"The Discovery of America" (Johann Moritz Rugendas).

When Did Europeans Colonize The Americas?

During the Age of Discovery, a period stretching from the 15th to the 17th century, European nations began exploring the world and searching for new trade routes. This period was marked by significant advances in navigation and cartography, as well as the establishment of colonies and the spread of European influence around the world. The Americas or the New World was also explored and colonized by several European powers during this period. The initial wave of colonization began in the late 15th century and was led by Spain and Portugal. Other European nations, such as France, the Netherlands, and England, entered the scene at a later stage but wielded significant influence in the region.

Spain's Conquest Of The New World

Christopher Columbus
Landing of Columbus in theNew World, painting by John Vanderlyn.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, set out on a journey to find a westward route to Asia. However, Columbus landed in the Bahamas instead of reaching Asia and named the place the "New World." This historic voyage marked the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas.

Over the next several decades, Spain established a number of colonies in the Americas, including in present-day MexicoCentral AmericaSouth America, and the Caribbean. The Spanish colonization of the Americas was driven by the desire to spread Christianity, find new sources of wealth, and establish new trade routes. The Spanish were also motivated by a passion for adventure and the prospect of discovering new lands and peoples.

Portugal's Empire-Building In The Americas

Monument to the Discoveries
Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon, Portugal: Monument and memorial to commemorate Portuguese colonial history in Age of Exploration.

Portugal was a significant European power during the Age of Discovery. In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese explorer, discovered Brazil and claimed it for Portugal. This discovery marked the beginning of the Portuguese colonization of South America. Over the next several centuries, Portugal established several colonies in Brazil and other parts of South America. Like Spain, the Portuguese were attracted to the region by the prospect of finding new sources of wealth, such as gold and other minerals, and the opportunity to establish new trade routes. The Portuguese also established colonies in Africa and Asia, and the Portuguese Empire became one of the largest and most influential in the world. In addition to establishing colonies in South America, the Portuguese also played a significant role in the colonization of the Caribbean and the East Coast of North America

France In The New World

Quebec, France
French influence can still be seen in Quebec City in Quebec in the architecture, culture, and language used in the city. 

France started colonizing the Americas in the 16th century. In 1524, the French king, Francis I, sent a mission led by the Italian-born explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Verrazzano explored the region between present-day Newfoundland and Florida. Soon, his explorations and the success of other European powers in the Americas sparked interest in France. Subsequent missions were sent to discover new opportunities in the New World. After a series of initial failures to establish permanent settlements, the French found success in the far north of what is Canada today. Here, the settlement of Quebec was founded in 1608. The wealth generated from trading in furs and other items in the area encouraged France to conquer more lands. France soon had colonies in other parts of what is present-day Canada, the US, the Caribbean, and South America.

Dutch Presence In The Americas

Natives going to harvest coffee in Suriname Dutch colonies.
Natives going to harvest coffee in Suriname Dutch colonies.

The Dutch Empire of the Netherlands established its first settlements and forts in the New World along the Essequibo River in Guyana in the 1590s. However, unlike most other European powers in the Americas, the Dutch were not too keen on settling in the new lands, and by the turn of the 17th century, most Dutch settlements were lost or abandoned. The Netherlands only retained Suriname in its control until the latter's independence in 1975. Today, some land in the Dutch Caribbean is the only existing possession of the Netherlands in the Americas.

The British Empire's Colonization Of The New World

British plantation in Antigua
A scence from a British-owned sugarcane plantation in the British colony of Antigua in 1823.

The British attempted to establish colonies in the Americas in the late 16th century. After a series of unsuccessful attempts, the first permanent British settlement in the region was established in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Over the next centuries, the British Empire expanded its influence in the New World, setting up colonies in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. While most British colonies are now free of British rule, some remain under British possession as British Overseas Territories.

The Devastating Impact On The Indigenous Peoples

Depiction of Pizarro seizing the Inca emperor Atahualpa. John Everett Millais 1845.
Depiction of the French colonists seizing the Inca emperor Atahualpa; painted by John Everett Millais 1845.

While European colonization of the Americas was highly beneficial to the European powers and fostered their rapid growth and development, it had a catastrophic influence on the indigenous people of the Americas. 

The European colonizers brought with them diseases like smallpox, bubonic plague, chicken pox, cholera, diphtheria, etc., that decimated the indigenous populations. These people had no immunity to these diseases, which spread rapidly and caused widespread death and suffering. They also had to fight difficult battles against the European powers, who had modern arms and ammunition. The traditional weapons of the natives were hardly a match for them. Hence, many indigenous peoples also lost their lives trying to protect their lands and freedom from foreign invaders.

It is estimated that the New World's indigenous population declined by as much as 90% due to European colonization. This population decline contributed to the loss of cultural diversity in the region. The legacy of this colonization is still felt today in the political, economic, and cultural scenes of the Americas. Despite the hardships and losses suffered, the resilient descendants of the surviving indigenous peoples of the Americas continue to fight for their rights. They have also made significant contributions to the cultural and social fabric of the region.

The Economic Impact Of European Colonization

A Linen Market with enslaved Africans. West Indies,
A Linen Market with enslaved Africans and their British owners in the West Indies.

The European colonization of the Americas had a major economic impact on both the colonizing nations and the colonized regions. One of the primary motivations for European colonization was the desire to find new sources of wealth and establish new trade routes. The colonies in the Americas became a significant source of wealth for the colonizing nations, as they could extract resources such as gold, silver, and other minerals, as well as produce and export crops such as tobacco, sugar, and cotton. The colonies in the Americas also served as a market for European goods. European merchants could sell a wide range of products in the colonies, including manufactured goods, textiles, and luxury items. 

The Age of Discovery had a lasting impact on the world. It led to the establishment of a global network of trade and the spread of European influence around the world. It, however, had a negative impact on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, as their cultures and traditions were suppressed, and their populations were decimated. Despite the negative consequences of the European colonization of the Americas, the Age of Discovery played a significant role in shaping the modern world.


More in History