American Beginnings

2007-08-11

August 3rd was the 415th anniversary of the departure of Christopher Columbus and his small fleet west from Spain to China. On the way, Columbus bumped into the Bahamas, thus "discovering" the New World. The result was the Spanish plundering and colonization of the Western Hemisphere from Argentina to Florida.

Aside from Brazil (ceded to the Portuguese), the New World could have been completely Spanish. But for various reasons the Spanish were not interested in the lands above 30 degrees north latitude. Their activities in the Caribbean, Cuba, Mexico, and eventually Peru kept them plenty busy. The lands to the north seemed uninteresting by comparison -- no ready supplies of gold, no large civilizations to plunder, cold waters, forbidding forests, and lands that were not well-situated for the sugar plantations and other large-scale agricultural ventures favored by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Thus North America was colonized much later than Central and South America -- and not by the Spanish and Portuguese but by the French (limited mostly to the great valley of the St. Lawrence) and the English. Yet it appears that North America was discovered first, by venturesome sailors from the English port of Bristol who maintained an active trade with Iceland starting in the 1300s and who fished the Grand Banks off Newfoundland as early as 1481. News of these fisheries -- and land or islands sighted to the west thereof -- filtered down to Portugal and Spain, probably inspiring (in part) the voyages of Columbus. Landfall by the English was officially made on June 24, 1497 by John Cabot, a Venetian (or perhaps Genoan) pilot in the service of King Henry VII. No one knows exactly where Cabot's crew landed, but it seems likely to have been in northern Newfoundland.

Despite the fact that the English seem to have discovered new lands to the west before the Spanish did, their colonization efforts lagged. The Spanish and Portuguese were well-entrenched to the south decades before the English tried to plant their first colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of Virginia in 1586. Yet this colony failed, as did other colonial efforts (e.g., that at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1606). It was only in 1607 that the English succeeded in planting a permanent colony at Jamestown on Chesapeake Bay. It took a long time for a confluence of interests -- in profits by English merchants, in profits and geopolitical positioning by the crown, in religious freedom and economic self-advancement by those individuals who might plant a colony -- to come together.

For over a hundred years, the merchants of the western ports (especially Bristol) saw no need for permanent colonies and were happy to seasonally harvest the bounties of the fisheries off the North American coast, with a bit of fur trading added to the mix for extra profits. There was some interest by the crown and the London establishment in having a military presence in modern-day Virginia or North Carolina as a bulwark against Spanish claims (or as support for the privateers who preyed on Spanish shipping), but evidently that interest was not strong enough to justify dedicated colonial efforts in the 16th century. The western merchants eventually became interested in the lands north of Cape Cod for timber and related products, and the London merchants eventually became interested in Virginia and the Carolinas as a potential location for growing crops (such as tobacco, dyes, and cotton) that they otherwise would have sourced from the Spanish or Portuguese.

It seems that the English crown took no great interest in North America from the 1480s on to the 1620s, and was happy to allow adventurers to explore the coast, privateers to harass the Spanish, and western sailors to fish off the coast without royal interference or organization. Benign neglect was the order of the day, and the result was a long, tentative period of trial by error, with no serious commitment to settlement of North America.

The would-be colonists themselves were long absent, too. Who would want to venture across the Atlanticto a land that would bring no immediate returns (such as the shiploads of gold and silver removed from Mexico by the Spanish) but instead only years of toil and the ever-present possibility of attack by hostile natives? You'd have to be crazy (which I think the original English settlers pretty much were).

So the English started slow in the North America. In future posts I'll explore in greater depth what happened once they got serious; but first I need to do some more reading.

Returning to Columbus, it is an unfortunate accident of history that in America we celebrate Columbus Day. As far as I'm concerned, there is no reason for us to commemorate the legacy of Spanish influence in the New World. I realize that Columbus Day is celebrated mainly by Italian-Americans. Yet they could just as well take John Cabot -- the Venetian Giovanni Cabotto -- into their hearts, and thereby honor America in the Anglosphere and the tradition of common law, private enterprise, and individual freedom that we have inherited from the English.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal