Monday, November 2, 2009

Early European Response to Early America / New World

Foreword: The essay focuses on early American life beginning from the colonial period to the year 1800. It examines and evaluates the early European response to the New World/Early America, including response to the land itself and the natives. The essay takes a critical look at various prevailing ideas related with politics, slavery, religion and the role of women in the said period of time - Academic.

The discovery of the New World opened up a sea of opportunities for Europe. Countries like Spain and Portugal already had vast experience in colonization and conquest. Their ship navigation skills proved to be an added advantage. Driven by a strong desire to colonize Columbus’ New World, they were the first European countries to create vast colonial empires in the western hemisphere.

The English, French, and Dutch were comparatively slower to start; but in no way less interested or aggressive in claiming their share in the pie. The Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies sent home so much of wealth in the form of gold, silver, furs and sugar that it substantially stimulated the economy of Europe. This prompted other European countries also to see and seek westward.

The discovery of the New World had set the stage for an unprecedented upheaval and action. A real life high drama was waiting to be played out in two distinctly different worlds; one Old and the other New. The Old World prepared itself to launch a bold onslaught on the New World to establish its supremacy and ownership over the new territories. This war was destined to turn into a historic war of civilizations, a war of seismic proportions where countless people were ordained to perish or get maimed. The mist over the western sky and the dim waters of the Atlantic beckoned the explorers. Several west European countries were ready to cross the Atlantic to usher into a new world of hope, promise and mystery.

The scene that was waiting to unfold beyond the misty curtain of the Atlantic was indeed bloody and violent. The discovery of the New World had sounded the death bell for the natives of America who had been living in the western subcontinent for ages. William O Kellogg emphasizes, “More importantly, we know that there were Native Americans already in Americas” (1). Talking about the negative impact of immigrant invasion William O Kellogg writes, “The impact of Spanish settlement on the native American culture was overwhelming. In establishing their control, they destroyed much of the culture of the Native American” (17).
Until 1600 Spain and Portugal were the only European powers that had colonies in the New World.

The Spanish conquerors subdued and destroyed several native empires to establish huge colonies like Mesoamerica that stretched from present day Mexico to Panama. The Spanish established an authoritarian regime and ruled the natives with an iron hand. England, a late starter, started to make its colonies in the New World in the 17th century. The British were particularly harsh and ruthless towards the natives. They developed exclusive colonies for themselves with blacks forcibly brought from Africa working as their slaves. The British mercilessly slaughtered countless Native Americans or drove them further to the west in order to expand their empire.

The French and the Dutch, on the contrary, devised a system in which they managed to rope in support from the Native Americans. They created fur-trading empires in collaboration with the natives. Native Americans were allowed to retain their property and political autonomy in lieu of favorable trade relations. Hence, the colonial holdings of each European country developed in its own distinct way. The English colonies also differed from the rest because of the growth of self-government in them. This also marked the beginning of the colonies’ political development. During 1700-1750, the English appointed governors gave way to American- elected assemblies. The resistance from the British government and its officials could do little to stop this shifting of power-center in early America.

The New World saw the rise of a society based upon small and independent freehold farmers known as ‘Yeomen’. These farming societies loved their land very much. They also feared their land holding may not shrink due to population explosion; as witnessed in the 13 colonies of Britain. These colonies saw a phenomenal tenfold rise in population in a matter of just seven decades. The population of settlers increased from 25000 in 1700 to 250000 in 1770. In order to ensure that their kids must get their share of land, these farming societies pushed further inside in order to expand their land holdings.

This also showed their commitment to preserve the ‘Yeoman’ fabric of their society. Each push invariably resulted in further bloodshed and fresh battles with Native Americans or amongst European countries themselves. The farming societies of New England, Vermont, New Hampshire and Mid-Atlantic are a case in point. The rich poor divide was more evident in non-farming urban communities of early America. This gulf further increased towards the end of 18th century.

Religion and politics have always been intertwined in the history of mankind and early America was no exception. In early 1740s, some enthusiastic evangelical ministers, emboldened by religious revivals in England and Germany, visited the colonies in the New World. They called themselves the New lights and preached an open and democratic approach towards religion and Christianity. The established Church and the Old Lights took it as a threat to their existence and tried to oppose them tooth and nail. The Old Lights took political help from their supporters in various assemblies to curb the revivalists. The forward march of the New Lights could not be stopped either by the imposition of bans or violence directed against them.

This religious phase in the New World is known as ‘A Great Awakening’. This religious movement not only brought about greater religious freedom but also paved way for greater political autonomy in early America. The result was the American Revolution, a long drawn conflict of 13 British colonies with Great Britain in 1775 and the declaration of independence in 1776. The constitutional separation of the church and state came in 1777. Olmstead quotes a Congregationalist minister about his idea of this separation, "It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.” He was totally wrong.

Due to huge diversity in religion among the settlers, early America saw gradual erosion in the authority of the established church. Hence, the colonists realized that there was a strong need of establishing the new ideal of complete religious tolerance. After 1700, the cultural diversity of early America increased manifold. The influx of various African and European races and ethnic groups made it imperative for the colonial powers to find a common cultural identity rooted in English language. They knew that a common language would unite the colonists and would provide them with a common and shared experience of life in early America.

The status of women in early America wasn’t praiseworthy. According to Deborah A. Rosen, “Women throughout the colonies lived in patriarchal social systems that limited their autonomy and power.” They were subservient to men and were not allowed to participate in the political process or decision making. They led a very domesticated life burdened with endless domestic duties. They were sold for marriage or indentured labor.

No wonder, such marriages did not last long. Economically also, the women of early America were much weaker than men. Unjust laws were unmindful towards their welfare. The law decreed much less wages for women in comparison with men. Undoubtedly, the women of early America were an exploited lot. The Puritan church did no justice to them either. Any intellectual or literary pursuit followed by a woman was generally looked down upon and lambasted.


Works Cited

Kellogg, William O. American History the Easy Way . Barrons, 2003

Olmstead, Clifton E. History of Religion in the United States. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,

Rosen, Deborah A. “Women and Property across Colonial America” The William and Mary
Quarterly. 10 April 2007

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