The Spanish discovery of the Americas and its influence on the French Colonial Empire [Timeline]

Columbus setting sail from Palos de la frontera, photo credit: Art Gallery ErgsArt (Flickr)
Columbus setting sail from Palos de la frontera, photo credit: Art Gallery ErgsArt (Flickr)

Globalization broadly refers to the expansion of global linkages, the organization of social life on a global scale, and the growth of a global consciousness, hence to the consolidation of world society. The Spanish and French kingdoms of the sixteenth century, countries that house just over one percent of the world population collectively, managed to control a vast amount of land throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. These global entities have influenced societies across the globe through their language, culture, and history through colonisation, and have created new ethnic identities in the process.

Towards the end of the 15th Century, the dynamics of Spain dramatically changed as the marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile had resulted in the creation of a unified Spain. In 1492, Columbus ventured into the unknown, under the Spanish crown, in search of a way to reach the Indies by sailing west, which consequently provoked the expansion of the Spanish terrain. Although there had already been a direct route to the Indies via the Silk Road,empires such as Spain and Portugal searched for alternative quicker sea routes that would challenge the transport system of the Spice Trade.

Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella, photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella, photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Upon the return of Columbus to Spain with the news of the discovery of ‘the Indies’, Spain were quick to formulate a plan to lay claim on any land discovered after that first voyage, as the news spread across Europe. The sovereigns sought the aid of Pope Alexander VI, and in May 1493 he issued his famous Bulls of Donation (Inter caetera) that granted Spain and Portugal the exclusive right to carry out this investigation of newly discovered lands to the west of Europe.

This was further endorsed through the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which drew a line on a world map at that time, claiming one side for Spain and the other for Portugal. Columbus left again for ‘the Indies’ and on the eve of his return from his second voyage with a ship full of golden ornaments, exotic wild animals and some Indians whom he held captive, the discovery became ever more important. For the Spanish empire, primarily its focus was to reach the Indies before any other European so that they could redeem the rights to the spice trade in Europe. As they believed they had reached their destination, their second goal, to spread Christianity, arrived on the scene. Catholic missionaries lived alongside the conquistadors, converting natives and bringing the religious views of the Spanish crown to the “New World”.  Not only did this discovery aid the advancement in Spanish affairs due to increased trade among Spain and other European countries, but it is also credited for the reunification of Pangaea as flora and fauna from opposite sides of the globe were now able to be transported between the continents, something that hadn’t been done in thousands of years.

 

Treaty of Tordesillas, photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
Treaty of Tordesillas, photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The exclusion of France from the treaty of Tordesillas led the French monarchs to seek expansion elsewhere. As Italy then controlled the Spice Trade from the European side, it was imminent that the French would attempt to impound its lands. At that time France didn’t have much interest in exploration outside Europe as they wanted to build a strong core before undertaking the difficult task, but through the failures of France that would soon follow, it would become their best chance of success. The first and second Italian Wars, which were mainly fought between France and Spain, began in 1494, after the death of the King of Naples, and continued intermittently until 1529. France could see the threat of the rapidly expanding Spain, and that their only chance of survival would rest with a victory within the borders of Italy. King Charles VIII of France made the first move and made his way for Naples. Both sides claimed sovereignty through their successions and sought to further their income as well as their empire and although France did manage to occupy parts of Italy for some part of this struggle between powers, it is unquestionable that the end result saw Spain victorious. These series of battles weighed terribly on the French state as not only did they drain their assets, but also tarnished the name of France for other countries.

Through the failure in the Italian War, France had one final chance to restrain the Spanish empire; the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. However, because of the tactics Charles VIII used in the First Italian War and the reputation that surrounded the new king, Francis I of France, there wasn’t much financial or electoral support for France in the campaign to become the next ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Francis I of France had two main rivals for the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain, who was the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Henry VIII of England. Charles V of Spain would go on to win the election, through connections made by lineage and the bribery of the German princes who served as electors, and assume the role of proprietor of the lands surrounding France. This made Charles V of Spain the most powerful ruler in Europe.

Francis I of France, photo credit: Kvaslr79 (Flickr)
Francis I of France, photo credit: Kvaslr79 (Flickr)

During this time of political failure, France’s coffers became severely depleted and provoked its search for additional income. France had seen its rivalry with Spain excel over the past decade, and soon its ambitions of financial success were joined by revenge for the loss in the election and in Italy. King Francis I of France gathered a group of corsairs and gave them permission by distributing “lettres de marques” to attack Spanish ships. These “lettres de marques” meant that if these ships were caught looting or displaying acts of piracy, the men would not be seen as pirates but as defenders of the French crown. Through these, the French government usually received 20%, and were therefore deemed acceptable by Francis I.

In 1523, the most prominent ship raid of all occurred. The Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortes who had recently defeated the last Aztec Empire and, as a result, sent three caravels full of treasure destined for Spain, however waiting for their arrival was Jean Fleury, a French privateer, who took control of two out of three ships and brought the treasures back to France, worth 800,000 ducats. The treasure included three large cases of gold ingots, over 500 pounds of gold dust, sacks filled with emeralds, topaz and pearls. This looting had great significance as it was the first time any kingdom outside the Iberian Peninsula knew of the extent of the treasure that existed in the New World and culminated the idea for the French to explore whilst sparking their desire for more treasure. Additionally, these acts of piracy in the name of the French empire served well in terms of practice for when the corsairs went to the ‘New World’.

Cortes fleet Jean Fleury, photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
Cortes fleet Jean Fleury, photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

The French government continued to issue the lettres de marques due to the profitability of the Corsairs activities. In fact,  the Marine Minister used them as a money-making strategy, which became part of the budget of the French treasury. These funds went towards the future expeditions in search of the treasures the “New World” had to offer. In 1531, Francis I of France publicly announced that he didn’t agree with any of the decrees or statements which proclaimed the Portuguese and Spanish as the proprietors, hence in 1534, the first French colonial expedition led by Jacques Cartier set sail for the Americas. This Frenchman sparked the beginning of French exploration and paved the way for colonisation later on through his detailed maps of the St. Lawrence River . Sieur de Robervall followed suit and created a settlement near Montreal, but returned to France the following year. As a result of each expedition and the formation of trade markets France was able to rise economically and return to the lucrative ‘battle’ of the powers.

French efforts differed greatly to those of other empires as instead of focusing on building a colony, they firstly wanted to create trade markets, especially fur and fishing. In fact, following a dispute between France and the Iberian Peninsula over the fact that France disobeyed the rules of the treaty of Torsedillas, the French signed another treaty to say that they wouldn’t attempt colonisation on condition that the French would have “a right to trade” in the Americas. The French also travelled deep within the continent in contrast to others, such as England whose explorers stayed close to the coastline. This can be viewed as one of the reasons why their influence can still be seen today as in many parts of Northern America and Canada by means of the French language and French customs. France continued to spread through the North of America and in 1608, after over 70 years presence in the Americas, Samuel de Champlain founded Port Royal, followed by Quebec in 1608, the first French colonies.

French clearly wasn’t first to setup settlements and colonisations, nor the first to explore the Americas, however it did leave an overwhelming influence on the continent and its people. The initiatives behind exploration for France although associated with income, evidently assisted the natives that already occupied the land, in contrast to the Spanish colonies which were devoured by the warships that entered their coasts. It must be said that even though France didn’t begin its exploration with war crimes, through the theft of the bullion from the Spanish caravels, it did assist in the destruction of the native tribes. Evidently, although Spain and France were rivals for the best part of the age of discovery, it is indisputable to say that they shaped each other’s histories through the conflict, defiance and deceit. Through their clashes during the Italian Wars and the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, Spain carved the way in which French exploration and colonisation began.