In the 15th century, these are
approximately the known lands in Europe.
To the east are the Indies, from where spices
and silk come. In Europe, the trade of these
luxury products is controlled by the powerful
Republics of Genoa and Venice. But in 1453,
the Ottomans seize Constantinople and bring
down the Byzantine Empire. By extending their
influence over the Mediterranean, they put an
end to the golden age of the Italian republics.
In the west, Portugal dreams of opening a
new trade route to the Indies and seizing
the monopoly on the spice trade. They take
advantage of the development of the caravel,
a more robust ship capable of handling the
oceans, to send explorations to Africa. In 1484,
Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator living
in Lisbon, proposes to the Portuguese king to try
to reach Asia by sailing west. According
to his calculations, Cathay and Cipango,
currently China and Japan, are close enough for
the crossing to be feasible. But the king rejects
the project. Confident, Christopher Columbus
tries his luck with the rival queen of Castile,
but in vain. Two years later, while Portugal
reaches the Cape of Good Hope, the Spanish
monarchy completes the Reconquista by seizing
Granada. Nothing seems to stop its ambitions.
It must now catch up with Portugal in its race
towards the Indies. The Queen of Castile and
the King of Aragon authorize and finance
the expedition of Christopher Columbus.
On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus leaves
Palos with three ships and 90 men. After a short
stopover in the Canary Islands, they head
west and sail for 36 days into the unknown.
The crew finally see an island, Columbus lands and
meets with the local Taino people. Convinced he
has reached the Indies, Christopher Columbus
names them Indians. After a few exchanges,
he leaves and explores the surrounding islands.
Thinking he is in Asia, he looks for the kingdom
of the Great Khan mentioned in the writings
of Marco Polo. On an island called Quisqueya,
which he renames “La Hispaniola”, he builds the
fort of the Nativity, leaves 39 men behind and
returns with 7 Tainos, gold, pearls, and parrots
as proof of the success of his expedition.
Welcomed as a hero, he returns to the Nativity
a few months later, this time with 1,500 men,
to found a permanent colony of which he would be
the governor. But he finds the 39 men left behind
dead. He then founds La Isabela
in honor of the Queen of Castile
and continues his explorations. During this
time, the Spanish monarchy and Portugal,
to avoid conflicts around the newly conquered
territories, agree to draw a meridian. The
lands to the east can be claimed by Portugal,
those to the west by the Spanish monarchy.
England in turn begins to search for a new
maritime route to India. An expedition is
sent further north and reaches a land that is
unknown to them. Vasco De Gama, for Portugal,
crosses the Cape of Good Hope, enters the
Indian Ocean and reaches India on May 20,
- A second Portuguese expedition leaves
for India, but as it moves away from the coast
to take advantage of the sea currents, the
expedition reaches a new land located east
of the meridian of Tordesillas. There, an exotic
wood grows from which can be obtained a red dye
like an ember, or “Brasa” in Portuguese. This will
later give the name of Brazil to their new colony.
While the Spanish colonists discover products
unknown in Europe such as potatoes, tomatoes,
tobacco, and cocoa, ships loaded with gold,
emeralds, and pearls return to Spain, which
motivates the departure of many colonists to the
new Spanish lands. They bring with them domestic
animals, and seeds, but also diseases that were
previously unknown to the indigenous populations,
who are therefore not immune. These diseases
spread throughout the continent faster than the
colonists and decimate the populations. In 1506,
after a fourth trip, Christopher Columbus dies.
A few months later, the word America appears on
a map in honor of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
The continent would henceforth be called
America. In the Spanish territories,
colonists impose forced labor on the local
populations. But the Spanish monarchy,
influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, opposes
this mistreatment and tries via new laws to
increase its control over the new territories
and to improve the condition of the natives.
The Catholic Church also sends missionaries to
evangelize the local populations. From the Spanish
colonies, conquerors called conquistadors explore
everywhere. To the north, they discover a land
they name Florida. To the south, an expedition
goes inland and discovers a sea on the other
side. Finally in 1518, an expedition goes
north along the coast, passes a peninsula
and meets representatives sent by an emperor. The
governor then decides to send a mission there.
The conquistador Hernán Cortès leaves Cuba
in 1519. On his way, he recovers a Spanish
shipwrecked man who survived eight years in
Mayan country, and then he obtains a mistress
after a confrontation. Both will assist him as
interpreters. Once on dry land, he understands
that he is in the Aztec empire, whose capital
Tenochtitlan controls the surrounding regions.
Impressed by the firearms and horses they have
never seen before, some of the people choose to
join the Spanish crown. Cortes is guided to
Tenochtitlan where the emperor welcomes him
peacefully. At the same time, to the south of
the continent, Ferdinand Magellan, who is also
trying to reach the Indies to the west, passes
through a strait that will one day bear his name
and enters a new ocean that is unknown to him. In
Tenochtitlan, a war breaks out between the Aztecs
and Cortés who had been chased out of
the capital. He allies with the rebels
and enemies of Tenochtitlan, then besieges the
city and cuts off its drinking water supply.
But the inhabitants suffer above all from smallpox
which decimates the city. After 75 days of siege,
Tenochtitlan collapses and Cortes
becomes the governor of New Spain.
Despite strong resistance, the Spaniards continue
to extend their control in Central America. Spain,
which is indebted to German bankers, authorizes
them in return to found a colony in an area where
houses are built on stilts and which is then
named Little Venice or Venezuela. To the south,
an expedition goes inland and rumors circulate
about a certain “Piru” kingdom. The navigator
Francisco Pizarro then leaves to search for it.
He lands and learns that he is in the Inca empire
which is in a full war of succession. After
several contacts by intermediate embassies, a
meeting is organized in Cajamarca with the emperor
Atahualpa. But the meeting degenerates and Pizarro
arrests the emperor. 9 months later, in spite of
the enormous gold and silver ransom received for
his liberation, Pizarro executes Atahualpa and
then seizes Cusco, the capital of the empire.
While strong rivalries appear between the
colonists who want to monopolize the Inca wealth,
in the north of Tomebamba, a pocket of
Inca resistance is organized around the
general Rumiñahui. But finding himself in
a difficult situation, he decides to burn
Quito and to hide all the Inca wealth.
Captured and tortured, he does not reveal
the location of this treasure which, if it
exists, has never been found. Further south,
Pizarro founds a capital, the City of Kings,
which later will become Lima. In 1536 in
Cuzco, the Incas rebel and take the city.
Almagro, Pizarro’s ally, who returns from
unsuccessful conquests in the south, takes the
city and proclaims himself governor of Cuzco.
A war breaks out between Pizarro and Almagro.
Taking advantage of the chaos, the Incas found
the kingdom of Vilcabamba which will resist
the Spaniards for 36 years. Further south,
a group of populations called the Mapuches,
also firmly resist the Spanish intrusions.
In the north, Spain continues to enlarge its
territory considerably. The priest Bartolomé
de Las Casas denounces the cruel treatments
imposed on the natives. Spain, in 1542,
passes new laws in order to return freedom to
the slaves by abolishing the encomienda, and by
affirming equality of the rights of the natives.
In Peru, these laws are very badly received by
the colonists. The viceroy tries to make them
apply, but a revolt breaks out and he is beheaded.
Spain finally manages to regain control of the
region and suspends the conquests in America,
although many populations still
resist Spanish colonization.
In Europe, new powers are interested in the riches
of America. France, which does not recognize the
treaty of Tordesillas, sends expeditions to
Brazil. The colony of France Antarctique is
founded there. Annoyed by the new competition, the
Portuguese destroy the colony in 1560. They then
develop colonization by sending expeditions
deep inland in search of mines and slaves.
England also has its eye on America. Irritated by
the commercial monopoly that Spain is establishing
in the Pacific Ocean, the Queen of England
secretly finances an expedition by Francis Drake,
who plunders Spanish wealth on the Pacific
coast. Further north, Drake founds New Albion
in the name of the English crown, before heading
west to return to England. At the same time,
the Spanish monarchy takes over Portugal. The
United Provinces, quickly followed by England,
take advantage of this and try to seize the
trade routes and the Portuguese colonies.
In South America, further inland, a region little
explored by the Spaniards and the Portuguese
attracts the covetous. For a century, the
myth of Eldorado, the city filled with gold,
has been widely circulated. This attracts
hundreds of European settlers who devastate
the region in search of gold, igniting the fury
of local populations. This does not prevent the
arrival of French, Dutch, and British Protestants
who flee Europe in search of lands far from
Catholic influences. To the north, the coasts of
Newfoundland, rich in fish, are frequented by many
fishermen from all over Europe. As early as 1603,
France finances new expeditions to explore Acadia
and to found a first settlement at Port-Royal.
Despite conflicts with the local populations,
fishing and fur trading develop. Further south,
England founds Jamestown, its first permanent
colony. But while the French accelerate
colonization with the creation of Quebec,
the English attack Acadia. From then on, the
two countries and their respective local allies
are constantly fighting over the region.
After founding New Amsterdam on an island,
the Dutch negotiate with the locals to purchase
Manhattan Island in exchange for some goods
equivalent to 60 florins, which is currently worth
about a few hundred dollars. Also in the south,
the Dutch expand their possessions and take
over a large part of Brazil. But in 1640,
Portugal regains its independence and recovers
its territories. The Dutch are expelled and
concentrate their efforts in the north of
the continent by absorbing New Sweden. At
the same time, the British take Jamaica from
the Spaniards to develop the sugar trade.
They also obtain permission to exploit wood on the
coast of New Spain. The growing commercial rivalry
between the United Provinces and England provokes
a war that turns to the advantage of the British.
At the peace treaty, the United Provinces
cede their North American territories
and recover Suriname, which was occupied by
the British. New Amsterdam becomes New York.
In the West Indies, mainly the French and the
British take over islands from the Caribs in order
to develop large sugar plantations that require
a large workforce. European merchants leave for
the African coasts where they buy slaves. These
are then transported to America to be sold in the
mines or on the plantations. Their life expectancy
is about 7 years. The ships then return to Europe
loaded with precious metals and luxury goods.
In the 17th century, this model become so
profitable that the slave trade explodes, as
does piracy, which flourishes in the Caribbean.
Many people are opposed to slavery, notably the
Jesuits who found communities throughout America
to protect the natives from the colonists. They
are evangelized and work for the communities
which quickly become rich. But Spain
and Portugal will eventually expel them.
In the north of the continent, while the
British found Philadelphia, the French,
after an expedition, claim Louisiana, and then
expand along the rivers to link it to New France.
New France then signs a peace agreement with 39
nations, mainly Iroquois. Fearing that they would
be surrounded, the British attack Acadia again and
rename it Nova Scotia. The latter, together with
Rupert’s Land and Newfoundland, are officially
annexed in the Treaties of Utrecht which end the
War of Spanish Succession. Spain and the United
Provinces are weakened, Great Britain is now a
great maritime and commercial power. In 1733, it
founds Savannah, which stops the Spanish expansion
from Florida. From Russia, a Danish captain named
Vitus Bering leads mapping expeditions on behalf
of the Tsar. After exploring the strait that now
bears his name, Bering sights in 1741 the coasts
of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, where he dies.
The abundance of prey on these islands attracts
many Russian hunters. The Russians gradually move
along the coast to develop the otter fur trade.
Franco-British Tensions (1748-1755)
In the Ohio Valley, tensions rise between
the French and the British who are fighting
over control of the region. A war begins which
at first turns to the advantage of the French.
Great Britain then decides to deport en masse
the French-speaking Acadians still present in
Nova Scotia. Many die on the way. The survivors
are scattered throughout the British colonies.
In Europe, the 7 Years’ War breaks out.
Great Britain, which dominates the seas
with its powerful Royal Navy, imposes a
maritime blockade on the French colonies
which, without reinforcements,
fall into the hands of the British.
In 1763, in the peace treaty signed in Paris,
France gives up most of its American colonies.
Spain receives the western part of
Louisiana in exchange for Florida.
Great Britain dominates all its rivals. But the
war has weighed on its finances, and it intends
now to take advantage of its many colonies to
replenish its coffers by imposing new taxes.