History: Age of European Exploration and Conquest


The 15th and 16th centuries marked the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, with significant cultural and political shifts. Countries began to look beyond the region, seeking other lands and their wealth. As such, expeditions began going in various directions, and some of the more powerful nations began establishing colonies. The period is known as the Age of European Exploration and Conquest among historians and marks numerous geographic discoveries, Columbus’s arrival in America being the most significant. This essay aims to describe the causes behind the actions that characterize the period and discuss the differences between the exploration goals and patterns of the Spanish and the French.

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Primary Factors

The advent of the Renaissance made it possible for ideas that would previously be rejected on religious grounds to find acceptance among people. Dawson claims that Columbus, the famous Portuguese explorer, believed that the Earth was round despite the widespread belief that it was flat (88). As such, aiming to locate an alternate route to India, he sailed west instead of the east after securing the approval of the Spanish royal couple. As a result of his voyage, he arrived in America and helped the Spanish settle it. Other powerful countries saw the value in the new land and began exploration efforts, as well.

While Columbus did not arrive in America properly, visiting the Caribbean archipelago instead, and thought that he was close to Asia, explorers that followed saw the continent with its vast amounts of land. They then discovered the abundant natural resources the land held, its gold, in particular, and the area began attracting numerous colonists who sought wealth. The presence of the Native Americans, who often opposed the arrival of the foreigners and their settlement in lands that belonged to the tribes, did not deter them. As such, European colonies in the Americas grew, eventually reaching a size at which they could declare independence and maintain it.

While America attracted a large portion of European attention, the nations’ interest in Asia remained strong. The region offered many valuable and unique commodities, such as spices. Keller notes that the purpose of Magellan’s expedition, which ended up circumnavigating the world, was to locate a route to India, which the explorer believed to be close to America (22). He failed to secure an easy and quick route, and so the colonization of the East was delayed until after the end of the 17th century. As such, European countries concentrated their attention and efforts on America, eventually coming into conflict over territory and resources.

Differences Between Spain and France

Different nations had varying motivations that drove their people to explore and settle in the Americas. As Pickett and Pickett explain, the Spanish monarchs allowed explorers to govern the lands discovered by them or their ancestors (17). As such, America allowed expedition leaders who declared allegiance to Spain an opportunity for quick enrichment and rise to power. Combined with the resources of the land as well as those collected by the natives, the promises of the land attracted many people. As such, there was no shortage of volunteers, and the crown was willing to fund expeditions in return for allegiance and taxes.

Like Spain, France was a predominantly Catholic country, a tendency that may have contributed to its unwillingness to engage in conflict over land. Seelye and Selby note that the nation was more interested in territory than in wealth, establishing presences in North and South Americas, Africa, and Asia (387). Its Canadian holdings were distant from the area held by the Spanish and separated from the land by English territory. However, France still engaged in hostilities, as it had a poor relationship with Britain due to their religious differences (Seelye and Selby 389). Possibly due to the country’s divided attention and interest into many territories at once, it lost the Seven Years’ War and had to cede territories.

The most significant difference between the approaches of the two nations, however, was their relationship with the natives. Spanish conquistadors had no qualms about subjugating natives and taking their wealth, while the French tended to treat them as equals (Seelye and Selby 387). Besides, Spain remained focused on the Americas, with minor colonies in other parts of the world, while France’s attention was broad in scope. Nevertheless, both nations managed to establish massive colonial empires and secure large amounts of wealth. They would eventually lose these holdings as the age of colonization passed, but in the 15th-16th centuries, they became global superpowers.

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The Age of European Exploration and Conquest began with the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. He, along with others, saw it as a path to India, which was known as a source of many exotic and expensive goods. However, powerful naval nations saw the potential for colonization and profit and displayed considerable interest in the land. The Spanish monarchs promised explorers governorship over the territories they claimed for the crown. The French were more interested in the expansion of the direct authority of the crown and the conquest of areas throughout the world. As a result, they had colonies in many locations and treated locals better, though the lack of focus led to their eventual exodus from North America.

Works Cited

Dawson, Patricia. First Peoples of the Americas and the European Age of Exploration. Cavendish Square, 2016.

Keller, Susanna, editor. The Age of Exploration. Britannica Educational Publishing, 2016.

Pickett, Margaret F., and Dwayne W. Pickett. The European Struggle to Settle North America: Colonizing Attempts by England, France, and Spain, 1521-1608. McFarland & Company, 2011.

Seelye Jr., James E., and Shawn Selby, editors. Shaping North America: From Exploration to the American Revolution. Vol. 1, ABC-CLIO, 2018.

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