European ‘Discovery’ of the Americas

Where and what is America?

'America' has more than one meaning. It is usually taken to mean the United States of America (USA), one of the countries on the North American continent. Americas the plural form, also refers to the continents and islands of North, Central and South America. This part of the world is also known as the 'New World' and the 'Western hemisphere', because it lies west of the imaginary line that splits the world in two from top to bottom, the Greenwich meridian.

There is no sure answer to the question of where the name 'America' comes from. The accepted story is that the New World was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an explorer who came from Florence, Italy, and lived at the time of Christopher Columbus. Other theories are that it came from the name of an Englishmen, Richard Amerike, who had financed John Cabot's explorations to America in 1497 or from what Native Americans called modern Nicaragua ie. Amerrique meaning something like 'Place of the Wind'. Both Vespucci and Columbus visited this place often, because it was very rich in gold. Another story says that it comes from an old Scandinavian saga and that it means 'Land of Eric', the hero. They say that the land had been named after Eric by the Vikings, who came from Scandinavia and who had visited America long before other Europeans.

America' had been used since the beginning of the 16th century. The earliest known use of the name is in 1507, on a large map.

This section of grade 10 classroom content was developed in 2003 for the larger topic titled ‘large empires and civilisations that existed in the world in the 15th and 16th centuries’. The content, as presented below, is no longer part of the curriculum but provides for great further reading, specifically for the new curriculum topics on ‘European expansion, conquest and the slave trade 15-18th century’ and the ‘World around 1600’.

Did you know? As a first name for both males and females, 'America' means 'Land of the Prince'. Activity Fill in the names of the different countries on the map of the Americas. Also fill in the names of the three major islands visible on the map: the two between North and South America and the one above North America. Tip: there are 3 countries in North America, 6 in Central America and 13 on the South American continent.

European explorers

In the mid-fifteenth century, the powerful empires of the Aztecs and Incas dominated large areas of the Americas. There was no trade across the Atlantic Ocean at this stage.

There were two ancient civilisations in cental and south America which the Spanish were particularly interested in. Both the Inca Empire of Peru and the Aztec Empire of Mexico held many riches. The Aztecs were the first great Native American civilisation with which the Spaniards came into contact In the beginning of the 15th century, a period in history began that had great consequences not only for Europe, but for the rest of the world. It is generally referred to as the European Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration.

At this time Arab merchants traded with the countries in the East. The Arabs had a monopoly or complete control over the overland trade routes across the land to the East. The Arabs charged high taxes on all the trade that passed through the overland routes they controlled. These high taxes made the price of products like gold, silk and spices that Europeans wanted, more expensive for them to buy. Europeans wanted to find their own sea route to the East that did not cross Arab lands. European countries fought with each other on sea and land to control the trade routes and the countries they discovered.

The explorers then got sponsorship through kings, queens, princes and wealthy leaders and businessmen to take to the seas. The aim was not so much to find out what was out there, but to discover a different route to India, a country where Europe did a lot of trading. The usual route was over land, through what is today Turkey. When the Turks conquered this territory, it meant that the Europeans could not travel through it. At the time, there was much hostility between Muslims and Europeans who were traditionally Christian.

For much of the 15th century, the Portuguese tried to find a route to India by sailing around Africa. One of these explorers was Bartholomew Dias, who landed in the Cape in 1488. But it was only in 1498 that Vasco da Gama, succeeded in establishing a route to India. This route became very important. In 1652 a large Dutch trading company, the Dutch East India Company, sent one of their employees, Jan van Riebeeck, to establish a trading post at the Cape. For a broad overview of early trading systems, see our Grade 7 Classroom Lesson.

Another option was to sail west and to reach India from the other side of the globe. This is what the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus did.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who - unlike most people in Europe at this time - believed that the world is round and he wanted to prove it. To prove his point, he wanted to sail to China and India by going west instead of east. Queen Isabella of Spain gave him three ships and crews to use to sail in. Voyages of exploration were very expensive, as the explorers needed well-equipped ships, which were loaded with food and cannons. They sailed in caravels, which could sail into the wind without oars, which had to be rowed. The caravels could carry heavy cannons, which shot out cannonballs that could do damage from a long distance.

Queen Isabella, like other monarchs in Europe, supported voyages of exploration because they wanted the money from trade and the gold that explorers brought back with them.

The new guns and cannons made the Europeans more powerful and they were able to conquer people who did not have these weapons. European countries grew rich from the gold, silver, land and labour they took from people living in other continents around the world.

Columbus sailed west in 1492 and when he reached land, he thought he was in India. He had in fact reached the Caribbean Islands. He called the Islands the 'West Indies'! He later wrote a letter which said: "There is plenty of gold in this land ... I had to return to Spain, but the King and Queen can be assured that I shall give them as much gold as desired, enough spice and cotton, also wood and slaves if only they finance another trip."

He did two further trips, in 1493 and 1498. Columbus had opened the way for more Spanish explorers who became known as 'conquistadors' or conquerors.

Spanish conquistadors

In 1492, he found land which he believed to be India. In reality he had found what the Barbados Islands in the Americas is today. During the next few years, in which he made more voyages to America, he found most of the major islands in that area as well as part of Central America. He was still under the impression that it was India. Eventually, the Europeans realised that it was actually a whole new continent unknown until then. They called it the New World.

Christopher Columbus was not the only European who 'discovered' America in his search for India. In 1497 an Italian called Giovanni Caboto (called John Cabot in England) landed in North America. Further European discoveries were made by the Portuguese Pedro Cabral, who landed in Brazil in 1500 and by Giovanni da Verrazano, who explored the east coast of North America in the 1520s. Between 1519 and 1521, Portuguese voyager Ferdinand Magellan went on a journey to discover a passage to the Pacific Ocean around South America. He and his crew lived with the indigenous people in southern Argentina for a while during one winter. This voyage was the first time that westerners circumnavigated the whole world. Magellan was killed by local inhabitants in the Philippines, but one of his men Sebastián Elcano led the crew for the last stretch of the voyage.

By about 1520 most of the eastern coast of South and Central America had been drawn on a map, and it became clear that it would not be so easy to sail to India and the Pacific Ocean by going west. In the meanwhile news of the bounty of gold, silver and other gems had reached the ears of the Europeans, and they became determined to get some of it for themselves. Europeans began to focus on the Americas instead of the route to India. This led to another phase in American history, namely a phase of conquest. Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) swept through South, Central and part of North America and took control of the land and its people. The Native Americans were no match for the European horses and firearms. Mexico fell in 1591-1521 and Peru in 1531-1538. In time, parts of North America were colonised by many other European nations, including Britain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Russia.

Activity 1. In your school or community library, find as much information as you can on one of the following explorers:   – Christopher Columbus   – John Cabot   – Pedro Cabral   – Ferdinand Magellan 2. You may find a lot of information in encyclopedias, books on American history, the history of explorers or the history of Renaissance Europe. You may also use the internet as well, but try to find more books than websites on the person you are investigating. 3. Determine the point of view of each source. Does it put the specific person in a good or bad light, or does it present the facts in a more neutral light? 4. Do all the sources have the same kind of information, and are all the facts (like dates and numbers) the same? 5. If you find facts that differ between sources, find out which ones are likely to be accurate. This may be the one that occurs in most of the sources. 6. From all the information that you have gathered, make a summary of what you think are the most important facts. 7. Write a short biography (about 1 page long) on the person you have investigated, using the information you have gathered. Use the information in your summary. 8. After you have written the biography, give it to somebody who worked on the same explorer. 9. Together you can debate the various issues and decide what to include in your joint effort.Try to provide some analysis of different opinions.

Activity Divide into groups of 4-6. Discuss the following question among yourselves: Did Christopher Columbus discover America? After your discussion, write your answer down, together with your reasons.

Did Columbus ‘discover’ America?

To say that Columbus, Cabot's and others "discovered" America “is misleading. To discover something means to be the first to find it. This implies that nobody knew about America, and that no one had ever been there. This was not the case. Not only were there communities living in the Americas for hundreds of years, some long before these "discoverers" arrived, but these societies were large and sophisticated empires.

To talk about 'Native Americans' as a single group or culture is like talking about 'Africans' being all the same. There are many different indigenous groups in Africa, each with its own history, culture and language. This was also the case for the indigenous people of the Americas. A few of the groups that were conquered by Europeans are discussed at below.

What do we call the people of the Americas?

The name given to Native Americans is a controversial subject. When Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, he thought that he had found India. When he met the first inhabitants of the land, he quite naturally called them 'Indians'. This is a name that has stuck, and even today people call Native Americans 'Indians'. To differentiate between Indians from India and Indians from America, people began talking about 'American Indians' or 'Amerindians'. This is still a term that is used in the social sciences, like history and anthropology.

Many people now agree that the term Indians is derogatory and offensive. The term preferred in the USA is Native Americans and in South America 'indigenous people' is used. In Canada, they are called the 'First Nations', referring to the fact that they were the first people to live there.

South and Central America

In South and Central America, the Europeans had to overthrow two major empires before they could colonise the land. These were the Aztecs in Central America and modern Mexico and the Incas in South America. These powerful civilisations dominated large areas of the Americas. There was no trade across the Atlantic Ocean at this stage.

Early empires and civilisations in the Americas

South America

The Aztec Empire

The Aztec goddess of Coatlicue, mother of earth. Picture source: wikipedia

In 1345 the Aztecs travelled south to central Mexico, where they founded a large lakeside city called Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs were a warlike, bloodthirsty people and through their violent conquests of other groups they grew wealthy and powerful. They demanded that those they conquered pay tribute to them. By the early 16th century, the Aztecs dominated Mexico, especially the southern part. It is believed that the Aztec empire of over 10 million people had a strong military tradition and a well established trading network. Merchants travelled through the whole empire, trading as well as serving as ambassadors, spies and sometimes soldiers. The Aztec monetary system was based on cocoa seeds, and the markets were very well organised. More than 60 000 people came to the market in the capital daily. When the Spanish came to Mexico and saw these markets, they declared that they had never seen anything like it in Europe.

Modern-day Mexico City is situated on the site of the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The Emperor headed a very complex society that was ruled partly by religion and fear.

The Aztecs believed they were the chosen people of the gods. Their chief god was Huitzilpochtli who represented the sun. The victorious sun rose each morning, drove off the moon and stars and captured the daytime sky. But the sun's victory was short-lived. Each afternoon and evening, the sun sank in tired defeat. For the sun to successfully rise each day, it had to be nourished with human blood. This blood was supplied by victims were captured during war. The Aztecs therefore went to war continuously. Those who were defeated and incorporated into the Empire were never happy with Aztec rule.


The Aztec calendar had 365 days. It was used more than 100 years before the Gregorian calendar (used in our world today) and shows the level of sophistication of Aztec science. The Aztec calendar is recorded as a carving on the Aztec sun stone currently on exhibit in Mexico City. The sun stone is filled with symbols that refer to human sacrifice. At the centre is a sacrificial knife sticking out from the mouth of the central deity and talons on either side of the deity's face which grasp human hearts.

The Spanish king sent a general called Hernando Cortes to find the Aztecs. The Aztecs lived in a fertile valley 2000 metres above sea level, the water from the surrounding mountains watered their crops, which included maize, cotton, beans and chili peppers. The capital was at Tenochtitlin (today called Mexico City), a vast city with causeways and bridges and huge stone buildings and temples. Their leader at the time that Cortes and the Spanish soldiers arrived, was Montezuma. Montezuma at first welcomed the Spanish as the Aztecs thoughts they might be holy men, but they were soon to realise this was not so. The Spanish conquistadors were only interested in the gold.

Cortes came with 16 horses (which the Aztecs had never seen before), 14 cannons, steel swords and crossbows. This made them stronger in battle against the Aztecs. The Spanish were also made stronger by being able to get help from the oppressed enemies of the Aztec Empire who were willing to assist them.

They were also helped by an interpreter called Dona Marina. Her birth name was Malinalli. After a battle with Cortes, the defeated Native Americans gave her to Cortes as a peace offering. The Spanish baptised her into the Catholic faith and she was renamed. She learnt Spanish, lived with Cortes and later gave birth to his son. She could speak the Aztec language and told Cortes everything she knew about the Aztecs. In 1521, after two years of resistance, the Aztec Empire fell to the Spanish. Montezuma was killed, and many Spaniards and Aztecs lost their lives.

The Aztecs were influenced by an earlier civilisation, the Toltecs, who ruled the area between 900 and 1200 AD. Toltec workers and merchants taught the Aztecs how to make objects from feathers and gold, how to interpret the stars and how to use a calendar. The Aztecs knew how to restore land from the lake – in other words, to dry up sections of the lake in order to expand the islands. This was done by piling mud onto beds of straw inside wooden fences. In this way, they also built new land areas. They followed a hieroglyphic writing system, and wrote documents on paper made from tree bark. Documents included tax lists, legal documents, religious texts and historical writings. These documents reveal much about the Aztecs.

The modern Mexican flag bears an eagle with a snake in its beak. The symbol comes from an Aztec legend. According to this legend, the gods had promised the Aztecs land they would be able to recognise through the presence of an eagle sitting on a cactus, holding a snake in its beak. They found the eagle on an island in Lake Texcoco, where they settled.

According to another Aztec legend, the god Quetzalcoatl had been defeated by an evil god and disappeared into the eastern (Atlantic) sea. He had foretold that he would return from the same sea, leading a group of white-skinned, bearded men, to defeat his enemies. When the Spaniards came from the east, white-skinned and bearded, the Aztecs did not fear them. Instead, they welcomed them as their deity and his group of warriors, which made it so much easier for the Europeans to conquer the Aztecs.

Source A This source tells us a little about the religion of the Aztecs: “The Aztecs believed that Huitsilopochtli, a sun god, needed blood every day. They believed that when the sun went down, Huitsilopochtli had to do battle against the demons of darkness. For this he needed strength. If he did not get blood, the sun would not have enough strength to rise the next day. When the Aztecs went to war, they tried to capture people alive. Captives were sacrificed on the top of the pyramid temples by cutting their chests open and tearing their hearts out. The hearts were either placed on an altar in front of the god, or in the god’s mouth. The bodies were then thrown down the temple steps. This was indeed horrible, but some victims regarded it as an honour to die in this way. They thought they were serving the god and the community by making sure that the sun would rise again." “When the Spaniards arrived, they were horrified by the human sacrifices they saw. They did not understand the reasons for the sacrifices and through they were a form of ‘devil worship’.” - My New World Grade 7, Gariep, Bam et al, 1999, page 133 Source B This source tells us a little about the religion of the Spanish: “The Inquisition was a judicial court of the Roman Catholic Church. The church used the Inquisition to deal with people accused of heresy, or revolting against religious authority. ”¦A person accused of heresy was brought before the inquisitor and questioned. They then had a trial, with the testimony of witnesses. The use of physical torture to obtain confessions was ”¦ authorized in 1252. The Inquisition then used several brutal methods of physical torture to force “confessions” from innocent people. A person found guilty was sentenced in public. The punishments ranged from simple prayer and fasting to losing property, imprisonment, and life imprisonment. People who did not cooperate were turned over to the state. The state could carry out the death penalty. The Inquisition reached its height in Spain during the days of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in the late 1400s. The royal rulers exercised almost complete control of the Inquisition and carried it to extremes. This was a period of terror, cruelty, and religious extremism. It is estimated that about 2,000 people were burned alive at the stake and more than 160,000 Jews were forced to leave Spain. The Spanish Inquisition spread to the Spanish colonies in Latin America.” - adapted from Britannica Elementary Library 2003

Pre-Columbian Goldsmithing

Aztec gold pendant. Picture source: The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004.

Regions of central and south America were very rich in gold, an incredibly rare metal in most parts of the world. Gold smithing probably began in central and South America as early as 1500BC. New techniques developed over time and objects, which were made, and have survived, have become some of the world's most outstanding examples of artistic expression.

For people living in the Aztec empire, for example, there was little value in the gold itself as it was relatively easy to obtain. It was usually only after the gold has been transformed by skilled goldsmiths into finished objects that the metal took on a culturally accepted value and significance. The gold objects carried proverbial expressions and spiritual meanings, primarily related to supernatural powers.

The indigenous people that the Spanish encountered could not understand why the conquistadors insisted on melting down the gold objects they captured to make them into ingots. Commenting on the destruction of these objects, an indigenous leader commented as follows:

"I am amazed at your blindness and insanity, that you destroy these well-wrought objects and make sticks of them and that you - although friends - fight among yourselves over such a petty thing. You would be wiser to be in your own country, so far from here, and where there are - you say - so many wise and cultured men, than to come here and fight in a land that is not yours and where we live happily."

-Quoted in Pre-Columbian Gold by C.H. Langebaek, 1997, page 2, Mayr & Cabal Ltd

Why were the Europeans so entranced by gold?

Gold is a precious metal and is very rare. It is the colour of the sun, and throughout time, and in all civilisations, it is has been believed to have life-giving force. Some have called it 'the sweat of the sun'. It has many characteristics, for example it is colourful, shines brightly when polished, beautiful to look at, hard to find, can be eaten, soft, but can be shaped and hammered without breaking, reflects heat rays, mixes easily with other metals, a status symbol (stands for wealth and power) does not rust, tarnish or corrode.


Around 1100 AD, the Incas came to the Andean region from the south and founded the city Cuzco. They began the expansion of their empire by conquering small groups in what is today southern Peru, and eventually subjugated the entire Andean coast and highlands. At its height, the Incan empire stretched from modern northern Ecuador to central Chile and included territory in modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina.

The emperor was called 'Inca', and it was believed that he was the son of the sun, the most important Inca god. Society was organised in clans. The Incas had a vast network of roads that crossed the whole empire, altogether about 40 000 km long. This made it easier for the Inca's officials to travel through the empire to keep an eye on all the clans. However, since they had no horses or wheeled vehicles, all travelling was done on foot. Messages and news were sent across the land in a relay system: there were small buildings called 'tambos' all along the roads. A messenger would run with his news to the next tambo, where another messenger would take over. The Incas had a system of writing called 'quipo'. It was not an alphabet, but a system of strings and knots. A number of strings hung from a main string, and each one was knotted. Each knot or series of knots represented an event or a number. In Inca society, every person had to work without pay, because labour was seen as a form of tax.

Shortly before the Spaniards came to Peru, the Inca emperor died. This was followed by a civil war between his two sons. The Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, arrived in 1532 and were able to exploit the situation and capture the already weakened state.


Between 300 and 900 AD, the Mayas were a very strong and developed civilisation in Central America. They are often compared to the Romans. They had a complicated hieroglyphic writing and a mathematics system, and their calendar was more exact than the European's calendar. Civil wars and invasions weakened the mighty empire. In around 1200 the Mayas were conquered by the Toltecs, who absorbed Mayan architecture, art and religion. Even later, the Aztecs took over and at the same time took over aspects of Toltec and so Mayan culture.

By the time the Europeans came, the grand Maya civilisation had collapsed. All that was left were small groups. These were unable to unite against the European invaders, and the Spaniards conquered the groups one by one.

North America

Native Americans

A Native American camp in Texas. Source:

Native Americans are believed to be the descendents of people who came from Siberia (in Russia) at least 10 000 years ago. It is not certain how they got there. One theory is that they came across the Bering Strait, a stretch of sea that separates Asia and America but that was probably a land bridge between the two continents in prehistoric times. Another is that they were seafaring people who came along the coast. A different theory altogether is that they did not come from Siberia, but really from Africa and that they may have sailed on a boat that resembled the ancient Egyptian reed boat. However, most Native American religions believe that they were created in America at the beginning of all things.


Archaeological evidence shows that they came from Siberia in three separate migrations. The first probably led to the Clovis culture, from which the bison hunting Folsom culture developed. These people eventually spread over the whole continent, even as far south as Tierra del Fuego in modern Argentina. The second migration was made by the ancestors of the Na-Dene people, who generally lived in Alaska and western Canada. Some migrated further south and were the ancestors of the Apaches and Navajos. The third migration brought the ancestors of the Inuits and the Aleuts. New evidence shows that there might even have been four such migrations, and that some of the migrants may have come from as far as Europe.

Many Native American groups were nomads or semi-nomads, and remained this way until the European conquests. Others, as we have seen, formed large and sophisticated empires. The North American Natives include groups such as the Navajo and Apache (from southwest USA); Pawnee (from the Plains in central USA); Miami (Great Lakes region); and the Kwakiute (from the northwest USA).

The first European colonisers often subjugated and enslaved the Native Americans. Many were killed in warfare, but even more died from typical European diseases like chicken pox and measles, to which they had no natural resistance. Some believe that up to 80 percent of Native Americans were wiped out by such diseases. The coming of the Europeans changed Native American society drastically. As the colonisers expanded their land in the New World, more and more Native Americans died or were assimilated into western culture. When Columbus and the other explorers first came to America, there were more than 20 million Native Americans. A hundred years later, there were little more than 2 million.


The Inuits are indigenous Americans who live mainly in Canada, Greenland and Alaska. Previously, they used to be called 'Eskimos', but this term is regarded as offensive and degrading. The Inuit were (and still are) hunters of whale, walrus and seal. They use igloos as shelters, and process animal skins into clothing. The anorak, a big jacket with a hood, originally comes from the Inuits. Since the arrival, racist policies have severely damaged the Inuit way of life.

Activity Decide as a class whether you will do this activity on your own or in groups of 5-6 people. Find as much information as you can on ONE of the following civilisations: the Mayas, Aztecs or Incas. Use books in the school or community library as well as the internet. (There are some links in this section that you can use.) Do the following activity: You are a journalist in either the Maya, Aztec or Inca empire and it is your task to produce a small newspaper (about 4-8 A3 pages or more if you want to). In your newspaper, there should be a main article, an editorial page with the editor's message, letters from readers and maybe a columnist's views.The newspaper should also include news from around the empire, like the death of an emperor or a war. There should also be an arts and culture section and, if possible, a sports page. You could also add advertisements. Perhaps your people have already made contact with one of the European explorers. In that case, what is the general feeling about him or them? You can include visual material like photos, drawings and even a cartoon, if possible. Using the information you have learned, try to be as inventive as possible.

Conquest and Colonisation

South and Central America


After Christopher Colombus 'discovered' the Americas in 1492, he was made governor of the new territories. These conquests were soon followed by the colonisation of most of South and Central America, parts of the Caribbean, Mexico and much of the United States of America (USA).

In 1494 Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordisillas, which was meant to divide the globe in two spheres of influence, so that the two empires would not interfere with each other's explorations and conquests. West of the line would be Spain's sphere of influence and east would be Portugal's. The line ran through what is today South America and particularly Brazil. The result was that most of South and Central America fell into the hands of Spain. Portugal colonised Brazil, which they discovered in 1500 and lies east of the line of Tordisillas.

In the early 16th century, the Spanish began their conquest of the Americas. As far as they went, they subjugated local populations and imposed Christianity upon them. The Spanish soldiers, explorers and other adventurers who conquered these lands were called 'conquistadors', which means conquerors. Many came hoping to make a fortune.

The Caribbean islands Hispaniola (which means 'Little Spain' and is today divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico and Cuba were among the first American lands to be conquered. In 1512, the first Spaniards to settle on the American mainland did so in Panama. But not all the American land was brought under Spanish control. In many cases, the conquistadors had to fight against stronger local adversaries before land could be claimed for the Spanish crown. In Mexico, it took Hernán Cortés and his men over 2 years to subdue the Aztec empire. In 1521 he succeeded with the help of Native American allies and called Mexico "New Spain". The fall of the mighty Inca empire followed and was complete the by 1533.

The conquistadors were notorious for their cruelty and ferocity. Local populations were enslaved, abused and killed. In 1542, colonial laws were introduced to protect the Amerindians. In 1552 a book about the conquistadors' abuse was published by Bartolomé de las Casas. It was called a Short Account of the Destruction of the West Indies.

The following extract describes how the Incas were conquered: The Conquest of Peru The Inca emperor Huayna Capac died shortly before the Spaniards captured Peru. His death was followed by a civil war between his two sons, Huascar (who controlled southern Peru) and Atahualpa (who controlled Ecuador). The Spaniard Francisco Pizarro (1470-1541) arrived in Peru in 1532 to find the country already devastated by civil war. Pizarro had been planning his expedition for a long time because he had heard of the fabulous wealth of the Incas. He brought with him 180 armed men, 37 horses and some interpreters. Pizarro invited Atahualpa to a meeting; when he arrived Pizarro's men killed Atahaulpa's (sic) soldiers and arrested him. Buying Freedom In order to buy his freedom, Atahualpa offered the ransom of a small room filled once with gold and twice with silver. It took the Incas many months to collect this treasure from all the corners of their empire. Even 700 gold plaques from the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco were included. One fifth of the treasure was intended as and offering to the king of Spain and each soldier received a fortune. But Atahualpa did not buy his freedom because Pizarro had him strangled. After Atahualpa's death it was easy for Pizarro to conquer the rest of Peru by the end of 1533. - Source: Machado, A. M. (1994). Exploration into Latin America. London: Belitha Press, p. 29. The execution of Atahualpa. Some sources say he was strangled, although others say that he was decapitated - Source:


Because of the Treaty of Tordisillas, Portugal's influence in the Americas was not as extensive as Spain's. In 1500 Pedro Cabral landed in Brazil. Temporary trading posts were founded to collect Brazilwood, which was used as a dye, until the first permanent settlers arrived in 1532. The first permanent settlement was called São Vicente. In 1549 a capital was founded at the Bay of All Saints, namely Salvador. The establishment of a sugar cane industry soon followed, beginning the demand for intensive labour that would lead to slavery. At the same time, the first Jesuits arrived to establish their mission stations.

The city Rio de Janeiro was founded after the Portuguese destroyed a 10 year old French colony at the Bay of Rio de Janeiro between 1565 and 1567. Less than a century later, the Netherlands also tried to settle in Brazil. By 1640 they were controlling almost half of the country, but war with Portugal followed. Portugal won, and by 1654 the Netherlands had surrendered their control. Brazil was then completely in the hands of Portugal and it remained a Portuguese colony until 1822.


The French were also heavily involved in the colonising of the Americas. They captured several Caribbean Islands, as well as French Guiana in South America. The islands include Haiti, which they called Saint Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Grenada and Tobago. Today, Martinique and Guadeloupe are still in French hands. French Guiana, which was colonised in 1604, is also still an overseas department of France.

The Netherlands

Dutch colonisers were quite active in the Americas. In the Caribbean they came to control the Netherlands Antilles, Virgin Islands, and Tobago. In South America they colonised Dutch Guiana (today Suriname), Guyana, and part of Brazil.

In 1620 they began to colonise the island of St Maarten in what was to become the Netherlands Antilles. In 1816, after it had changed ownership at least 16 times, it was finally split between France and the Netherlands. This was followed by the capture of a number of other islands. These were then fortified to prevent attacks and raids from the Spaniards. These islands included Curaçao, Saba, St Eustasius, Bonaire and Aruba. The Netherlands Antilles were given self-government in 1954 (but not complete independence) and in 1986 Aruba became an autonomous country, separate from the other. The rest of the Netherlands Antilles are however still a Dutch territories.

In 1625, both the British and the Dutch formed a base on the island St. Croix. This led to conflict, and 25 years later the British abandoned their colony. At the same time, the Dutch settled on Tortola, Anegada and Virgin Godo. These colonies did not last long, however, since the British took Tortola in 1672 and Virgin Gordo in 1680.

In the 17th century, the Dutch tried many times to colonise Tobago, but conflict with other European powers left the settlements in ruins each time.

Surname was founded in the 1650s by the governor of Barbados, which was a British colony. During a war between the Dutch and the British, the Dutch seized the colony and sold it to the Dutch West India Company in 1683. It was then called Dutch Guiana. Between 1799 and 1816 England controlled the colony, but it was finally returned to the Netherlands. Its economy was based on agriculture and depended on African slavery. Dutch Guiana became independent in 1975 and is today called Suriname.

The Dutch West Indian Company built a fort in 1616 in what became Guyana. They traded with the indigenous people and founded sugar plantations, where they used labour of African slaves. When the British established their own plantations in the region, conflict broke out and control began going back and forth between the English and the Dutch. However, by 1796 the British held complete control and the Dutch gave up their colonies in the region in 1814.

In the late 1630s, the Dutch came to control a very big portion of Brazil, with the Dutch West India Company's headquarters in Recife. The governor invited artists and scientists to settle in the colony, in an attempt to promote the colony and to expand its population. By 1654, however, the Dutch had given up their share of Brazil in favour of their rivals, Portugal.


The British colonised several islands in the Caribbean Sea. Most of them gained their independents in the 20th century, but some remain British territories, like Bermuda, Barbuda, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands.

Belize was first used as a source for logwood, a tree which was used to make dye, from the mid 17th century. A British colony was set up, but it was repeatedly destroyed by the Spanish, who had claimed the area for themselves. Eventually when they attacked the final time in 1798, they were defeated. Until 1973, the British colony was known as the British Honduras, and in 1981 Belize became independent. Another British settlement in Central America was the area known as the Mosquito Coast, which was settled by the British in 1630. It was first made a part of the Honduras in 1859, but in 1860 it became part of Nicaragua.

In the early 17th century, the British began to colonise the Guiana area. Although the Dutch gained control of these colonies, British influence in the area remained. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna (which was also used to discuss the division of Africa into European colonies) gave certain colonies in the Guiana area to Britain, and in 1831 they were all united as British Guiana. In 1966 the colony received independence and was renamed Guyana.

North America

Many countries colonised North America, most notably Britain, France and Spain. By the second half of the 18th century Britain had 13 colonies in what was to become the United States of America (USA).

These colonies wanted freedom from British rule, and between 1775 and 1783 they fought the American War of Independence, also known as the American Revolution. The colonies won their independence, and the USA was born. For the next century, the USA expanded by buying territory from other colonial powers (like Louisiana from the French, Florida from Spain and Alaska from Russia), through war (with Mexico and Canada), and through annexation and conquest (Texas and California from the Spanish and Native American land). In the end, the USA had expanded to become a large territory with not just 13 states, but 50. This expansion is not really considered to be part of colonisation, since the 13 states had become independent and was no longer colonies of any European empire. To find out more about the expansion of the USA in the 19th century, see our Grade 7 Classroom Lesson, Moving Frontiers in the 19th century.

Mexico remained in the hands of the Spanish until it became independent in 1821. After independence, many Mexican lands were lost to the USA through war and US land purchases. The other North American country is Canada, which was initially made up of French colonies which then became British in 1763. Today, Canada is still divided between predominantly French and English-speaking parts. Other European countries that at some time or another had colonies in North America are Sweden, Denmark and Russia.


Spain's influence in the Americas stretched into the North American continent. Here, they colonised Mexico, Florida (which included parts of modern Alabama and Mississippi), California and New Mexico. Attempts were made to expand further north, but they failed. In 1720 a small Spanish group from Santa Fe in New Mexico wanted to meet with the Pawnee leaders in modern Nebraska. However, it led to a skirmish in which only 13 of the Spanish group managed to return home. During the American War of Independence another expedition went from Missouri to as far north as Michigan, where they captured a British fort in the Britons' absence. But this expansion was not recognised, and so also failed.

Mexico was colonised when the native Aztecs were finally defeated in 1521. In 1810 Mexicans declared independence from Spain, but this was followed by a drawn out war. In the end, Mexico did get its independence in 1821. Florida was colonised after the Spanish first arrived there in 1513. The colony included territory in the Carolinas as well, and they called it La Florida. For the next 100 years, the Spanish and French both settled in Florida, but the Spanish area decreased when the British established colonies to the north and the French to the west. A struggle for control over parts of the area continued between Spain, Britain and the USA until the Spanish finally surrendered Florida to the USA in 1819. Spain had difficulty controlling its North American colonies because they were located so far from the motherland. When the Americans took over one of their forts, the Spanish realised they might lose their territory. In the end they sold the land for about 5 million dollars. In 1845 it became the 27th state of the USA.

California and New Mexico were part of the land conquered by the Spanish, but most of the land in the interior was not permanently settled. Today, this land includes parts of modern California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, Utha, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. Between 1762 and 1803 the Spanish controlled Louisiana after the French and Indian War. It went back to French control in 1803.


French explorers came to the Americas as early as in the 16th century. In 1598 they tried to colonise Sable Island, but failed, having run out of supplies. Only 12 of the colonisers survived to return to France in 1605. The next attempt was in Acadia in 1603, which was successful.. Like the British, the French were involved in the fur trade with Native Americans. They formed alliances with certain groups, especially the Huron and Ottawa, and even fought wars against their enemy, the Iroquois. During the 17th century French influence in North America expanded, especially in the north and south. Louisiana was founded in 1699, but after the French and Indian War, all the French territory on the continent was divided between Britain and Spain, except for St Pierre and Miquelon, two islands off the Canadian coast. During Napoleon's rule, France managed to get most of the land back. But since they did not have the navy to supply their colonies and because Napoleon did not want the land to fall to Britain, Napoleon sold Louisiana to the US for only 12 million dollars. This transaction, known as the Louisiana Purchase, is sometimes called the 'biggest bargain in American history'. Other previously-French settlements included colonies in modern Canada, Mississippi and Alabama. The cities they founded include Quebec and Montreal (in Canada), Detroit, Michigan, St. Louis, Mobile and New Orleans (USA). Today, St Pierre and Miquelon are still French territories.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands became involved in North America in the early 17th century, when the Dutch government ordered the Dutch East India Company to explore the possibility of a passage to India, and to gain unclaimed land for the Netherlands. In 1609 the English explorer Henry Hudson claimed land for the Netherlands on his mission to discover a route to India. He came upon land in modern Canada and USA and named sime of the features after himself, namely Hudson River and Hudson Bay. The first settlement was established in 1615. It was called Fort Nassau, near modern Albany, the capital of modern New York State. It was mainly a trading post, because, like the French and British, the Dutch were involved in the fur trade with Native Americans. It was later replaced by Fort Orange at modern Albany.

When the Dutch West India Company took over the trade in the Americas in 1621, they wanted to declare the colony, called New Netherland, as a Dutch province. Soon after this happened in 1623 colonists from Europe began to arrive to settle in the new province.

In 1626 the WIC bought Manhattan island from the Native Americans. This was soon transformed in a new Dutch city, New Amsterdam. More settlements were founded in the region, including Fort Nassau in New Jersey, Fort Casimir in Newcastle and Fort Beversrede in Philadelphia. Although the settlements were controlled by the Dutch, many of the immigrants did not come from the Netherlands, but from other European countries such as England and modern Belgium and Germany. In the 1650s, the Swedes occupied Fort Casimir. But the Dutch won this back, together with the Swedish colony of New Sweden.

In 1664, the Dutch lost their colony when British troops attacked. The Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, which were then renamed New York and Fort Albany respectively. This incident led to the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). It only ended when the Treaty of Breda was signed, which gave New York to the British. In return, the Dutch received control over Suriname, which they had seized druing the war. (See the unit on conquest in South and Central America for Suriname.) In the next decade the Dutch tried once again to regain the territories, but failed.


The first successful British colony on the continent was Jamestown, Virginia, which was founded in 1607. It was followed by Plymouth (1620) and Massachusetts Bay. In 1664 the British took over New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony, and called it New York. This meant that the British also took over the former Swedish colony, New Sweden, that had been conquered by the Dutch and now became part of Pennsylvania. A hundred years later Britain also took over the French colony New France, which became the Canadas, and Spanish Florida. By the time the American War of Independence began in 1776, Britain had colonies all over the east coast of the continent, as well as colonies on the west coast, like Vancouver Island and New Caledonia, which were later combined into British Columbia. Modern Canada was founded with the combination of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada in 1867. The 13 states on the eastern coast, which were to become the first states of the USA, were Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachussets, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.


These were not the only countries who colonised parts of North America. For a short while, Sweden had a colony near where Delaware is today. They also had settlements in modern New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The colony was called New Sweden, and existed from 1638 to 1655. It was established after the Swedish expedition to the New World in 1637. When they arrived in Delaware Bay in 1638, the Swedes built a fort called Fort Christina. In total, about 600 Swedes and Finns settled in the area. In 1654 they conquered the Dutch Fort Casimir. But the Dutch sent an army to the Delaware River the following year, recapturing Fort Casimir and gaining Fort Christina as well. Although New Sweden was now officially a Dutch territory, the Swedish and Finnish settlers continued to rule themselves until the British conquered the Dutch colony in 1664.

In 1732, a Russian discovered northern Alaska. This was followed by further discoveries in 1741, but only 50 years later was the first Russian colony in Alaska founded. Here, sea otters were hunted for fur. More Russian trading posts were established in Alaska, the Aleurian Islands, British Columbia and Washington State, Oregon and even northern California. A Russian fort was built about 80 km north of San Francisco in 1812, but it closed again in 1841.

In 1867 the USA bought Alaska for 7,2 million dollars. The Russians were eager to sell the territory since it was not profitable. But when oil was later discovered there, it became a very worthwhile purchase for the USA. Alaska became the 49 th state of the USA in 1959.

Between 1671 and 1733 the Danish started colonies on St Thomas and St John and bought Saint Croix from the French. In the 18th century the Virgin Islands were divided between the English and the Danish. The Danish Virgin Islands were dependent on slave labour to produce sugar cane, and when slavery was abolished in 1848 the economy began to decline. In 1917 the territory was sold to the USA. Other Danish possessions were colonies in Greenland, which were founded from 1721 and still form part of Denmark, although it now has self-government.

Consequences of Colonialisation

The arrival of the Europeans and their conquest and colonisation of the Americas transformed this land forever. Its people were subjugated and with them, hundreds, thousands of years' culture and civilisation were suppressed. Many died of the new diseases the Europeans brought with them. Indigenous religions did not die out, but often had to make way for the European's new religion of Christianity. Shortly after the colonisation, a phenomenal trade in humans began across the Atlantic Ocean, as slaves were needed to work the land and plantations in the Americas. The trans-Atlantic slave trade become one of the most significant and for many, traumatic, periods in world history. But colonial rule was not destined to last in the Americas. By the end of the 18th century, the European settlers of American colonies began to rebel and press for independence. The American War of Independence, or American Revolution, freed the 13 eastern coast colonies from British rule, and paved the way for the establishment of one of the biggest 20th century powers, the United States of America (USA). This revolution was soon followed by liberation struggles all over Latin America in the beginning of the 19th century. By about 1826, most of the Latin American countries were free from colonial rule.

The effects of conquest and colonisation on Native Americans

The arrival of the Europeans in America, meant that the numbers of the native populations diminished rapidly. For example, the first Native American group that Columbus came into contact with was the Arawaks of Haiti. At that time, about 1502, there were 250 000 Arawaks. But barely 50 years later, their numbers had drastically been reduced to 500. Another 100 years later, they completely died out. The reasons for the decline of the Native American population include warfare with Europeans, enslavement by the conquerors, and the diseases brought from Europe. These diseases might not have been life-threatening in Europe, where over centuries people had built up natural immunity to diseases like chicken pox and measles. But these diseases were unknown in America, and so the Native Americans had not had chance to build up any resistance to them. Those that were fatal to even Europeans, like smallpox, proved to be especially dangerous to the Native Americans. In some cases whole villages were wiped out by European diseases and it is believed that far more than half the Native American population died in this way. Other diseases that were brought by the Europeans include dysentery, malaria and hookworm.

Not only did millions of Native Americans die. The European conquests meant the end of civilisations that were more advanced than those in Europe. Gold, silver and other treasures were taken and a most of these minerals was sent to Europe. Filled with religious zeal, the conquistadors often destroyed temples and other buildings and burned documents, so that a great deal of cultural and historical materials was lost.

Enslavement was also common. When the Europeans began to settle in America, they needed slaves to work on their cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations. In many cases whole communities were violently enslaved, like the Arawaks encountered by Columbus. Weakened by disease, the Native Americans were unable to cope with hard manual labour. The Europeans needed alternative labour and Africans slaves proved to be the answer. African workers were strong, worked hard, were immune to many diseases and were easily obtained.


The trans-Atlantic slave trade brought millions of African slaves to the Americas. The trade began in the early 16th century. By the end of the 17th century, about 30 000 slaves were being shipped to the Americas each year. By the end of the 18th century, the number had increased to nearly 80 000 per year. In total, about 11 or 12 million African slaves were taken to the Americas. The Europeans bought the slaves from African traders, mostly in West Africa. The slaves were often prisoners-of-war taken in battles between indigenous African groups. The slaves were kept in forts on the African coast before being transported to America. The conditions in the forts and on the ships were horrendous. There was little space to move or even to go to the bathroom. About 13-30% of the slaves died on the ships. In America, they were auctioned off to their future owners. These slaves often had to work for 10-11 hours per day, six days per week. The conditions and treatment of the slaves were not the same everywhere in the Americas. In some areas, like Brazil, they were often treated worse than in the American South, because there were many more slaves and so they could be easily replaced if they died. There were a number of revolts against slave masters, but they were usually crushed violently.

Early in the 19th century, the slave trade was banned. This led to some improvement in the treatment of slaves to ensure that they would survive longer. Later that century slavery was banned completely. The legacy of the slave trade and slavery lasted much longer. For many African Americans, who do not know where their African ancestors came from, the slave trade means that a huge part of their background remains a mystery.

Slavery in the New World played an enormous role in the economies of America and Europe. People became very wealthy through their plantations, worked by slaves, and through trade with Africa and Europe.


Another important aspect of conquest and colonisation is the religion brought by the Europeans, namely Christianity. There were several reasons why the Europeans were eager to conquer the Americas. One was South America's legendary treasures in gold and silver. The other was religious zeal. Many Spaniards claimed to have gone to the Americas to spread the gospel and convert the Native Americans. It is debatable whether religion or greed played the most important role. For example, in Mexico, the conquistador Hernán Cortés was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, probably because the Aztecs believed that it was their god Quetzalcoatl returning from the eastern sea, as he had promised. The emperor sent Cortés presents of gold and silver. In return, Cortés made alliances with the Aztecs' enemies, destroyed Aztec temples and cities, and erected crosses, a symbol of Christianity, on the ruins. Furthermore, when the Aztecs saw the crosses they became even more convinced that this was the return of their god, since he was the god of crossroads. When the Aztecs realised their mistake, it was too late. The Spaniards defeated them in battle, and finally had not only their land, but their gold and silver as well.

But not all Christians who came to the Americas were out to conquer and suppress. Not too long after the Europeans set foot in the Americas, the first Christian missionaries arrived. The Jesuits were especially active in South America. When Portuguese descendants in Brazil wanted to enslave the indigenous people to work on their sugar plantations, Jesuit priests defended them against the slave masters. The missionaries also did not always impose their own European languages on the people they wanted to convert, and in some cases preached and worked in certain indigenous languages. This helped to expand the local languages and put them into writing.

Many of the indigenous people did convert. Today, Christianity is the main religion of Latin America and the Roman Catholic Church the main church, although traditional religious practices still exist. The famous statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is 30 metres high and was built in the 1920s.

Activity Write an essay of 1-2 pages on the following topic: Despite the negative aspects of conquest, the colonisation of America was positive in the long run because it transformed America from a primitive and undeveloped land to one that is civilised and developed. Do you agree? Remember to structure your essay well. There has to be an introduction, stating the question which you will answer in the essay; a body in which you give your argument; and a conclusion that brings your argument together and give your opinions on what was asked whether you agree with the statement or not. Your answer does not necessarily have to be right or wrong because you are presenting your opinion with evidence and historical views to support it!

Activity Look at the summary you wrote down in your book in the activity under Explorations. With all the information you have gathered since then, do you still agree with the conclusion you and your group reached?

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