The European colonial experience in the New World is not one monolithic, homogenous entity. The wave of colonists arriving in the newly discovered continent comprised of several groups deriving from different religious, cultural, linguistic and class backgrounds. At one end of the spectrum were members of imperial royalty, whose purpose was one of administration and control of the colonies. At the other end are impoverished masses escaping political/religious prosecution in their native lands. The rest of this essay will present a glimpse into these diverse experiences of European colonialists and identify background factors and influences that shaped these experiences.
Ever since Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent, European imperial powers devised plans of exploring, occupying and ruling these territories. What is now three advanced nations of the United States, Canada and Mexico, was at the time of discovery untouched by civilization. These lands were inhabited by Native Americans, who lived a tribal lifestyle typified by clan warfare. The early European pioneers to these lands came from England, Scotland, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain. The aristocrats who came here were keen on surveying the geography of the land and in establishing settlements as a way of extending their empires. As a result, many of the aristocrats frequently shuffled between Europe and North America and did not form close bonds with the natives and their culture. Also, the chief intention of the aristocrats was colony formation, even if that meant systematic elimination of native populations. In this regard, the early aristocrats’ experience is marked by greed for material resources, military combats and genocide of indigenous populations – none of which can be considered particularly noble. (Breen, 1980) But there were also merchants, soldiers, adventurers, peasants and Christian missionaries among the early immigrants, whose goals were less ambitious than their masters’. And also, the arriving European ethnic groups tended to concentrate on distinct enclaves/localities of their own. Thus the New Netherland region is dominated by the Dutch, the New Sweden region by Scandinavians, New England region by Puritans, Pennsylvania by English Quakers, Georgia by the economically disadvantaged, etc. (Kavanagh, 1973)
The European experience of North America can be said to comprise of two countervailing tendencies. First is the cultural, religious and economic baggage of their forbears that they carried with them to their new home. In the case of Puritans, for example, who reached the shores of New York from Britain, the legacy of their religious upbringing was so strong that they created a tightly-knit community centered on core values of Puritanism. Being politically influential from the beginning, the cherished values of this community, such as the separation of church and state, the emancipation and salvation of the individual through leading a righteous life, etc were assimilated into the founding doctrine of the United States. Second is the influence of local geographical and political conditions that confronted these groups. For example, the regions occupied by Puritans adopted self-supporting farmsteads, along with fishing and logging. Colonizers in the Chesapeake region, on the other hand, adopted cash-crop based plantations. (Ciment, 2005) Hence, in sum, the colonial experience of Europeans was a confluence of two opposing forces: socio-cultural heritage of past homelands and geographic and economic circumstances in the new homeland. This meant that the European colonial experience was far from uniform – it was a mosaic of different cultures, religious practices and linguistic traditions. The relics of this mosaic are to be found in contemporary America if one pays close attention.
Ciment, James, ed. Colonial America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History (2005)
Breen, T. H (1980). Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America.
Kavenagh, W. Keith, ed. Foundations of Colonial America: A Documentary History (1973) 4 vol.