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1200-1500: European North American history


To set forth the conditions in Europe which favored the work of discovering America and of exploring, colonizing, and establishing human institutions there, is the subject of this section. Its period extends from the beginning of those marked commercial, political, and intellectual changes of the fifteenth century which initiated a great series of geographical discoveries, to the close, in the later years of the seventeenth century, of the religious wars and persecutions which did so much to make that century an age of emigration from Europe. During those three hundred years few events in European history failed to exercise some influence upon the fortunes of America. The relations of the Old World to the New were then constructive and fundamental to a degree not true of earlier or of later times. Before the fifteenth century events were only distantly preparing the way; after the seventeenth the centre of gravity of American history was transferred to America itself.

The crowding events, the prominent men, the creative thoughts, and the rapidly changing institutions which fill the history of western Europe during these three centuries cannot all be described in this single volume. It merely attempts to point out the leading motives for exploration and colonization, to show what was the equipment for discovery, and to describe the most significant of those political institutions of Europe which exercised an influence on forms of government in the colonies, thus sketching the main outlines of the European background of American history. Many political, economic, intellectual, and personal factors combined to make the opening of our modern era an age of geographical discovery. Yet among these many
causes there was one which was so influential and persistent that it deserves to be singled out as the predominant incentive to exploration for almost two hundred years. This enduring motive was the desire to find new routes, from Europe to the far East.

Columbus sailed on his great voyage in 1492, "his object being to reach the Indies." When he discovered the first land beyond the Atlantic, he came to the immediate conclusion that he had reached the coast of Asia, and identified first Cuba and then Hayti with Japan. A week after his first sight of land he Reports, "It is certain that this is the mainland and that I am in front of Zayton and Guinsay" Even on his third voyage, in 1498, he is still of the opinion that South America is the mainland of Asia. The name West Indies still remains as a testimony to the belief of the early explorers that they had found the Indies by sailing westward.

When John Cabot, in 1496, obtained permission from Henry VII. to equip an expedition for westward exploration, he hoofed to reach "the island of Cipango" (Japan) and the lands from which Oriental caravans brought their goods to Alexandria. It is true that he landed on the barren shore of Labrador, and that what he descried from his vessel as he sailed southward was only the wooded coast of North America; but it was reported, and for a while believed, that the king of England had in this manner "acquired a part of Asia without drawing his sword." In 1501 Caspar Cortereal, in the service of the king of Portugal, pressed farther into the ice-bound arctic waters on the same quest, and with his companions became the first in the dreary list of victims sacrificed to the long search for a northwest passage.

When the second generation of explorers learned that the land that had been discovered beyond the sea was not Asia, their first feeling was not exultation that a new world had been discovered, but chagrin that a great barrier, stretching far to the north and the south, should thus interpose itself between Europe and the eastern goal on which their eyes were fixed. Every navigator who sailed along the coast of North or South America looked eagerly for some strait by which he might make his way through, and thus complete the journey to the Spice Islands, to China, Japan, India, and the other lands of the ancient East.

Verrazzano, in 1521, and Jacques Cartier, in 1534, 1535, and 1541, both in the service of the king of France, and Gomez, in the Spanish service, in 1521, were engaged in seeking this elusive passage. For more than a hundred years the French traders and explorers along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes were led farther and farther into the wilderness by hopes of finding some western outlet which would make it possible for them to reach Cathay and India. Englishmen, with greater persistence than Spaniards, Portuguese, or French, pursued the search for this northwestern route to India. To find such a passage became a dream and a constantly renewed effort of the navigators and merchants of the days of Queen Elizabeth; the search for it continued into the next century, even after colonies had been established in America itself; and a continuance of the quest was constantly impressed by the government and by popular opinion upon the merchants of the Hudson Bay Company, till the eighteenth century.

A tradition grew up that there was a passage through the continent somewhere near the fortieth parallel. It was in the search for this passage that Hudson was engaged, when, in the service of the Dutch government, in 1609, he made the famous voyage in the Half Moon and hit on the Hudson River; just as in his first voyage he had tried to reach the Indies by crossing the North Pole, and in his second by following a northeast route. Much of the exploration of the coast of South America was made with the same purpose. To reach India was the deliberate object of Magellan when, in 1519 and 1520, he skirted the coast of that continent and made his way through the southern straits. The same objective point was intended in the "Molucca Voyage" of 1526-1530, under the command of Sebastian Cabot, as well as in other South American voyages of Spanish explorers. Thus the
search for a new route to the East lay at the back of many of those voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which gradually made America familiar to Europe.

The same object was sought in explorations to the eastward. The earliest voyages of the Portuguese along the coast of Africa, it is true, had other motives; but the desire to reach India grew upon the navigators and the sovereigns of that nation, and from the accession of John II., in 1481, every nerve was strained to find a route to the far East. Within one twelvemonth, in the years 1486 and 1487, three expeditions left the coast of Portugal seeking access to the East. The first of these, under Bartholomew Diaz, discovered the Cape of Good Hope; the second was an embassy of Pedro de Cavailham and Affonso de Paiva through the eastern Mediterranean to seek Prester John, a search which carried one of them to the west coast of India, the other to the east coast of Africa; the third was an exploring expedition to the northeast, which reached, for the first time, the islands of Nova Zembla. The Portuguese ambition was finally crowned with success in the exploit of Vasco da Gama in reaching the coast of India by way of the southern point of Africa, in 1498; the Spanish expedition under Magellan reached the same lands by the westward route twenty years afterwards. Even after these successes, efforts continued to be made to reach China and the Indies by a northeast passage around the northern coast of Europe. Successive expeditions of Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch were sent out only to meet invariable failure in those icy seas, until the terrible hardships the explorers endured gradually brought conviction of the impracticability of this, as of the northwestern, route. What was the origin of this eagerness to reach the Indies? Why did Portuguese, Spaniards, English, French, and Dutch vie with one another in centuries of effort not only to discover new lands, but to seek these sea-routes to the oldest of all lands? Why were the old lines of intercourse between the East and the West almost deserted, and a new group of maritime nations superseding the old Mediterranean and mid-European trading peoples? The answer to these questions will be found in certain changes which were in progress in those lands east of the Mediterranean Sea, which lie on the borderline between Europe and Asia. Through this region trade between Europe and the far East had flowed from immemorial antiquity; but in the fifteenth century its channels were obstructed and its stream much diminished.

Mediaeval Europe was dependent for her luxuries on Asia Minor and Syria, Arabia and Persia, India and the Spice Islands, China and Japan. Precious stones and fabrics, dyes and perfumes, drugs and medicaments, woods, gums, and spices reached Europe by many devious and obscure routes, but all from the eastward. One of the chief luxuries of the Middle Ages was the edible spices. The monotonous diet, the coarse food, the unskilful cookery of mediaeval Europe had all their deficiencies covered by a charitable mantle of Oriental seasoning. Wines and ale were constantly used spiced with various condiments. In Sir Thopas's forest grew "notemuge to putte in ale."

Pepper, the most common and at the same time the most valued of these spices, was frequently treated as a gift of honor from one sovereign to another, or as a courteous form of payment instead of money. "Matilda de Chaucer is in the gift of the king, and her land is worth 8 pounds, 2d, and 1 pound of pepper and 1 pound of cinnamon and 1 ounce of silk," reads a chance record in an old English survey. The amount of these spices demanded and consumed was astonishing. Venetian galleys, Genoese carracks, and other vessels on the Mediterranean brought many a cargo of them westward, and they were sold in fairs and markets everywhere. "Pepper-sack" was a derisive and yet not unappreciative epithet applied by German robber-barons to the merchants whom they plundered as they passed down the Rhine. For years the Venetians had a contract to buy from the sultan of Egypt annually 420,000 pounds of pepper. One of the first vessels to make its way to India brought home 210,000 pounds. A fine of 200,000 pounds of pepper was imposed upon one petty prince of India by the Portuguese in 1520. In romances and chronicles, in cook-books, trades-lists, and customs-tariffs, spices are mentioned with a frequency and consideration unknown in modern times.

Pepper had scarcely a wider field of production. The forests that clothed a stretch of the Malabar coast of India some two hundred miles in length, and extending some miles back into the interior, were filled with an abundant growth of pepper-vines. One of the earliest of European travellers in India, Odoric de Pordenone, says: "The province where pepper grows is named Malabar, and in no other part of the world does pepper grow except in this country. The forest where it grows is about eighteen days in length." John Marignolli, in 1348, also speaks of this district as "where the world's pepper is produced." Its habitat was, however, somewhat more extensive, for in less abundance and of inferior quality the pepper-vines were raised all the way south to Cape Comorin, and even in the islands of Ceylon and Sumatra.

Many articles of manufacture, attractive for their material, their workmanship, or their design, came from the same Eastern lands. Glass, of superior workmanship to anything known in Europe, came from Damascus, Samarcand, and Kadesia, near Bagdad. Objects of fine porcelain came from China, and finally became known by the name of that country. A great variety of fabrics of silk and cotton, as well as those fibres in their raw state, came from Asia to Europe. Dozens of names of Eastern origin still remain to describe the silk, cotton, hair, and mixed fabrics which came to Europe from China, India, Cashmere, and the cities of Persia, Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor. Brocade, damask, taffeta, sendal, satin, camelot, buckram, muslin, and many varieties of carpets, rugs, and hangings, which were woven in various parts of those lands, have always since retained the names of the places which early became famous for their manufacture.

In return for the goods which Europe brought from Asia a few commodities could be shipped eastward. European woollen fabrics seem to have been almost as much valued in certain countries of Asia as Eastern cotton and silk goods were in Italy, France, Germany, and England. Certain Western metals and minerals were highly valued in the East, especially arsenic, antimony, quicksilver, tin, copper, and lead. The coral of the Mediterranean was much admired and sought after in Persia and India, and even in countries still farther east. Nevertheless the balance of trade was permanently in favor of the East, and quantities of gold and silver coin and bullion were used by European merchants to buy the finer wares in Asiatic markets. There was much general trading in Eastern marts.

Nevertheless the attraction of the West was clearly felt in the East. Extensive as were the local purchase and sale of articles of luxury and use by merchants throughout India, Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, and China, yet the export of goods from those countries to the westward was a form of trade of great importance, and one which had its roots deep in antiquity.