European colonization of the Americas

European colonization of the Americas between 1492 and c.1800

The European colonization of the Americas is the history of the settlement and establishment of control of the continents of the Americas by most of the naval powers of Western Europe.

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”. ~ Kenneth C. Davis
The appearance of pirates on the coasts of America was coeval with the earliest settlements in the new world, and to secure a complete view of their history, we have to refer to conditions which existed far back in the middle of the sixteenth century. ~ S. C. Hughson
As it happened, the merging of religion and nationalism furthered the cause of European colonization in the New World by helping spur intense competition in a variety of ways between nation states. ~ Jason S. Lantzer


  • When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.
    • Marlon Brando, "Speech for the Academy Awards protesting the treatment of American Indians", written by Brando, as it appeared in the New York Times (March 30, 1973)
  • In 1863, Colonel Kit Carson was ordered to clear the country of Navajo Indians and to resettle any survivors at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, where they could be "civilized." Carson's strategy was the same as that applied against the Plains Indians a little later: He destroyed the Navajo food base by systematically killing their livestock and by burning their fields. Carson's "Long Knives" (his soldiers so named because of their bayonets) also cut off the breast of Navajo girls and tossed them back and forth like baseballs.
  • I think it's hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn't work for north America, that's for sure. I mean, I'm sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don't know what they were because they didn't write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don't think we'd have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we've had in north America.
    • Niall Ferguson, "Niall Ferguson: 'Westerners don't understand how vulnerable freedom is'", The Guardian, February 20, 2011.
  • The appearance of pirates on the coasts of America was coeval with the earliest settlements in the new world, and to secure a complete view of their history, we have to refer to conditions which existed far back in the middle of the sixteenth century. But these piracies are not to be considered as a apart of those which enter so largely into the commercial history of the North American colonies, or those of the South o which we propose to speak more particularly. At that time the English colonies had not yet been planted, and it was from the founding of these that the occurrences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which had to great an effect on commerce, date. Many of the earliest settlers were adventurers, not in the then honorable meaning of that term, but in the strictest latter-day disreputable sense. The countries of Europe when anxious to rid themselves of turbulent elements, offered special inducements to the objectionable individuals to emigrate. By England in particular was this custom practiced, and the better classes in the colonies frequently complained of the unloading of the refuse population of the mother-country on their shores. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that bold, bad men with criminal propensities, if not genuine outlaws, flocked to America as a field in which they could indulge their evil adventures with comparatively little interruption, and it was this class that fostered the spirit which soon broke forth in all kinds of crime and lawlessness.
  • To the west of Europe lay the overseas colonies. In these, with the notable exception of the Northern United States of America and a few less significant patches of independent farming, the typical cultivator was an Indian working as a forced labourer or virtual serf, or a Negro working as a slave; somewhat more rarely, a peasant tenant, share-cropper or the like. (In the colonies of the Eastern Indies, where direct cultivation by European planters was rarer, the typical form of compulsion by the controllers of the land was the forced delivery of quotas of crops, e.g. spice or coffee in the Dutch islands.) In other words the typical cultivator was unfree or under political constraint. The typical landlord was the owner of the large quasi-feudal estate (hacienda, finca, estancia) or of a slave plantation. The characteristic economy of the quasi-feudal estate was primitive and self-contained, or at any rate geared to purely regional demands: Spanish America exported mining products, also produced by what were virtually Indian serfs, but nothing much in the way of farm-products.
  • As it happened, the merging of religion and nationalism furthered the cause of European colonization in the New World by helping spur intense competition in a variety of ways between nation states. Europeans, even as they fought over the Reformation, were in competition for economic resources and trade. Nations were attempting to become the most dominant power in Europe and saw colonies as the best means to achieve that goal quickly. And they were also in competition over propagating their brand of Christianity. The leading imperial powers in what was to become the United States all wrestled with faith and nationalism in different ways.
  • For the Spanish, there was little doubt that they were the Catholic power in the wake of Columbus's discovery and Luther's Reformation. Benefiting from finding and conquering the two richest and strongest Native American tribal empires (the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru) the Spanish were overnight awash in a sea of wealth. Rather than funding a crusade to liberate the Holy Land, however, the Spanish opted to use their riches to build up the Roman Church and their own power. This often meant fighting Protestant (and at times other Catholic) nations in both the Old and New Worlds. It also meant actively seeking to convert Native Americans by Catholic missionaries and by the sword. The empire the Spanish constructed heavily meshed the church with the state, and vice versa, with the church hierarchy handpicked by the Spanish crown, and the institutional church used to help administer the far-flung colonial holdings.
    But the Spanish were not alone as a colonial power for very long, nor was their model the only one crafted by European Christians in the New World. The Portuguese quickly recognized their mistake in not backing Columbus and soon landed in Brazil with the full blessing of the papacy, which arbitrated and divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal in order to avert a conflict between the two powers. By the mid-1500s, the French joined them in the Americas as well.
  • Many of the first voyages landed French Protestant colonists in the midst of Spanish territorial claims in the Caribbean and Florida, which the Spanish dealt with by massacring men, women, and children. When the french government moved its focus farther north, to what it today Canada, it escaped Spanish retaliation but found no easy path to wealth and dwindling numbers of willing colonists. In part this was because of past debacles and in part because of new conditions in France. The Catholic-controlled government initiated a new program of banishing Protestant ministers, thus cutting of the spiritual heads of Protestant congregations, and sending the remaining devout either into exile, back into the Roman church, or opting out of organized religion altogether. With good economic conditions at home; there was also a lack of interest in leaving France. As a result, French colonies became small in size, Catholic in their religion, and based on good relations with Native American tribes. This development allowed the french to tap into the abundant fish and fur resources of North America, creating a transatlantic trade that brought them wealth in Europe without putting too much pressure on the Native Americans for land.
  • They (Native Americans) didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white person on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.
    • Ayn Rand, Q and A session following her address to the graduating class of The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, March 6, 1974 - found in Endgame: Resistance, by Derrick Jensen, Seven Stories Press, 2006, p. 220

See also