Tuesday, June 21, 2005

07: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 7

With the opening and exploitation of the “New World”, the European Monarchies suddenly found themselves elbowing each other out of the way to gain an advantage over the others by discovering, exploring, then colonizing for exploitation as many new lands as they could. While the Portuguese led the way with the explorative voyages of colonization down the west coast of Africa, the Spanish soon followed with their own exploitation and colonization of South and Central America, the Caribbean, and the southernmost parts of North America. There is no way of knowing what Columbus whispered to Ferdinand and Isabella on his return to Spain, but the infamous Conquistadors were not in northern South America and Central America, and north, even into what is now Kansas looking for wheat or pelts. They were looking for treasure. In South America, it was the Amazonian city of “El Dorado”, in North America, it was the Seven Cities of Gold. When they could not find the gold-paved streets of these cities, they stripped the local indigenous populations of all their valuables, and subjugated their peoples – the Incas, and the Aztecs in particular, while farther north, they encountered a “Mexican Standoff” with the Hopis and Navajos. The Spanish eradicated the two of the three major civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, while the third, the Mayan, simply were already down, but never out.

The Spanish were not alone in their particular harshness in administering their newly conquered territories. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch would be particularly severe in their treatment of local populations, and eventually the lower classes of their own citizen-colonists that went along to support their exploitative policies. And they were exploitative, as the goal was to return as much wealth as possible to the royal houses of Europe.

While the Spanish and the Portuguese were very wealthy Catholic monarchies, and could afford to send their explorers around the world, with the additional help of the Vatican coffers, the English and Dutch were more hard pressed to do so; and while they were struggling to get out into the world and explore it, the rich (Spain, Portugal) got richer. Protestant England and Holland devised a novel approach to the problem: private investment. They founded the great trade houses known as the Dutch East India Company, established by charter from the Netherlands government in 1602, and its English predecessor, the British East India Company, with a royal charter dated 1600. Funded by private investment, these two companies sent ships out to the new world to trade for goods from the Americas, and to find routes to the East Indies of Asia that were not compromised by the Portuguese or the Spanish. Some sixty years after Magellan found a passage through the nightmarish weather and rocky islands of Patagonia into the “Great South Sea”, as the Pacific Ocean was then called, Sir Francis Drake tried and failed to follow the same course, being beaten back by the prevailing west winds, until he sailed still farther south and made an easier “Drake Passage” into the Pacific. Both mariners were on voyages of discovery that would see their ships circumnavigate the world, but only Drake would survive the voyage to return home, as Magellan would perish in the Philippine Islands.

Drake was looking for the western end of the fabled “Northwest Passage” in order to shorten the voyage to the Indies for the British mariners. Another of Queen Elizabeth’s Sea Hawks, Martin Frobisher, sailed far up into what is believed to be Hudson Bay, and returned with the story that he was convinced an ice free passage to the Orient, and the Great South Sea, was available through there. Drake sailed all the way up to Alaska after pillaging the Spanish cities along the west coast of South America, and capturing the treasure ship Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion (known as the "Caca Fuego"). He took so much silver from her that when he later ran aground, he had to dump much of it overboard to lighten his ship enough to float free. The British would lose a few ships before deciding the Northwest Passage was not there. They also tried to find the “Northeast Passage” but lost at least two expeditions and numerous ships in the ice north of Norway and Russia.

England, and Holland both continued their explorations-funded-by-stockholders (who counted among them their national leadership), and conducted, fairly or not, trade with the new worlds to which they sailed. While they did so, the Spanish continued to conquer and exploit, simply taking the riches of the Americas, and shipping them back to Spain, or to the Philippines, where it was used to buy products from China, or the Spice Islands for shipment back to Spain.

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Next: Part Eight
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