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Motivation for European conquest of the New World

KC‑1.2.I.A (KC)
Unit 1: Learning Objective C
WOR (Theme)
God, gold, and glory motivated European nations to explore and create colonies in the New World.


  • Historians generally recognize three motives for European exploration and colonization in the New World: God, gold, and glory.
  • Religious motivations can be traced all the way back to the Crusades, the series of religious wars between the 11th and 15th centuries during which European Christians sought to claim Jerusalem as an exclusively Christian space.
  • Europeans also searched for optimal trade routes to lucrative Asian markets and hoped to gain global recognition for their country.

The Crusades: increased religious intolerance and forceful religious conversion

The year 622 brought a new challenge to Christianity. Near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a prophet named Muhammad claimed he received a revelation that became a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. The Koran, which contained the revelations received by Muhammad, identified Jesus Christ not as God but as a prophet. Islam spread throughout the Middle East and into Europe until 732.
Soon thereafter, European Christians began the Crusades, a campaign of violence against Muslims to dominate the Holy Lands—an area that extended from modern-day Turkey in the north along the Mediterranean coast to the Sinai Peninsula—under Islamic control, partially in response to sustained Muslim control in Europe. The city of Jerusalem is a holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims; evidence exists that the three religions lived there in harmony for centuries. But in 1095, European Christians decided not only to reclaim the holy city from Muslim rulers but also to conquer the entire surrounding area.
The Crusades provided the religious ideology for the Reconquista, which in turn inspired Atlantic colonization. The Reconquista, or reconquest, refers to the 800 years of violence and expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula after the failed Crusades. The Crusades and the Reconquista cemented religious intolerance, and the Christians looked to colonization partly as a means of continuing religious conquests. Particularly in the strongly Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal, religious zeal motivated the rulers to convert Native Americans and sanctify Christian global dominance.
Violence in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The lure of gold: finding new routes to trade Eastern goods

Despite the consequent religious polarization, the Crusades dramatically increased maritime trade between the East and West. As Crusaders experienced the feel of silk, the taste of spices, and the utility of porcelain, desire for these products created new markets for merchants.
Merchants’ ships brought Europeans valuable goods, traveling between the port cities of western Europe and the East from the 10th century on along routes collectively labeled the Silk Road. However, transporting goods along the Silk Road was costly, slow, and unprofitable. Muslim middlemen collected taxes as the goods changed hands. Robbers waited to ambush treasure-laden caravans.
As well as seeking a water passage to the wealthy cities of the East, sailors wanted to find a route to the exotic and wealthy Spice Islands in modern-day Indonesia, whose location was kept secret by Muslim rulers. The lure of profit pushed explorers to seek new trade routes to the Spice Islands and to eliminate Muslim middlemen.
A map of the land trade route from Europe to Asia along the Silk Road. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A thirst for glory: European competition for global dominance

Competition between the Portuguese and the Spanish motivated both nations to colonize quickly and aggressively. Prince Henry the Navigator spearheaded Portugal’s exploration of Africa and the Atlantic in the 1400s. Portuguese sailors successfully navigated an eastward route to West Africa, where they established a trading foothold. Portugal then spread its empire down the western coast of Africa to the Congo, along the western coast of India, and eventually to Brazil and the Atlantic islands. Although the Portuguese did not rule over an immense landmass, their strategic holdings of islands and coastal ports gave them almost unrivaled control of nautical trade routes.
Henry the Navigator. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The travels of Portuguese traders to western Africa also acquainted the Portuguese with the African slave trade, already widely in practice in West Africa and funded by sugar production on the newly colonized Atlantic islands. Upon discovering the immense global market for sugar, the Portuguese began to trade enslaved people across the Atlantic to toil on the sugar plantations. The Portuguese fort Elmina Castle, located in modern-day Ghana, became more of a holding pen for enslaved Africans from the interior of the continent than a trading post, as the markets for slave labor in both Europe and then the New World boomed.
Portuguese colonization in the 1400s inaugurated an era of aggressive European expansion across the Atlantic. The Spanish, threatened by the Portuguese monopoly on enslaved Africans and expansion in the Atlantic, started their own colonization project with Christopher Columbus in 1492. The competition between the two nations continued and drew more and more Europeans to the New World.
Christopher Columbus. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

What do you think?

How did the Crusades influence European colonization projects?
Explain the relationship between religion, commerce, and conquest at the beginning of European exploration and colonization.
Imagine you are a European explorer in the 1400s. Do you think you would be most motivated by religious conversion, global market opportunities, or competition with other European nations? Why?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Bosland E. Bosland
    why are women in the battle in the first picture?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user kgilmore19
    so why did the europeans want to come to the west indies?
    (4 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Andre de Bruin
      First off, they wanted to get to the east Indies fast, not the west.

      Why? Because it would allow them to get spices cheap. If you look at a map, Indonesia is very far from Europe. Items that go through overland routs, especially back then, get very expensive after a while.

      To illustrate, If a farmer sold spices to a merchant for $1, he would go up to Thailand and sell it for $2. Very few merchants went the entire way from Indonesia to Europe. The merchant would sell it to another merchant for $3. by the time it got to Persia, it may be $30 for a bag of spices. The Islamic empires of the middle east would mark the price up drastically before the spices went to Europe, because they hated Europeans. By the time it got to Portugal, a bag of spices may be $50. So Portugal decided to find a way around Africa to get to modern day Indonesia. They went into the Indian ocean, and tried to find a legendary king in Ethiopia to help in a Crusade, (he never existed), and so they found how profitable trade there was instead.

      The reason that Europe wanted to get the West Indies is because they thought that they were the East Indies, and then they found out that you could grow sugar there, so they stayed for a while.
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user shawneeransom
    Why do the Portuguese get a monopoly? And how exactly? And why are the Spanish jealous?
    (5 votes)
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  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Bùi Quang Hảo
    Is New World referred to America?
    (6 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user jennifer
    Who won in the crusades?
    (6 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Humble Learner
    I feel that there have been many instances in which people of different religious groups have been violent to each other. However, why is it made out that there is only one group that oppresses the others? I am not specifically referring to Christianity, but just religious groups in general.
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Hindus have oppressed Muslims in India. Buddhists have oppressed Hindus in Sri Lanka and Muslims in Myanmar. Muslims have oppressed Christians in Egypt. Christians have oppressed Muslims in Lebanon. Secularists oppress people of all religions in France.

      It's not about religion so much as it is about drawing a circle and saying "folks like me are 'in' and folks not like me are 'out'." Religion is just the "like me" criterion used. In other times and places, it is race, class, caste, or gender.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Slamapolli21
    What motivates countries to want to explore West
    (3 votes)
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    • boggle blue style avatar for user x.asper
      There are a multitude of things that may inspire someone to explore the West. I can name a few:
      1. Gold
      2. Land
      3. Sugar
      4. Silver
      5. Religion

      I am sure that there are many more reasons than the ones I stated above, but these are some of the main ones. I hope this helps!
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user CARLYSOWADATOOTHLESSSTARTREKFLORIDA
    Why did we have war with great Britain if other countries owned it?
    (3 votes)
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    • winston baby style avatar for user zuidemaj2087
      If you are talking about the revolutionary war of america the reason the American colonists that we commonly think of, went to war with Britain is because the "original 13 colonies" were under British rule at the time. Britain at the start of the war controlled all the way to the Mississippi river excluding Florida and parts of other south east states which were controlled by the Spanish and the western half of America was controlled by the Spanish as well. As is well known the 13 colonies were upset due to the taxation and several trading issues with the British. At the end of the war Britain controlled only Canada, France was given back its land in America. slowly after there were a series of land purchases made by the new United States from the other countries which in the early 1800s extended to Oregon south of which was Mexican territory until the Texas and California revolutions but since both Texas and California were not stable they were annexed by the US and just a bit later the Mexican-American war happened and that formed the modern continental US. At its height the US owned other areas as well, but the original push for America was the war with Britain
      (3 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user DOMINICBARAHONA
    How did Christians justify going to war?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Brayden BRICKEY
    why did the christians take over jerusalem
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Your question, about "Jerusalem" (which is located in the old world) is out of place in this lesson on the new world, particularly in this course on US History. I recommend that you join the "world history" course, which has an excellent section on the Crusades, and where the discussion of questions like your own goes back 7 or 8 years. Doing those lessons, and reading through the questions and answers of earlier learners, will answer your question very well.
      (3 votes)