The result of the efforts of the British in these new worlds was to build up the British Empire. For that empire mainly grewn out of the great lands which were added to the world in the last ten years of the fifteenth century -- the great age of discovery. Newfoundland was the first place of the new worlds to be claimed for the British as the result of John Cabot's voyage from Bristol (1497).
Now, when people speak of America today they think most often of the north part of the continent, for that, to us, has seemed more important than the south. But in the sixteenth century the reverse was true. No one gave much thought to the north; the south claimed far more attention. And the British Empire grew in the north of America partly because the Spaniards and Portuguese did not think it worth troubling about.
There was a great difference between the north and the south. North America was thinly populated. Tribes of Indians hunted over the plains, fished in the great lakes and rivers, and had little wealth or desire for wealth as we understand it. They were, nevertheless, by no means a race to be despised. Brave and fierce in war, though generous in friendship, they were well able to take care of themselves and to punish any one who trespassed on their domains. When once their enmity was aroused they were intensely cruel; they bore the most painful torture without flinching, but they inflicted it without mercy. They made European colonies in the north very dangerous, and they caused great alarm to the white people who tried to live there. They did not intend to give way without a struggle.
The French were the first to open up for the white man the great continent of North America. The pioneer, Jacques Cartier, like Columbus, never doubted that he was on the way to India and Cathay. He intended to build a new France beyond the Atlantic when he landed at what he called Montreal (1535). Another Frenchman, Champlain, explored the St. Lawrence River, and founded the town of Quebec (16O8), And soon, with the sailing of the Mayflower (1620), a band of Puritans laid the foundations of the English-speaking America.
But South and Central America were very different from the North. Many of the countries were well populated. Great and ancient towns were there; for hundreds of years men had been civilized; and there were enormous stores of wealth. The palaces of the Mexican kings were not like the petty palaces of European princes. In the palace of Montezuma "there was a room where 3,000 persons could be well accommodated, with a terrace-like roof on which a splendid tournament might have taken place... and in the market-place there was room for 50,000 people to buy and sell." Thus: there was much splendour to tempt the men of Europe, and all the treasures were almost defenceless; for the people, though civilized, could not protect themselves against the new European gun. Quite unlike the natives in the north; they were docile and gentle, and with the guns and gunpowder of a few thousand soldiers, the Spaniards soon had the whole land at their mercy. The Spaniard Cortes conquered Mexico (1519-21). He destroyed the ancient capital of the Aztecs, and built another capital on its ruins; he desolated the land and broke up its old customs. Then another Spaniard, Pizarro, conquered Peru (1531), to the south of Mexico.
The great object of Spain was gold; Pizarro sent home at one time gold bars valued at £3,500,000 sterling, and an enormous amount of silver. Besides the immense stores of gold and silver plate, the Spaniards soon found that in the mines (which had not yet been exhausted) there were untold riches. Nor was there any difficulty in working the mines; the native people were quite unable to resist their new masters, and, like slaves, they toiled for the benefit of the Spaniards.
But the wealth thus suddenly acquired turned Spain from the slower but surer and more lasting sources of prosperity, and in the end she was left among the poorest of the nations of Europe.
It is not difficult, when we think of these things, to see why the south attracted more attention. If Europeans went south there was little danger, little work, and an easy way to wealth. But if they went north, there was the prospect of tedious, long wars against a race of skilful fighters so scattered that it was impossible to crush them, and so persistent that in the end the new-comers were almost certain to be overcome and perhaps be tortured to death; and besides all the dangers, there was no quick way to wealth, no gold or silver mines, and no one to work for the European settler but himself.
Thinking, therefore, that the south of the continent was more valuable than the north, the Spaniards and Portuguese, who were the first in the field, set up their empires in South and Central America. To prevent any further quarrels about their fights, they appealed to the court of Rome, and the Pope divided the New World in the west between them, The Portuguese were to have Brazil and everything east of a line 370 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands, and the Spaniards were to have all the rest, With this decision -- one of the last acts of Rome as Mistress of the World -- they expected, no doubt, that the whole matter was settled for ever.
But while these things were going on other nations were not entirely idle. The English were still anxious to find a way to India for themselves. The Spaniards had the way by South America; the Portuguese had the way by South Africa; and both the Spaniards and the Portuguese looked on other nations as trespassers, almost as thieves, if they tried to send ships by either of these ways. What other way could be found? Many people thought that there might be ways not only by the south-east and south-west, but also by the north-east and north-west -- round the north of America and Asia as well as round the south.
And these people were right; there is a north-east passage and a north-west passage, as they supposed. But unluckily both of them are so near the North Pole that they are too much blocked with ice to be of any use for going to India or anywhere else. This, of course, the sailors of the sixteenth century did not know, and they tried very hard and very often to go to India by both these ways, suffering untold hardship, hunger, cold, loneliness -- even mutiny and death sometimes -- in the hope of serving England by finding a new passage to the wealthy countries in the east. Hardly any part of history is more full of heroism and sadness than the story of the long search for the North-west Passage.
“Satan will object, Thou art a great sinner. We may answer, Christ is a strong saviour.”
–Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax