European exploration and expansion into the Americas began in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, who sailed west for Spain. During the following century, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and British explorers continued to risk their lives seeking treasure and adventure in the New World.
The primary motives of European explorers were economic. The supply of precious metals was finite, and monarchs hoped to find large deposits of gold and silver in the Americas. Aside from the possibility of treasure, the European governments aimed to find a passage through the Americas to Asia. Their hope was for a faster, safer trip to the Indies, avoiding dangerous waters and marauding pirates. Sailing west to reach the Indies also would avoid Arab middlemen in trade, meaning the merchants would have paid far less in trade costs. The discovery of new peoples also opened up the possibilities for an entirely new trading sphere.
The European explorers of the 16th century were primarily Christian. These individuals and their sponsors in Europe were concerned with spreading Christianity to the indigenous peoples of the New World. These Europeans believed that it was their responsibility to minister to the uneducated "savages" they encountered. Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes, also known as Hernando Cortes, was among the explorers who felt it was his duty to bring others into the fold of the Catholic church.
Much like modern countries, nations in 16th century Europe sought to be first or best at every endeavor. Each European state wanted to be the first to explore, discover or bring items back from new and exotic places. If a country discovered a new route to the Far East, that nation also would control trade through that route. This would result not only in monetary gain, but also in the power and prestige of being the ruler of the area.
Pursuit of Knowledge
Some explorers were interested not only in economic gain but also in the potential accumulation of knowledge from adventuring in an unknown land or sea. These men created maps of previously uncharted lands and cataloged flora, fauna and people they discovered. This thirst for knowledge was related to the Renaissance taking place in Europe at the time, a period of renewed interest in learning and the arts unparalleled since ancient times.
Each country that engaged in western exploration intended to gain control of lands in the Americas, expanding its sphere of influence. The acquisition of lands, natural resources and subjugated peoples was a matter of power, prestige and wealth.
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