Africa to the Americas, people more often looked inward than outward, and cer-
tainly not across the Atlantic. Columbus then connected Europe and the Amer i cas.
The significance of his achievement took time to unfold. Following four voyages
across the Atlantic, even Columbus went to his grave convinced he had found Asia.
But the stage was set for the emergence of an Atlantic world.
Spain began its conquest of the Amer i cas with the Caribbean and adjacent
lands, their native populations reduced or even eliminated by violence and disease.
Where native populations remained numerous, Spanish conquistadors were adept
at turning pre-existing native rivalries against the dominant power in regions they
coveted. Hernan Cortés’s conquest of the Aztecs (1519–1521) succeeded because
he enlisted the help of Aztec tributaries chafing against the empire’s rule. Francisco
Pizarro, conquer of the Incas, followed a similar script in the Andes in 1532. Spain’s
fifteenth- and sixteenth-century conquests brought control, on paper at least, of
the vastness of the Amer i cas outside of Brazil. Controlling that territory, however,
brought its own challenges, as the king relied on brash conquistadors with their
own ideas of who should wield power. Missionary efforts and the more robust
presence of royal officials brought additional players to the Amer i cas.
Spain’s discovery of silver at Potosí, the site of a bonanza mine two-and- a- half
miles up in the mountains of what is today Bolivia, confirmed Spanish dreams of
exporting a fortune from the New World. Spain spent the money, flowing by the
literal ton into the king’s coffers, on foreign wars, combating the Ottoman Empire’s
advance into Europe, fighting off the Dutch Revolt, and turning up the pressure
on Protestant England. Metallic wealth made Spain supreme in Europe. At the
same time, Spain’s rivals were envious. The ships carrying silver and gold from the
American mines invited would-be plunderers, encouraged by Dutch, French, and
English governments eager to blast their way into the lands that Spain claimed as
its own exclusive possession. The Elizabethan sea dog Sir Francis Drake was only
one of the earliest to plunder the Spanish in pursuit of geopolitical policy goals.
Two other developments that came to define the Atlantic world also grew over
the sixteenth century: sugar and slavery. The two went together, although they
were not as clearly aligned as they would later become. Nor were they practiced on
the same scale. The first booming sugar plantations were built by the Portuguese
on Saó Tomé, an island off the coast of Africa near the equator. Located at a natural
stopping point for Eu ro pean trading ships, including slave traders, Saó Tomé’s
nascent sugar industry benefitted from the availability of labor. Expanding sugar
cultivation to Brazil was slower in developing, however. Despite the region’s supe-
rior natural resources, Brazilian sugar planters depended on Native laborers, who
succumbed easily to Eu ro pean diseases. The slave trade, as it grew in the sixteenth
century, was not the plantation labor force of future years. Instead, slaves were set
to toil in silver mines like Potosí and in urban centers, such as Spain’s Cartagena de
Indies, in today’s Colombia. The Atlantic world was being knit together by an econ-
omy of extracting silver and gold, principally in the Amer i cas but also in Africa, and
the process of conquest that made the mining pos si ble.
In the seventeenth century, Europe, Africa, and the Amer i cas became more ori-
entated toward the Atlantic as trade, migration (both forced and voluntary), and