Europe's North-South Conflicts Reach the Americas

Five years after the initial voyage of Columbus, another Genoese navigator named John Cabot (living among a colony of foreign merchants in England) convinced Henry VII to finance an expedition to the northern regions of the Americas. Under the auspices of England, John Cabot and, later, his son Sebastian, traveled back and forth across the north Atlantic to the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Sebastian, as head of the Muscovy Company, also sent out an expeditionary fleet in 1553 to seek a northern passage around Russia to Asia; one ship of three, captained by Richard Chancellor, found its way as far as the White Sea and established trade relations with Russia. Another Englishman, Martin Forbisher, made three unsuccessful attempts between 1576 and 1578 to chart a northwestern passage to the Orient across North America. Neither passage was within the technical grasp of these early explorers. Far more successful were the explorations early in the seventeenth century by Henry Hudson, who discovered for European exploitation the large inland bay that now takes his name, setting the stage for the eventual commercial development of North America by British interests.

The French monarch, Francis I, was also interested in finding a northwest passage to the Orient. In 1524 he sent the Florentine navigator, Giovanni Verrazzano, across the Atlantic in search of the passage; and, ten years later Jacques Cartier took up the challenge once more with an equal lack of success. In 1540, however, the French established a fort on the Hudson River below the site where the city of Albany would later be built, and by 1542 they had also constructed a fort on Manhattan Island. As historian Alfred Chandler notes, these were still rather tentative efforts by European societies not yet strong enough to move with deliberate speed:

All grants for overseas adventures issued by European monarchs to their subjects, prior to Queen Elizabeth, had been to establish royal sovereignty, or for the avowed purpose of seeking wealth through finding gold, or of extending trade by discovery of a route to the source of the spices. But with the grant by Elizabeth to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578, desire for profiteering by land ownership made its appearance and a quarter of a century later, English settlement in America began.

Gilbert and some 260 others sailed from England and reached Newfoundland in June of 1583. By Elizabeth's royal grant he claimed all the land within six hundred miles and imposed a rental charge on the fishermen who had been using the small village of St. John's as a port. Unfortunately for Gilbert, he did not live long enough to acquire any riches; his ship was lost at sea on its return voyage to England. Walter Raleigh, Gilbert's half-brother, inherited the same grant and made plans to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island. In the meantime, the French established their first real settlement in Nova Scotia.

To put the English and French efforts into historical context, more than a century had passed before Spanish hegemony in the Americas was seriously challenged by any other European state. Even then, the prospects for dislodging the Spanish or slowing their expansion into North America were not promising. In 1580, the Spanish monarch, Philip II, succeeded to the Portuguese throne, uniting these two vast empires. To the rest of Europe, Spain now seemed more menacing than ever both on the continent and abroad. And yet, as emerging events would demonstrate, Spain was internally very weak, and its monopoly in the Americas was soon to end. Continuous military adventures against the Turks and Moslems combined with diminished productive output by Spanish agriculture and industry to drain Spain of much of the treasure that escaped the grasp of privateers on the high seas. In 1556, a French fleet under the command of Francois le Clerc had even attacked and sacked the Spanish base at Havana on the island of Cuba.