In the grand epic of American history, the English were latecomers. The failed colony of 1587 on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast, was followed by the founding of two initially precarious settlements, Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth Colony, far to the north, in 1620. By that date, over 400,000 Spaniards and over 30,000 Portuguese were living on the far side of the Atlantic, alongside indigenous inhabitants, peoples of mixed race, and a rapidly growing population transported from Africa to provide a labor supply. When the Pilgrims landed on the eastern fringe of modern Massachusetts, they set foot in an “America” that had been claimed for well over a century by the crowns of Spain and Portugal as their own exclusive preserve. Although doubts were beginning to surface, from the vantage point of the 1620s it may well have seemed that the hemisphere’s future lay with people of Iberian stock.
The history of the next three centuries turned out otherwise. It was one thing to lay claim to vast tracts of territory and quite another to make that claim a reality. In the story of Spain’s colonization of America there was always an imbalance between space and people. With an emigration rate to the New World of perhaps two thousand a year, Spaniards, who tended to congregate in cities and towns, could hardly hope to occupy such a vast expanse of land, even though their numbers were growing. This created opportunities that their European rivals—the French, the English, and the Dutch—were all too happy to seize.
These northern Europeans were tempted above all by reports of the fabulous gold of an American El Dorado, and of the rich silver resources of the Spanish viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. It was American silver, annually shipped in increasingly large quantities to Seville, that made the sixteenth-century Spain of Philip II the dominant European power and gave rise to fears across the continent that the king was well on his way to establishing a “universal monarchy.” Northern European corsairs, with or without the permission of their rulers, responded with growing boldness, attacking Spanish shipping on the high seas, plundering coastal settlements, and tentatively setting up bases on Caribbean islands or the American mainland from which to conduct their depredations. But the silver convoys were well guarded, and Spain had the power to wreak terrible revenge on those who trespassed on its “Empire of the Indies.” This was something that the French discovered in 1565, when a Spanish expeditionary force under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés wiped…
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