Colonial Activity in the Americas

There has been much written about the early European colonies in the Americas as refuges for the underpriveleged and downtrodden of Europe. There may be a grain of truth to this, but it's important to realize the reasons behind the emergence and development of these colonies. European countries were in a constant competition with each other for riches, military power, and worldwide land holdings. The Americas presented an entirely new and vast area for them, a place in which they hoped to find gold and riches - things that would make their countries more powerful.

After Columbus landed in the West Indies (see A People's History of America and Morning Girl), Portugal and Spain decided to divvy up colonial rights to the non-christian world. They decided on a vertical longitudinal line in the ocean, Spain getting rights to everthing West of the line, Portugal getting rights to the East. Portugal was in India, the East Indies and Brazil. They were not the most effective, militarily; they had trouble dominating abroad in the far East as they had hoped they would. The colonial theory, one that would hopefully put huge amounts of gold in the hands of the monarchy, instead was making small individual merchants rich.

For a long time the Portugese did not pay much attention to the Eastern Coast of what is now Brazil, even though they had rights to it through the treaty with Spain - mostly because it was wild, with dangerous natives and no gold. But in the years around 1530, they were worried about the French and Spanish crowding into their holdings, so they divvied up plots of land and set up feudal systems to manage plantation colonies. In the end, Portugal would lose its far East holdings while they crumbled under Spain's rule, only later regaining independance. The Portugese feudal plantations in South America were only the beginnings of the massive colonial effect that would change it forever.

Spaniards conquered the larger of the islands of the West Indies by 1512, not finding much gold or riches for their efforts. They left a trail of blood behind them, though it was nothing compared to what they would do on the mainland. Driven by rumours of gold and riches, they destroyed the Aztec confederation, leading them to a wealth of gold in the heartland of what is now Mexico. The Pizarro brothers took on the Incas in what is now Panama in the year 1531, taking several years to complete their conquest - which resulted in an enormous treasure of gold and silver. These conquests led to decents into the Amazon, Bolivia, Columbia, Argentina, and much of Latin America. They also fought their way up into what is now the American Southwest, as well as Florida.

The English colonial efforts in the small islands of the West Indies were more important than the whole of their mainland colonies for many years. The only obstacles in controlling the islands were the formidible inhabitants, the Caribs (see portrayal of these people in Robinson Crusoe), and the friendly Arawaks. Islands like Barbados and the Bermudas were wealth producers due to the production of sugar, after its introduction in 1637. Once the plantation system developed, the population of blacks soared, as they were imported in enormous numbers for forced labor. Oliver Cromwell stole Jamaica (see No Telephone to Heaven) from Spain, making it the center of the English existence in the West Indies. For years this area of the world was an epicenter of trade.

British colonial activity on the East coast of America began in the early 1600's with small groups in Virginia, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, sponsored by investors from England. The colonies were largely the refuge of religious dessenters, though this dessent did not pursuade them to leave the umbrella of England's protection. In the later 17th century and early 18th century, the rest of the original 13 colonial experiments were launched. A variety came when the population changed from merely English to one of great differing backgrounds: Dutch, French, Germans, and Scots-Irish were some of the main groups to help populate the land. The rapid growth of what became America led to conflict with the Native Americans (see Crazy Horse).

The French were not nearly as effective at colonizing the Americas as the Spanish and English. In the 1520's Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River, though he failed to establish a colony anywhere. In the 16th century France tried colonies in Rio de Janeiro and Florida; both floundered and came to nothing. At the beginning of the 17th century, they put together a colony in Nova Scotia, founded Quebec in 1608, and massively expanded their fur trade westward.

The French also were doing their own business in the West Indies. In 1625 French settlers went into St. Christopher; they were also established, by mid century, in Guadalupe and Martinique. They used slave labour to farm sugar as the main wealth export. They were also set up as a colony in Cayenne, where there were frequent raids into the Amazon Indians to support a feeble existence.




The West Indies, once conquered and colonized, became a crucial link in the triangle trade. For years this was the route through which slaves came in, then were sent either to neighboring islands, to South America, or to the new colonies in America. Olaudah Equiano, on his harrowing sea journey, came through this area, as well as Brazil and America. So did Robinson Crusoe.

The massive decimation of native tribes did not end in the West Indies and mainland Central America. It spread North and South, and continued long after its initial bloody beginning. The number of native lives lost or ruined from forced migration is one not able to be approximated, it is so large. This theme is touched upon in Morning Girl. Later, the forced migration would move up in to the American mainland and the West, and is covered in books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, A People's History of America, and Crazy Horse.

The colonial model was retroactively fitted with a word called 'mercantilism.' The term was coined by a Scottish philosopher in the later 1700's; it described the model of what the European countries had been trying to do to the world for several centuries. The main idea was that a country's 'wealth' was measured by its stash of silver and gold; and a nation has colonies in order to extract a profit from them - via the extraction of raw materials, as well as from the sale of goods and merchandise to the members of the colonies. Foreign countries are of course not allowed in the trade system, as the mother country is the sole monopoly, controlling price,wealth, and distribution.

The Encyclopedia Britannica provides an excellent overview of colonialism, not only in the West, but in the East, and Africa. ***


Some people believe motive and intent are important things to consider when analyzing both literature and history. For this study, it might be helpful to look at the motives behind the colonization of the world by Europeans, as well as the condition of the world at the time - and how that would have contributed to countries' power struggles through colonialism.

Taking the above statement in mind, look at some of the texts related here, as well as others from this site. How do these texts address these topics? Who is doing the addressing? And, perhaps most importantly, who do you think is right? - or wrong? Is it that simple?



There is a fine historical essay at Encylcopedia Britanica on line, search "colonialism."


Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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