-What impelled European explorers to look west across the Atlantic? The European conquest of America began as an offshoot of the quest for a sea route to India, China, and the islands of the East Indies, the source of the silk, tea, spices, porcelain, and other luxury goods on which international trade in the early modern era centered. Profit and piety-the desire to eliminate Islamic middlemen and win control of the lucrative trade for Christian Western Europe-combined to inspire the quest for a direct route to Asia. Long before Columbus sailed, Europeans had dreamed of a land of abundance, riches, and ease beyond the western horizon. They hoped America would bring them a better life. Europeans envisioned America as a religious refuge, a society of equals, a source of power and glory.
-What happened when the peoples of the Americas came in contact with Europeans? Whatever their numbers, the Indian population suffered a catastrophic decline because of the contact with Europeans and their wars, enslavement, and especially diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles. Never having encountered these diseases, Indians had not developed antibodies to fight them. The result was devastating. Indians would engage in the ritual sacrifice of captives and others, sometimes thousands at a time. This practice reinforced the Spanish view of America’s native inhabitants as barbarians, even though in Europe at this time, thousands of men and women were burned at the stake as witches or religious heretics, and criminals were executed in public spectacles that attracted throngs of onlookers. Hernán Cortés was the first explorer to encounter a major American civilization. It was the Aztec empire. Cortés conquered the city. A few years later, Francisco Pizarro conquered the great Inca kingdom centered in modern-day Peru. Soon, treasure fleets carrying cargoes of gold and silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru traversed the Atlantic to enrich the Spanish crown.
-What were the chief features of the Spanish empire in America? The Spanish took the lead in exploration and conquest in the New World. Inspired by a search for wealth, national glory, and the desire to spread Catholicism, Spanish conquistadores, often accompanied by religious missionaries and carrying flags emblazoned with the sign of the cross, radiated outward from Hispaniola. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Spain had established an immense empire, which included the most populous part of the New World and the regions richest in natural resources. Stretching from the Andes Mountains of South America through present-day Mexico and the Caribbean and eventually into Florida and the southwestern United States, Spain’s empire exceeded in size the Roman empire of the ancient world. Its center in North America was Mexico City, a magnificent capital built on the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán and boasting churches, hospitals, monasteries, government buildings, and the New World’s first university. Unlike the English and French New World empires, Spanish America was essentially an urban civilization, an “empire of towns.” For centuries, its great cities, notably Mexico City, Quito, and Lima, far outshone any urban centers in North America and most of those in Europe. In Spanish America, unlike other New World empires, Indians performed most of the labor. Thousands of Indians were forced to work in gold and silver mines, which supplied the empire’s wealth, and on large-scale farms controlled by Spanish landlords. Although the Spanish introduced livestock, wheat, and sugar, the main agricultural crops were the same ones grown before colonization-corn, beans, and squash. Over time, Spanish America evolved into a hybrid culture, part Spanish, part Indian, and in some areas part African, but with a single official faith, language, and governmental system. Spain, the most powerful bastion of orthodox...