European Settlement of the Americas – The True Story

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European Settlement of the Americas – The True Story

One of the most important events in the history of the last half millennium is the European "discovery" of the Americas. The traditional story of the contact explains the Europeans' eventual success by crediting the superior technology and military prowess of the Europeans. If the traditional story mentions luck at all, it is in explaining the Europeans' good fortune at finding such a sparsely populated "pristine" continent. While it is true that European ship technology was more sophisticated than that of the native peoples of the Americas, European conquering and exploration of the Americas was as much the result of three non-technological factors as of the sophistication of European ship technology. The first was Europe's relative backwardness in comparison to the Middle and Far East, the second was macro-evolutionary factors such as geography and relative lack of natural resources, and the third was plain dumb luck.

Europe's biggest motivation for westward exploration was a desire to access trade with the Far East. It was the continent's relative backwardness that prevented their achieving this access through eastward movement. The land route to the Indies was blocked because of European inability to compete with the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire stretched across the main trade routes. Carlo Cippola remarks on the irony that as Europeans were expanding on the sea, "on her eastern border she was spiritlessly retreating under the pressure of the Turkish forces." (Note 1) As a result, European nations who wanted the ability to trade with China and the rest of the Indies for goods such as silk and spices were forced to find another route, since they were not strong enough militarily to fight the Turks on land and gain access through the Middle East.

The second factor of backwardness that spurred westward exploration was the fragmented nature of Europe's political system. Because the continent was home to many separate and competing nation states, each country was forced to find its own route. This competition also increased the desire for Eastern goods, since these goods represented wealth and thus the ability to pay for expensive wars and triumph over neighboring states. If the European continent had been one united body politically, the desire for Eastern goods might have been less, and westward exploration of the Americas might never have occurred since all of Europe could have benefited from the Portuguese route to the Indies around Africa.

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