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The primary reason that Western Europe, primarily England and France, delayed exploration and settlement in the Americas was that there was not the motivation to do so. The Spanish were quite motivated, for economic reasons.
Spain at the time of its first forays into the New World was the poorest nation in Europe. It hoped to reverse that situation by gold imported from the Americas; in fact the primary goal of Spanish exploration and settlement was to search for gold. A decidedly secondary reason was to Christianize the Indians they encountered; however they never allowed this second goal to interfere with the first. They were remarkably cruel, as evidenced by the treatment of the Aztecs and Incas; but were also remarkably successful. At the height of their Empire, Spanish ships carried more than $15 million in gold to Spain on a monthly basis. Spanish gold shipments soon became targets for other nations, particularly England, and the Spanish founded the settlement at St. Augustine, Florida, to protect their gold shipments from attack.
Other European nations simply had no motivation to follow suit. This changed with a number of events in Europe, including the Protestant Reformation, which created a number of religious refugees eager to settle elsewhere, and growing competition between Spain and England for dominance. The first serious argument for English settlement in the Americas was Richard Hakluyt's Discourse Concerning Western Planting, published in 1584.
This enterprise may stay the Spanish King from flowing over all the face of that waste firm of America, if we seat and plant there in time, in time I say, and we by planting shall [prevent] him from making more short and more safe returns out of the noble ports of the purposed places of our planting, then by any possibility he can from the part of the firm that now his navys by ordinary courses come from, in this that there is no comparison between the ports of the coasts that the King of Spain doth now possess and use and the ports of the coasts that our nation is to possess by planting at Norumbega, . . . And England possessing the purposed place of planting, her Majesty may, by the benefit of the seat having won good and royall havens, have plenty of excellent trees for masts of goodly timber to build ships and to make great navys, of pitch, tar, hemp, and all things incident for a navy royall, and that for no price, and without money or request. How easy a matter may yet be to this realm, swarming at this day with valiant youths, rusting and hurtful by lack of employment, and having good makers of cable and of all sorts of cordage, and the best and most cunning shipwrights of the world, to be lords of all those seas, and to spoil Phillip's Indian navy, and to deprive him of yearly passage of his treasure into Europe, and consequently to abate the pride of Spain and of the suporter of the great Anti-Christ of Rome and to pull him down in equality to his neighbour princes, and consequently to cut of the common mischiefs that come to all Europe by the peculiar abundance of his Indian treasure, and this without difficulty.
Hakluyt's Discoursewas influential in Elizabeth I's granting Sir Walter Raleigh permission to found a settlement, even though that settlement failed miserably.
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