College freshmen often have a difficult time understanding the historical processes. The ability to look at trends covering hundreds of years is often difficult for them, but that’s part of what historians do (reference The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage). Some technical troubles with my laptop’s built-in camera forced me to deliver an online lecture in written form. The result is below. More important to me though, was to demonstrate to students how the question I had assigned for the week can connect to the paucity of documents meant to answer the question. The question:

How was it that European powers were able to speedily erect colonies worldwide, bypassing those of other world powers throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?  

The six primaries I assigned for the week are:


I am fairly happy with the result. I feel I accomplished what I set out to do. Historians can connect over 120-years of the past with just a few documents while recognizing big picture trends along the way and share with students the processes that get them there. Here’s the lecture:

In 1497, when Amerigo Vespucci began to catalogue and categorize the millions that occupied the New World, he made a few observations: the unknown people of the American continents did not know “law,” were “worse than pagans” since they were devoid of houses of prayer and, just as important, “they use no trade, they neither buy nor sell,” and “are contented with that which nature gives them.” Commodities valued in the known world – “gold, jewels, pearls, and other riches – they hold as nothing,” the people of the New World simply placed no “value” to them. Vespucci also levied the charge of cannibalism upon the indigenous.

Of course, most of what has been written by Vespucci has long since been debunked. Historians, anthropologists, and other disciplines (both science- and human-based) understand that any society must possess a set of codified rules, that Caribbeans did possess holy places, and were most certainly part of a vast and extensive trading network extending to Central and North America and that gold, pearls, and other valued riches of the West were indeed exchanged. The charge of cannibalism was more a figment of centuries of Western imaginations as they hurried to make economic gains upon the trading networks of the known world.

However, also of importance, was Vespucci’s insistence that it was God who protected them when the Caribbean to European cultural transactions went wrong. This providential passage may help to explain why Europeans were, with some suddenness, able to catch up with trade and technologies of the known world and – with the riches of the New World added to the equation – begin to overtake the Far and Middle East. God was on their side.

This zeal can be seen when a fleet of Portuguese ships, under the head of Dom Francisco, appeared at the East African, Indian Ocean port city of Kilwa (modern-day Tanzania). It was on “the feast of St. James the Apostle” that the Francisco sent warships and men to plunder its riches, after a prayer. Less than three weeks later, Dom Francisco’s fleet arrives at Mombasa, modern day Kenya, further up the Indian Ocean coast. It was on 25 August 1505, a Christian date set aside for the “feast of the Assumption of Our Lady” that Francisco split his fleet to attack. The town was sacked and burned which resulted in 1,500 deaths.

If the Portuguese attacks seem a bit over the top, Machiavelli’s 1532 publication of The Prince gives current readers a bit of a window into understanding some western powers motives: its history. In chapter five, Machiavelli wrote to the Pope (the dedication of The Prince was to Leo X, aka Giovanni Medici) that past Greek and Roman conquering brought up the issue of how to rule a taken land. All would be easy, said Machiavelli, unless the conquered land “were accustomed to live at liberty.” History proved that there were only three methods by which to take and hold such a place. The first two techniques were ineffective, neither setting up a puppet state nor living among the locals seemed to satisfy those who enjoyed liberty before their being captured. The best and only true historical example to hold land previously held by liberty-loving people was to utterly “destroy them…” Machiavelli’s historical processes seemed to fall into Dom Francisco’s treatment of the Moors along the east African coasts and that of the Spanish in the Americas.

For in 1601, the armies of Spain arrived in what is today New Mexico. Don Juan de Zaldívar attacked a native American encampment called Acoma with severe brutality. The testimony of Ginés de Herrera Horta against Zaldívar proved the harshness of the attack, so intensely cruel that even Horta and others reported against him noting that Indians “were afraid” of Spaniards and therefore refused to convert to Catholicism.

When England went to settle Virginia, its failed attempt previous must have been well on the mind of James I who drew up a new charter. England’s king indemnified a Christian mission to the legal document. The new settlement was provided “by the Providence of Almighty God” to propagate Christianity to “such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance” and to bring “the Infidels and Savages… to human Civility”. Though more than a century passed since Vespucci’s observations, Europeans overwhelmingly viewed the indigenous of American continents as godless inferiors.

By 1620, with England’s entrance into the Indian Ocean basin, as well as upon India itself, Europeans were beginning to encounter and compete with other Europeans. Thomas Mun, a trader in India, wrote to his son twelve “Qualities Which Are Required In A Perfect Merchant Of Foreign Trade.” From this document we begin to see that global commerce need to not be about mere conquering but that the trade carried with it some necessary as well as practiced merchant acumen: mathematics; knowledge of foreign monies, taxes, weights and measures; commodity excesses and desires; currency exchange rates; laws and prohibitions of foreign places; the conditions of his ships and the ships of his competition; insurance rates; and navigation of not only the seas but also of languages. Global trade necessitated – in addition to a brutal takeover of people and lands – a love of “thy Country,” a fear of “God aright, according to his Works and Word,” plus the learning of “sundry Vocations” by which one could trade around the world with an expectation of success.

The initial burst of exploration, followed by brutal suppression of the New World populace, helped secure the Western Atlantic and beyond along a Machiavellian path. By the early seventeenth century, long-distance traders had already begun to refine their craft comforted by the knowledge that they already disrupted and destroyed numerous indigenous cultures. The rise of Europe against the known powers of the Far and Middle East came with God-backed zeal to conquer those who were once “accustomed to live” within their liberties.