), who was known to the English as King Philip, took over as chief in 1662, relations had soured, despite his efforts to keep the peace by declaring himself a subject of the English crown. King Philip’s War broke out in 1675, eventually drawing in several other tribes. The two years of war resulted in the near extermination of the Wampanoag. Metacom was captured and executed, and his wife and son were sold into slavery in the West Indies. King Philip’s War marked the turning point in both Indian-English relations and in the state of New England’s tribal nations.

In the early seventeenth century the Narragansett, who inhabited most of what is now Rhode Island, were the largest and most powerful of the New England tribes, largely because they were not affected by a 1617 epidemic that devastated other tribes. They were greatly feared by other tribes; however, they fought with the Wampanoag in King Philip’s War after they were attacked by the colonists. As with the Wampanoag, the war nearly destroyed the Narragansett.

The Pequot, who lived in present-day Connecticut, were considered one of the fiercest and most dangerous tribes by both colonists and other tribes. The Pequot War began in 1637 after the Pequots killed an English fur trader named John Oldham. The English retaliated, killing hundreds of Pequot. Those who survived fled westward or into Long Island and joined other tribes, including the Narragansett. Those captured by the English were sold into slavery, mostly in the West Indies.

The Mahicans are commonly but mistakenly called “Mohicans,” largely because of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826). It is believed Cooper merged elements of Mahican and Mohegan societies in creating his fictional Mohican tribe. The Mahicans, who inhabited the Hudson River Valley, were bitter enemies of the Mohawk tribe. As the Mohawk encroached on Mahican land and after years of war, many Mahicans dispersed and joined other tribes in central New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Delaware, and Ohio.

See also The Iroquois League

The Iroquois League

The Iroquois League (also called the Iroquois Confederacy) was made up of five native tribes in North America: the Cayuga, the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, and the Seneca. After the Tuscarora entered the league in the 1720s as nonvoting members, the league was sometimes known as the Six Nations. The league controlled parts of what are now New York State, the Northeast and upper Midwest of the United States, and southeastern Canada in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. The term Iroquois refers to the group as a collective. Some scholars speculate that the tribes may have forged the confederacy as early as the twelfth century, although most date its formal foundation to the mid 1400s. Believed to be the oldest known example of a participatory democracy, the league drafted a constitution around 1570. That agreement was an inspiration for the U.S. Constitution.

Iroquois History and Culture

According to their histories, the Iroquois were originally a single tribe living in the area around the St. Lawrence River, subject to the rule of the Algonquin-speaking Adirondack Indians. Frustrated with Adirondack domination, the Iroquois migrated south to the New York area, where they split into several tribes. The date of this migration is unknown, although archaeologists have found evidence of Iroquois life in northern New York dating to about 1100. On his first voyage to North America in 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) encountered Iroquois near modern-day Montreal; by the time the French returned to northeastern Canada in 1603, however, the Iroquois villages had disappeared. The northern tribes apparently existed concurrently with those farther south, but whether they migrated voluntarily or were driven out by the Algonquin and Montagnais, who replaced them, is not known.

Among the tribes that made up the Iroquois, farming, fishing, and hunting were the mainstays of existence. Women owned and cultivated the land, growing squash, corn, beans, and tobacco. Agriculture was celebrated at six annual harvest festivals. Men typically left the villages on hunting expeditions in the fall and returned in midwinter.

Iroquois descent was matrilineal: kinship passed through the mothers’ family lines. Tribes were composed of clans—some tribes had as many as eight clans—with each headed by a clan mother, a respected older woman who decided which men would serve as council leaders; named the clan’s children; directed farming practices; and approved marriages. After marriage, a man moved into his wife’s family home and became, along with the couple’s children, members of her clan.

The Iroquois called themselves Haudenosaunee, or “People of the Longhouse.” Iroquois villages were composed of “longhouses,” which were between eighty and two hundred feet long and eighteen feet wide. Each was covered in pieces of elm bark, much like shingles, that were sewn together. The two ends of the houses were left open in warm weather and covered with animal skins in winter.

Foundation of the League

The tribes that made up the league shared a language and culture, but war among them, as well as ritual cannibalism, was common. Infighting, which had become almost epidemic in the sixteenth century, was brought to a halt when Deganawidah, a Huron who was living with the Seneca, and Hiawatha, an Onondaga who had become a Mohawk chief, reached an agreement in the late 1500s. Both men came to be regarded as prophets of peace because of their accord, which was the first step in the formation of the league. According to Iroquois legend, Deganawidah convinced the warring tribes to agree to the accord by blocking out the sun. Astronomers know that a solar eclipse occurred in 1451, so that year is often used when dating the league’s beginnings.

The fundamental tenet of the Iroquois League was the Great Law of Peace, which simply stated that the members of the league could not kill each other; however, the political organization of the group, as it was outlined in the constitution, was actually quite rigid. Clan mothers nominated leaders of the different tribes to serve as sachem, or chiefs. Each tribe was allotted a set number of chiefs—a total of fifty could be in service at any one time. Chiefs typically held their positions for life, although they could be dismissed for corruption or incompetence. The league used a ritual language to establish hierarchical positions: chiefs of the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Seneca were referred to as “uncles” or “elder brothers,” while those of the Cayuga, the Oneida, and, later, the Tuscarora were called “younger brothers” or “nephews.”

Unanimity was the hallmark of decision-making. Chiefs of the Mohawk and Seneca would come to a unanimous decision on a course of action, which they would send to chiefs of the Cayuga and the Oneida. If they disagreed with the recommendation, they would draft a counterproposal and send it back. This exchange continued until all parties agreed. Their final recommendation was then sent to the Onondaga, who either agreed to the four tribes’ course of action or developed their own, which was then sent back for more discussion. Eventually the chiefs of all five nations would come to a decision, and action was taken. Records were kept using ceremonial wampum beads.

By the time Europeans arrived in North America, the Iroquois controlled a powerful empire. Through their “mourning wars”—raids made on conquered tribes to absorb them—they had expanded their population and the land they controlled. This practice had an unintended negative effect: eventually, members of “adopted” tribes outnumbered the native Iroquois and may have led to their ultimate loss of control. Also, the peaceful democracy of the League did not extend to relations with non-Iroquois tribes. As a result, they were engaged in near-constant battles throughout the region from Quebec south into New England.

The Iroquois and the Europeans

When Cartier landed in Canada in 1534, he claimed the land in the name of the king of France. The French hoped to gain wealth by trading precious metals, minerals, and fur obtained from the New World. They founded Quebec City in 1608 and entered into a trade agreement and, later, a military pact with the Huron and Algonquin tribes—both enemies of the Iroquois. This was the beginning of continuous warfare between the Iroquois and the French. With superior weaponry and a larger number of soldiers, the French easily held back the Mohawk, who had been fighting the Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais for decades in the St. Lawrence River valley. The Dutch arrived in the Hudson River valley in 1610 and began trading their weapons for fur. With the new firepower, the Iroquois had new strength against both other tribes and the French. The Dutch brokered a peace deal in 1613, but it failed to last.

By the mid seventeenth century the Iroquois had depleted their territory’s beaver population, which they hunted for pelts to trade with the Dutch and British. To satisfy the European demand for fur, and their own demand for European goods, the Iroquois pushed westward into what was known as Ohio Country, beginning a series of wars with their longtime enemies, the Algonquin, that would last for more than fifty years. In these Beaver Wars—also known as the French and Iroquois Wars because the French were so heavily involved in the fur trade—the Iroquois all but exterminated the Erie, the Huron, the Neutral, and the Susquehanna and displaced countless other tribes.

During the French and Indian War of 1754–1763, which brought most French settlement in North America to an end, the Iroquois sided with the British; many other tribes fought with the French against both the British and the Iroquois. But in 1775, when colonists broke away from Britain and the Revolutionary War began, the Iroquois were split in their support: the Oneida and the Tuscarora tended to side with the colonists, while the Cayuga, the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Seneca stood with the British. This split was the beginning of the unraveling of the Iroquois League. When the colonists began drafting their own government and constitution, however, they turned to the league for inspiration, creating a representative democracy based on its principles of deliberately loose central authority and independence of individual sovereign nations.

Because the Iroquois had most of the land in the Ohio Valley from their victory in the Beaver Wars, disputes over the land arose with the newly independent Americans. Years of fighting ended with the signing of the Fort Stanwix Treaty in 1784. Dispossessed of both land and political power and suffering huge population losses to European diseases, the tribes splintered into small bands of desperately poor people. Eventually they were either relocated to the West under the Indian Removal Act of 1830 or moved to government-created reservations.

The Great Binding Law of the Iroquois

The Iroquois League’s constitution was preserved orally, rather than in writing. Here is an excerpt:

A large bunch of shell strings, in the making of which the Five Nations Confederate Lords have equally contributed, shall symbolize the completeness of the union and certify the pledge of the nations represented by the Confederate Lords of the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga and the Seneca, that all are united and formed into one body or union called the Union of the Great Law, which they have established. A bunch of shell strings is to be the symbol of the council fire of the Five Nations Confederacy. And the Lord whom the council of Fire Keepers shall appoint to speak for them in opening the council shall hold the strands of shells in his hands when speaking. When he finishes speaking he shall deposit the strings on an elevated place (or pole) so that all the assembled Lords and the people may see it and know that the council is open and in progress. When the council adjourns the Lord who has been appointed by his comrade Lords to close it shall take the strands of shells in his hands and address the assembled Lords. Thus will the council adjourn until such time and place as appointed by the council. Then shall the shell strings be placed in a place for safekeeping. Every five years the Five Nations Confederate Lords and the people shall assemble together and shall ask one another if their minds are still in the same spirit of unity for the Great Binding Law and if any of the Five Nations shall not pledge continuance and steadfastness to the pledge of unity then the Great Binding Law shall dissolve …. Five strings of shell tied together as one shall represent the Five Nations. Each string shall represent one territory and the whole a completely united territory known as the Five Nations Confederate territory …. Five arrows shall be bound together very strong and each arrow shall represent one nation. As the five arrows are strongly bound this shall symbolize the complete union of the nations. Thus are the Five Nations united completely and enfolded together, united into one head, one body and one mind. Therefore they shall labor, legislate and council together for the interest of future generations. The Lords of the Confederacy shall eat together from one bowl the feast of cooked beaver’s tail. While they are eating they are to use no sharp utensils for if they should they might accidentally cut one another and bloodshed would follow. All measures must be taken to prevent the spilling of blood in any way.


The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, ed. Gerald Murphy, National Public Telecomputing Network, (accessed March 21, 2007).

See also Eastern Woodlands Indians

Important Figures of the Day

Pope Alexander VI

Born Roderigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) is known as the most scandalous of the Renaissance popes. He had at least four acknowledged illegitimate children, and his papacy is noted for nepotism (appointing relatives to positions of power) and simony (selling church offices to the highest bidder). He was also considered an accomplished political strategist and an effective administrator. Borgia was instrumental in the drafting of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which established the “line of demarcation” that determined which newly discovered territories could be claimed by Spain and which by Portugal.

Rise to Power

Borgia first became prominent when his uncle was elected to the papacy as Calixtus III. When Borgia was twenty-five, his uncle made him a cardinal. He was later appointed vice chancellor of the Roman Church and served in the Vatican under five popes. His positions gave him experience and made him wealthy. When Pope Innocent VIII died in 1492, Borgia was elected his successor. He chose the name Alexander VI to honor Alexander the Great, the ancient Macedonian empire builder.

Treaty of Tordesillas

After the voyages of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), Spain found itself in competition with Portugal, which had previously been unchallenged as a naval power in the Atlantic. The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand II (1452–1516) and Isabella I (1451–1504) appealed to Pope Alexander to champion their territorial claims. Alexander responded with a Papal Bull (a formal proclamation) that fixed a line of demarcation about one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Spain was granted

All the islands, therefore, and firm lands, found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered, from the said line toward the west and south, such as have not actually been heretofore possessed by any other Christian king or prince.

This division gave the entire New World to Spain, and Africa and India to Portugal. Portugal protested, however, on the grounds that the line would impede its ability to sail around the southern tip of Africa. In 1494 the line was moved to accommodate the Portuguese objections, and the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed. The slight shift of the line to a circle passing 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands gave Portugal a claim to Brazil.

Borgia Family

Although his papacy was initially popular, Alexander soon began spending papal resources lavishly on his family. Like other popes of the time, Alexander fathered several children with his many mistresses, most of whom he openly acknowledged as his own. His daughter Lucrezia was married in a grand celebration at the Vatican. His son Giovanni was made a cardinal and the Duke of Gandia. Cesare, another son, was made Archbishop of Valencia when he was only seventeen.

In 1494 King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, reaching as far as Rome. Pope Alexander, although fearful of being deposed, negotiated to prevent Charles from seizing church property and then joined forces with the armies of other Italian states to expel Charles and the French army from Italy. Afterward, Alexander tried to reassert his control over the papal states, the territory owned by the Vatican but often subject to local nobles. He relied upon Cesare to be the principal leader of the papal states, and Cesare used papal resources to cement his power. Alexander’s papacy became progressively more controversial and the corruption of the papal court became more scandalous. Outspoken opponents such as Girolamo Savonarola openly criticized his regime.

When Alexander died in 1503, the priests of St. Peter’s Basilica initially refused to bury him until they were forced by papal staff to accept the body. Yet, despite his reputation as the most debased of Renaissance popes, Alexander was also known as a patron of the arts and supported important accomplishments by such artists as Raphael and Michelangelo.

John Cabot

An Italian navigator and explorer whose voyages provided the basis for England’s territorial claims in North America, John Cabot (c.1450–c. 1499; born Giovanni Caboto) led an Atlantic Ocean expedition, with the support of England’s King Henry VII, to find trade routes to Asia. While he never found his anticipated route to Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic, he is likely to have been the first European since the Vikings to land on the mainland of North America.

Early Life

Cabot was probably born in Genoa, but he moved to Venice and became a citizen there around 1470. Like his father, Cabot was a merchant. He traded in spices with the ports of the eastern Mediterranean and became a skilled mariner. Around 1490, Cabot moved to Valencia, Spain, possibly hoping to be part of the expanding interest in exploring the Atlantic Ocean. But he was unable to get support in Spain and, within a few years, he settled with his family in Bristol, England. Cabot had learned of the theories and exploits of his fellow Italian Christopher Columbus, and he, too, became determined to find a western route to the silks and spices of China. He secured financial backing from the merchants of Bristol and, on March 5, 1496, King Henry VII issued letters granting Cabot,

Full and free authority, leaue, and power to saile to all parts, countreys, and seas of the East, of the West, and of the North … to seeke out, discouer, and finde whatsoever isles, countreys, regions or prouinces of the heathen and infidels whatsoeuer they be, and in what part of the world soeuer they be, which before this time haue bene vnknowen to all Christians.


Cabot’s first voyage, in 1496, was a failure. He disagreed with the crew, ran short of food, encountered bad weather, and decided to turn back. The following year, Cabot sailed on his ship, the Matthew, with about twenty seamen. Contemporary information about the voyage is sparse and there is still controversy about what happened. According to the chart of Cabot’s son, Sebastian, the ship made landfall on Cape Breton Island, and Cabot went ashore to take possession of the land for England. Some historians consider this document false and think that Cabot first landed in Labrador or Newfoundland. It is certain, however, that the Matthew continued its explorations for about a month and returned to Bristol by August 7. Wherever he actually landed, Cabot and his supporters were certain that he had, in fact, found a new route to Asia.

King Henry VII, convinced that the lands explored by Cabot were far enough north to be outside of any legitimate claim by Spain, gave Cabot a yearly pension of twenty pounds. He also gave his support to a new expedition to explore farther south of where Cabot had landed.

Cabot launched a more ambitious expedition the following year. He set sail again for North America, this time with a fleet of five vessels—and then John Cabot disappeared from contemporary records. Only one of his ships came back to Bristol. Cabot may have returned to England, or he may have died in Newfoundland. But he had not found an easy passage to Asia.

Financing Exploration

The explorers themselves may have had various motivations—wealth, faith, adventure, trade, knowledge—but they all required financial support to make their dreams possible. The funding that each explorer obtained reflected his resources, reputation, and sometimes persistence, as well as the goals of those who sponsored the expeditions.

Early European explorations of the African coast were usually small-scale endeavors that were financed by businessmen—some occupied in trade, some in slaves and plunder. The success of these minor voyages, and the profits they provided, increased the interest of adventurers, merchants, and monarchs, and exploration began to involve long-range planning, royal patronage, and substantial investments.

Christopher Columbus, generally credited with opening the Americas to Europeans, first sought the sponsorship of John II of Portugal to find a western route to Asia. When this proved unsuccessful, Columbus turned to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. After seven years of lobbying in the Spanish court, Columbus won the approval of the Spanish monarchs, who had just defeated the Moors in Granada and had newly available resources. While this provided some financial support for his expedition, Columbus also needed the assistance of the Pinzons, a shipbuilding family from Palos, Spain, who helped by outfitting his ships and recruiting sailors for his journey, as well as serving as captains of two of the ships.

John Cabot, an Italian navigator, found no support in Spain for his plans to find a western trade route to the East, so he moved to Bristol, England, in order to get backing for his plans. He obtained the sponsorship of King Henry VII and the financial support of the merchants of Bristol. Although Cabot’s voyages did not achieve his goals, they did give England a basis for its claims in North America.

Magellan, whose ship was the first to circumnavigate the globe, renounced his Portuguese citizenship in order to obtain the support of Charles I of Spain. The king made an agreement with Magellan to provide him with a fleet of five vessels provisioned for two years. But Magellan also had to contend with Spanish financiers who opposed the expedition and used their influence to place men of their choosing into key positions in the fleet.

Sir Francis Drake, known as a privateer as well as an explorer, received some financial support from England’s Queen Elizabeth I for his journey to sail through the Straits of Magellan and explore Australia. However, Drake was able to provide much of his own financing with the wealth he acquired raiding ships and ports on his privateering expeditions.

Queen Isabella

Queen Isabella (1451–1504) ruled the regions of Castile and Aragon jointly with her husband Ferdinand (1452–1516), and their reign effectively marked the beginning of the unified Spanish kingdom. She is perhaps best known for sponsoring the explorations of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), which opened the Americas to European colonization. During her rule, Isabella also instituted the Inquisition in Spain, leading to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. She is often referred to as La Catolica (the Catholic), a title given to her by Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503).

Early Life

When she was three years old, Isabella was brought to the court at Castile, where her half-brother, Henry IV, was king. In order to appease nobles who opposed Henry’s rule, he accepted Isabella as his heir in 1468. But when she married Ferdinand of Aragon without his approval, Henry named his daughter, Juana, as heir. When Henry died in 1474, Isabella’s reign began with a civil war over her succession. By the time the war was settled and Isabella ascended the throne of Castile in 1479, Ferdinand had become ruler of Aragon. The two monarchs ruled with equal authority in both kingdoms, unifying the Spanish nation under the motto “Tanto monta, monta tanto—Isabel como Fernando,” (“As much as the one is worth so much is the other—Isabella as Ferdinand”).

La Catolica

Isabella’s Christianity often reflected her crusading inclinations, as well as her personal piety. Shortly after Isabella and Ferdinand established her title to the throne of Castile in 1480, they began the war against Granada with the aim of “reconquering” the kingdom, which had been held by the Moors, a Muslim people, since the eighth century. At the same time, Isabella asserted her royal religious authority by appealing to Pope Sixtus IV to allow her to establish an Inquisition tribunal in Spain. Originally, the aim of the Papal Inquisition was to eliminate heresy. But in Spain the Inquisition took on a more sinister role under the infamous Chief Inquisitor, Tómas de Torquemada (1420–1498). Anyone suspected of opposition to the church risked torture and death, with Jewish converts facing the greatest danger. In 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand issued the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered all Jews to leave Spain.

Isabella and Columbus

By 1492 many of Isabella’s early goals, particularly the conquest of Granada, had been achieved. Christopher Columbus had been petitioning the Spanish court for several years, hoping to gain sponsorship for a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to find a western route to Asia. After the victory in Granada, Isabella could turn her attention to an enterprise that offered the opportunity to find more converts for Christianity, as well as a way for Spain to compete with Portugal’s control of the sea trade. The Spanish monarchs offered Columbus their support, including a large share of future profits and a hereditary governorship of all lands annexed for Spain. Columbus assembled his fleet and departed across the Atlantic.

When Columbus returned with reports of his discoveries, John II of Portugal (1455–1495) attempted to claim the territories for himself. Isabella appealed to Pope Alexander VI, also a Spaniard, to settle the dispute. The pope declared a “line of demarcation,” dividing all unexplored lands between Spain and Portugal. When the Portuguese complained that the line would impair their ability to sail around the southern tip of Africa, the line was moved, and in 1494 the parties signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in agreement of these terms. Ferdinand and Isabella could now claim all non-Christian lands west of a boundary, drawn from pole to pole, 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Although exploration had not yet established what would be found within these limits, the treaty allowed Spain to claim all of the Americas, except Brazil, and Portugal to claim Africa and the East Indies. No other countries were considered in this division.

During her later years, Isabella concerned herself with administering the expanding Spanish empire. Columbus’s discoveries had established Spain as a world power, and Isabella and Ferdinand had established laws, negotiated treaties, arranged marriages, and created a military and maritime force that would assure its continuance. The Golden Age of Spanish exploration began with their reign.

See also Christopher Columbus

See also Kingdom of Spain

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) was an Italian navigator whose voyages, sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, opened the Americas to European exploration and colonization. Like many of his contemporaries, Columbus believed that it was possible to reach India and China by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1492 he set out on the voyage that did not, as he thought, provide a route to Asia but nonetheless changed the world.

Early Years

Born Christoforo Columbo in Genoa, Italy, to a family of weavers, Columbus went to sea at an early age. He sailed the Mediterranean on both merchant and military voyages and became an experienced sailor and navigator. On one journey, in 1476, Columbus was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal, and he made his way to Lisbon, where his younger brother, Bartholomew, worked as a cartographer. There, strongly influenced by the Portuguese explorers who sailed the African coast, Columbus began seeking financial support for an expedition to sail west across the Atlantic and discover a new route to Asia. Although some have claimed that Columbus had difficulty financing his voyage because many people at the time believed that the world was flat, in reality he was frequently denied funding because many contemporary experts thought that the ocean was too wide to cross.

Columbus tried for several years to obtain the sponsorship of King John II of Portugal but was consistently rebuffed. In 1486 he began enlisting the backing of Queen Isabella (1451–1504) and King Ferdinand (1452–1516) of Spain. Although Columbus was initially unable to convince them to support his journey, in the spring of 1492 the monarchs had a change of heart. The recent conquest of Moorish Granada had freed up some royal resources and the Spaniards wanted both to spread Christianity and to be able to compete economically with Portugal. Columbus began making final plans for his voyage.

First Voyage

Columbus’s first expedition left from Palos, Spain, on August 3, 1492. His fleet consisted of three small ships: the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Although celestial navigation (using the stars to plot a journey’s course) was just being developed, it is likely that Columbus used the less sophisticated and reliable form of navigation known as dead reckoning (a method using a mathematical formula of speed, time, and course to determine one’s position). After a brief stop at the Canary Islands, Columbus sailed west until he landed on a small island, now generally thought to have been one of the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492. Taking possession of this land in the name of the Spanish throne, he took natives aboard his ship and again went searching for China, instead finding Cuba and Hispaniola.

On Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria was wrecked off the north coast of Hispaniola, and Columbus decided to leave some men there to found a colony, which he called La Navidad. He himself returned to Spain on the Niña. When he reached Spain, he was hailed for his achievements and commissioned as Admiral of the Ocean Sea. He began making plans for a much larger expedition, still searching for the elusive route to the East.

Second Voyage

In October 1493 Columbus again sailed west across the Atlantic, this time with seventeen ships, 1,500 colonists, and livestock including horses, sheep, and cattle. When he arrived at Hispaniola, Columbus discovered that the original settlement had been destroyed. According to the natives, there had been dissent amongst the colonists. Some left, and the remaining settlers kidnapped women from a neighboring tribe, whose members killed the Europeans and burned the fort. Columbus established a new colony and formed regular military expeditions to subdue an increasingly unfriendly native population. Although he searched for the Chinese mainland and scouted for gold, for most of this expedition Columbus spent his time governing the new settlement. His focus had shifted from exploration to colonization.

When Columbus returned to Spain in 1496, Ferdinand and Isabella, fearing they had been too generous and responding to complaints of his inadequate administration, revoked Columbus’s monopoly on exploration and settlement in the New World and began to promote other expeditions.

Third Voyage

Columbus had more difficulty organizing the funds and gathering the crew for his third voyage, since the lure of adventure and the promise of wealth had been ruined by the poor results of the second voyage. With only six ships, Columbus divided his third voyage into two fleets. One fleet proceeded to Hispaniola to bring supplies to the settlers. The other, under Columbus’s command, sailed farther south and made landfall in Trinidad. The expedition then discovered the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and Columbus realized that he had found a continent. But he soon headed back to Hispaniola to continue his unsuccessful governance of the colony there. When colonists protested the awful conditions in the settlement, Spain appointed an independent governor who sent Columbus, in chains, back to Spain.

Fourth and Last Voyage

Hoping to revive his reputation, Columbus spent several years gathering a fleet for his fourth expedition. As he said in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, “I went to sea from the most tender age and have continued in a sea life to this day. Whoever gives himself up to this art wants to know the secrets of Nature here below. It is more than forty years that I have been thus engaged. Wherever any one has sailed, there I have sailed.”

On May 11, 1502, he sailed again, with four small ships, looking for a strait that would provide a western route to Asia. Although the local governor of Hispaniola denied his ships shelter from a hurricane, Columbus’s fleet weathered the storm and sailed to the coast of Central America. Based on the native population’s reports of an ocean that was only a few days’ journey away, Columbus believed that he was very close to the strait that would provide a passage to Asia. He had, in fact, reached what would become the future site of the Panama Canal.

Without locating any strait and after suffering many storms and hardships, the expedition was marooned in Jamaica. Although the governor of Hispaniola once again refused assistance, the expedition was finally rescued and sailed for Spain. Columbus’s death, in 1506, was relatively unnoticed.

Although Columbus was not the first explorer to reach the Americas, his voyages represent a turning point in history because they ushered in an era of unprecedented exploration and conquest. His personal legacy is a matter of dispute. While some historians view him as a visionary and heroic figure, others see him as a ruthless and ambitious conqueror whose voyages mark the beginning of the brutal destruction of Native American peoples.

See also Queen Isabella

See also Kingdom of Spain

Christopher Columbus’s First Discoveries

Columbus describes his early discoveries in this excerpt from a letter to Lord Raphael Sanchez, treasurer to Ferdinand and Isabella, March 14, 1493.

Knowing that it will afford you pleasure to learn that I have brought my undertaking to a successful termination, I have decided upon writing you this letter to acquaint you with all the events which have occurred in my voyage, and the discoveries which have resulted from it. Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners …. [The inhabitants] are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have; none of them refusing any thing he may possess when he is asked for it, but on the contrary inviting us to ask them. They exhibit great love towards all others in preference to themselves: they also give objects of great value for trifles, and content themselves with very little or nothing in return.… Thus they bartered, like idiots, cotton and gold for fragments of bows, glasses, bottles, and jars; which I forbad as being unjust, and myself gave them many beautiful and acceptable articles which I had brought with me, taking nothing from them in return; I did this in order that I might the more easily conciliate them, that they might be led to become Christians, and be inclined to entertain a regard for the King and Queen …. On my arrival at that sea, I had taken some Indians by force from the first island that I came to, in order that they might learn our language, and communicate to us what they knew respecting the country; which plan succeeded excellently, and was a great advantage to us …. Finally, to compress into few words the entire summary of my voyage and speedy return, and of the advantages derivable therefrom, I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible Sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton, and of mastic, … and as many men for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require.… God is wont to hear the prayers of his servants who love his precepts even to the performance of apparent impossibilities. Thus it has happened to me in the present instance, who have accomplished a task to which the powers of mortal men had never hitherto attained.… Such are the events which I have briefly described. Farewell. Lisbon, the 14th of March. Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Fleet of the Ocean.


Christopher Columbus, from a letter to Lord Raphael Sanchez, in Writings of Christopher Columbus: Descriptive of the Discovery and Occupation of the New World, edited by Paul Leicester Ford, New York: Charles L. Webster, 1892.

Francisco Pizarro

The Spanish conquistador known for conquering Peru’s Incan empire, Francisco Pizarro (1471–1541) also founded the city of Lima. After joining an expedition to explore the New World, he spent several years in Central America and accompanied Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) on his discovery of the Pacific Ocean. In 1530, under commission from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558), he successfully undertook the conquest of Peru. He was murdered in Lima in 1541.


Unlike the educated Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), who conquered the Aztec empire, Pizarro was the illegitimate son of a poor landholder and never learned to read or write. Like Cortés, however, he was captivated by the tales of the New World and determined to take part in the discoveries there. In 1502 he sailed to Hispaniola and participated in several expeditions of exploration and conquest. In 1513 he went with Vasco Núñez de Balboa on the expedition across the Isthmus of Panama on which Balboa first sighted the Pacific Ocean.

Early Explorations

Pizarro had landholdings in Panama, and his life there was fairly prosperous. However, hearing accounts of the exploits of Cortés in Mexico and reports of incredibly wealthy lands to the south of Panama, Pizarro was inspired to plan an expedition to find and conquer them. In 1524 he entered into a partnership with a priest, Hernán de Luque, and a soldier, Diego de Almagro, to explore these regions. The three men agreed to divide any spoils of the empire they hoped to conquer equally among them.

Pizarro made several voyages that did not succeed in reaching the Incan empire. On his second expedition, he sent his pilot, Bartolomé Ruiz, to the south, while Pizarro camped off the coast of Columbia. Ruiz made first contact with the Incas, and the expedition returned to Panama with embroidery, pottery, and small worked pieces of gold as proof that they had discovered a wealthy empire. Pizarro then went to Spain to seek the support of Charles V.

The emperor commissioned Pizarro, as governor and captain general of all the territories that he might discover and conquer, to make further expeditions. Pizarro’s associates were left in secondary positions, which later led to discord between Pizarro and Almagro. While in Spain, Pizarro also enlisted the participation of his four brothers and other close friends. In 1531, with three ships and 180 men (including Hernán de Soto, who later explored Florida), Pizarro set sail from Panama for Peru.

The Conquest of Peru

Pizarro’s expedition landed at Tumbes, Peru. The Incas, suffering from an outbreak of smallpox, were also engaged in a civil war, and their capital had been moved north from the stronghold of Cuzco to Cajamarca. Pizarro and his men climbed inland through the Andes to Cajamarca and, through trickery, captured the Incan leader, Atahualpa. Atahualpa, believing that the invaders only wanted the wealth of the Incas and not their kingdom, attempted to buy his freedom with a ransom, offering one room of gold and two of silver in exchange for his freedom. Pizarro accepted the ransom and executed the leader.

With the help of reinforcements from Almagro and the aid of Indian allies hostile to the rule of the Incas, Cuzco was seized and a puppet government established there. In 1535 Pizarro founded his own capital of Lima, which he called Ciudad de los Reyes or City of the Kings, near the coast of Peru. The Incas, however, continued to resist the Spanish rule, and the Inca revolt of 1536–37 is considered one of the most powerful wars of resistance waged against colonial powers in the New World.

While Pizarro focused on consolidating Spanish control in Peru, Almagro, after an unsuccessful expedition to Chile, was unhappy with the limits of his own authority as well as his share of the spoils. In 1538, after the Battle of Las Salinas, in which Almagro and Pizarro fought over territorial rights, Pizarro killed his former partner. In 1541 Almagro’s family took revenge and murdered Pizarro.

See also The Inca

See also Kingdom of Spain

Bartolomé de Las Casas

De Las Casas (1474–1566), a Spanish colonist, missionary, and historian, is known for his advocacy of the indigenous people of the Americas. He has been called the “Apostle of the Indies,” and his writings provide damning indictments of the brutal treatment of the native populations by the Spanish colonists. He was the first priest ordained in the New World and was appointed Bishop of Chiapas, Guatemala.

As the foremost champion of Indian rights, de Las Casas has been called the father of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. His life and writings influenced Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), a French essayist whose work reflected on human nature, and Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule.

Early Years

Born in Seville, Spain, de Las Casas was the son of a merchant and was educated in Latin and the humanities. He also studied canon law to prepare him for the priesthood. In 1502 he journeyed with his father—who had been with Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) on his second voyage—to Hispaniola, where he participated in military expeditions that earned him both land and slaves. He returned to Spain to continue his studies and was ordained as a deacon of the Catholic Church.

He returned to Hispaniola, where he became official catechist to the Indians and was ordained as a priest in 1512, although he continued to own both Indians slaves and property. After hearing a sermon by Father Antonio de Montesino denouncing Spain’s treatment of the Indians, de Las Casas was moved to consider all he had witnessed during his time in the Americas. On Pentecost in 1514, he renounced his ownership of Indian slaves and began to preach his own strong sermons against the brutal treatment of the native populations.

Campaign for Indian Rights

Beginning in 1514, de Las Casas devoted his life to advocating the Indian cause. He began traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, seeking by various methods to improve the treatment of the Native Americans. In 1516 he became a member of a commission sent to investigate policies toward the Indians. In 1520 he obtained the support of King Charles I (1500–1558; also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) for a plan to establish utopian cooperative farm communities of Spanish colonists and free Indians. Initially, de Las Casas proposed that Africans be brought to America to replace the Indian slaves, but he later regretted and repudiated that position.

When his experimental community failed, due to the intense opposition of the local landholders, de Las Casas took refuge in a Dominican monastery, where he focused his energies on writing, particularly his monumental History of the Indies. In 1530 he returned to Spain, obtaining a royal decree prohibiting the enforcement of slavery in Peru. He also obtained some papal support, when Pope Paul III declared in his encyclical Sublimis Dei that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational beings with souls, and that the lives and property of American Indians should be protected.

The “New Laws”

In 1542 de Las Casas returned to Spain and convinced Charles I to sign the “New Laws,” prohibiting Indian slavery and limiting the ownership of serfs to a single generation. At this time de Las Casas wrote, and presented to the court, his most influential and affecting work on the treatment of Indians, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. In 1544 de Las Casas was appointed Bishop of Chiapas, Guatemala, to which he sailed. As bishop, he attempted to enforce the New Laws, but the colonists resisted and many clergy would not follow his lead. When the king rescinded his orders on hereditary serfdom, de Las Casas resigned his appointment and returned to Spain.

Although he did not return to the Americas for the last twenty years of his life, de Las Casas continued his advocacy for the Indians. Some attribute the origins of the “Black Legend,” which depicts the Spanish as more cruel and bloodthirsty than their British and Dutch rivals, to the writings of de Las Casas, citing the powerful critiques of colonial policy by someone who was both a Spaniard and an eyewitness. At the Council of Valladolid in 1550, de Las Casas debated with Juan Gines de Sepulveda, who defended Spain’s treatment of the Indians based on Aristotelian principles and claimed that the Spanish were as much above Indians as humans were above apes. Although theologians in Spain gave their official approval to de Las Casas’s argument, de Sepulveda’s position continued to prevail in the colonies. After a lifetime of advocacy for the Indians, de Las Casas died in a Dominican monastery in Madrid in 1566.

Although de Las Casas is most famous for his advocacy of the rights of the native American peoples, his best-known work is the History of the Indies, which he worked on for more than thirty years. Not published until 1875, it provides much original anthropological and historical material for the period of Spanish discovery and conquest in the Americas, as well as the logbook of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage in 1492.

Apostle of the Indies

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566), a Spanish colonist and priest, defended the rights of the native peoples in the Americas in many of his writings, including the following excerpt from A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which was originally published in Spanish in Seville in 1552.

Now this infinite multitude of Men are by the Creation of God innocently simple, altogether void of and averse to all manner of Craft, Subtlety and Malice, and most Obedient and Loyal Subjects to their Native Sovereigns; and behave themselves very patiently, submissively and quietly towards the Spaniards, to whom they are subservient and subject; so that finally they live without the least thirst after revenge, laying aside all litigiousness, Commotion and hatred …. The Spaniards first assaulted the innocent Sheep, so qualified by the Almighty, as is premention’d, like most cruel Tygers, Wolves and Lions hunger-starv’d, studying nothing, for the space of Forty Years, after their first landing, but the Massacre of these Wretches, whom they have so inhumanely and barbarously butcher’d and harass’d with several kinds of Torments, never before known … that of Three Millions of Persons, which lived in Hispaniola itself, there is at present but the inconsiderable remnant of scarce Three Hundred. Nay the Isle of Cuba, which extends as far, as Valledolid in Spain is distant from Rome, lies now uncultivated, like a Desert, and intomb’d in its own Ruins.… We dare boldly affirm, that during the Forty Years space, wherein they exercised their sanguinary and detestable Tyranny in these Regions, above Twelve Millions (computing Men, Women, and Children) have undeservedly perished; nor do I conceive that I should deviate from the Truth by saying that above Fifty Millions in all paid their last Debt to Nature. [The Spaniards] treated them (I speak of things which I was an Eye Witness of, without the least fallacy) not as Beasts, which I cordially wished they would, but as the most abject dung and filth of the Earth.… And this also is as really true … that the Spaniards never received any injury from the Indians, but that they rather reverenced them as Persons descended from Heaven, until that they were compelled to take up Arms, provoked thereunto by repeated Injuries, violent Torments, and injust Butcheries.


Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, London: R. Hewson, 1689.

Ferdinand Magellan

A Portuguese navigator who sailed under the Spanish flag, Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. Although Magellan was killed in the Philippines and did not complete the voyage, his expedition had several important results. The Americas were determined to be a new continental unit, separate from Asia; the world was definitively proved to be round; and the information on ocean distances and the size and location of land masses was transformed.

Early Years

Magellan was born to a noble Portuguese family and spent his youth as a page in the royal court. In 1505 he sailed with the first Portuguese viceroy to the Indies and joined a series of explorations and conquests in Africa and India. He sailed as far east as the Moluccas (Spice Islands). In 1512 he returned to Lisbon and joined an expedition fighting the Moors in Morocco. Following accusations of financial irregularities, Magellan lost favor with King Manuel of Portugal, and the king refused to sponsor Magellan’s proposed voyage to find a western route to the Moluccas.

In 1517 Magellan went to Spain, hoping to convince King Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; 1500–1558) to support his expedition as a way to extend Spanish control over the trade in the Far East. In the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Spain and Portugal had agreed to divide the control over newly explored territories. The “line of demarcation” in the Atlantic between Portuguese and Spanish control was clear, but the position of Asia was unknown. Hoping Magellan’s expedition would establish the Spanish right to trade in the Moluccas, Charles approved Magellan’s plan.

The Atlantic Voyage

In September 1519 Magellan set sail with a fleet of five ships and 270 men. Avoiding the Portuguese off the coast of Brazil, Magellan sailed along South America, looking for a passage to the Indies. As winter approached, he decided to remain in San Julian, on the Patagonian coast of Argentina. During the months the expedition spent there, Magellan quelled a mutiny, marooning one leader, Cartegna, on the desolate Patagonian shore, and executing several others. At the same time, one of the fleet’s ships, the Santiago, was wrecked in rough seas.

By the end of August, Magellan decided to sail southward again, seeking a route to the East. On October 21, 1520, he sighted the straits that would later be named for him. Despite the narrow passage, Magellan continued on; one captain, however, turned his ship around and headed back toward Spain, taking a large share of the provisions with him. Three ships now made the arduous journey through the straits, naming the menacing island to their south Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fires), for the many distant Indian bonfires that illuminated the shore. On November 28, 1520, Magellan’s fleet, now consisting of the Trinidad, the Victoria, and the Concepcion, entered the great ocean. Impressed by its calm waters, Magellan later called it the Pacific.

The Pacific Voyage

Once the expedition was in the Pacific, Magellan mistakenly thought that the Moluccas were a short distance away. Like Magellan, many geographers and cartographers had underestimated the westward distance between Europe and the Far East. So, for nearly three months, the fleet sailed with no new provisions. The men suffered from starvation, dehydration, and scurvy, a wasting disease caused by lack of vitamin C, and many died. After ninety-eight days, they finally reached an island—probably Guam—and were able to get supplies. A few weeks later, they reached the Philippines. There Magellan became involved in a dispute between local chieftains and, on April 27, 1521, he was killed in battle.

The Circumnavigation

After Magellan’s death, Sebastian del Cano took charge of the expedition. Because he had insufficient crew for three ships, del Cano burned the Concepcion and headed for the Moluccas with two ships and 115 men. There he loaded the ships with valuable spices. He chose two different routes for the return journey. Only the Victoria, sailing around the African Cape of Good Hope, made it back to Spain. It arrived in September 1521, with a crew of eighteen men, almost three years after its voyage began.

Although Magellan did not complete the voyage, his expedition did. And Magellan himself, by sailing west, had reached a point in the Philippines that was beyond where he had reached when he had voyaged to the Moluccas by sailing east. He had, in fact, been around the world.

Mutiny on the Voyages of Discovery and Conquest

The explorations in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries required knowledge and skills that often surpassed the available resources. Navigation techniques were rudimentary, maps combined fact and fantasy, the seas were changeable and frightening, and supplies were often inadequate. These difficult circumstances created a fertile breeding ground for mutiny.

On Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) first voyage, after more than two months at sea, discontent among the sailors was growing and nearly resulted in a mutiny. But, with the aid of some influential sailors, the rebellion was contained and land was sighted on the following day. On his fourth and last voyage, Columbus’s fleet was shipwrecked in Jamaica and half of the crew mutinied. Columbus suppressed the uprising and returned to Spain, his explorations finished.

By the time they reached southern Argentina, Magellan’s sailors were fearful of the ongoing journey and superstitious when, for the first time, they encountered unrecognized creatures, such as penguins and llamas. They demanded that the ship return immediately to Spain. Magellan outmaneuvered the leaders of the mutiny, had some of them executed in front of the assembled crew, sent one ashore to be marooned in the hostile environment of Patagonia, Argentina, and then pardoned the remaining followers. The expedition continued and eventually circumnavigated the globe.

Another explorer seeking to circumnavigate the globe, Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596), was faced with a mutiny early on, when fearsome weather battered the expedition. Drake suppressed the mutiny and had its leader beheaded.

Hernàn Cortés (1485–1547), a Spanish conquistador determined to subdue the Aztec empire, faced a mutiny as he planned to march inland into Mexico. Cortés scuttled all his ships, preventing the mutineers from sailing back to Hispaniola, where the undertaking had originated. The expedition was now committed to Cortés’s plan.

Henry Hudson (c. 1570–1611), searching for a Northwest Passage to Asia, spent an icebound winter and spring in Hudson Bay. When the ice began to melt, the crew—discontented, ill, and near starvation—mutinied. Hudson, his son, and seven crew members were placed adrift in a small boat and never heard from again.

See also Kingdom of Portugal

Hernàn Cortés

Cortés (1485–1547) was a Spanish conquistador who invaded and defeated the Aztec empire in Mexico. The conquest made Cortés a wealthy and powerful figure, and he carried his campaigns to other regions of Mexico and Central America. Cortés’s expeditions contributed more land and treasure to the Spanish empire than those of any other explorer. He died in Spain in 1547.

Early Career

Born in Medellin, a small village near Seville, Cortés studied law at the University of Salamanca. Drawn by tales of discovery in the New World, Cortes sailed to Hispaniola when he was nineteen. In 1511 he joined the governor, Diego Velázquez, on an expedition to Cuba, becoming one of Velázquez’s close associates. When early explorers returned from the Yucatán in Mexico with stories of great civilizations and wondrous riches, Velázquez decided to send an expedition to Mexico and placed Cortés in command. But, mistrustful of Cortés’s ambition, Velázquez then determined to replace him. Aware of Velázquez’s intentions, Cortés departed before the governor could rescind his appointment.

With a fleet of eleven ships, Cortés set sail for Mexico in February 1519. After stopping at Trinidad for more provisions, Cortés arrived at the Yucatán Peninsula and founded the settlement of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. In Yucatán he enlisted Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish castaway who understood Maya (the language of the Indians of the Yucatán), and a female slave, Malinche, who spoke both Maya and Aztec, as interpreters for the expedition. He also made an alliance with the Cempoala Indians, who had fought against the Aztecs and reported on their riches to Cortés, who arranged to have the members of the settlement appoint him captain general, eliminating Velázquez’s authority over the expedition.

The Aztec Conquest

While Cortés was in the Yucatán, Moctezuma II (sometimes transliterated as Montezuma; c. 1466–1520), the Aztec emperor, sent an emissary with food and gifts. Cortés was determined to proceed inland to the center of the Aztec empire, despite the reluctance of many of the members of the expedition. To keep his men from deserting, Cortés scuttled his ships in Vera Cruz harbor. With no way to return to Cuba, the expedition marched toward Tenochtitlàn (now Mexico City), the Aztec capital.

On the journey to Tenochtitlàn, Cortés and his men encountered opposition from the Tlaxcalan Indians, with whom the Spaniards fought many battles. Finally an alliance was forged, based on Tlaxcalan resentment of Aztec rule, and Cortés’s threatening to kill every Tlaxcalan. When the expeditionary party arrived at Tenochtitlàn, the Spaniards were amazed by the magnificence and wealth of the capital city. Moctezuma mistook them for descendants of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and welcomed them. Despite this reception, Cortés took Moctezuma prisoner and held him in the palace.

Hearing reports that a force from Cuba was coming to relieve him of his command, Cortés returned to Vera Cruz. He suppressed an uprising, but returned to Tenochtitlàn to find the city in disarray, with many Aztecs having been massacred by the Spanish during a spring religious festival. In the battle that followed, Moctezuma was killed. The Spanish fought their way out of the city during the noche triste (sad night) and suffered many losses. Cortés and his men retreated and retired to Tlaxacala to rebuild their army. Cortés also built a fleet of prefabricated boats in order to attack Tenochtitlàn, since the city was surrounded by a large lake.

Spanish Rule

The following year, Cortés again invaded Tenochtitlàn and, after a three-month siege, defeated the Aztec empire. In 1522 King Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) appointed Cortés governor and captain general of the newly conquered region. Cortés dispatched forces throughout central and southern Mexico and zealously promoted the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism. He brought most of the area under Spanish rule.

Charles, possibly concerned about the increasing power of an emissary so far removed from the royal court, soon began to withdraw the powers he had conferred on Cortés. In 1526 Cortés was deprived of the governorship. Cortés then spent two years in Spain, attempting to recover his authority. He eventually returned to Mexico as the holder of a vast estate with the title of marquis but with no governmental role. He continued to undertake new expeditions in an attempt to recover his power, but they were unsuccessful.

In 1540 Cortés returned to Spain, wealthy but disappointed. When he died in 1547, he instructed that his remains be returned to Mexico.

See also Kingdom of Spain

See also The Aztec

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake (c.1540–1596), an English navigator, explorer, and privateer, was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe (1577–1580). On that voyage, he claimed land on the Pacific coast of North America for England. Drake specialized in harassing Spanish shipping and settlements, and was known to the Spanish as El Draque (the Dragon). He commanded a raid that destroyed thirty-seven Spanish ships at Cadiz (1587) and served as vice-admiral during the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588). His naval career was influential in establishing England’s colonizing and trading power in the New World.

Early Career

Drake was born c. 1540 in Devonshire, England, and began his naval career early, serving as a ship’s apprentice on a coastal vessel. In 1566 Drake sailed on a slave-trading expedition to the Cape Verde Islands. The following year, his wealthy shipbuilding and seafaring relative, John Hawkins, made Drake captain of the Judith, part of the large Hawkins fleet going on a slave-trading voyage to the Gulf of Mexico. In San Juan de Ulloa, on the Mexican coast, the English fleet was unexpectedly attacked by the Spanish; only the ships commanded by Hawkins and Drake escaped. Combined with the strong Protestant convictions inherited from his father—a yeoman and Protestant preacher—this experience left Drake with a desire to seek revenge for what he considered to be Spanish treachery.


Drake spent the next few years shipping in the West Indies and raiding Spanish settlements. In his most famous exploit of this period, Drake attacked the town of Nombre de Dios, a major port for the Spanish treasure fleet, which transported the wealth of the Americas to Spain. In his first attempt Drake was wounded and forced to retreat, but not before he had crossed the Isthmus of Panama and seen the Pacific. Several months later, with the help of cimarrones (former Spanish slaves who had escaped to live in the forests), he ambushed a mule train carrying an immense fortune and sailed back to England with his newfound wealth and a reputation as a daring privateer.

When Drake returned to England, he commanded the sea forces sent to quell a rebellion in Ireland. Thereafter he was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) to explore the Pacific and, most likely, expected to disrupt Spanish shipping and settlements.

The Circumnavigation Voyage

Drake set sail from Plymouth, England, on December 13, 1577, with five ships and 164 men. After crossing the Atlantic, two of the ships had to be abandoned. The small fleet of three passed through the Straits of Magellan and, in a series of violent storms, one ship with all its crew was lost and another turned back to England. In October 1578 Drake headed up the coast of South America with one ship, the Golden Hind (formerly the Pelican) and fifty-eight men.

Drake sailed north, plundering treasure ships and ports in Chile and Peru as he went. During this time, he amassed great treasure and obtained Spanish charts to assist his navigation. It was reported in the journal of Sir Francis Pretty, one of Drake’s gentlemen-at-arms, that Drake

thinking himself, both in respect of his private injuries received from the Spaniards, as also of their contempts and indignities offered to our country and prince in general, sufficiently satisfied and revenged; and supposing that her Majesty at his return would rest contented with this service, purposed to continue no longer upon the Spanish coast, but began to consider and to consult of the best way for his country.

Drake now sailed along the coast of the Americas, reaching farther north than any previous European. Making landfall along what was probably the coast of California, he named it New Albion (New England) and claimed it for Queen Elizabeth. Drake then sailed across the Pacific to the Moluccas (Spice Islands), continued around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and then northward to England, arriving there in September 1580. He had become the first Englishman to sail around the world. Although shifting relations with Spain and Drake’s reputation with the Spanish as El Draque had previously prevented Elizabeth from openly acknowledging what she considered to be Drake’s services to England, she now abandoned all pretense of disapproval. As the Golden Hind lay harbored at Deptford, Elizabeth visited the ship and knighted Drake.

The Armada

Hostilities between England and Spain continued to escalate, and Drake set out on several more privateering voyages, sacking Vigo, Spain; burning Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands; capturing San Domingo, Hispaniola, and St. Augustine, Florida; and rescuing the survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh’s (c. 1552–1618) ill-fated Roanoke settlement off the coast of North Carolina.

In 1587 Drake sailed to Cadiz, Spain, and destroyed between twenty and thirty Spanish ships anchored there. This attack, which Drake is reputed to have called “singeing of the King of Spain’s beard,” had a serious impact on the strength and supplies of the Spanish Armada, the fleet launched by Spain for the invasion of England.

When the English ships defeated the Armada in 1588 and rebuffed the planned invasion, Drake served as vice-admiral under Lord-Admiral Howard of Effingham. The defeat of the Armada is often depicted as the event that heralded the decline of Spain as a maritime power and the confirmation of England’s naval strength.

In 1595 Drake launched his last expedition, with John Hawkins, who had accompanied him on his first voyage to the West Indies. Given joint command, the leaders disagreed about tactics, and the expedition was a failure. Drake fell ill of fever and died of dysentery on January 28, 1596, off the Panama coast near Nombre de Dios, the site of one of his most legendary exploits.

Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe contributed to an expansion of geographical knowledge, his naval exploits helped assure England’s place as a world power, and his explorations, particularly his claim of California for England, led to increased American colonization.

See also Kingdom of England

Henry Hudson

An English navigator of the early seventeenth century, Henry Hudson (?–1611) was one of the earliest European explorers in North America. Seeking a water route through the continent to Asia, Hudson was the first to explore the Hudson River and surrounding territory (in present-day New York and New Jersey). Because this journey was undertaken on behalf of a Dutch trading company, his travels gave the Dutch grounds to claim ownership of the region, where they established the colony of New Netherland in 1614. Hudson was also the first European to explore and map what is now known as Hudson Bay (in present-day Canada).

Early Expeditions

There is no reliable documentation of Hudson’s life prior to his famous travels. In 1607 he was hired as commander of a ship owned by the English Muscovy Company and charged with finding a Northeast Passage to the Orient through the Arctic Ocean and around the coast of Siberia. This proved a hopeless project—on his first attempt, Hudson explored the eastern coast of Greenland, the Svalbard Islands, and Jan Mayen Island, but did not come anywhere close to reaching Asia. On a second attempt, in 1608, heavy ice forced Hudson to return to England without making any significant progress.

In 1609 Hudson was hired again to chart a Northeast Passage, this time by the Dutch East India Company. He was given command of the ship Half Moon, which was crewed by English and Dutch seamen. Hudson took the Half Moon as far as the North Cape in Norway before heavy ice once again made passage impossible. This time, rather than return to Holland, Hudson headed for the coast of North America in an attempt to find a Northwest Passage to Asia. This decision was likely the result of the influence of Captain John Smith, who had befriended Hudson and corresponded with him, sharing maps and insights.

First Journey to North America

Crossing the Atlantic, Hudson explored the coast from as far north as Nova Scotia down to Chesapeake Bay before traveling north again and entering New York Bay, which had been previously discovered, but not explored, by the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano. Exploring the bay, Hudson entered the large river that was later named for him. The Half Moon sailed as far north as present-day Albany, New York, and some of his crewmen took a rowboat even farther upriver, perhaps as far as Troy.

Although Hudson gave up on the river as the potential Northwest Passage to Asia, he noted that the land was rich and that there were opportunities for trade, particularly in furs. While the Half Moon had skirmishes with Native Americans along the river, Hudson was eventually able to trade with the natives for food with which to undertake the voyage back across the Atlantic.

In November 1609, on Hudson’s way back to the Netherlands, the Half Moon put in at the port of Dartmouth, England, where Hudson and his English crewmen were detained by the authorities and ordered to cease working for foreign powers. Nevertheless, Hudson’s reports and other papers from the voyage reached the Dutch, and the expedition established a Dutch claim to the Hudson River and the land around it. Subsequently, the government of the Netherlands formed the Dutch West India Company, which in 1614 founded the colony of New Netherland.

Expedition to Hudson Bay

Forced to return to the service of the English, Hudson still sought to discover the Northwest Passage through America. This time, he was engaged by a group of English investors and given command of the ship Discovery. Sailing from London in April 1610, this expedition focused on finding the Northwestern passage farther north, in present-day Newfoundland, where a straight had been discovered, but not explored, by English mariners. Hudson navigated the straight and entered Hudson Bay, a large, shallow body of water in Northeastern Canada.

Believing that he had made it through to the Pacific, he steered Discovery south and was able to map much of the bay’s eastern shore, but he ran into a dead end at James Bay. By this point, it was November, the bay began to freeze, and the expedition found itself icebound. Discovery was short of provisions, and the crew—which had been troublesome since the beginning of the journey and particularly on edge since the demotion of Hudson’s first mate, Robert Juet, in September—was now on the verge of mutiny. Hudson and the crew somehow held together through a winter and spring wracked by disease and near starvation, until the ice began to melt in June 1611. However, less than two weeks after Discovery was back underway, the crew mutinied, putting Hudson, his son, and a few of his loyal crew members in a small, uncovered boat that they set adrift near Charlton Island in James Bay. What happened to Hudson and his party is unknown, but it is most likely that they died of exposure or starvation.

The mutineers returned to England. Along the way, many were killed in an encounter with the Inuit, and in the end, only eight survivors reached England. None of the survivors was convicted of any charges in relation to the mutiny.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh (c.1554–1618) was an English courtier, historian, explorer, colonizer, privateer, merchant, soldier, seaman, philosopher, and poet. He explored Guiana, searching for El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold; sponsored the first English colony in America; is credited with popularizing two New World crops, tobacco and potatoes; and was a foremost Elizabethan poet and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603).

Early Years

Born into a propertied Devonshire family, Raleigh served with the Huguenot (French Protestant) army in France in 1569. He briefly attended Oxford University but received no degree. In 1578 Raleigh sailed (according to the patent issued by Queen Elizabeth I to his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert) “to discover, finde, search out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countreys and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people.”

On this trip, Raleigh captained the Falcon on what was probably a privateering voyage against the Spanish. The expedition, however, was unsuccessful and returned to England after going only as far west as the Cape Verde Islands.

Raleigh was then dispatched to Ireland to suppress a rebellion in Munster. When he returned to England, his outspoken opinions on Irish policy brought him to the notice of the royal court, and he soon became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. According to a famous legend, Raleigh placed his velvet cloak over a mud puddle so that the queen would not get her feet dirty. Whether or not the story is accurate, Raleigh’s wit and charm won him great wealth and many privileges, including a wine monopoly, a position as warden of the stanneries (the tin mines of Cornwall and Devon), vast estates in Ireland, and an appointment as captain of the queen’s guard.

The Roanoke Colony

Although Elizabeth was unwilling to let Raleigh lead an expedition in person, he continued to be financially involved in the expeditions of his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. After Gilbert perished on his second colonization expedition to Newfoundland in May 1584, Raleigh sent an exploratory expedition to the east coast of North America. The crew arrived near Florida in July and then went ashore on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast. When they returned to England, they gave enthusiastic descriptions of the land and its inhabitants. Raleigh named the territory where they had landed Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. While others had introduced various crops from the Americas to Europe, after this expedition Raleigh worked to spread the use of potatoes and tobacco.

In 1585 Raleigh sent out his first group of settlers, under Sir Richard Grenville, who left a group of about one hundred colonists on Roanoke Island and returned to England. The colonists had inadequate supplies and suffered from harsh weather and unfriendly relations with the Indians. In 1586, when Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596) visited with his privateering ships, the colonists deserted the settlement and returned with Drake to England.

In 1587 Raleigh dispatched a second expedition to settle on Roanoke Island. This group of colonists, led by John White, included ninety men, seventeen women, and nine children. When White, delayed by the English battle with the Spanish Armada, finally returned from his voyage to England to bring supplies back to the colony, he found the settlement abandoned. There was no clue about what had occurred, except for the word “Croatan” carved on a post. Archeologists and historians continue to investigate what happened to the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke, the first English colony in America.

Later Years

In 1592, when Queen Elizabeth discovered that Raleigh had secretly wed Elizabeth Throckmorton the previous year, Raleigh was called back from a privateering expedition and jailed in the Tower of London. Raleigh won his release when his expedition returned and he was required to settle disputes among the crew about distributing the valuable booty. It would be several years before Raleigh completely returned to the Queen’s favor.

In 1595 Raleigh led an expedition to South America and published The Discoverie of Guiana, an account of his unsuccessful search for the fabled city El Dorado. He took part in the capture of Cadiz, Spain, and was appointed governor of the island of Jersey, in the English Channel.

When the queen died in March 1603, Raleigh’s fortunes turned. By May King James I had recalled all Raleigh’s monopolies, appointed a Scottish favorite as captain of the guard, and dismissed Raleigh from the governorship of Jersey. Raleigh was accused of plotting against the king and spent the next twelve years in the Tower of London. During that time, Raleigh wrote poetry and began his History of the World.

In 1616 Raleigh was released to lead a second voyage to search for El Dorado. James I was attempting to improve the relations between England and Spain, and when Raleigh’s expedition burned a Spanish settlement, the king again arrested Raleigh. This time he was beheaded, on October 29, 1618.

See also Kingdom of England

Piracy and Privateers

Piracy is defined as robbery on the high seas. But during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries governments granted privateers the right to confiscate the ship, crew, and cargo of enemy states. The line between piracy and privateering was often difficult to draw, and a pirate in one country might be considered a hero in another.

The activities of pirates and privateers often reflected conflicts over trade and colonization. The rivalry of the colonial powers, particularly the English, Spanish, French, and Dutch, led states to sanction those pirates who promoted the national cause by attacking the commerce of rival nations.

British ships, under the protection of Elizabeth I, cruised the Caribbean in order to intercept Spanish treasure ships traveling from Mexico to Spain. Privateers commissioned by Spain raided ships off the coast of the Netherlands. And the French corsairs (privateers) regularly harassed British shipping.

Some privateers, like Sir Francis Drake, typified the conflicting opinions of these marauding mariners. To the Spanish, who considered him a pirate and an outlaw for his raids on the Spanish treasure ships, Drake was known as El Draque (the Dragon). The English queen, however, rewarded him with a knighthood for his exploits at sea.

During this period no great stigma was attached to piracy because maritime law had not been systematized. But several factors diminished the power of pirates on the high seas. Merchant vessels became larger and more difficult to overcome. Countries established regular navies to patrol the oceans. And maritime law was eventually codified to recognize piracy as an international offense.

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain (c. 1570–1635), a French navigator and cartographer, founded Quebec City and earned the title Father of New France. He explored the eastern coast of North America from what is now Nova Scotia south to Cape Cod and west into Canada as far as Niagara and the Great Lakes. As he sailed the St. Lawrence River, he created the first reliable maps of the St. Lawrence Valley.

Early Travels

Champlain, the son of a French naval captain, was born in Brouage, a seaport in western France, around 1570. Not much is known of his early life, although he wrote in 1613 that as a child he developed a fascination with “the art of navigation, along with a love of the high seas.” Champlain made his first voyage around 1600, sailing first to Spain and from there to the West Indies, where he is believed to have visited what are now Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Puerto Rico.

In 1603 Champlain first sailed to what is now Canada with François Gravé du Pont, a French admiral who had been commissioned by the trader Aymar de Chaste to explore the St. Lawrence River. To spur New World exploration, the French monarchy often engaged businessmen like Chaste to finance such voyages through their trading companies; in return, the king granted the companies monopolies over trade that would come of the expeditions. Champlain and du Pont arrived at Tadoussac, a trading post where the Saguenay River empties into the St. Lawrence River, in May 1603. By summer they had made their way up the river to what is now Montreal. With help from the natives they encountered—who told them of the Great Lakes—Champlain was able to draw some of the earliest and most accurate maps of the area. Further exploration took him to what is now Nova Scotia, which he named Acadia, after the mythical paradise the ancient Greeks called Arcadia. Champlain and du Pont returned to France in September 1603.

The First Colony in New France

Champlain believed further exploration of Acadia might lead to the discovery of the Northwest Passage—a water route across the North American continent that many explorers believed connected the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—so he encouraged the French government to invest in more expeditions. After du Pont died, Lieutenant-General Pierre de Mont took over the trading company and financed another voyage in 1604, with Champlain serving as the ship’s geographer. The party of seamen and settlers sailed along the coast of what is now New Brunswick and built a small fortified settlement on an island in the Saint Croix River. While De Mont most likely chose to settle on an island for security reasons, the winter was exceptionally harsh and ice built up around the island, cutting the settlers off from food and fresh water on the mainland. Extreme cold and scurvy killed half the group. At winter’s end the survivors moved across the Bay of Fundy, where they established a settlement called Porte Royale (now Annapolis Royal).

The Order of Good Cheer

The first winter spent by Samuel de Champlain and his compatriots in modern-day Canada was long and harsh: snow began falling in October and did not stop until late April. The party’s decision to settle on an island rather than on the mainland was disastrous for the seventy-nine men who had made the journey from France. In building their fort, they had used all of the wood on the island, so they ran out of fuel early in the winter. The one natural spring on the island quickly froze; even their alcoholic cider froze and had to be rationed in one-pound-per-day blocks. And, cut off from the mainland by huge ice floes, they were unable to go in search of food when their supplies ran low. Thirty-five died in that single season, with only eleven surviving.

The following winter, having relocated to the other side of the Bay of Fundy, the three settlers who chose to remain—the other eight having returned to France after their horrific experience—were joined by a new group at Porte Royale. To ensure an easier winter for these colonists, Champlain founded the Order of Good Cheer (L’Ordre de bons temps), which is now remembered as Canada’s first cooking club. Champlain thought good food and camaraderie might help the settlers through another long winter. Before long, the meals turned into dining events with a festival atmosphere. At one such feast, The Theatre of Neptune, by Marc Lescarbot, was performed; it is believed to be the first full-length piece of drama written and staged in North America.

Champlain wrote in his Voyages in 1613:

We spent this winter very pleasantly, and had good fare by means of the Order of Good Cheer which I established, and which everybody found beneficial to his health, and more profitable than all sorts of medicine we might have used. This Order consisted of a chain which we used to place with certain little ceremonies about the neck of one of our people, commissioning him for that day to go hunting. The next day it was conferred upon another, and so on in order. All vied with each other to see who could do the best, and bring back the finest game. We did not come off badly, nor did the Indians who were with us.

The order was a triumph, for no one died that winter. Today some Canadians celebrate the Order of Good Cheer as a kind of unofficial holiday in midwinter, holding potluck dinners and, occasionally, more formal feasts.

In the summer of 1605 Champlain sailed south along the eastern coast of North America as far as modern-day Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts. While de Mont returned to France, Champlain remained with the settlers in Porte Royale. The following year he sailed as far south as Rhode Island. In 1607 King Henry IV (1553–1610) ended the government’s contract with de Mont, forcing all of the settlers, including Champlain, to return to France. By the time Champlain left New France, he had produced the most accurate maps to date of the region from Nova Scotia to New England.

A Fort at Quebec City

In 1608 Champlain earned the position of lieutenant to de Mont, and the men returned to New France with thirty-two colonists. This time they built a permanent fort at what is now Quebec City. When Champlain returned to France in 1612, he learned that the settlement at Quebec was to be the center of the French fur trade. The new king, Louis XIII (1601–1643), made Champlain lieutenant of New France. Champlain returned to Canada in 1613 and spent some time exploring inland as well as governing Quebec and fostering the thriving fur trade.

Around the same time Champlain became involved in a longstanding dispute between the Huron and Algonquin and their enemies from the Iroquois League. For several years the French had depended on the Huron and Algonquin for their supply of furs, so the alliance seemed like a natural development. However, it also earned them the enmity of the Iroquois, who were arguably the most powerful tribal group in the region. In the summer of 1615 Champlain traveled, much of the way by canoe, to the Great Lakes region with two other Frenchmen and some native guides. While touring the area inhabited by the Huron, he was injured when he took part in a skirmish between the Huron and the Iroquois in what is now northern New York state. That winter he recovered at a Huron village.

Position Terminated and Restored

Champlain returned to France in 1616 to find that political machinations had forced his termination as lieutenant of New France. He regained the support of King Louis XIII, however, when he laid out his plan to make Quebec the capital of a large industrial and trading center in the New World. In 1620 Champlain set out again for Canada, his position as lieutenant having been restored. Seven years later Louis’ chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), appointed Champlain governor of Quebec. The same year war broke out between France and England over the territories in Canada. The English attacked Quebec in 1629, and Champlain was taken prisoner and sent to England. Champlain’s governorship was restored when the English and French signed a treaty in 1632. Two years later, Champlain sent another French explorer, Jean Nicollet (1598–1642), westward to claim more territories for France. Champlain died in Quebec in December 1635.

Current Events and Social Movements

Church of England

The Church of England underwent radical changes during the reign of King Henry VIII (1491–1547), giving rise to the Puritan movement and religious settlements in North America that became part of the United States.

The Rise of Protestantism in Europe

Prior to the 1530s all of Western Europe was united under the Roman Catholic Church, which was headed by the pope. Monarchs led nations, but even they were subject to papal rule. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the church was mired in scandal and corruption. One of the most virulent and offensive abuses of power, according to many people within the church, was the selling of indulgences. According to church tradition, after death a person’s soul went to heaven, hell, or purgatory, depending on his or her deeds on earth. Some church leaders saw the threat of having one’s soul eternally stuck in purgatory—a sort of middle ground of suffering and punishment—as an opportunity to raise money. So they began to sell “indulgences” as a way to bypass time in purgatory and instead guarantee that the soul would go directly to heaven. Indulgences, for those who could afford them, ended the need to seek forgiveness by confessing one’s sins—one of the most important of the Catholic sacraments—while they vastly increased the church’s wealth. In addition, the relationship that already existed between the papacy and the European ruling classes grew stronger and came to be based on financial considerations: anyone could break church laws as long as he or she could afford to buy indulgences to erase sins. Church leaders could dangle the promise of indulgences over the nobility, thus increasing papal influence in political matters.

Many people within the church strongly objected to the selling of indulgences, as well as to other church abuses, and they began to organize. One of the most vocal objectors was a German monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546), who in 1517 published his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences. Luther joined with other clerics to register their protest officially, founding the Protestant movement. Protestants believed that common people should be able to read and understand the Bible (which at that point was only translated into Latin) without interpretation by the clergy; they also disputed the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, which held that the bread and wine used during the sacrament of Eucharist was literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

The Break with Catholicism in England

In 1527 England’s King Henry VIII sought to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) because of her apparent inability to bear him a male heir. Henry had been a loyal Catholic and had even received the title Defender of the Faith in 1521 because of his writings against Martin Luther. The legality of Henry’s marriage to Catherine had been questionable from the start because she was his brother’s widow—at the time it was against the law to marry an in-law—but the pope had allowed it because it was politically expedient, uniting England and Spain. Catherine’s only successful pregnancy had resulted in Mary (1516–1558), who would eventually rule England. When Henry proposed that the marriage be dissolved on the grounds that it had not really been legal, Pope Clement VII (1478–1534) refused, in part due to pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1550–1558), who was also Catherine’s nephew. Charles saw the dissolution of the marriage as a political threat: it would mean that Mary—whose Spanish bloodlines would presumably prevent a union with a French monarch—would be removed from the line of succession, opening the possibility of a French-English alliance. Henry appealed to the English Parliament and to legal scholars in Europe to support his case, and in 1533 Parliament passed a statute that prohibited any more appeals to the pope, and the marriage was dissolved. Prior to the passage of the legislation, Henry had married his mistress, Anne Boleyn (c. 1504–1536), who was pregnant with the couple’s child, the future Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603).

With his marriage to Anne legitimized, Henry took further action to weaken the pope’s power in England. In 1534 Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which gave to Henry the title Supreme Head of the Church of England, effectively ending papal supremacy in England. In 1536 Henry persuaded members of the clergy in England to adopt the Ten Articles, the first document that attempted to define the doctrine of the Church of England as distinct from that of the Roman Catholic Church. The following year Henry authorized the publication of Institutes of the Christian Man, or the Bishops’ Book, which addressed issues such as the sacraments. Ecclesiastical power in England was also weakened with the dissolution of the monasteries, beginning in 1536. Henry’s advisers began investigating all monasteries in England, allegedly looking for evidence of corruption and immorality, but in truth they were taking inventory of church property and land holdings. Henry’s government eventually seized all church holdings, which massively increased the crown’s wealth and returned all papal land—as much as three-quarters of the land of England had been church-owned—to the state.

In 1539 Parliament took on the task of formulating official Church of England doctrine. The resulting document was called the Six Articles. English Protestants who had hoped for a full break with the church were bitterly disappointed. Not only did the document uphold most church doctrine; it actually forbade the practice of European-style Protestantism in England. In addition, denial of certain “Articles of Faith”—as church sacraments and doctrine are known—could result in severe punishment. The belief in transubstantiation was of particular importance to Henry: anyone denying its existence was subject to the death penalty. Nonetheless, Henry retained the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England, which continued to be disputed by church authorities in Rome. Having defended the practice of most aspects of Catholicism, Henry still supplanted the authority of the pope.

The English Church after Henry

Henry married four more times after 1536, when Anne Boleyn was executed on charges of witchcraft and incest. When he died in 1547, his son by Jane Seymour (1509–1537), Edward VI (1537–1553), ascended the throne and instituted further Protestant reforms. His reign was short, however. In 1553 Henry’s daughter Mary took the throne, having assembled an army to fight for her succession. She was an ardent Catholic, and during her reign she earned the nickname Bloody Mary because she had so many Protestants convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. Mary died childless in 1558, allowing her half-sister Elizabeth to ascend the throne.

Under Elizabeth England experienced an artistic and intellectual renaissance and saw Protestantism instituted as the official religion of England. Although Elizabeth had been raised Protestant, she was not at first stringent in her beliefs. Some even speculated that she might marry a European Catholic and convert. Instead Elizabeth encouraged Parliament to pass two acts that became known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. The Act of Supremacy established Elizabeth as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The replacement of the word “head” with that of “governor” was a subtle but essential change, as it was a central issue for both Catholics and Protestants, neither of whom wanted to be forced to submit to a monarch for religious guidance. Nonetheless, all English clergy were required to take an oath of loyalty to the queen as a condition of the Act of Supremacy. The Act of Uniformity instituted guidelines for worship, addressing what clergy could wear during services (the traditional Catholic ceremonial vestments were considered by strict Protestants to be evidence of the Catholics’ worldly trappings), which prayer books could be used, and when services would be held.

Elizabeth united England in theory, but in practice bitter differences remained. One group of Protestants insisted that Elizabeth’s reformations had not gone nearly far enough to “purify” the English church of its Catholic influence. This group, which became known as the Puritans, splintered off from Protestantism. Some of them eventually sought both religious freedom and economic opportunity in the New World.

See also The Puritans

See also Kingdom of England

The Puritans

The Puritans were a dissenting branch of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants in England. Many of them migrated to North America, beginning in 1620, to establish religious colonies away from the direct oversight of the crown and the Church of England. According to their beliefs, the Christian church in England based religious doctrine on the laws and politics of humans rather than on the laws of God. They wanted to “purify” Protestantism of both its Catholic and its secular influences by refocusing Christianity on personal morality and the absolute authority of the New Testament in human affairs. In their eyes the reformations begun by Henry VIII (1491–1547) and those introduced by his daughter Elizabeth I (1533–1603) did not go far enough and merely substituted one corrupt figurehead (the pope) with another (the reigning monarch).

One of the most fundamental beliefs of the Puritans was that ordinary people should be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves rather than relying on church-sanctioned authority figures to interpret it for them. Traditionally the Bible was not available in translations other than Latin. Because few common people at the time could read at all, much less read Latin, education became and important part of the Puritan religious agenda. Similarly, while Roman Catholic masses were held in Latin, Protestants in general and Puritans in particular held that religious services should be said in English so that anyone could understand them. This notion of simplicity and appealing to the common people carried through to the reformists’ ideas about ceremony and outward appearances: the formal vestments traditionally worn by Catholic Church leaders were considered vain and ostentatious, and Puritan distaste for them became known as the Vestments Controversy.

Frivolous activities were frowned upon. Anything that was not done in the service of the Lord or to further spiritual growth was considered a waste of time. The notion of “divine providence” was also central to Puritan theology: things happened because they were the will of God, and, according to the Puritans, God had a swift sense of justice. Immoral or impure acts and thoughts would be appropriately punished with a life of hardship or a painful and untimely death.

Once the Puritans began to identify themselves as a movement, they fell into two groups. Conforming Puritans—often referred to as Dissenters—were those who maintained their membership in the Church of England despite their objections, and many remained in England to fight the crown’s forces during the English Civil War. Nonconforming Puritans—or Separatists—believed that the English church was beyond reform. Members of both groups migrated to North America. The settlers who founded Plymouth Colony, and came to be known as the Pilgrims, were Separatists.

The Roots of Puritanism

Although Puritanism had its initial stirrings in the attempts by Henry VIII to redefine the English Christian church according to his own beliefs and politics, Puritans were not a unified group in the beginning. In fact, the term “Puritan” was initially used as an insult against reformist Protestants, who were considered radicals. During the reign of Mary I (1516–1558), who was a devout Catholic, all Protestants were ruthlessly persecuted, and hundreds were publicly burned at the stake to discourage others from practicing even moderate Protestantism. To avoid prosecution under Mary’s heresy laws, hundreds of Protestants fled England for continental Europe, where they were introduced to the doctrines of Calvinism, an interpretation of Protestantism developed by the French-born theologian John Calvin (1509–1564), who advocated stringent reforms. When Mary died in 1558, many of the “Marian exiles” felt free to return to England after Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth I, took the throne and instituted what became known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement—a parliament-sanctioned compromise that mandated a mainstream version of Protestantism but also named Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England (the word “governor” being considered more acceptable, and less papal-sounding, than “head”).

The returning Marian exiles brought Calvinism to England. Expecting an atmosphere more open to reform, they began lobbying church and political leaders for more changes. The response to their demands, while not hostile, was far from welcoming. Elizabeth disliked religious extremism in either Catholics or Protestants, and the church under her leadership retained many facets of Catholicism, the main difference being that services were performed in English rather than in Latin. The Puritans were no happier with the policies of James I (1566–1625), who ascended the throne in 1603. They met with James and his representatives at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, hoping the king would institute their ideas. James refused all but one of the Puritans’ requests: to have the Bible translated into English. This in itself was revolutionary, and the translation became known as the King James Bible. Still deeply unsatisfied with both church and state, the Puritans began to organize and, by the time Charles I (1600–1649) took the throne in 1625, they nearly dominated Parliament. Among other religious and political issues, a national dispute over taxation pitted Puritans and the Parliament against the crown, leading to the bloody English civil war of 1642 to 1651 and the execution of Charles.

The Great Migration

In 1620 a group of Separatist Puritans made their way across the Atlantic on the famous Mayflower voyage. They had intended to land farther south, but instead set up a colony, Plymouth, in what became known as New England. Twenty years later a group of Puritans, mostly Dissenters, bought up the stock of the Massachusetts Bay Company, a trading company, and started an exodus toward what is now Massachusetts. They intended to establish a colony that would be a “religious experiment,” in that they would set an example for reforms of both the English church and society. The group set sail in 1630 and settled first in Salem, Massachusetts, and then relocated near the Charles River, founding the city of Boston. Over the following decade thousands of Puritans would arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Its government, while not a theocracy, joined religious and secular activities in a code of laws. It established not only what was legal and illegal, but also what was moral and immoral. Laws covered nearly every facet of daily life, from murder to theft to required church attendance and proper speech and dress.

See also Church of England

See also Kingdom of England

See also Massachusetts Bay Colony

See also Plymouth Colony

Atlantic Slave Trade

In its four hundred years of existence, the Atlantic slave trade forcibly relocated at least ten million people from their homes on the African continent to enslavement in countries around the world. It changed the racial, social, and econom ic landscapes of all the nations involved. In the United States it had immeasurable effect on the national history and character: African slaves performed the physical labor that made the United States a major economic force in the nineteenth century, and differing opinions about the institution sparked the Civil War. In the twenty-first century the history of slavery and its resultant racism continue to affect the nation.

History of Slavery

Almost all known human cultures have used slaves, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Africa, Rome, China, India, the Hebrew tribes, and pre-Columbian North, Central, and South America. Ancient societies tended to be highly stratified, and most had a slave class. Usually the children of slaves were also slaves, but in some places slavery could be punishment for crimes or debts. In those cases, slaves could usually buy their freedom. Most slaves in the ancient world, however, were prisoners of war or people who had been on the losing side of armed conflicts.

Before the Europeans entered Africa and began transporting Africans overseas, Middle Eastern sultanates had their own slave trade, moving humans as commodities from East Africa to nations in the Middle East and Asia, including India and China. Historians differ on the extent of the East African slave trade (also called the trans-Saharan slave trade). It is known that African nobles and merchants were complicit in the trade, and it is believed that as many as eight to ten million people were sold.

European Slave Traders

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore Africa. The Portuguese prince who became known as Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) was fascinated with Africa after his nation captured the North African city of Ceuta from the Moors in 1415. Henry began financing the voyages of Portuguese explorers, who set out with two goals: to partake of the riches that supposedly lay in Africa and to find a sea route to India around Africa. They achieved both. By 1460 Portugal operated plantations along Africa’s west coast, and in 1488 the explorer Bartolomeu Dias (1450–1500) sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, discovering the route to the Indian Ocean. Recognizing the burgeoning demand for labor in the new Age of Discovery and hoping to cut into the Arab slave trade, the Portuguese began trading in Africans. In total, Portugal traded more slaves from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries than any other country.

European demand for sugar cane led the Portuguese to create plantations on islands such as Madeira, Sao Tome, and the Canary Islands, all off the coast of western Africa. For labor they turned to slaves from the African mainland. When the Europeans began colonizing the Americas, they found the tropical climate of the Caribbean and South America suitable for growing sugar cane, and they again brought in forced labor from Africa. The first African slaves were shipped to the New World in 1518.

When the British began colonizing North America, they too imported Africans, at first to work as indentured domestic servants but soon as slaves. In 1619 a Dutch trader brought the first Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. It happened almost casually: the trader had raided the slaves in the West Indies and, unable to sell them anywhere else, offered them to the Jamestown governor in exchange for food and supplies. The governor made the trade, and the slaves went to work on tobacco plantations. In 1641 the Massachusetts colony became the first to sanction slavery as a legal institution. In 1663 Virginia proclaimed that a child born of a slave woman was also a slave. That made slavery a permanent station in life for the men, women, and children brought from Africa.

The Middle Passage

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries about 42 percent of slaves were sent to the Caribbean, 38 percent to Brazil, and 5 percent to North America. The trip across the Atlantic Ocean, which could take as long as three months, is known as the Middle Passage. Although the traders and sea captains had a financial interest in keeping as many slaves alive as possible, some 20 percent of slaves are believed to have died en route. Conditions on the ships were primitive. During the day slaves may have been allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise, but they spent their nights below deck, in cargo holds that sometimes did not allow them enough space to roll over, much less stand and walk. Women and children were not chained during the voyages, but men were kept shackled because they were seen as potentially dangerous. Toilet facilities typically consisted of a bucket. Disease—especially dysentery and smallpox—spread rapidly. Some slaves simply jumped overboard to their deaths.

The Autobiography of Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his native Guinea (now Nigeria) and sold into slavery when he was a child. His first owner was Michael Pascal, an English naval captain who sent Equiano to school, taught him how to sail, and renamed him Gustavus Vassa. Freed in his early twenties, Equiano moved to London for a time and then spent a number of years sailing the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean before joining an expedition to the North Pole. In 1789 he wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African, one of the first works published by an African writer. In this work he described his entrance to the slave ship:

I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced any thing of this kind before; and although, not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it; yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water; and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself. In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind. I inquired of these what was to be done with us? They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them. I was then a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate: but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty.


Equiano, Olaudah.The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African. London: privately printed, 1789.

Slavery’s Legacy

Slavery generated an economic boom for the traders, including the African countries involved, whose monarchs and upper classes made money trading their own people. Demographically the Atlantic slave trade changed the world. In what is sometimes called the African Diaspora, generations of Africans were spread throughout Europe, North and South America, and the Caribbean, changing the face of traditionally white and Indian societies. Intermarriage between Africans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas created mixed-race cultures, especially in the Caribbean.

The most problematic long-term result of slavery has been the institutionalized racism that persists in countries that traded in slaves. Long after the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, by ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, racial conflict—often violent and frequently deadly—continued to be the norm, especially in the South. Even official segregation continued well into the twentieth century. While the government has implemented civil rights laws and affirmative-action policies to address the aftereffects of slavery, its legacy remains painfully evident.



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The Precolonial Era (1450–1620)

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