Friday, June 2, 2017

Protestant England surprises Catholic Spain and Begins to Think about Transatlantic Expansion

After Columbus’s landfall in 1492, the Native American peoples were nearly extinguished mostly from disease. More native North Americans died each year from infectious diseases brought by European settlers than were born into their tribes. They fell victim to epidemic waves of smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, chicken pox, yellow fever, and whooping cough. Just how many died may never be known. For North America alone, estimates of native populations in Columbus’s day range from 2-18 million. By the end of the 19C the population had shrunk to about 500 000. 

Great Mortality Among the Wampanoags due to Smallpox, Colonial Massachusetts. 1600s

From Florida and New Mexico southward, most of the southern half of the New World lay firmly within the grip of imperial Spain. However, in 1600, North America remained mostly unexplored and unclaimed. ​Three European powers planted primitive outposts in distant corners of the continent within three years of one another - the Spanish at Santa Fe in 1610, the French at Quebec in 1608, and the English at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.  ​England had taken little interest in establishing its own overseas colonies during the early 16th century because of religious conflict that spread through England and the continent, when King Henry VIII launched the English Protestant Reformation. ​Catholics battled Protestants for years and balance of power shifted.  

After Henry's daughter, the Protestant Elizabeth ascended to the English throne in 1558, Protestantism became dominant in England and a rivalry with Catholic Spain intensified (Ireland became early scene of rivalry). ​The Catholic Irish sought help from Catholic Spain to overthrow the new Protestant English queen, but the Spanish aid never really helped. Elizabeth’s troops crushed the Irish, and the English crown confiscated Catholic Irish lands and planted them with new Protestant landlords.

Francis Drake by Jodoncus Hondius at National Portrait Gallery London

​English buccaneers ostensibly sought to promote the twin goals of profit through plunder & spreading Protestantism by seizing Spanish cargo ships and raiding Spanish settlements, even though England and Spain were no longer at war. The most famous was Francis Drake 1540-1596 who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth awarded Drake a knighthood aboard Golden Hind in Deptford on 4 April 1581; the dubbing being performed by a French diplomat, Monsieur de Marchaumont, who was negotiating for Elizabeth to marry the King of France's brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou. By getting the French diplomat involved in the knighting, Elizabeth was well aware, that she was signaling the implicit political support of the French for Drake's actions. By the way, the proposed marriage never worked out.

Sir Walter Raleigh by Unknown artist of the French School

The coast of Newfoundland was the site of the first English attempt at colonization but collapsed when promoter Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539-1583) lost his life at sea in 1583—the dream inspired his gallant half brother. ​Sir Walter Raleigh 1552-1618 organized a group of settlers who landed in 1585 on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, off the coast of Virginia, a region named by the Virgin Queen Elizabeth in honor of herself. With Raleigh busy at home, the Roanoke colony suddenly vanished. 

Sir Humphrey Gilbert at Compton Castle

​The English failures at colonization contrasted embarrassingly with the glories of the Spanish Empire, whose profits were enriching Spain beyond its ambitious dreams; Philip II of Spain, foe of the Protestant Reformation used his imperial gains to amass an Invincible Armada. ​Preparing to invade England, in 1588, the lumbering Spanish flotilla arrived at the English Channel. The Spanish were not defeated by the queen’s plucky sea dogs fighting against overwhelming odds: it was destroyed by appalling weather, poor planning, and flawed tactics.

Spanish Armada

Pope Sixtus V, who supported the Armada, was apparently infatuated with Elizabeth, telling an astonished Venetian ambassador: “Were she a Catholic, she would be our most beloved, for she is of great worth.”  Sixtus had promised that Philip could bestow the English crown on whomsoever he wished, providing that the England would immediately return to the Catholic faith. Sixtus also demanded that the church’s property and rights, alienated since the time of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, must be restored.

Pope Sixtus V

The defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the beginning of the end of Spanish imperial dreams but the New World empire would last. When the Spanish Netherlands secured their independence, much of the Spanish Caribbean slipped from Spain’s grasp to Holland; it was obvious that Spain had overreached itself, seeds of its own decline.

England’s victory over the Spanish Armada dampened Spain’s spirit and helped ensure England’s naval dominance in the North Atlantic. England now displayed many characteristics that Spain displayed on the eve of its colonizing adventure a century earlier - ​a strong, unified national state under a popular monarch; a measure of religious unity after a protracted struggle; and a vibrant sense of nationalism & pride.

​A flowering of the English national spirit bloomed in the wake of the Spanish Armada’s defeat. The English were seized with restlessness with curiosity about the unknown and everywhere a new spirit of self-confidence, of vibrant patriotism, and of boundless faith in the future. When England and Spain finally signed a treaty of peace in 1604, the English people were poised to plunge headlong into the planting of their own colonial empire in the New World.