European Colonization Of America: Antecedents, Causes, Consequences

The European colonization of America was the process by which several countries on the European continent controlled large American territories. This colonization began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the new continent and the subsequent conquest of the autochthonous empires that ruled the lands recently discovered by the Europeans.

The country that occupied the most American territories was Spain, whose Crown had financed Columbus’s trips and reached agreements with other later conquerors. Thus, in a few decades, the Spanish Empire came to control almost all of Central and South America, as well as vast areas in North America.

Portugal, Spain’s traditional competitor in the dominion of the seas, had to settle for colonizing Brazil. These two nations were joined by other European powers from the 16th and 17th centuries, such as England, the Netherlands or France.

The main cause of the European countries to colonize America was to obtain economic benefits. At first, the Spanish were looking for a passage to the East Indies to improve trade, and later, raw materials became a source of wealth for the colonizers.


Christopher Columbus, sponsored by the Crown of Castile, first reached American lands on October 12, 1492, specifically the island of Hispaniola. Although they soon built the first settlement, the colonization itself began years later, when the Spanish defeated the indigenous peoples they encountered on the continent.

From that moment on, the European powers began a race to establish colonies throughout the Americas. Around the same time as the Spanish, Portugal conquered and colonized part of South America. Then, from the early seventeenth century, the British, the French and the Dutch joined.

European countries sought two main objectives with the establishment of these colonies. The first, and main, was of an economic nature, both due to the opening of new trade routes and the obtaining of raw materials. On the other hand, it was also about increasing political power against its continental rivals.


Colonizing a territory is defined as the settlement of a country’s population in an area located in other territories. It is a concept closely related to that of conquest, although they are not always linked. Thus, at times, lands can be conquered without later establishing colonies.

The colonizers often use various arguments to justify their right to occupy foreign territories. These range from deliberately ignoring the existence of indigenous peoples in them to considering that colonization is justified by a supposed cultural or religious superiority.

Viking settlements

Before the Spanish established their first colonies there was a people who had made some forays into America. Thus, evidence has been found that proves that the Vikings arrived in Greenland and Newfoundland around the 10th century.

Experts believe that some of the settlements established in Greenland lasted for about 500 years, while those in Newfoundland were much more ephemeral.


The search for new trade routes to reach Asia was the trigger for the discovery of America. Once the Europeans understood that they had found a new continent, the European powers began a race to exploit the found territories.


Land routes from Europe to Asia had been blocked after the Ottomans took Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. This forced Europeans to find new ways to continue trading with Asian countries.

The first to look for alternative routes were the Portuguese and the Spanish. Columbus, after not obtaining support from the Portuguese Crown, managed to convince the Queen of Castile to support her trip, arguing that it was possible to reach the Indies by the Atlantic. However, instead of reaching his goal, he ended up finding a new continent.

America became thereafter a commercial target for all European powers.


The technology of the time, with advances in fields such as cartography or navigation instruments, allowed Europeans to venture out on longer trips.

Territorial expansion

Hoarding the maximum possible territories also became a geopolitical objective. The European powers sought to strengthen their power on their continent and colonization was a tool for this.

On the other hand, Europe was experiencing a great demographic expansion, which meant that more food and natural resources were needed.

Situation in Europe in the 17th century

A century after the Spanish established their first colonies, the rest of the European powers began to compete to unseat the power of the Spanish Empire. England and France established settlements in Asia and began attacking Spanish shipments.

Soon, with the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire, the rest of the European countries began to conquer and colonize various American territories.


The Spanish Catholic Monarchs obtained papal permission to spread the Catholic religion among Native Americans. Thus, forced proselytism became one of the reasons used to conquer the lands of America.

In the case of the English and the French, religion also played an important role in establishing colonies. In these cases, however, it was not about converting the indigenous people, but America became a refuge for many Europeans persecuted for their religious beliefs in their countries of origin.

Spanish colonization

As noted, the Crown of Castile sponsored the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus’s attempt to reach the Indies by crossing the Atlantic. The navigator had tried to obtain the support of the Portuguese monarch Juan II, but was rejected.

For their part, the Spanish kings had just conquered the last Muslim enclave on the peninsula and agreed to support the idea of ​​Columbus.

After several weeks of crossing, Columbus reached the island of Guanahaní on October 12, 1492. The first Spanish settlement on the new continent was established on Hispaniola and, four years later, Christopher Columbus’s brother founded Santo Domingo.

The first town that arose on the continent was Nueva Cádiz, today Cubagua (Venezuela), in 1500. The following year, the Spanish founded Cumaná, also in present-day Venezuela.

Tensions with Portugal

The arrival of Columbus in America caused serious tensions to erupt with the other great maritime power of the time: Portugal. To resolve the disputes, both countries submitted to the arbitration of Pope Alexander VI.

The result was that Spain obtained the right to colonize the territories located west of a line located 100 leagues west of the Azores, while the Portuguese could settle to the east of that imaginary demarcation.

However, the agreement did not satisfy Portugal. For this reason, a new agreement was negotiated, called the Treaty of Tordesillas. Through this document, signed in June 1494, the Portuguese managed to expand their territories, which allowed them to colonize Brazil.

The conquest

The Antilles were the first base from which the Spanish began the conquest of the continent. To do this, they had to face two great indigenous empires: the Aztecs and the Incas.

Hernán Cortés was the protagonist of the conquest of the Aztec Empire . On August 31, 1521, he definitely took the capital, Tenochtitlán, which marked the beginning of the colonization of present-day Mexico.

For his part, Francisco Pizarro entered present-day Peru in 1531. The Spanish took advantage of the existing civil war between the Incas to take Cuzco. After that, they founded a new capital: Lima.


Once the Spanish defeated the indigenous peoples they proceeded to organize the administration of their territories. At first, the Crown created two great viceroyalties, that of New Spain and that of Peru.

Later, as they were conquering and colonizing new territories further south, other viceroyalties were founded: New Granada and Río de la Plata.

This process sometimes met with resistance from some indigenous peoples. Of all the rebellions that occurred, the one of the Mapuches stood out, in central Chile and Argentina. The so-called War of Arauco was the one that caused the most Spanish casualties in all of America.

On the other hand, despite the Spanish military superiority, there were some areas that they could not control. The most important were Patagonia, the Gran Chaco, the Amazon and the desert areas to the north of Mesoamerica.

Spanish domain

Spanish colonial rule lasted for about three hundred years, until the beginning of the 19th century. The American colonies became the main source of wealth for the Spanish Crown, thanks to the raw materials, gold and silver obtained from them.

All that wealth, however, did not help Spain to maintain its role as a power in Europe. Much of it was used to finance constant wars, without having an impact on the peninsular population.

In addition to the mining of silver and gold, the colonial economy was based on cattle ranching and agriculture. In order to work the lands, given the mortality that the diseases carried by the colonists caused among the indigenous people, the arrival of African slaves was necessary.

Within the administrative system created by the Spanish to govern their colonies, two main institutions were established. The first was the Casa de Contratación, dedicated to managing all matters related to trade and the economy. For the rest of the affairs the Council of the Indies was founded, in charge of writing and compiling the Laws of the Indies.


The Spanish colonies began to rebel against the central government in the early 19th century. In a few decades, until 1824, most of the colonial territories achieved their independence.

The Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808, the discontent of the Creoles for their exclusion from political posts and the influence of the ideas of the French Revolution and the Independence of the United States were the causes of continuous uprisings against the viceregal authorities.

Portuguese colonization

Portugal was one of the major maritime powers in the early 15th century. This allowed him to colonize the Azores and Madeira Islands, whose location made them excellent bases to travel to America.

After Columbus arrived on the American continent, Portugal began his campaign to control part of the newly discovered territories. The Treaty of Tordesillas granted them the right to colonize a wide area of ​​land and King Manuel I sent several expeditions. Among these, the one led by Pedro Alvares Cabral stood out.

North America

The Portuguese interpretation of the Treaty of Tordesillas stated that they had the right to colonize part of the northern lands of the New Continent. Thus, in 1499 and 1500, an expedition reached the northeast coast and Greenland.

This last island was mapped two years later by a new expedition, which also visited Newfoundland and Labrador. All these territories were claimed as belonging to the Portuguese Empire.

In the second decade of the 16th century, Portugal built some settlements in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, although they were soon abandoned. The Portuguese preferred to focus on the areas that corresponded to them in South America and ignore the North American ones.


The most important territory colonized by Portugal in America was Brazil. Its conquest began in April 1500, when the explorer Alvares Cabral reached its shores. From there, the Portuguese were advancing towards the interior and consolidating a dominion that lasted 300 years.

For this they had to face the French, who sent expeditions to the Brazilian coasts in 1530.

The administrative organization of the Brazilian territory was established by the Portuguese king in 1533. The monarch divided the colony into 15 captaincies, each 150 miles wide. The command of each strip was granted to Portuguese nobles on a hereditary basis, which ensured that the state saved on costs.

Among the nobles’ commitments were the conversion of the natives to Catholicism, the colonization of their lands and the economic development of their captaincy.

This system changed in 1549, when the king sent a governor general to administer the colony. Its purpose was for a centralized government to exist, but, in practice, the nobles continued to exercise almost all power in each captaincy, especially in the economic sphere.

Independence of Brazil

As with Spain, the end of the Portuguese colonization in America was marked by the Napoleonic invasion of the country. The royal family had to go into exile and settled in Rio de Janeiro. That locality then became the capital of the Empire.

Seven years later, Don Juan, a Portuguese prince, founded the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarve. In 1821, after inheriting the throne, he returned to Portugal and left his son Pedro as governor of the colony.

The attempt to revoke the autonomy that Brazil enjoyed within the Empire provoked the rejection of the Brazilians. Local leaders managed to convince Pedro to declare independence in 1822.

English colonization

The first British expedition to the New Continent occurred shortly after the arrival of Christopher Columbus, although no settlement was established. Later, in 1585, another expedition, commanded by Sir Walter Raleigh, tried to found the first colonies in North America.

However, it was not until 1607 that the first English stable town in America was founded: Jamestown.

The Thirteen Colonies

The British established thirteen different colonies in North America. Some of them were populated by settlers seeking economic benefit. Others, meanwhile, were founded by settlers fleeing religious persecution in Europe.

Unlike the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the Thirteen British Colonies were endowed with more open systems of government, without feudal features.


The English colonies soon began a process of expansion. After the war against the Netherlands they managed to control New Amsterdam and after the Seven Years’ War they did the same with New France.

Seven Years War

The end of the Seven Years’ War, in 1763, left the European powers with great economic problems. England projected a change in the administration of its empire to obtain more benefits, something that found the rejection of the colonists.

During the previous decades, the Thirteen Colonies had enjoyed considerable autonomy. Each of them had decided its form of government and its inhabitants voted in favor of not giving in to the fiscal and political claims of the metropolis.

The revolts against the taxes that England wanted to impose occurred in all the colonies. In addition, the thirteen joined forces to confront the English, which led to the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1775.

Birth of the USA

The rebels declared independence in July 1776 and proclaimed the birth of a new nation: the United States of America. In their fight they had the support of the traditional rivals of England, such as Spain or France.

Dutch colonization

The Netherlands became from its own creation a great colonial power. Its first expeditions to America began in the first half of the 16th century, when its merchants went to the Antilles. In addition, in 1625 they founded New Amsterdam, the future New York.

Dutch claims collided with the other colonial powers. Thus, in the Antilles they had clashes with the Spanish and in Brazil with the Portuguese.

Confrontation with Spain

As mentioned, the Dutch had several military confrontations with the Spanish for the possession of some territories. In 1593, a Dutch expedition conquered the salt flats of the Araya Peninsula in Venezuela.

Later, in 1622, one of the most important naval battles of that period took place, when the Dutch attacked Araya to seize its final control. The Spanish managed to repel the attack.

Suriname and Guyana

The Netherlands did manage to settle in Suriname and in an area of ​​the Guyanas. There, during the 17th and 18th centuries, they developed an economic system based on agriculture. The success of their plantations caused those colonies to become the ones that concentrated the greatest number of slaves in all of America.

North America

In the early 17th century, the Dutch sent an expedition to present-day New York State. To manage commercial activities, the country created the Netherlands West Indies Company, which, by 1621, had founded several trading posts in that area of ​​the American coast.

The pretensions of the Dutch soon collided with the British intentions to control the entire area. In the middle of the 17th century, England seized the eastern part of Long Island from its rivals, although tensions continued. In the 1660s, these tensions led to a war between the two countries, the outcome of which benefited the British.


At first, the Netherlands established an administrative system in which commercial companies wielded great power. The exception was the colony established in part of Brazil, ruled by a member of the royal family.

Clashes with the Portuguese and the British prevented the Dutch from maintaining their colonies for a long time. In the end, they were only able to conserve small territories in the Caribbean.


In addition to the previous European countries, other nations also participated in the colonization of America. Some were continental powers, such as France, others were beginning to acquire power, such as Germany and, finally, small countries that sought new territories to exploit their wealth.


The French began to show interest in colonizing the American territory in the sixteenth century, but it was not until the seventeenth when they managed to found their first colonies. His first target was North America, in present-day Canada. It was there, specifically in Quebec, where they installed their first stable settlement, in 1608.

The participation of France in the colonial race was caused by the search for economic benefits. In addition, it was also a way to strengthen its military position against other European powers.

Canada, USA and Caribbean

As noted, France directed its first colonizing efforts to the north of the American continent. There she founded two commercial ports, Nova Scotia and Annapolis, in addition to her first colony, Quebec.

Somewhat later, the French founded Montreal, a city that served as a base for entering the Great Lakes area, reaching up to the Mississippi River.

Contrary to what the first settlers from England did, the French did not limit themselves to setting up settlements on the coasts of the continent, but moved inland and developed trade relations with the natives. This allowed them that in the middle of the 18th century they had founded settlements such as Detroit, Illinois and New Orleans.

In practice, the French expeditions to the interior of the continent supposed that they controlled a very extensive territory that went from Canada to Louisiana.

In addition to North America, France established some colonies in the Caribbean. The first were founded during the seventeenth century, when its fleet conquered, among others, the islands of San Bartolomé, Granada, San Martín and part of Hispaniola.

German colonization

Germany only made a serious attempt to obtain colonies in America. This occurred between 1528 and 1556, when Emperor Carlos V granted land in Venezuela to a prominent family of bankers: the Welsers.

The intention of the Welsers was to find the famous El Dorado and, for this, they sent important military forces to fight the indigenous people.

Although the mythical city was never found, the Germans did exploit the gold mines in the area, for which they had a large number of German miners. They were joined by about 4,000 African slaves to grow sugar cane.

The Spaniards who resided in the area did not accept German control and the clashes followed one another. Finally, the Welsers gave up on maintaining the colony and the territory was incorporated into the New Kingdom of Granada.

In addition to this attempt, Brandenburg-Prussia also tried to establish colonies in the Caribbean, although with little success. The II Reich tried the same, with the intention of subtracting power from an emerging US.

Italian colonization

It was Duke Ferdinand I de Medici who organized the only Italian expedition sent to the New World to establish a colony. The journey, which began in 1608, was destined for northern Brazil and was commanded by an Englishman, Captain Thornton.

Thornton’s first voyage was aimed at reaching the Amazon to prepare for the subsequent expedition. However, when he returned to Italy, Ferdinand I had passed away and his successor canceled the project.

Later, at the beginning of the 19th century, many Italians settled in Latin America. However, these colonies were not under the rule of Italy, but were localities founded by immigrants.

Danish colonization

Denmark joined Norway in 1535, a country that had had some colonies in Greenland until the early 15th century. After that unification, the Danes claimed the old Norwegian possessions on the North American island.

It was not until 1721 that Denmark founded its colonies in southwestern Greenland. One of her first measures was to send missionaries to convert the island’s inhabitants to Christianity.

Over time, the entire island came under their sovereignty, a situation that continues to this day, although the Greenlanders enjoy extensive self-government.

In addition to Greenland, Denmark also founded some colonial in the Virgin Islands. To do this, in the image of what other countries did, she created a private commercial company: the Danish West Indies Company.

While in Greenland the main economic activity was fishing, in the Virgin Islands that role was occupied by agriculture, more specifically by the cultivation of sugar cane. The need for workers led to the arrival of a large number of African slaves, so many that they soon made up most of the inhabitants.

In 1803 the slave trade was abolished and in 1848 it was made illegal to own them. This caused the economy of the islands to go into crisis and there was a decline in population. Finally, in 1917, Denmark sold the islands to the United States.

Swedish colonization

Sweden also established its own colonies in North America and the Caribbean, although the settlers came from an area of ​​the country that now belongs to Finland. The Swedish possessions were not very extensive and generally had a short existence.

The first colonies were founded between 1638 and 1655: New Sweden and New Stockholm, both in what is now the United States. However, they were soon conquered by the Dutch and integrated into the New Netherlands.

On the other hand, Sweden ruled the islands of San Bartolomé and Guadalupe for almost a century, between the 18th and 19th centuries. The two passed into French hands, which retains its sovereignty to this day.

Russian colonization

Southern Alaska, a peninsula that had been discovered by the Russian Ivan Fedorov in 1732, was the area where Russia established its main colonies at the end of the 18th century. In this case, they were rather factories in which the skins were treated and prepared for sale.

The Russians also took control of the rest of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. His expeditions followed the northwestern coast of the continent, reaching northern California. This caused the Spanish to fear a possible Russian attempt to occupy the area, although this did not come to pass.

The harsh climatic conditions in the Russian-controlled area was one of the reasons why the population was quite sparse. Most of the inhabitants were indigenous people converted to Christianity by Russian missionaries.

Over time, the Russian Tsar’s government found that keeping holdings in Alaska was unprofitable for the country. For this reason, and due to the need for financing after the Crimean War, he negotiated with the United States the sale of the territory. This took place on April 9, 1867, and the price paid by the Americans was just over $ 7 million.

Norwegian colonization

Norway, which had been attached to Denmark until 1814, lost all its colonies after being annexed by Sweden. Her possessions then passed to the Danish Empire.

Already in the 20th century, in 1905, Norway declared itself independent and that was when it tried to establish some colonies in America.

The main Norwegian claim was the Sverdrup Islands, but they came under British sovereignty in 1930. In addition, they also claimed an island in Greenland called the Land of Erik the Red. Although it claimed its sovereignty before the International Court of Justice, the court ended up ruling in favor of Denmark.

Hospital colonization

The Knights of Malta had participated in a notable way in the colonization carried out by the French. In New France, for example, the members of this order, almost all aristocrats, formed a very important group. This prompted the Grand Master of the Order to establish a priory in Acadia, although the idea was rejected.

Once the change of Grand Master took place, the new occupant of the position showed more interest in the possibility of the Order establishing its own dominions in America. Thus, in 1651, the Hospitallers acquired San Cristóbal, San Bartolomé and San Martín.

It was in San Cristóbal where the Order built a series of fortifications, churches and a hospital that made the city one of the most impressive in the entire Caribbean. However, outside the capital the situation was different.

San Bartolomé was attacked by the indigenous Caribs and all the settlers were killed or forced to flee. The government sent about 100 men to repopulate the settlement. Other areas controlled by the Order also suffered rebellions and attacks.

In addition to this indigenous opposition, some frustration began to appear within the Order at the lack of benefits obtained from its colonies.

In the early 1660s, the Hospitallers had not yet paid the full loan that France had made to buy the islands, and the leaders began to debate what to do with those possessions. Finally, in 1665, they decided to sell all the territories to the French Company of the West Indies.

Curian colonization

It was not only the great European countries that tried to establish colonies in America. Some smaller nations also tried to obtain territories in order to take advantage of the riches of the new continent.

The smallest of these countries was the Duchy of Courland, then a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation. The promoter of the colonizing project was Duke Jacob Kettler, who had become a fervent follower of mercantilism during his travels through Europe.

Thanks to Kettler’s good government, Curland was able to build a large merchant fleet, based in present-day Liepaja and Ventspils, both in Latvia. With that fleet, the duchy sent a colonizing expedition to Tobago, founding New Curland. The colony lasted, in a first stage, between 1654 and 1659 and, in a second, between 1660 and 1689.


The consequences of the European colonization of America ranged from the death of numerous indigenous people to the replacement of indigenous cultures by those of the colonizers.

On the other hand, it supposed the appearance of the nations that today make up the continent and that were declaring their independence from the 18th century on.

Indigenous deaths

The indigenous people who inhabited the areas colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese were the first to suffer a great slaughter. For the most part, the cause of death was contagious diseases carried by the conquerors and settlers, against which the natives had not developed defenses.

Along with disease, wars also played an important role in the decline of the indigenous population on the continent. The working conditions in the encomiendas, despite the laws promulgated from Spain, also caused deaths due to poor living conditions.

On the other hand, diseases were also responsible for a large number of deaths in the territories dominated by the English and the French. However, after the independence of the United States, the new country undertook a campaign to conquer all the lands of the North American west during which it caused enormous losses to the natives.


The decrease in the indigenous population caused that there were not enough workers to exploit the American wealth. The colonizers’ response was to bring large numbers of slaves captured in Africa to the continent.

These slaves did not possess any type of right and were one more possession of their masters. In this sense, their situation was far worse than that of the indigenous people, who, at least, had some protection under the law.

Expansion of the Catholic Church

While many English settlers came to America fleeing religious persecution and some of the Thirteen Colonies were very tolerant in the field of religion, in the territories governed by the Spanish there was a campaign of forced conversion to Catholicism.

This caused the Catholic Church to be one of the most important institutions during the conquest and colonization. The pope had granted the Spanish Crown exclusive rights to convert the natives, and the missionaries and friars were essential to carry out what many historians call the “spiritual conquest.”

On the positive side, many of these friars became defenders of the indigenous peoples and denounced the excesses that many colonists committed.

Cultural consequences

Among the social and cultural consequences of the European colonization of America, the disappearance of numerous native languages ​​stands out. These ended up being replaced by the language of the colonizers, whether they were Spanish, Portuguese or English. The same happened with other cultural manifestations or with religious beliefs.

Economic consequences

The impact of the conquest and colonization of America was of such magnitude that many historians consider that it was the first great globalization. The enormous wealth that the European countries obtained were fundamental for the appearance of international trade.

This dynamization of the world economy lasted until after the independence of the American countries. These became suppliers of raw materials for European nations, replacing Asian countries.

Among the products that arrived in Europe from America were corn, tobacco, tomato, cocoa or sweet potato. All of them played an important role in the economy of the colonizing powers.

Political consequences in Europe

Europeans didn’t just establish colonies in America for riches. A confrontation was also developing to achieve hegemony in the Old Continent. The oldest powers, such as Spain, managed to form a great empire, but little by little it was losing strength in favor of other nations such as England or France.


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