Marco Polo – the Venetian merchant – returned to Italy from Asia and described the Indies and the awareness of lands beyond Islam. European monarchs could not resist their urge to get to the lands Polo described. However, Islam and the Venetian monopoly were a hindrance to their ambition. Initiated by Christopher Columbus, the Western Europe quest for an alternative course to the Indies through the west led to the European unintended interaction with the New World. The historical themes of geographical determination of historical events, the role of economics in history, as well as greed and power, are evident in the European colonization of the New World.
Geography predominantly influenced the European colonization of the New World. The Europeans were adamant that the only route to the Indies of Polo was eastwards. Nonetheless, due to the hindrance of Venice and Islam, going east for the Europeans meant they had to go southwards around Africa and then north-eastwards to the Indies. It was Columbus who first conceived what the Europeans called an unorthodox view of an alternative course to the Indies through the west about 2600 miles away from Europe (Lewis 272).
Columbus’ view was unorthodox but not wrong; early Greek philosopher Pythagoras had speculated of spherical earth which the Hellenistic Astronomy proved right in around the third century BCE, implying that it was possible to go round westwards to the Indies instead of eastwards. The only wrong concept in Columbus’ view was the estimated distance. Columbus made several voyages and sighted land (and islands), which he, until his death, believed to be the Indies.
However, this land, which John Cabot also discovered in Newfoundland, was the land of Amerigo. Despite encountering innumerable challenges, the Portuguese quest for an eastern route to the Indies was successful, and they ended up monopolizing Western Europe’s trade with Asia. In the Spanish case, however, bumping on the New World was an opportunity for them to seize. While the Portuguese built a far-flung imperial network in Africa and Asia, the Spanish established modest farming settlements in the Caribbean islands, brutally enslaving the natives of the New World (Lewis 276). Spanish culture still dominates much of Central and Southern America today, but it is geography that played the most significant role in the Spanish colonization of the New World.
Other than geography, economics also influenced the colonization of the New World. The Europeans in Western Europe anticipated to benefit immensely in wealth and to exclude the Venetians and Arabs from their exploitation of the Indies. Polo had described vast, wealthy lands after establishing trading pacts with the Mongol Empire in Western Asia (Lewis 270). Western European countries also desired to break Venice’s trading monopoly in the Mediterranean and to make allies against Islam with other regions.
All these factors made finding a direct western link between Western Europe and the Indies a mandatory undertaking for the monarchs of Western Europe. What is irrefutable in this concession that it was compulsory to get a direct link to the Indies is the desire of Western European monarchs and merchants to become rich, and even more luxurious than their Venetian counterparts. The leaders of Western Europe, as ambitious as they were, would earn money by collecting taxes on the new trade or equally sponsoring trading ventures of their own.
Most, if not all, of the expeditions that led to the discovery of the New World, had the blessings of the rulers, and the rulers funded them directly with the hope of getting paid handsomely by the success of their ventures. The Spanish conquistadors in the New World, for example, Hernan Cortes, governed the territories they conquered in the name of the distant King of Spain. Cortes bore the title, Captain-general, and Governor of New Spain (Lewis 277). Other conquistadors, for instance, Francisco Pizarro, moved further inland from the east coast into the South American territories looking for gold and silver, specifically in the Inca territories (Lewis 277-278). While geography played an indirect role in the colonization of the New World, economics played a fundamental and direct role in this colonization.
Greed and power are equally dominant themes in the colonization of the New World. The westward conquest of the conquistadors from the eastern shores of the New World drew its motivation from rumors that there were peoples rich in gold and silver in the nearby interior. The rumors turned true when Cortes and Pizarro encountered the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire, respectively (Lewis 276-278).
However, how the conquistadors subdued the natives not only depicted cruelty but their greed as well. The natives had inferior weapons, and their rulers were under threat from internal unrest. However, Pizarro, after capturing the Inca emperor – Atahualpa – and holding him for ransom – tons of gold and silver – baptized him as a Christian and then executed him before marching to the capital at Cuzco, looted it and took it over (Lewis 278).
Once the era of plunder and conquest ended, the Spanish embarked on two tasks – exploiting the conquered lands’ wealth and converting the natives of these lands to Christians. The first task would give Spain power over other monarchies in Western Europe. The latter task elucidates the church’s involvement in the colonization of the New World, eliciting its greed and desire for power. The church gave its blessing to the search for a western route to find allies against Islam and spread the gospel. As the rulers plundered the New World taking the lands’ wealth back to Spain, the churches contested against each other to win new converts. Such was the manifestation of greed and power in the colonization of the New World.
Lewis, Gavin. WCIV. Vol. 2: Since 1300. Student ed., Cengage Learning, 2012.