European Exploration of America

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What were the motivations, strategies, and relationships with indigenous peoples during the colonization of the Americas by the English and Spanish?

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One thing to understand when comparing the English and Spanish colonial experience is that they did not occur in isolation from each other. England, in fact, undertook the colonization of North America in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries as part of an effort to stem the tide of Spanish conquests. North America was chosen because it had not yet been colonized by the Spanish.

Early English efforts at colonization had very similar motives to those of Spain. They wanted to discover the wealth that Spanish conquistadors had in Central and South America, and they assumed that they, like the Spaniards, could quickly and easily subjugate the peoples they encountered. This, of course, proved to be impossible, especially in Virginia, where the powerful Powhatan Confederacy surrounded the Jamestown settlement. It was also a deadly assumption at Jamestown, because settlers spent more time seeking gold than doing the hard work that was necessary to start a colony.

At the same time, the English were also persuaded by the "black legend" of Spanish brutality that they would be milder conquerors than the Spanish. Additionally, the New England colonies, with their religious mandate to create a "city on a hill" had different motives than the grasping conquistadors. Like the Jesuits and other orders in Spanish America, some English missionaries attempted to convert Native Americans.

But within fifty years of contact, both major English settlements in North America had experienced bloody wars of conquest against surrounding Native peoples. Both Spanish and English colonies, then, flourished by destroying the indigenous peoples whose lands they invaded.

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There were similarities and differences between the British and the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Both countries were rivals, and each country was looking to gain more land. While Spain conquered areas throughout the Americas, the British were mainly involved in North America.

Both countries hoped to benefit economically from their colonies. The Spanish discovered large amounts of gold and silver, which they brought back to Spain. The British developed the mercantile system, which was designed to benefit the British industries. The British colonies would provide raw materials to Great Britain, and these raw materials would be used to make products. The British industries would then sell their products in the colonies for a profit. The colonies served as a kind of guaranteed market for the British industries.

Both countries also had religious motives. Some of the British settlers came to North America for religious freedom. People who were persecuted for their religious beliefs in Great Britain hoped they would be able to practice their religion freely in the colonies. While some colonies had more religious freedom than others, people were able to practice their religion more freely in the colonies. The Spanish hoped to spread Christianity to their colonies. Missionaries went to the Spanish colonies to convert people to Christianity.

Both countries had a difficult time with their relationship with the Native Americans. The British continued to expand, and they wanted the land on which the Native Americans lived. Native American tribes and British people usually didn't get along very well, since the British people were occupying Native land. The Spanish often exploited the Native Americans, making it difficult to establish a good relationship with them.

Great Britain encouraged settlers to come to their North American colonies. They hoped that if many settlers came, the colonies would prosper. Prosperous colonies would help Great Britain at home in many ways. The Spanish were less focused on having many settlers come to the Americas. They hoped to spread their influence and control through interactions with the people already living in the Americas.

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The Spanish and English had some of the same motivations.  They were both motivated by the desire to gain riches.  They were both motivated by the desire to win glory for their countries.  However, there were also differences.  The Spanish appear to have been motivated by religion more than the English were.  The English, on the other hand, were more interested in having an outlet for their excess population.

The other two things that you are asking about are very much connected to one another.  The strategies that they used dictated their relationships with the indigenous people.  The Spanish strategy for colonizing the Americas was essentially to have a few Spanish people control and culturally influence a large number of indigenous people.  By contrast, the English strategy was to flood an area with white settlers and push the natives out.  This, of course, determined their relationships with the indigenous people.  One book from which I teach (Out of Many by John Mack Faragher, et al) calls the Spanish relationship with the natives a “frontier of inclusion” whereas it calls the English relationship with them a “frontier of exclusion.”  What this means is that the Spanish and the natives mixed together culturally and genetically whereas the English did not mix very much at all with them. 

The Spanish and English were rather different in their colonization of the Americas.  They had some of the same motivations, but the ways in which they related with the natives were very different.

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