Lecture 3:
The Explorers and the Colonists

Europeans had been exploring the world for several centuries before they discovered the New World, but their explorations began in earnest during the 1400s because of the need for spices. In those days, there was no refrigeration. To prevent meat from spoiling, people covered their meat in salt and dried it to preserve it. Then they used peppper and other spices to restore the taste of the meat. Spices were also believed to have medicinal qualities, and some were used in religious ceremonies.

Unfortunately, these spices did not grow in Europe. They were only found in Asia. They were brought overland for years from Asia to Europe, but the journey was very dangerous, as the traders had to travel on foot for thousands of miles across rough terrain, always at risk of being killed or robbed by bandits.

In the mid-1400s, spices became even more expensive and difficult to find in Europe when the land route from Asia to Europe was cut off by the rise of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which eventually controlled much of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The European rulers could not defeat the Turks in battle, although they tried repeatedly. So they were finally forced to find a new way to get to the spices.

(To read a fascinating account of how the need for salt changed the history of the world, check out Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky.)

While the need for spices may have been the catalyst for exploration, there were other reasons. Many rulers believed that Asia was loaded with precious gems, gold, and silver, and wanted to find a way to get to it and claim it. They also wanted to expand their empires, so they would control more land. And more colonies meant more wealth: European rulers believed anyone who was not white and Christian was, at best, misguided, at worst, subhuman or downright evil. So they had no qualms of conscience about the idea of claiming land, stripping it of its resources, and enslaving its people.

Some also wanted to expand their knowledge of the world and spread Christianity. But make no mistake: the major motives were profit and power. Columbus may have been genuinely curious about what lay beyond the horizon, but the King and Queen of Portugal agreed only to fund his explorations when he spun tales of the great riches he would find for them. And after his fourth voyage, they imprisoned him because they thought he was mismanaging their new colonies, and not bringing in enough profit.

Thus began the Age of Exploration, as the European powers raced each other to discover new trade routes and new lands.

England and France explored and colonized mostly what is now called North America, while Spain and Portugal focused their efforts mostly on what is now called Central and South America. This is an oversimplification, of course, but for our purposes in this class, it's close enough. If you'd like more specific information about the exploration of the New Worlds, see the Links page.

By the late 1500s and early 1600s, people were emigrating from various parts of Europe to settle permanently in the North American colonies. Life was not easy for them, and many died from starvation, cold, disease, and Indian attacks.

This week's readings include excerpts from Columbus's diary of his first voyage; excerpts from John Smith's account of his experiences in the New World (you'll notice that it's a bit different from the Disney version!); and Mary Rowlandson's account of her captivity among the Indians who took her prisoner. Mary Rowlandson's experiences happened much later than John Smith's, when more of New England was colonized, but her account helps to reveal what life was like for those who were among the first to try to hack a life out of the wilderness.

--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.

--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.