How did the French and Dutch colonies in North America differ from the Spanish Empire in the South?

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By the late sixteenth century, Spain possessed a vast empire, one centered on towns and cities throughout South and Central America. It featured a complex imperial bureaucracy headed by royal officials known as viceroys. While we usually associate the economics of the Spanish Empire with the extraction of mineral wealth...

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By the late sixteenth century, Spain possessed a vast empire, one centered on towns and cities throughout South and Central America. It featured a complex imperial bureaucracy headed by royal officials known as viceroys. While we usually associate the economics of the Spanish Empire with the extraction of mineral wealth that prevailed in parts of Central America and other areas, there was actually a wide array of economic activities in the Empire. Spanish plantations in the Caribbean, for example, produced sugar, and imported enslaved Africans in massive numbers. The spread of Catholicism in the wake of the Reformation was a major driving force behind the Empire, and Spanish missionaries from Argentina to modern California established missions aimed at converting Native peoples to the faith.

The Dutch and French empires existed on a much smaller scale than the Spanish Empire. The French Empire was centered on the Caribbean sugar islands and settlements in Canada. Beyond that, it consisted of trading outposts scattered throughout North America. French people settled in relatively small numbers, leaving a fairly light imprint on the continent. While French missionaries sought to convert Natives, they lacked the backing of a powerful government, and did not try to stamp out Native culture as many Spanish missionaries did. In general, the French sought to gain influence through alliances, such as with the Algonquian people near the Great Lakes. They had no real designs on conquest.

The Dutch Empire also included Caribbean and South American outposts, in addition to, briefly, New Amsterdam. Like the French, the Dutch Empire was mainly focused on commerce, and did not seek territorial conquest on a large scale. Dutch settlements were noted for their religious tolerance, and did not attempt to convert Native peoples. As the world's leading maritime power, the Dutch were very active in the slave trade in the seventeenth century. Overall, however, the Dutch focused much of their imperial attentions in Asia, where they possessed colonies throughout the Indian Ocean rim.

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The main differences were size, administration, and purpose. New Spain occupied land in both North and South America while the Dutch owned some islands in the Caribbean and the area around the Hudson River. The French owned a great deal of the North American interior, but they could only claim it in name as they could only send fur trappers, traders, and missionaries there.

The Dutch set up the colony of New Amsterdam for trade. They did not make any efforts to convert the natives living in the region since the Netherlands was famous as a place of religious toleration. The Dutch traders resented their leader and were more than happy to defect to the English, thus making New Amsterdam New York and ending Dutch rule in the Americas. The Spanish conquistadors exploited cheap Indian labor for plantation work and converted the natives their to Catholicism. They were not given any choice as the Spanish imposed their language and culture on the natives. Over the course of many generations the Spanish intermarried with the native people of the region ultimately creating a caste system where the pure Spanish race was the best and the pure native was the "worst," with mestizos lying somewhere in between. The French sought Indian converts but they were not as forceful—in many cases Jesuit priests translated the Bible into native languages. The French sought to make Indian allies in order to facilitate trade and to launch sporadic attacks on English settlements.

The Spanish empire in the New World lasted the longest though ultimately it ran into the same problems as the French and Dutch empires—not enough settlers from the Old World were willing to colonize the New World. The English were the ultimate victors in claiming the New World because they were willing to export people to literally possess the land.

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The main differences between the French and Dutch colonies and the Spanish colonies consisted of the size and scale of the colonies and their forms of rule. In North America, trading outposts along the Hudson River and in New Amsterdam (New York) were built by the Dutch and along the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers by the French. They remained relatively small in size. The Spanish, on the other hand, were interested in large-scale conquest in order to expand the Crown's territorial holdings. They colonized vast territories stretching from the Andes Mountains to California.

In terms of government, there were vast differences too. The Spanish colonies were ruled by local governors and viceroys who governed in the name of the Spanish king. They had a great amount of power in their territories, often with little oversight. The French and Dutch settlers lived directly under the rules and laws of their governments in Europe. They were not allowed to make their own local laws and answered to their respective kings and ministers.

Population growth in the North American colonies was much slower than in the Spanish colonies to the south. The Dutch and French never intended to fully populate the Americas, but rather intended to use them as a source of income to supplement their nations' treasuries through trading outposts. They sought economic alliances with the native peoples but did not bring them into their populations. They intended their colonies to exist as homogenous European populations. Conversely, the Spanish had colonized areas with large populations and they eagerly (and often violently) brought the natives into their society, albeit onto a much lower social rung than the Europeans. Natives were forced into the Catholic faith and made to speak Spanish and abandon their indigenous traditions. They became subjects of the Spanish Crown, unlike the native populations in North America.

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