Mayflower 400: the English were relative latecomers to the Americas, despite the USA’s founding myth



Map of the New World from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, believed to be the first true atlas in the modern sense.
Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598)/Boston Public Library

David Gehring, University of Nottingham

Popular anglophone histories tend to play up England’s settlement of the “New World”, but – in reality – England under Elizabeth I was, by comparison with Spain and France, a minor player on the European scene and for the most part non-existent in the New World.

Having lost Calais, its final territory in France, in 1558 – and having experienced the two short reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary – England could not compete with the strength, stability and financial resources of Spain. At that time Spain was vastly rich as gold and silver flowed from the mines of the New World, especially from Potosi, into Spanish coffers.

England and Spain had long been allies before Elizabeth’s reign – Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Spanish, as was Mary Tudor’s husband Philip II. But animosities beneath the surface eventually boiled over into open warfare after England intervened in the Dutch Revolt to support the Dutch against Spanish control in 1585.

Philip had entertained the idea of aggression against England prior to 1585, but English engagement in the Netherlands along with piracy on the seas by the likes of Francis Drake provoked the launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in an attempt to invade and subjugate England to Spanish control. As the saying goes, “God blew and they were scattered”, and the 1580s mark a turning point in English ambition on the seas and relative to its European neighbours.

With adventurers such as Drake, Walter Raleigh and other privateers, soon independent Englishmen found private investors to finance their voyages to, and activity in, the New World. This was seen as a countermeasure to Spain and an opportunity to explore commercial ventures for trade.

The landing of the Mayflower in November 1620 is a significant historical marker. Its recognition is warranted because of the legacy that followed. But in many ways, the Mayflower represents not only the beginning of an Anglo-American story, for it is just one part of a wider European tale of exploration, settlement, and displacement and subjugation of indigenous populations.

The Mayflower followed the first successful English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, which itself was more than a century after the initial forays of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas.

‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’

Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was Italian and sailed to the New World under a Spanish flag. Other Italians followed in his wake – including Amerigo Vespucci, under both Spanish and Portuguese flags shortly after Columbus, and Giovanni Verrazzano under the French flag in 1524. Zuan Caboto (Britain knows him as John Cabot) sailed under an English flag in the 1490s, but his efforts never resulted in any permanent settlements by the English. Spanish exploration and colonisation in the New World stretched thousands of miles from deep into South America to the plains of North America.

Set of Spanish stamps featuring explorers and monarchs involved in settlement of the Americas.
Spain was very proud of its role in colonising the Americas, as this set of stamps from 1987 suggests.
neftali via Shutterstock

New Spain (“Hispania Nova”) dominated early maps of the western hemisphere, and in these lands the Spanish government established colonial governance and administration, complete with churches and missionaries to attempt converting the indigenous. Lands claimed by Portugal in modern-day Brazil were also vast and easily recognisable on such maps.

International acknowledgement of Spanish and Portuguese territories and domination came with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 – which, in the years that followed, earned the pope’s approval in Rome. Not to be outdone, by 1550 the French explored and subsequently claimed massive lands in what is now Canada – “Nova Francia”, though active settlement by the French in this area was limited.

Spain’s activity was not restricted to Central or South America. Spanish exploration in North America continued to expand as the century progressed. Hernando de Soto explored Florida during the 1540s, while Francisco Coronado the south-west (and Grand Canyon) at the same time. What is today Mexico had by this point been thoroughly occupied by Spain, the colonial capital city of Mexico City being built upon the ashes of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

The Spanish empire expanded further and further across the globe under King Philip II during the second half of the 16th century, especially when all Portuguese lands came under his dominion in 1580. So mighty, so awe-inspiring was Spanish power in Europe and the New World that none dared question it, even if daredevils like Drake drew Spanish ire by plundering along the coasts of South America during the 1570s.

Statue of Francis Drake in armour at Plymouth Hoe in south-west England.
Hero or villain? Francis Drake is a bit of both.
ian woolcock via Shutterstock

So expansive, so far-reaching were Spanish lands that Europeans – the English very much included – knew how the sun never set on the Spanish empire in the 16th century (long before it never set on the British empire of the 19th).

Playing catch-up

By the early 17th century, England was more assured of itself on a European level than it had been since the reign of Henry VIII, but it still had a lot of catching up to do. Alongside Spain (especially having absorbed Portuguese dominions), the Dutch and even the Danish soon became active in exploring and claiming lands in the Americas.

The English, led by private companies or religious refugees, such as the Mayflower pilgrims, were in some respects on the back foot until the second half of the 17th century.

To situate the Mayflower within a broader context of European exploration and colonisation, and to understand early modern England among its mainland European neighbours, is not to belittle the achievements or significance of either. Rather, doing so helps us to see how a wide variety of countries and peoples came together – in commerce and trade but also in rivalry and war – to bring European cultures to the indigenous cultures of the New World with dramatic and often horrible effects.

And so began the great mixing and melding of peoples in the Americas.The Conversation

David Gehring, Assistant Professor in Early Modern British History, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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