There is no single answer as to why European colonization occurred; as each country had it's own motives. Originally, the primary aim of exploration was to find an alternative route by sea to the riches of the East. Columbus himself was attempting to do just that. Once the New World was discovered, there was little interest in colonizing it for some time.
The first to exploit the New World were the Spanish who were primarily interested in gold and silver. Their secondary interest was in converting the Indians to Christianity, but they did not let this stand in the way of their primary goal. The Spanish established a settlement at St. Augustine, Florida, the earliest permanent settlement in the U.S. as an outpost to guard their gold shipments to Europe.
English colonization was at first an effort by Sir Walter Raleigh and his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, to establish an outpost to keep an eye on Spanish settlements. They, of course, failed miserably, notably the "lost colony" of Roanoke. English colonization was justified by Sir Richard Hakluyt in his Discourse on Western Planting:
That this westerne discoverie will be greately for the inlargement of the gospell of Christe whereunto the Princes of the refourmed relligion are chefely bounde amongest whome her Majestie is principall. That all other englishe Trades are growen beggerly or daungerous, especially in all the kinge of Spaine his Domynions, where our men are dryven to flinge their Bibles and prayer Bokes into the sea, and to forsweare and renownce their relligion and conscience and consequently theyr obedience to her Majestie.That this westerne voyadge will yelde unto us all the commodities of Europe, Affrica, and Asia, as far as wee were wonte to travell, and supply the wantes of all our decayed trades. That this enterprise will be for the manifolde imploymente of nombers of idle men, and for bredinge of many sufficient, and for utterance of the greate quantitie of the commodities of our Realme.That this voyage will be a great bridle to the Indies of the kinge of Spaine and a means that wee may arreste at our pleasure for the space of teime weekes or three monethes every yere, one or twoo hundred saile of his subjectes shippes at the fysshinge in Newfounde Iande. That the rischesse that the Indian Threasure wrought in time of Charles the late Emperor father to the Spanishe kinge, is to be had in consideracion of the Q. moste excellent Majestie, leaste the contynuall commynge of the like threasure from thence to his sonne, worke the unrecoverable annoye of this Realme, whereof already wee have had very dangerous experience.
Notwithstanding Hakluyt's high sounding principles, the colony at Jamestown was founded by a joint stock company with the intent of profiting financially. Northern colonies, such as Chesapeake Bay were intended to be representations of model Christian communities, a "City on a Hill" to use Winthrop's phrase.
Finally the French came for economic motives and to convert the Indians; their motivation being the fur trade. Ultimately, only the English were successful.
The first causes of European exploration related to the need to find a shipping route from Europe to Asia, but the causes changed as other nations competed.
Early explorations, followed by settlements, colonization, and the establishment of trade relationships, had many causes. As the rivalry between European nations grew, these causes were transformed into mercantile necessities.
The Voyages of Columbus Begin a Process
Columbus’ objective was to sail west, across the Atlantic, in order to reach the wealthy trading stations in Asia. According to historians, he carried with him a copy of Marco Polo’s experiences in China. Lucrative European trade with Asia had been severely curtailed by wars in the Middle East, culminating with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. At the same time, Portuguese navigators had sailed along the western coast of Africa, eventually rounding the tip and sailing on to India.
Wealthy Europeans craved spices from Asia as well as silks and sugar. This trade had helped to further the prosperity of Italian city states like Venice and could be traced back to the time of the Crusades. Columbus himself was born in Genoa, the map-making capital of Europe.
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Columbus, however, never made it to Asia, landing instead on Caribbean islands in the course of four voyages. Instead of sending silks, gold, and spices back to Spain, his ships brought back Native Americans as slaves, tobacco, and the first potatoes in Europe. Thus began the Columbian Exchange, introducing new agricultural products in Europe that would revolutionize diets and the health of millions.
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Within 100 years of that first voyage, Spain claimed all of Central and South America as well as southern portions of North America. The other great mercantile powers carried their European wars to the new continent and, in the process, began the competition of colonization.
From the Nabateans and Persians, to the Greeks and Romans, to the British, Dutch, Portuguese and the French, it is all about three things being used to achieve one. The three things are:
1) raw resources - gold, copper, spices, tea, minerals, gems etc; 2) people - to provide the 'pedal-power' necessary to make things. Older Empires used people both voluntarily and enslaved, while later Empires tended to move away from enslavement; 3) land - gaining and retaining strategic land/ports etc so that control can be maintained over the the people and resources in points 1 and 2.
These three things were the means. But what was the end? Power, and all that comes with it - gold, wealth, defense of homeland, and more wealth.
1.) Economic - motives included the desire to make money, to expand and control foreign trade, to create new markets for products, to acquire raw materials and cheap labor, to compete for investments and resources, and to export industrial technology and transportation methods. 2.) Political- motives were based on a nation's desire to gain power, to compete with other European countries, to expand territory, to exercise military force, to gain prestige by winning colonies, and to boost national pride and security. 3.) Religious- motives included the desire to spread Christianity, to protect European missionaries in other lands, to spread European values and moral beliefs, to educate peoples of other cultures, and to end slave trade in Africa. 4.) Exploratory- motives were based on the desire to explore "unknown" or uncharted territory, to conduct scientific research, to conduct medical searches for the causes and treatment of diseases, to go on an adventure, and to investigate "unknown" lands and cultures.