xviiiI ntroduction
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
Previous Page Next Page