Gateway to the Classics: Colonial Days by Wilbur F. Gordy
Colonial Days by  Wilbur F. Gordy

Spain and England in the New World

Spanish Explorers

Before taking up the account of the life of the people in colonial days, let us briefly recall a few of the essential facts outlined in "Stories of American Explorers," the first book of this series. By so doing we shall be able to form a clearer picture of the difficulties and dangers our forefathers had to meet when they began to build homes in the forest wilds of the New World.

You will remember that Columbus, in command of a Spanish fleet, discovered America, although on his first voyage he saw only some of the islands of the West Indies. But he was not the first to reach the mainland. That honor belongs to John Cabot, who, sailing in the interests of England, landed on the coast of Labrador. In consequence of these discoveries, both Spain and England laid claim to North America.

At that time Spain was much stronger than England. In fact, she was the greatest nation in the world, and was eager to increase her wealth and extend her power. To this end she sent out daring navigators with the purpose of finding, in the unknown lands, rich mines of gold and silver. Two of the most successful of these explorers were Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, and Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru.

Out of Mexico and Peru Spain took gold and silver which some have thought would now be worth five thousand million dollars. But all this money did the Spaniards more harm than good. It strengthened in them a dangerous inclination to try to get something for nothing. It weakened them morally. It unfitted them for hard work and honest effort. In fact, the more gold and silver they discovered, the less willing they were to settle down to the patient labor that is required for successful colony-planting. You will not be surprised, then, to learn that, in the part of North America now known as the United States, Spain failed totally as a colonizing power.

The Crushing Defeat of Spain

Much of the enormous treasure which came from the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru was used by Spain in carrying on wars with other countries of Europe. Being a Catholic country, she had serious trouble with England and the Netherlands, which were Protestant. For a long time the Netherlands were subject to Spain, but in 1567 they revolted against Spanish rule and for forty years there was war between the countries.

Great though she was, Spain found the struggle a constant drain on her strength. The many battles on land and sea gradually weakened her, until finally the crushing defeat by England of the "Invincible Armada," in 1588, proved to the world England's superiority over Spain as a naval power. From that time Spain's greatness waned.

Bold English Sea-Rovers

When it became known that Spain was getting large quantities of gold and silver from Mexico and Peru, and that she depended largely upon this wealth for the support of her armies, bold English sea-captains like Drake and Hawkins began to scour the seas in search of Spanish vessels laden with the rich treasures from the mines, and lost no opportunity to attack Spanish settlements and plunder Spanish ships.

Among these sea-rovers was Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Ten years before the defeat of the "Invincible Armada" he tried to plant a settlement on the coast of Labrador, his thought being that from this military post English ships might sally forth to make attacks upon Spanish fleets. Although his scheme failed, it suggested to other Englishmen the idea of making settlements in the New World.

Raleigh's Colonies

Within the next ten years Gilbert's half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, at great personal expense sent out two colonies, with the purpose of planting a New England in America. The undertaking cost him what would be in our money a million dollars, and both colonies were complete failures. Yet the venture was by no means a useless one, since it called attention to a new idea, namely, that the real value of America did not lie in its mines of silver and gold, and that the best way to secure a hold upon the new country was to plant permanent colonies in it.

At the end of the sixteenth century, however, the outlook for England in America was not bright, for while Spain was in control of much territory in the New World, including Mexico and Peru, England had not the tiniest settlement to call her own. Yet she had not been idle; for English voyagers had been growing familiar with the sea and with distant lands, and the results of their labors ere long resulted in the settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth. These bold sailors had been teaching the following generation how to find out more about America and how to use this knowledge in establishing homes for themselves and for others.

England's Need of America

It was fortunate that such opportunity for home-making was open to England, for her population, though at that time but five millions, was greater than could be cared for. The wool trade had become so profitable that many of the large landholders were now raising sheep instead of cultivating the soil for wheat and barley, and much land that formerly had been used for tillage was given over to sheep-farming. Where once a number of men had been required to till the soil, one man alone was now sufficient to watch a large number of sheep. This threw many out of employment.

Moreover, when Henry VIII did away with the monasteries, many people who had received support from them were cast adrift and had nothing to do. Thousands of idle men were begging for bread. The country was overrun with paupers, and sometimes, in desperation, beggars turned criminals. The jails were full of men who, in their effort to save themselves from suffering and want, had committed some crime.

Such a condition of affairs compelled England to look for some outlet for this surplus population, and to America she eagerly turned as a place where thousands who had been thrown out of work could begin life over again with new opportunity and new hope.

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