For Europeans of the Late Middle Ages, the known world was relatively small, mysterious, and imbued with Christian symbols. A popular kind of map, the T-O map, divided the world into three regions—Asia, Europe, and Africa—separated by the T-shaped intersection of the Mediterranean Sea and the Don and Nile rivers. All of this was contained within a large circle with Jerusalem at its center. For some mapmakers, the T shape called to mind the cross on which Jesus had died, and they seized on this image to incorporate Christ into the geography of the world.
These maps were oriented with the east at the top, privileging where Christians believed life had begun. Many Europeans thought the history of civilization would follow the same path as the sun: rising (Latin oriens) in the east and falling (occidens) in the west. In the twelfth century, the German bishop Otto of Freising wrote “that because all human learning began in the Orient and will end in the Occident, the mutability and disappearance of all things is demonstrated.” In other words, the apocalypse would happen somewhere in the West, and it was important to many Christians that nonbelievers be baptized before the end came. Although this helped motivate the explorations that led Europeans to America, it does not explain them.
When the Age of Exploration began, the Far East was more advanced than Europe in terms of technology, economy, and culture. Still, the Mediterranean Sea was already a zone of thriving trade and those who did business there, including the Chinese, had little motivation to seek out other lands. Western Europe, by comparison, was poor in wealth and resources. Although western Europeans had benefited from thousands of years of Eastern innovations in farming, mining, language, and religion, they lived far from economic and cultural centers and, for that reason, had an interest in finding new connections.
Geography aided this search. Although early in the 1400s western Europeans were far behind the Chinese in their understanding of navigation, they took advantage of their Atlantic coastlines and used the century to catch up. First, European explorers claimed many of the Atlantic’s nearby islands. In 1402 soldiers from the kingdom of Castile landed on the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, near present-day Morocco and Western Sahara, and conquered the natives who lived there. Portugal then claimed the island of Madeira, just north of the Canaries, in 1418; the Azores, farther out in the Atlantic, in 1431; and Cape Verde, off the coast of present-day Mauritania and Senegal, in 1456.
They used these new lands to establish sugar plantations run on enslaved labor and as outposts for explorations farther west into the open Atlantic and farther south along the coast of Africa. These conquests also helped to demonstrate how western Europeans might fund their new empires: loans by Genoese merchants funded ships and crews, and were repaid through the profits reaped from slave sales and sugar production.
The First Voyages West
Some historians have suggested that one key distinction between the Europeans and their Far East counterparts was the European idealization of the adventurer. Certainly the 1490s proved to be a golden age for adventurers. In 1492, the Genoese captain Christopher Columbus convinced the king and queen of Spain to sponsor his exploration west across the Atlantic Ocean. He mistakenly believed the world to be much smaller than geographers had previously estimated, and for this reason he argued that by sailing west he could find a quick route to the (East) Indies, still a lucrative trade zone.
Columbus assumed he had found the Indies. It took him and his fellow Europeans a while to understand that he had, in fact, come across two previously unknown continents: North and South America. Even then they assumed that the land mass must be narrow enough to provide easy passage to China. So while Columbus established a colony on Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), navigated the coast of Cuba, and touched the tip of South America, another Italian, John Cabot (Zuan Chabotto), set off from England. Cabot went in search of the so-called Northwest Passage to China, hoping to connect Bristol to that region’s spice trade. Like Columbus, he failed. (He did, however, discover Newfoundland.) Not until Vasco da Gama sailed around the southern tip of Africa and arrived near Calicut, India, in 1498, did Europeans navigate by sea to the actual Indies—a place, as it happens, where their trade goods were of only mediocre value.
These western voyages, especially the four led by Columbus, were important for several reasons. One was Columbus’s discovery of a reliable sailing route west using the Atlantic system of trade winds. By following the northeasterly trade winds south and then west, and the westerly trade winds back east, Columbus demonstrated how others might make the round trip in the future. Another was the discovery, by Juan Ponce de León in 1513, of the Gulf Stream off the coast of what he named La Florida. This strong ocean current, caused by the sinking of cold water and the rising of hot, allowed Spanish captains an even quicker route to the westerly trade winds and back home.
A third, more critical result of Columbus’s voyages was their effect on the indigenous populations of America. Prior to Columbus, there had been virtually no biological interaction between Europe and Asia on the one hand and North and South America on the other. With Columbus and his followers arrived new people, new plants and animals, and new diseases in what the scholar A. W. Crosby has dubbed the Columbian Exchange. The exchange went both ways, of course, but for various reasons Europeans were much less vulnerable. Scholars estimate, for instance, that between 1492 and 1650, 95 percent of all the inhabitants of the Neotropic ecozone, an area covering Central and South America, died of disease. This massive depopulation resulted in significant changes in the environment and may even have led, according to at least one scientist, to a cooling of worldwide temperatures.
The World Divided in Two
Columbus’s voyages sparked intense competition between Spain and Portugal. On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard, issued a bull, Inter caetera, that attempted to ease tensions. He decreed that all newly discovered lands west of a line of longitude running through the eastern part of present-day Brazil belonged to Spain, and everything east to Portugal. The two nations confirmed the ruling at the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed the next year.
On their side of the line, the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas. Those American Indians they did not kill, they enslaved and attempted to convert to Christianity. In 1545, the Spanish founded Potosí, a mining town in present-day Bolivia. Within the decade they were unearthing hundreds of metric tons of pure silver annually and transporting it in galleons back to Europe, where King Charles V and later his son, King Philip II, used it to pay for Spanish wars against Muslims and Protestants.
In the meantime, exploration continued. Amerigo Vespucci sailed down the coast of South America in 1499, and in 1500, the Portuguese mariner Pedro Alvares Cabral, looking to follow Vasco da Gama’s lead and navigate around Africa, instead was blown west and into Brazil. He claimed it for Portugal. Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain sailing for Spain, led a crew that circumnavigated the globe in a voyage that lasted from 1519 until 1522. As Columbus did with the Atlantic, Magellan showed the way across the Pacific Ocean before being killed in the island group now known as the Philippines. By the 1570s the Spanish had claimed these islands, named them for their king, and established ports connecting the spice trade of the East with the resources extracted from the New World. Western Europeans were finally at the hub of a new and fully global economy.
The Spanish Move Toward Virginia
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, invented about 1450, made possible the kind of publicity that became a driving force in the Age of Exploration. In 1503, for instance, printers in Venice, Paris, and Antwerp all published Mundus novus, a Latin pamphlet that served as a highly exaggerated, some have argued even fictionalized, version of several genuine letters written by Amerigo Vespucci after his voyages to the New World. Within just a few years, the popularity of Mundus novus led to at least one profound consequence: in 1507 the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published Universalis Cosmographia, the first world map to use the name “America.”
In 1530, another Latin book was published, this time posthumously: De Orbe Novo by Peter Martyr d’Anghiera. In it, the Italian-born historian provided a comprehensive account of Spanish exploration and conquest, including the story of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, under whose partial auspices two ships in search of people to enslave sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America in July and August 1521. The ships likely anchored off the coasts of present-day Georgia and South Carolina, but the captains and then later Ayllón exaggerated how far north they had sailed. They told the king they had visited the area now known as the Chesapeake Bay because its latitude is roughly the same as Andalucía, a Spanish region rich with pearls, gold and silver, grapes, and olives. (By the logic of the age, lands on the same latitude should have similar climates and produce similar natural resources.)
In what has come to be known as the Chicora Legend, this bit of deception found a home in De Orbe Novo. And despite Ayllón’s failed colony, established in 1526 at Sapelo Sound in present-day McIntosh County, Georgia, it fueled interest in the land that would later become Virginia. In 1529, for instance, the Portuguese cartographer Diogo de Ribeiro created a padrón general, or master map, for the House of Trade in Seville, Spain. It described the area of Ayllón’s settlement as “well suited to yield breadstuff, wine and all things of Spain.”
Meanwhile, in 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine working for France, sailed along the Atlantic coast but apparently did not notice the Chesapeake Bay. In the Outer Banks region of present-day North Carolina, however, he claimed to have seen the Pacific Ocean in the distance. In 1525, the Spaniard Esteban Gómez, who had sailed with Magellan, also explored up the coast. And then, in the spring of 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez landed near present-day Tampa Bay, Florida, and initiated what amounted to a decades-long Spanish march north and west along the Gulf coast. It began in unpromising fashion, however. Narváez died later that year, and only after an epic, eight-year journey did a handful of survivors finally reach Mexico. One of those, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, authored a popular account of his adventure.
In 1537, even before Narváez’s fate was known for sure, the Spanish king granted Hernando de Soto the right to explore the newly created province of La Florida, an area that stretched from the Delaware Bay in the north to Mexico’s Pánuco River in the south, and included much of the present-day American Southeast, Texas, and parts of northern Mexico. Soto landed near Tampa Bay in 1539 and traveled north to the abandoned site of Ayllón’s 1526 settlement. From there he marched west instead of north, and by the spring of 1541 he had reached the Mississippi River.
Despite that achievement, or rather because Soto had found nothing to rival the silver of Potosí, the Spanish king seemed to lose interest in Florida. True, he guarded America jealously, even making plans to wipe out a French colony that was planted near present-day Quebec during explorations by the French captains Jacques Cartier and Jean-François de La Roque de Roberval. (The colony failed before an attack could be made.) But there were no major expeditions until, as it happens, the French spurred Philip II to action. Worried that his European rival planned to stake a claim in La Florida, he ordered that a settlement be established at the Point of Santa Elena, near present-day Parris Island, South Carolina.
What followed was a bloody test of wills between Spanish Catholics and French Protestants, with the Spaniards’ designs on present-day Virginia ending only when a baptized Indian killed three Spanish Jesuits in 1571.
From Saint Augustine to Ajacán
From the Inter caetera bull in 1493 to a more detailed arrangement made in 1508, the pope demanded that his servants in the New World “instruct” the Indians they encountered in Christian teachings. In 1513, the Spaniards introduced el Requerimiento, a document to be read to Indians in Spanish introducing them to church doctrine. Indians were not compelled to convert, but if they did not, they were immediately subject to Spanish invasion. Of course, if they did convert, they were also subject to the Spaniards, who were the pope’s official representatives in the New World.
The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas recalled that when he first read the document he did not know “whether to laugh or cry,” and he eventually became a fierce opponent of what he perceived to be Spanish abuses in America. His book, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, published in 1552, was enormously influential, so that by 1565, the governor of La Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, declined to punish Indians who chose not to convert.
Menéndez de Avilés was less forgiving when it came to European Protestants. In 1562, the Huguenot Jean Ribault established a short-lived garrison at Charlesfort, near what the Spanish called Santa Elena. And then, two years later, René Goulaine de Laudonnière landed French troops at Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. With King Philip’s blessing, Menéndez de Avilés first founded his own settlement, Saint Augustine, and then, in September 1565, attacked and destroyed Fort Caroline, killing about 140 Frenchmen and capturing 70 women and children. He then set his sights to the north.
It is possible Menéndez de Avilés was influenced by Historia general de las Indias by Francisco Lopez de Gómara, a book published in 1552 that renewed interest in Ayllón’s vision of a New Andalucía at the Chesapeake Bay. By 1570 he had approved a Jesuit mission to the Chesapeake led by Father Juan Baptista de Segura and a baptized Virginia Indian, Don Luís de Velasco, who called his land Ajacán. The Spanish had always been interested in finding the Northwest Passage for commercial reasons, but by this time, the Jesuits were interested in it, too. They had largely written off La Florida as a place to evangelize and hoped that such a passage could quickly take their priests to the more promising land of China.
Segura and his compatriots reached present-day Virginia on September 10, 1570, finishing what Pánfilo de Narváez had begun in 1528. It ended no better for Segura than it did for Narváez, however. In February 1571, Don Luís (also known as Paquiquineo) led a group of Indians that wiped out the mission and for all intents and purposes ended Spanish designs on the Chesapeake Bay.
The English Step In
After the Spanish presence in the Chesapeake Bay had been eliminated, the English moved in. They had been bit players in the New World up to that point, unsuccessfully attempting to save the French settlement at Charlesfort in 1563 and looting the Spanish galleons transporting gold and silver back to Spain. England’s most accomplished pirate, Sir Francis Drake, even circumnavigated the globe from 1577 to 1580. In three voyages from 1576 to 1578, Martin Frobisher explored the icy waters between Greenland and Canada, searching for that ever-elusive passage to China. And with a patent from Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed to Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island in present-day Nova Scotia in 1583 with the goal of establishing colonies there. After he was lost at sea, Gilbert’s cousin, Walter Raleigh, took over the patent.
Raleigh assembled an elite group of would-be colonizers. These included the brilliant mathematician Thomas Hariot, who instructed sailors on the art of open-sea navigation, and Richard Hakluyt (the younger), an Anglican minister and enthusiastic geographer, who provided compelling arguments in favor of the English settlement of America. In 1585, Raleigh funded an English colony at Roanoke in the same Outer Banks region where the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano had claimed to have seen the Pacific Ocean more than a half century earlier. Although this and a subsequent colony both failed, the colonization attempts included a visit to the Chesapeake Bay during the winter of 1585–1586. There the Englishmen found the ports to be deeper and safer and the Indians friendlier.
Although the Spaniards had largely given up their attempts to settle in this area, they still resisted English incursions. They quite reasonably feared that the English would use ports at Roanoke or in the Chesapeake as safe havens for pirates such as Sir Francis Drake and Christopher Newport. Their protection of this coastline, in other words, was a means of protecting Spanish shipping in the Caribbean. Despite their efforts, though, they did not discover the location of the Roanoke colony in time to destroy it, and although they considered an attack against the Jamestown settlement, founded in 1607, the king refused to give the order.
So ended more than a century of feverish competition over control of the Atlantic coast and the area of present-day Virginia. Although the Spanish had long dreamed of a New Andalucía on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, what resulted instead was a small, unlikely, and persistent English colony.