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Early European Exploration and Colonization.
Leah S. Glaser

VUS.2 - Describe how early European exploration and colonization resulted in cultural interactions among Europeans, Africans, and American Indians.

For many years, students of American history have learned about the era of European exploration and colonization in terms of conquest and defeat. Europe's entry into the Americas had economic and political motivations, but over the last several years historians have begun to emphasize that exploration and colonization also allowed cultural contacts and exchanges among three different continents: Europe, Africa, and America. Each society viewed the other through their respective perceptions and culture. Historians like Colin Calloway and Gary Nash explain that these relationships created "new worlds for all." The nature of cultural contact and change in America varied from region to region, and can be traced to Europe's different colonizing strategies and the response of the existing local population.

America, Africa, and Europe: Three Worlds on the Eve of 1492

Contrary to longstanding European assumptions, native societies in the Americas possessed their own rich and varied cultures. An estimated 3 to 5 million people, speaking hundreds of languages, inhabited the region; with about 60 million people living in the Western Hemisphere, the population rivaled that of Europe and Africa. While they did not yet possess the same farming techniques or methods of transportation as those of Europe and Africa, these societies were diverse and sophisticated, and adapted continually to changing environments. Irrigation communities in the Southwest, mound cities in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, and the villages of the eastern woodlands characterized the nature of these societies at the time of European contact. Climatic changes, over hundreds of years, had altered farming patterns and prompted different groups to compete for dominance through warfare, as well as to participate in a vast trade network that spread across the continent.

The African societies (like those of the American Indians and the Europeans) were highly dependent on the environmental conditions and varied widely across the continent. Africa very much resembled America in its diversity of cultures across deserts, grasslands, and forests, its established networks of trade, and resource competition. The early use of iron implements raised productivity and subsequently increased the continent's population, which reached about 50 million by the fifteenth century. Much of that population was organized politically under large empires, like the Kingdom of Ghana. Ghana achieved architectural and artistic wealth principally through important trading contacts with the Middle and Far East. Other kingdoms also developed skilled craftsmanship, codes of law, and trading networks. Alongside these trade relationships, Muslim influences, which had spread throughout Africa since the eleventh century, also shaped African community life. African societies differed most markedly from those in Europe in terms of familial organization (matrilineal rather than patrilineal). For example, property rights and inheritance descended through the mother.

Europeans did not engage with Africa until the early fifteenth century, though they had been fascinated with the East for hundreds of years prior to contact. They were particularly eager to control the Mediterranean trade routes that tapped into the vast markets and goods. Throughout the Middle Ages, the East also served as a battleground for two of the world's fastest growing religions, Islam and Christianity, as evidenced in the Crusades. The Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire ruled supreme over Europe in opposition to the growing Ottoman (Islamic) Empire. By the fifteenth century, the invention of the printing press and improvements in navigation techniques (like the compass and the hourglass) helped spawn the Renaissance, an era known for challenging the power of the Church and celebrating human possibility though exploration, ideas, art, and literature. Spain joined in this creative celebration, but also gained political power by successfully defeating Islamic forces in Granada and by consolidating two powerful Catholic monarchies through the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. In 1492, the two Catholic leaders launched the Inquisition to make Spain, once part of the Ottoman Empire, into a fully Catholic country. Their efforts spawned the Reconquista, an era fueled by violence and religious intolerance as Spain sought to expel all Jews and Muslims from its borders. Amidst this political climate and activity, Ferdinand and Isabella granted a Genoan explorer, Christopher Columbus, funding to expand Spain's empire.

1492: America's Indians Encounter the Spanish

After he landed on the islands we know today as the Bahamas, Columbus explored the island of Hispaniola where he met the land's native inhabitants. He and his crews returned to the Caribbean three more times. Columbus's so called "discovery" offered Spain tremendous opportunities for wealth, particularly from the mining of gold and silver. It also provided new soil for European plants like sugar, coffee, and rice. Conversely, crops developed by the Indian agriculturists, such as corn and potatoes, forever changed the European diet. In addition to introducing the horse and other livestock, the exchange also brought iron-age products from Europe to the New World, forever altering the way many native groups farmed, cooked, hunted, worked, played, dressed, and ate. The introduction of these animals, plants and implements changed the environment of the Americas forever. New livestock devoured the plentiful grasslands while foreign flora brought invasive weeds that destroyed native plants. Diseases joined the other "products" that made up the Intercontinental Exchange (also known as the "Columbian" Exchange). They unleashed epidemics that affected both sides of the Atlantic, but which hit the native population in America particularly hard. With the exchange of goods inevitably came the exchange of political ideas, economic systems (see VUS.3), and culture from continent to continent. While they did not always interpret their behavior correctly, European colonists contrasted Native American political structures, and the apparent freedom that the population tended to enjoy, with the monarchies of Europe.

Following Columbus' lead were countless conquistadors, mostly explorers who initiated other forms of cultural contact between the Spanish and the people of America and Africa in their quest for adventure and riches. In 1519, Hernán Cortés brought Spanish forces beyond the Caribbean into present-day Mexico. Eventually, he took over the Mexican capital Tenochtitlán in 1521 and launched a "scorched earth" policy. Cortés lived for a time with a multi-lingual native woman, a "gift" of a Mayan chief upon his arrival in the Yucatan. Their son was the "first mestizo"-a person of mixed race-in the hemisphere. This precedent of "race-mixing" characterized Spain as a more integrative society than that which would form further north in the English colonies. Later, when disease undermined its ability to use the local population as a labor force, Spain imported African slaves into the Caribbean. Africans often accompanied the Spanish conquistadors as guides and interpreters. They too mingled with the Spanish and native populations to create new racial categories distinctive to the Atlantic World.

Cortés was the first of many Spaniards searching for riches, adventure, and glory. These explorers and treasure-hunters first entered into the territory of what is now the United States through Florida, which they originally identified as an island like those of the Caribbean. Each sought to spread Spain's culture by colonizing the New World, frequently at their own expense. Tempting stories like that of the Fountain of Youth, often told to the Spaniards by captured Indians and slaves, spurred these adventurers to attempt repeatedly to conquer the land, as well as its native peoples.

Historian Herbert Eugene Bolton has credited the ineffective settlement of the Atlantic coastal lands to the area's lack of precious metals and the Indians' strong resistance to subjugation. Furthermore, England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 further dissuaded Spain from pursuing settlement along the Atlantic coast and the empire turned its attention to today's American Southwest (then the northwestern reaches of the Spanish empire) for colonization. Explorer Cabeza de Vaca had already entered this territory inadvertently. A castaway from a failed Spanish expedition, de Vaca and his three companions, including an African slave named Estevan who served as a guide, interpreter, and diplomat, spent years living amongst the Indians on the Gulf of Mexico's western coast. They even went into the business of inter-tribal commerce, establishing an egalitarian relationship unusual for Spanish colonists. Eventually, de Vaca worked his way down through Texas to Sonora's Yaqui River where he met up with his fellow countrymen. De Vaca published his adventures, hoping to encourage a less severe and more tolerant Spanish policy toward Indians, but his stories of the Seven Cities of Gold led to the infamous Coronado expeditions, leading the Spanish into the territory of the Pueblos and as far north as the Great Plains.

In addition to a military force that became legendary, Spain used religious conversion as a means to organize and pacify the enemy and enlist them as an organized labor force (see VUS.3). The practice also furthered the power of the Catholic Church consistent with the Reconquista, a goal expressed by Columbus himself when he surmised that the Caribbean people would easily convert to Christianity. As early as 1510, Spain even justified conquest with a document they read to native people known as the Requerimiento, which emphasized Spain's divine right of conquest. The role of missions, therefore, became an institution equal to that of the Presidio(military fort) in the expansion of the Spanish Empire.

Spain's policies of conquest during this period encouraged a large degree of contact and conflict between Spaniards and Indians. The Pueblos, who lived on the far northern periphery of first the Aztec and then the Spanish Empire, incorporated some Catholic teachings but still maintained many aspects of their old lifestyle, and would only work for the Spanish as long as they received something in return. A century of Spanish rule gave the Indians protection from their enemies, many new tools and crops, and spiritual guidance. The more the Spanish insisted on suppressing traditionally native practices, however, the more the Indians resisted. The Pueblo (a.k.a. Popé's) Revolt in 1607 serves as one of the most profound examples of Indian resistance to Spanish conquest and policies of cultural intolerance. After a decade, the Spanish were able to again take control of the Pueblo territory known today as New Mexico, partly because the Pueblos desired protection from their Apache and Navajo enemies. However, they continued to hold tightly to many of their pre-Christian traditions and beliefs.

Indians Encounter the French

Like the Spanish, the French considered Indians worthy of conversion. Under French missionaries, however, Christianity tended to supplement the Indian way of life. Scholar Nancy Shoemaker has argued that Catholicism as taught by the French missionaries offered some Indian women new symbols of power. Also like the Spanish, the French sought a "society of inclusion," but enlisted the Indians as trading partners rather than as a labor supply. Between 1699 and 1754, relationships with the French tended to be interactive, probably because the French usually did not settle large numbers of people who challenged the Indian communities for resources. More common was the arrival of a few single, solitary men who initiated mutual trade. As historian Richard White describes, the two cultures met on more of a "middle ground," where groups engaged in mutual exploitation, and at least for a time, equitable relations. Each culture borrowed clothing styles and architectural techniques from the other, but contact introduced other profound cultural changes as well.

The most profound change in native life was that the Indians no longer worked only for purposes of subsistence. The French fur trade introduced iron-age products (iron, textiles, firearms, horses, and alcohol) to tribes across the west, who otherwise had very little contact with large groups of Europeans. It also altered tribal political relationships. Indians often negotiated between colonial rivals, particularly the French and English, by forming alliances with each side, while at the same time asserting their own independence. Some, like the Iroquois, developed more centralized governments in response to the colonial activities.

Indians Encounter the English

Motivated by the success of Spain and France in the Americas, England embarked on the settlement of the New World, though its initial efforts proved unsuccessful. English nobles were the first to try in the 1580s in Newfoundland and in Roanoke, Virginia. The English had a hard time subjugating a sparse native population and shunned Indian hospitality. Without the local aid, the Roanoke colony's strategy for survival has been described as one of "struggle and perish." Most inhabitants starved, died of disease, or were killed by Indian groups in violent encounters. Survivor stories prepared a future Virginia settlement in Jamestown on the Chesapeake Bay and in the southern colonies of South Carolina (see VUS.3).

The relationship between the Jamestown colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy foreshadowed the complex relationships between Indians and English in the Colonial Era. While the English repeatedly tried to assert power over the Indians, the Powhatans hoped to use the English to bolster their tribal standing in an environment of inter-tribal competition. As the Indians and English battled for dominance throughout the Chesapeake, each incorporated the goods and skills of the opposing culture into their own. The Indians quickly made use of iron-age implements such as kettles, fishhooks, guns, and knives. The English adopted Indian fishing techniques such as weir nets and canoes and learned how to cultivate successful crops. Yet in spite of the exchanges, the cultural and racial integration seen in the Spanish colonies was not generally duplicated in the English colonies.

From the descriptions of Columbus and others, European perceptions of Indians were at first generally favorable. Examining the complex relationship between Indians and early English colonists, Karen Kupperman notes that English writers on colonization described Indian societies as viable civilizations and regarded economic prosperity in the New World as a viable option. Potential colonists saw the native peoples as potential trading partners and friendly and receptive to European settlements. This positive view, however, contrasted with other descriptions of savagery that grew out of cultural assumptions and misunderstandings about gender roles, matrilineal societies, clothing, diet, religious worship, and most critically, notions of individual property ownership and land use. The English and the Indians each viewed one another through their own frames of reference and understandings of how human societies should function. All of this contributed to the marginalization of Indians from English colonial society. In light of the conflicting nature of English-Indian relations, the decimation of the Indian population through disease, and the increasing difficulty and expense of indentured servants, the English eventually turned to African slaves for labor.

Africans Come to America

The introduction of slavery brought the culture of Africa to America. Enslaved Africans were often carried to the coast from their homelands across central Africa. Their families, communal structures, and anything else familiar, disappeared as they were marched to the sea where African kingdoms, such as the Dahomey, negotiated their sale to the Europeans. Once in America, Africans worked as field laborers, explorers, soldiers, guides, and linguists. In the English colonies, they were generally confined to field labor and housework.

Most scholars of the slave system, including John Thornton and Ira Berlin, agree that Africans exercised limited control over the evolution of slave culture in America. Slaves brought with them a variety of languages, religious traditions, and agricultural skills; at the same time, they adapted to completely new and oppressive circumstances in dynamic and creative ways. Because they hailed from different ecological regions and cultures, the communities African slaves formed created a distinctive "African-American" culture evidenced through folktales, covert marital practices, songs and musical instruments (such as the drum and banjo), and the continuation of craftsmanship, such as basket-weaving. These practices were so well maintained that many of them found their way into the cultural mores of European colonists.

For the most part, African slaves interacted with one another or their European owners. These relationships frequently led to violent confrontations but also to physical intimacy (often forced but sometimes consensual). In some instances, Africans mingled with American Indians. Occasionally runaway slaves would find refuge with Indians tribes like the Seminoles in Florida. The two cultures shared much in terms of matrilineal societies, concepts of property, and tribal affiliations. Later, some southeastern Indian tribes, which adopted European farming practices, enlisted slaves into their societies as a labor force.

One of the most profound influences on African culture in America was Christianity. Scholars have long viewed the slave's adoption of Christianity as an ongoing process. In Many Thousands Gone, Ira Berlin reviews the dynamic evolution of the slave institution and its culture over several centuries. However, in Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, John Thornton argued that conversion began en route from Africa: many slaves were thus already "Christianized" when they arrived in North America. While African religions varied, they tended to agree with one another about notions of a Supreme Creator, lesser gods associated with natural forces, and the power of deceased ancestors to influence daily life. Yet Africans also believed in a world beyond life, and therefore funerary practices incorporated Christian aspects. Christianity also offered slaves hope through promises of redemption and stories of freedom such as in the Book of Exodus. While many southern masters did not encourage such Christian instruction, missionaries in the northern English colonies introduced these ideas in the early eighteenth century during the first of many religious revivals known as the Great Awakening.

Unlike the primarily economic motivations for settlement in and south of the Chesapeake area, religion was the reason for the establishment of the English colonies in the northeast. In 1517, Martin Luther of present-day Germany had spurred vast numbers of people to break from the Catholic Church due to disagreements about church hierarchy and policies on salvation. Known as the Protestant Reformation, the movement took many forms, but one of the most important followers proved to be England's King Henry VIII, who broke from the Catholic Church in order to obtain a divorce from his first wife and marry a Protestant. Their daughter, Elizabeth I, ruled England from 1558 to 1603 and oversaw religiously motivated wars against Catholics in France and Spain, and especially in Ireland. Indeed, the prominence of religion in the Spanish wars of conquest grew out of a desire to defend Catholicism against the Protestant challenge. The New World became a battlefield for Europe's religious schism.

In the 1620s, one group of critics known as Puritans, who believed that the Church of England still needed to "purify" itself of Catholic elements, felt so persecuted for their views that many crossed the Atlantic to establish a Christian utopia of congregational churches. Without the climate for large-scale agriculture, nor the motivation of economic interest, these new colonists had little need or desire to integrate Indians into their society. The northeastern tribes looked at the new English settlers as simply additional players in the inter-tribal warfare of the region. Prior to the establishment of successful colonies in the north, early explorers had introduced diseases that turned into epidemics, decimating much of the Indian population and leaving little chance of viable resistance to permanent settlement and land acquisition. The English colonists saw this tragedy as divine intervention and proof of their right to the land. However, native groups were still strong enough by the 1670s to resist English power and claims to land as seen in the uprising known as King Philip's (or Metacomet's) War.

"New Worlds for All"

Beginning in the fifteenth century, several worlds, driven by political, economic, and religious forces in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East, met in America. The nature of this contact was often dictated by the colonizers and often overshadowed by violence and coercion. Increasingly, however, scholars have emphasized the maintenance of Indian and African culture throughout this process and the reciprocal nature of cultural exchange and influence. The colonization of America did not simply create a European "New World"; it unleashed forces that would forever alter the lives of Africans, American Indians, and of Europeans themselves.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Calloway, Colin. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Kupperman, Karen. Settling With the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America, 1580-1640. Rowman and Littlefield and J. M. Dent, 1980.

Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America. 4th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000.

Shoemaker, Nancy, ed. Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women. New York: Routledge, 1995.

John Thornton. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1998.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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