European colonization of America antecedents causes consequences

The European colonization of America was the process by which several countries on the European continent controlled large American territories. This colonization began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the new continent and the subsequent conquest of the native empires that ruled the lands recently discovered by Europeans.

The country that occupied the most American territories was Spain, whose crown had financed Columbus‘ voyages and reached agreements with other later conquerors. Thus, in a few decades, the Spanish Empire came to control almost all of Central and South America, in addition to vast extensions in North America.

Map of European colonies in America 16th-17th centuries -Source: Pepe Robles under public domain

Portugal, Spain’s traditional competitor in dominating the seas, had to settle for colonizing Brazil. These two nations joined other European powers of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as England, Holland or France.

The main cause of European countries to colonize America was to gain economic benefits. At first, the Spaniards were looking for a step to the East Indies to improve trade, and later, raw materials became a source of wealth for the colonizers.

Background of European colonization of America

Christopher Columbus, sponsored by the Crown of Castile, arrived in American lands on October 12, 1492, specifically on the island of Hispaniola. Although they soon raised the first settlement, colonization began years later when the Spaniards defeated the indigenous peoples they found on the mainland.

From that moment on, European powers began a race to establish colonies across America. At about the same time as the Spaniards, Portugal conquered and colonized part of South America. So, from the early years of the 17th century, the British, French and Dutch joined together.

European countries pursued two main objectives with the establishment of these colonies. The first, and main, was of an economic nature, both for opening new trade routes and for obtaining raw materials. On the other hand, it was also about increasing political power against its continental rivals.


Colonizing a territory is defined as the settlement of a country’s population in an area located in other territories. It is a concept closely related to that of conquest, although they are not always united. Thus, land can sometimes be conquered without colonies being established later.

Settlers often use various arguments to justify their right to occupy foreign territories. This ranges from deliberately ignoring the existence of indigenous peoples in them, to considering that colonization is justified by supposed cultural or religious superiority.

Viking settlements

Before the Spaniards established their first colonies, there was a city that had made some inroads into America. Thus, evidence has been found to prove that the Vikings arrived in Greenland and Newfoundland around the 10th century.

Experts believe that some of the established settlements in Greenland lasted around 500 years, while those in Newfoundland were much more ephemeral.

Causes of European colonization of America

The search for new trade routes to reach Asia was the trigger for the discovery of America. After the Europeans understood that they had found a new continent, the European powers began a race to explore the territories they found.


Land routes from Europe to Asia were blocked after the Ottomans took Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. This has forced Europeans to look for new ways to continue trading with Asian countries.

The first to look for alternative routes were the Portuguese and the Spanish. Columbus, after failing to obtain support from the Portuguese Crown, managed to convince the Queen of Castile to support his voyage, arguing that it was possible to reach the Indies across the Atlantic. However, instead of reaching his goal, he ended up finding a new continent.

Since then, the US has become a trading target for all European powers.


The technology of the time, with advances in fields such as cartography or navigation instruments, allowed Europeans to venture out on longer journeys.

territorial expansion

Accumulating the maximum possible territories has also become a geopolitical objective. European powers sought to strengthen their power on their continent and colonization was a tool for this.

On the other hand, Europe was experiencing a huge demographic expansion, which meant that more food and natural resources were needed.

Situation in Europe in the 17th century

A century after the Spaniards established their first colonies, the rest of the European powers began to compete to unleash the power of the Spanish Empire. England and France established settlements in Asia and began attacking Spanish shipping.

Soon, with the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire, the rest of the European countries began to conquer and colonize various American territories.


Spanish Catholic monarchs obtained papal permission to expand the Catholic religion among Native Americans. Thus, forced proselytism became one of the reasons used to conquer the lands of America.

In the case of the English and French, religion also played an important role in establishing colonies. In these cases, however, it was not about converting the Indians, but about the United States becoming a refuge for many Europeans persecuted for their religious beliefs in their home countries.

Spanish colonization

As noted, the Crown of Castile sponsored Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus’ attempt to reach the Indies across the Atlantic. The navigator tried to enlist the support of the Portuguese monarch Juan II, but was rebuffed.

For their part, the Spanish kings had just conquered the last Muslim enclave on the peninsula and agreed to support Columbus‘s idea.

After several weeks of crossing, Columbus reached the island of Guanahaní on October 12, 1492. In Hispaniola, the first Spanish settlement was established on the new continent, and four years later Christopher Columbus‘s brother founded Santo Domingo.

The first city that appeared on the continent was Nueva Cádiz, today Cubagua (Venezuela), in 1500. The following year, the Spaniards founded Cumaná, also in present-day Venezuela.

Tensions with Portugal

Columbus’s arrival in America caused serious tensions with the other great maritime power of the time: Portugal. To resolve the disputes, the two countries were submitted to the arbitration of Pope Alexander VI.

The result was that Spain obtained the right to colonize territories located west of a line located 100 leagues west of the Azores, while the Portuguese could settle east of this imaginary demarcation.

However, the agreement did not satisfy Portugal. For this reason, a new agreement was negotiated, called the Treaty of Tordesillas. Through this document, signed in June 1494, the Portuguese were able to expand their territories, which allowed them to colonize Brazil.

The conquest

The Antilles were the first base from which the Spaniards began their conquest of the continent. To do this, they had to face two great indigenous empires: the Aztecs and the Incas.

Hernán Cortés was the protagonist of the conquest of the Aztec Empire. On August 31, 1521, he finally took the capital, Tenochtitlan, which marked the beginning of the colonization of present-day Mexico.

On the other hand, Francisco Pizarro entered present-day Peru in 1531. The Spaniards took advantage of the civil war between the Incas to take Cuzco. After that, they founded a new capital: Lima.


Once the indigenous peoples were defeated, the Spaniards began to organize the administration of their territories. At first, the Crown created two great vice-fidels, that of New Spain and that of Peru.

Later, when they conquered and colonized new territories further south, other viceroyalities were founded: New Granada and Rio de la Plata.

This process has sometimes encountered resistance from some indigenous peoples. Among all the rebellions that took place, that of the Mapuches stood out in central Chile and Argentina. The so-called Guerra de Arauco was the one that caused the greatest number of Spanish casualties in the Americas.

On the other hand, despite the Spanish military superiority, there were some areas that they could not control. The most important were Patagonia, the Gran Chaco, the Amazon and the desert areas of northern Mesoamerica.

Spanish domain

Spanish colonial rule lasted for about three hundred years, until the beginning of the 19th century. The American colonies became the main source of wealth for the Spanish crown, thanks to the raw materials, gold and silver obtained in them.

All this wealth, however, did not help Spain maintain its role as a power in Europe. Much of it was used to finance constant wars, without affecting the peninsular population.

In addition to silver and gold mining, the colonial economy was based on livestock and agriculture. In order to be able to work on the land, given the mortality that the diseases transmitted by the settlers caused among the Indians, the arrival of African slaves was necessary.

Within the administrative system created by the Spaniards to govern their colonies, two main institutions were established. The first was the Hiring House, dedicated to managing all matters relating to trade and the economy. In other matters, the Council of the Indies was founded, charged with writing and compiling the Laws of the Indies.


The Spanish colonies began to rebel against the central government in the early 19th century. In a few decades, until 1824, most of the colonial territories achieved their independence.

The Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, Creole dissatisfaction with their exclusion from political positions, and the influence of French Revolution and American Independence ideas were the causes of continued revolts against vice-legal authorities.

Portuguese colonization

Portugal was one of the main maritime powers in the early 15th century. This allowed him to colonize the Azores and the Madeira Islands, whose location made them excellent bases for traveling to America.

After Columbus reached the Americas, Portugal began its campaign to control part of the newly discovered territories. The Treaty of Tordesillas granted them the right to colonize a vast area of ​​land and King Manuel I sent several expeditions. Among them, the one led by Pedro Alvares Cabral stood out.

North America

The Portuguese interpretation of the Treaty of Tordesillas stated that they had the right to colonize part of the northern lands of the New Continent. Thus, in 1499 and 1500, an expedition reached the northeast coast and Greenland.

This last island was mapped two years later by a new expedition, which also visited Newfoundland and Labrador. All these territories were claimed as belonging to the Portuguese Empire.

In the second decade of the 16th century, Portugal built some settlements in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, although they were soon abandoned. The Portuguese preferred to concentrate on the areas that belonged to them in South America and separated the North American ones.


The most important territory colonized by Portugal in America was Brazil. Its conquest began in April 1500, when explorer Alvares Cabral reached the coasts. From there, the Portuguese were moving inland and consolidating a dominance that lasted 300 years.

For that, they had to face the French, who sent expeditions to the Brazilian coasts in 1530.

The administrative organization of the Brazilian territory was established by the Portuguese king in 1533. The monarch divided the colony into 15 captains, each 150 miles wide. The command of each band was hereditary granted to Portuguese nobles, which ensured that the State saved costs.

Among the nobles‘ commitments were the conversion of the natives to Catholicism, the colonization of their lands and the economic development of their captaincy.

That system changed in 1549 when the king sent a governor general to administer the colony. Its objective was the existence of a centralized government, but, in practice, the nobles continued to exercise almost all the power in each captaincy, especially in the economic sphere.

Independence of Brazil

As in Spain, the end of Portuguese colonization in America was marked by the Napoleonic invasion of the country. The royal family had to go into exile and settle in Rio de Janeiro. This locality then became the capital of the Empire.

Seven years later, Dom Juan, Portuguese prince, founded the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve. In 1821, after inheriting the throne, he returned to Portugal and left his son Pedro as governor of the colony.

The attempt to revoke the autonomy enjoyed by Brazil within the Empire caused the rejection of Brazilians. Local leaders managed to convince Pedro to declare independence in 1822.

English colonization

The first British expedition to the New Continent took place shortly after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, although no agreement was reached. Later, in 1585, another expedition, commanded by Sir Walter Raleigh, tried to found the first colonies in North America.

However, it wasn’t until 1607 when the first stable English settlement in America was founded: Jamestown.

The Thirteen Colonies

The British established thirteen different colonies in North America. Some of them were populated by settlers seeking economic benefits. Others, on the other hand, were founded by settlers fleeing religious persecution in Europe.

Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the Thirteen British Colonies had more open government systems, without feudal characteristics.


The English colonies soon began an expansion process. After the war against the Netherlands, they managed to control New Amsterdam and after the Seven Years’ War they did the same with New France.

Seven Years’ War

The end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 left the European powers with major economic problems. England engineered a change in the administration of her empire to gain more benefits, something that met with rejection from the colonists.

In previous decades, the Thirteen Colonies had enjoyed sufficient autonomy. Each of them decided on its form of government and its inhabitants voted in favor of not giving in to the fiscal and political pretensions of the metropolis.

Revolts against the taxes that England wanted to impose took place in all colonies. Furthermore, the thirteen joined forces to face the English, which resulted in the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1775.

birth in USA

The rebels declared independence in July 1776 and proclaimed the birth of a new nation: the United States of America. In the fight, they had the support of England’s traditional rivals, such as Spain or France.

Dutch colonization

The Netherlands became, from its very creation, a great colonial power. Its first expeditions to America developed from the first half of the 16th century, when its traders reached the West Indies. Also, in 1625 they founded New Amsterdam, the future New York.

Dutch claims clashed with the other colonial powers. Thus, in the Antilles they had clashes with the Spaniards and in Brazil with the Portuguese.

Confrontation with Spain

As mentioned, the Dutch maintained several military confrontations with the Spaniards for the possession of some territories. In 1593, a Dutch expedition conquered the salt flats on the Araya Peninsula in Venezuela.

Later, in 1622, there was one of the most important naval battles of that period, when the Dutch attacked Araya to gain their final control. The Spaniards managed to repulse the attack.

Suriname and Guyana

Holland was able to establish itself in Suriname and in an area of ​​the Guianas. There, during the 17th and 18th centuries, they developed an economic system based on agriculture. The success of their plantations made these colonies the ones that concentrated the largest number of slaves in all of America.

North America

In the early 17th century, the Dutch sent an expedition to present-day New York State. To manage commercial activities, the country created the Dutch West Indies Company, which, in 1621, had founded several trading posts in that area of ​​the American coast.

Dutch claims soon clashed with British intentions to control the entire area. In the mid-17th century, England wrested the eastern part of Long Island from its rivals, although tensions continued. In the 1660s, these tensions resulted in a war between the two countries, the outcome of which benefited the British.


At first, the Netherlands implemented an administrative system in which commercial companies wielded great power. The exception was the colony established in part of Brazil, ruled by a member of the royal family.

Clashes with the Portuguese and the British prevented the Dutch from holding their colonies for a long time. In the end, they could only retain small territories in the Caribbean.


In addition to the previous European countries, other nations also participated in the colonization of America. Some were continental powers, like France, others were starting to acquire power, like Germany and, finally, small countries that were looking for new territories to exploit their riches.


The French began to show interest in colonizing American territory in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th century when they managed to found their first colonies. Its first objective was North America, in present-day Canada. It was there, specifically in Quebec, where they installed their first stable settlement, in 1608.

France’s participation in the colonial race was caused by the pursuit of economic benefits. Furthermore, it was also a way to strengthen its military position in relation to other European powers.

Canada, US and Caribbean

As noted, France directed its first colonization efforts to the north of the American continent. There, he founded two trading ports, Nova Scotia and Annapolis, as well as his first colony, Quebec.

A little later, the French founded Montreal, a city that served as a base to enter the Great Lakes area, reaching the Mississippi River.

Contrary to what the first settlers of England did, the French did not limit themselves to creating settlements on the coast of the continent, but advanced inland and developed commercial relations with the natives. This allowed them to establish settlements such as Detroit, Illinois and New Orleans in the mid-18th century.

In practice, French expeditions within the continent assumed that they controlled a very extensive territory that varied from Canada to Louisiana.

In addition to North America, France established some colonies in the Caribbean. The first were founded in the 17th century, when its fleet conquered, among others, the islands of San Bartolomé, Granada, San Martín and part of Hispaniola.

German colonization

Germany only made one serious attempt to obtain colonies in America. This occurred between 1528 and 1556, when Emperor Charles V granted land in Venezuela to an important family of bankers: the Welsh.

The intention of the Welsh was to find the famous El Dorado and, for that, they moved important military forces to fight the natives.

Although the mythical city was never found, the Germans exploited the gold mines in the area, for which they had large numbers of German miners. They were joined by about 4000 African slaves to cultivate sugar cane.

Spaniards residing in the area did not accept German control and fighting ensued. Finally, the Welsh gave up on maintaining the colony and the territory was incorporated into the New Kingdom of Grenada.

In addition to this attempt, Brandenburg-Prussia also attempted to establish colonies in the Caribbean, albeit with little success. The same Reich tried the same, with the intention of reducing power to the emerging USA.

Italian colonization

It was Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici who organized the only Italian expedition sent to the New World to establish a colony. The crossing, begun in 1608, was destined for the north of Brazil and was led by an Englishman, Captain Thornton.

Thornton’s first voyage was to reach the Amazon to prepare for the subsequent expedition. However, when he returned to Italy, Fernando I had died and his successor canceled the project.

Later, in the early 19th century, many Italians settled in Latin America. However, these colonies were not under the rule of Italy, but were settlements founded by immigrants.

Danish colonization

Denmark joined Norway in 1535, a country that had some colonies in Greenland until the beginning of the 15th century. After this unification, the Danes claimed the former Norwegian possessions on the North American island.

It wasn’t until 1721 when Denmark founded its colonies in southwest Greenland. One of his first measures was to send missionaries to convert the islanders to Christianity.

Over time, the entire island came under their sovereignty, a situation that remains current even though Greenlanders have extensive self-government.

In addition to Greenland, Denmark also founded some colonies in the Virgin Islands. To do this, in the image of what other countries have done, he created a private trading company: the Danish West India Company.

While in Greenland the main economic activity was fishing, in the Virgin Islands this role was occupied by agriculture, more specifically by the cultivation of sugar cane. The need for workers led to the arrival of large numbers of African slaves, so many that most inhabitants soon took over.

In 1803 the slave trade was abolished and in 1848 it was declared illegal to own them. This led the island’s economy into crisis and population decline. Finally, in 1917, Denmark sold the islands to the United States.

Swedish colonization

Sweden also established its own colonies in North America and the Caribbean, although the settlers came from an area of ​​the country that currently belongs to Finland. Swedish possessions were not very extensive and, in general, had a short existence.

The first colonies were founded between 1638 and 1655: New Sweden and New Stockholm, both in the current United States. However, very soon they were conquered by the Dutch and integrated into New Holland.

On the other hand, Sweden ruled the islands of Saint Bartholomew and Guadeloupe for almost a century, between the 18th and 19th centuries. The two passed into French hands, which maintain their sovereignty until now.

Russian colonization

Southern Alaska, a peninsula discovered by the Russian Ivan Fedorov in 1732, was the area in which Russia established its main colonies in the late 18th century. In this case, there were quite a few factories in which the skins were treated and prepared for sale.

The Russians also took control of the rest of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. His expeditions followed the northwest coast of the continent, reaching the north of California. This led the Spaniards to fear a possible Russian attempt to occupy the area, although this did not come to pass.

The harsh climatic conditions of the Russian-controlled area were one of the causes why the population was quite sparse. Most of the inhabitants were indigenous people converted to Christianity by Russian missionaries.

Over time, the government of the Tsar of Russia considered that holding possessions in Alaska was not profitable for the country. For this reason, and due to the need for funding after the Crimean War, he negotiated with the United States the sale of the territory. This was on April 9, 1867 and the price paid by the Americans was just over $7 million.

Norwegian colonization

Norway, which was linked to Denmark until 1814, lost all its colonies after being annexed by Sweden. Its possessions then passed to the Danish Empire.

Already in the twentieth century, in 1905, Norway declared itself independent and that’s when it tried to establish some colonies in America.

The main Norwegian claim was the Sverdrup Islands, but they came under British sovereignty in 1930. In addition, they also laid claim to an island in Greenland called Land of Erik the Red. Although it claimed its sovereignty before the International Court of Justice, the court eventually ruled in favor of Denmark.

hospital colonization

The Knights of Malta had notably participated in the colonization carried out by the French. In New France, for example, the members of this order, almost all the aristocrats, formed a very important group. This prompted the Grand Master of the Order to propose establishing a convent at Acadia, although the idea was rejected.

After the change of Grand Master, the new holder of the position showed more interest in the possibility of the Order establishing its own domains in America. Thus, in 1651, the hospital acquired San Cristóbal, San Bartolomé and San Martín.

It was in San Cristobal where the Order built a series of fortifications, churches and a hospital that made the city one of the most impressive in the entire Caribbean. However, outside the capital, the situation was different.

San Bartolomé was attacked by Caribbean Indians and all settlers were killed or forced to flee. The government sent around 100 men to fill out the agreement again. Other areas controlled by the Order also experienced rebellions and attacks.

In addition to this indigenous opposition, some frustrations began to appear within the Order due to the lack of benefits obtained in its colonies.

In the early 1660s, the Hospitalists still had not paid back the entire loan granted by France to buy the islands, and the leaders began to discuss what to do with these assets. Finally, in 1665, they decided to sell all territories to the French West Indies Company.

Curonian colonization

It wasn’t just the big European countries that tried to establish colonies in America. Some smaller nations also tried to obtain territories to take advantage of the wealth of the new continent.

The smallest of these countries was the Duchy of Courland, then a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation. The promoter of the colonization project was Duke Jacob Kettler, who had become an ardent follower of mercantilism during his travels in Europe.

Thanks to Kettler’s good governance, Courland managed to build an important merchant fleet, based in present-day Liepaja and Ventspils, both in Latvia. With this fleet, the duchy sent a colonizing expedition to Tobago, founding New Courland. The colony lasted, in a first stage, between 1654 and 1659 and, in a second, between 1660 and 1689.

Consequences of European colonization of America

The consequences of the European colonization of America ranged from the death of numerous indigenous peoples to the replacement of native cultures by those of the colonizers.

On the other hand, it supposed the emergence of the nations that today make up the continent and that declared their independence from the 18th century onwards.

indigenous deaths

The natives who inhabited the areas colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese were the first to suffer a high mortality rate. In the vast majority, the cause of death was contagious diseases transmitted by conquerors and settlers, against which the natives had not developed defenses.

Along with disease, wars also played an important role in the decline of the indigenous population on the continent. The working conditions on the plots, despite the laws enacted in Spain, also caused deaths due to poor living conditions.

On the other hand, diseases were also responsible for a large number of deaths in the territories dominated by the British and French. However, after the independence of the United States, the new country undertook a campaign to conquer all the lands of the American West during which it caused enormous casualties to the natives.


The decline of the Indian population meant that there were not enough workers to exploit America’s wealth. The colonizers’ response was to bring large numbers of slaves captured in Africa to the continent.

These slaves did not have any kind of rights and were more a possession of their masters. In that sense, their situation was much worse than that of the natives, who at least had some protection by law.

Expansion of the Catholic Church

While many English colonists arrived in America fleeing religious persecution and some of the Thirteen Colonies were very tolerant in the field of religion, in the territories governed by the Spanish there was a campaign of forced conversion to Catholicism.

This made the Catholic Church one of the most important institutions during the conquest and colonization. The pope had granted the Spanish crown the exclusive right to convert the natives, and missionaries and friars were instrumental in achieving what many historians call a “spiritual conquest”.

On the positive side, many of these friars became defenders of indigenous peoples and denounced the excesses that many settlers committed.

cultural consequences

Among the social and cultural consequences of the European colonization of America, the disappearance of countless native languages ​​stands out. These ended up being replaced by the language of the colonizers, Spanish, Portuguese or English. The same happened with other cultural manifestations or religious beliefs.

economic consequences

The impact of the conquest and colonization of America was of such magnitude that many historians consider it to be the first great globalization. The enormous wealth that European countries obtained was fundamental for the emergence of international trade.

This revitalization of the world economy lasted until after the independence of the American countries. They became suppliers of raw materials to European countries, replacing Asian countries.

Among the products that arrived in Europe from America were corn, tobacco, tomatoes, cocoa or sweet potatoes. They all played an important role in the economy of the colonizing powers.

Political consequences in Europe

Europeans didn’t just establish colonies in America to gain wealth. A confrontation was also developing to achieve hegemon

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