The major theme of Module Three is the rapid expansion of European empires during the 15th and 16th centuries and its eventual impact on the African slave trade. While there were many components that contributed to the exploration and growth of European empires, it ultimately came down to two key forces that continued to stoke the engines of expansion; religious zeal and trade. Certainly there were plenty of non-Christians in the eastern hemisphere and most of the goods that Europeans wanted could be imported from Asia and India. However, the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese and the Japanese were hostel towards Christianity; and the established trade routes out of Asia and India were controlled by Muslims, all of which did not have any interest in European exports.
With the possibility of converting new Christians curtailed in the Ottoman neighbors to the East, and a mounting trade deficit with Asia, the kings of Portugal, Spain and England – amongst others – started looking for alternatives to the trade status quo. At first the Dutch and Portuguese sought direct access to Chinese and Indian suppliers by staying along the African coast all the way around the continent in order to reach the source of silk and spice. However, in order for European trade ships to reach their goal, they had to sail through waters that were controlled by Muslim traders that were not willing to release their monopoly without a fight. Therefore, it wasn’t long before the process of rounding Africa was brought into question and it was believed a more direct route to Asia could be found by crossing the Atlantic.
Little did the brave (and potentially foolhardy) men of the era know at the time, but their Trans-Atlantic expeditions would forever change the known world. Despite never having found an established, well rooted merchant outpost from which to buy conspicuously Asian goods, explorers of the period – like Christopher Columbus – believed that they had in fact found direct passage to Asia and its riches. However, what European explorers had “discovered” proved to be far more advantageous to Europeans, both peasant and noble alike, than the possibility of simply emptying the royal coffers into Chinese and Indian trader’s purses. In the case of countries like England, Spain, and Portugal, where the opportunity for geographic expansion was limited by both bodies of water and neighbors who were unwilling to give up territory, the new continent proved an opening for their citizens to “stretch their legs” and create a new life in colonization.
Amongst the European citizens that made their way to the new continent, were Christian missionaries who were set on saving souls. The Spaniards proved to be the most prolific in their endeavors to convert the original inhabitants to Christianity, and save the “pagans” from themselves. The striking difference between the way European Christians interacted with the different cultures and belief systems of...