Previous page Page 7 of 9 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
3000 - 200 BC
2nd century BC - 5th century AD
From the 5th century AD
The spread of Islam
Middle Ages
     Columbus sets sail
     San Salvador, Cuba, Hispaniola
     New Americans
     The African American
     The triangular trade
     The abolitionist movement
     The Aboriginal perspective
     Proposals for a penal colony
     The First Fleet

19th century America
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Santa Maria, Pinta and Niña: 1492-1493

On 3 August 1492 a little fleet of three vessels sets sail from the small Spanish harbour of Palos. Columbus is in command of the largest, the Santa Maria; the captains of the other two, the Pinta and the NiÑa, are the brothers Martin Alonso and Vicente Yañez Pinzón.

Three weeks are spent loading stores in the Canaries until, on September 6, the three ships sail west into the unknown. During the next month there are several sightings of coastlines which turn out to be illusions. At last, on October 12, a look-out on the Pinta spies real land.


San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola: 1492-1493

Columbus and the Pinzón brothers step ashore on 12 October 1492 on an island in the Bahamas. They plant in the ground the royal banner of Spain, claiming the place for Ferdinand and Isabella. They name it San Salvador, after Jesus the Saviour. (It is not known which island they landed on, though one in the Bahamas now bears the name San Salvador.)

These are not the first Europeans to reach the American continent, but they are the first to record their achievement. Columbus believes that he has reached the East Indies. Greeted by friendly inhabitants of San Salvador, he therefore describes them as Indians - an inaccurate name which has remained attached to the aboriginal peoples of the whole American continent. By the same token this region becomes known to Europe as the West Indies.


A few days later the explorers sail on. They pass many more islands, giving each a new Spanish name, until they reach during November the most important landfall of their expedition - the large island of Cuba, which Columbus convinces himself to be Cipango. This is a place of marvels described by Marco Polo at the eastern extremity of Asia, usually now assumed to be Japan.

Beyond Cuba the next significant landfall is another large island which Columbus names after Spain itself - Española, or Hispaniola. On its shores the Santa Maria runs aground and is wrecked. Columbus decides to leave here a small colony of some forty men, with food and ammunition for a year, while he sails back to Spain with news of his achievement.


Returning with Vicente Yañez Pinzón in the Niña, Columbus reaches Palos on March 15 (amazingly the Pinta arrives in Palos later on that same day, after losing contact with the Niña a month earlier in an Atlantic storm). Columbus makes his way to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella in Barcelona, where he is received with every honour. He presents the monarchs with a few captured natives of the Bahamas and some gold treasure.

This is the high point of Columbus's career. Three more voyages to America lie ahead of him, and great achievements. But from now on misfortune, often deriving from his own inadequacy as a colonial administrator, increasingly blights his endeavours.


The explorer departs on his fourth and final voyage in May 1502. It is an almost unmitigated disaster, of storms, mutinies, rotting ships’ timbers. But somehow he limps home, yet again, to reach Spain in November 1504. Since 1492 he has spent half his time in the transatlantic places he so passionately believed in long before he found his way to them.

Even more significantly, he has made the Atlantic crossing seem just an arduous journey rather than a terrifying step into the unknown. Other navigators, sailing for other monarchs, are fishing now in his waters. It is a measure of this change that Columbus himself crosses the Atlantic successfully no fewer than eight times. In a few short years the New World has become linked to Europe in what is unmistakably a new era.


New Americans: 16th - 19th century

The Spanish discovery of America begins the process which changes out of all recognition the population of the continent. Spanish and Portuguese colonists reduce the original inhabitants (now to become known as Indians) to an underclass in much of Latin America. In north America the smaller number of native Americans is almost wiped out by the English colonists and their successors in the United States.

The slave trade delivers black Africans to the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries, while hardship in Europe later brings across the Atlantic large numbers of Irish, Italian, Polish, German and Jewish immigrants. One of the world's most unmixed populations is transformed, after Columbus, into the outstanding example of ethnic diversity.


The African American: from the 17th century

The strong African strain within the modern population of the American continent is entirely the result of the slave trade, but its effect has been very different in the two distinct regions of the continent - Latin America and north America.

The trade begins earlier in Latin America, with the shipping of slaves across the Atlantic by the Portuguese. But the Roman Catholic colonists from Spain and Portugal are less racially prejudiced than their Protestant Anglo-Saxon counterparts in the northern part of the continent. This difference in attitude has significant results.


Sexual relations between white colonists and female slaves are common in all parts of the continent. But in Latin America and the Spanish islands of the West Indies it is the norm for the resulting children to be freed from slavery, even though brought up by the mother (though she too is often freed in the circumstances). As a result a free population of very mixed blood gradually develops.

In the racially intolerant north American colonies the opposite happens. A child with any black blood is regarded as black. In almost all cases the child grows up to become one of the working slaves of the plantation.


The result is that the centuries of slavery have had a different effect in the two regions. In much of Latin America the modern population contains a considerable mixture of Amerindian, black and white blood.

By contrast, in the United States of America there is a black community intensely aware of its own identity - historically because treated as an inferior group, more recently through a rediscovery of pride in its racial origins. The black community of north America is the largest group in history to have been forcibly moved - in the horrors of the triangular trade - and yet to have retained its own identity in the new circumstances.


Triangular trade: 18th century

The triangular trade has an economic elegance most attractive to the owners of the slave ships. Each of the three separate journeys making up an expedition is profitable in its own right, with only the 'middle voyage' across the Atlantic involving slaves as cargo.

Ships depart from Liverpool or Bristol with items in demand in west Africa - these include firearms, alcohol (particularly rum), cotton goods, metal trinkets and beads. The goods are eagerly awaited by traders in ports around the Gulf of Guinea. These traders have slaves on offer, captured in the African interior and now awaiting transport to America.


With the first exchange of merchandise completed, the slaves are packed into the vessels in appalling conditions for the Atlantic crossing. They are crammed below decks, shackled, badly fed and terrified. It is estimated that as many as twelve million Africans are embarked on this journey during the course of the Atlantic slave trade, and that one in six dies before reaching the West Indies - where the main slave markets on the American side of the ocean are located.

The most valuable product of the West Indies, molasses extracted from sugar cane, is purchased for the last leg of the triangle. Back in England the molasses can be transformed into rum. And so it goes on.


The abolitionist movement: 1688-1808

The horrors of the slave trade do not go unnoticed in England, however hard the traders try to justify their activities (even, preposterously, proclaiming the care and consideration which they show to their precious cargo).

The first sharp prick to the public's conscience comes in 1688 with the publication of Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko (about the sufferings of an African prince and his loved one, transported by the English to slavery in Surinam). By this time the Quakers are already prominent in their condemnation of this inhuman trade, with the society's founder, George Fox, speaking strongly against it. In 1772 there is a landmark case when Lord Mansfield frees James Somerset, belonging to an American master, on the grounds that he has set foot in England.


Shortly afterwards, at the time of the American colonies' fight for independence, the Quakers again give a lead. The clamour for freedom, expressed so powerfully in the Declaration of Independence, can be seen as inconsistent in a population with a large African-American minority which is not in any sense free. The issue is starkly shown when the British troops fire on patriots in the Boston massacre of 1770; the first man to fall in this demonstration for freedom is a slave, Crispus Attucks.

In 1774 Quakers in Britain decide to expel any member involved in the slave trade. In the same year Quakers in Pennsylvania sets up the first abolitionist society, and in 1776 the Pennsylvania Quakers free their own slaves. The first state to abolish slavery is Massachussetts, in its new constitution of 1780. Other northern states follow suit during the next few years.


But the southern states are determined to retain slavery, which is claimed to be an economic necessity (this rift becomes evident in the constitutional convention in Philadelphia). As a result the abolitionists concentrate their efforts on abolishing the trade in slaves, assuming that this will have the gradual effect of ending slavery itself.

A book of 1786 by Thomas Clarkson (Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species) is followed by the foundation in London in 1787 of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, with Quakers again predominant. William Wilberforce emerges as the champion of the cause in parliament.


By a coincidence the slave trade is declared illegal on both sides of the Atlantic in 1807. In America the constitutional congress has agreed in 1787, under pressure from the southern states, that no law on slavery will be passed for twenty years. As soon as the agreed time is up, legislation is enacted - outlawing the slave trade from 1 January 1808. Meanwhile in London in 1807 parliament prohibits the carrying of slaves in any British ship and the import of slaves into any British colony.

These prove hollow victories. Enough children are now being born into slavery to work the plantations, even in the rapidly expanding cotton economy of the southern states. The new cause must be the abolition of slavery itself.


At exactly the period of the campaign to end the shipping of Africans against their will to America, it is becoming official policy in Britain to transport certain British subjects against their will to Australia.

The victims in this second case are not men and women seized from their homes but convicted felons whose fate otherwise, under Britain's ferocious criminal code, would have been death on the gallows. The two cases are not comparable, except that these and subsequent British fleets - like those of the slave traders - bring into effect another striking example of a single racial group being moved, intact, to an entirely different part of the world.


The prospect of visitors: 18th century

By the mid-18th century the inhabitants of Australia probably number about 300,000, spread thinly across the entire continent in an interconnecting pattern of tribal territories.

In 1770 newcomers from Europe begin visiting the most temperate and habitable region of the continent, the east coast. Captain Cook, arriving in that year, is the first. In the early 1770s French explorers land on Tasmania. From 1788 Europeans begin to settle. The original Australians acquire the name by which they have subsequently been known - the Aborigines. Their lives are not about to improve.


Proposals for a penal colony: 1779-1786

In 1779 Joseph Banks appears before a committee of the House of Commons in Westminster and suggests that the eastern coast of Australia, which he has visited with Captain Cook nine years earlier, would be an excellent destination for convicted felons transported from Britain. The landscape and the climate are such that a penal colony could survive.

Transportation is a political issue of some urgency. In 18th-century England, with a vast divide between rich and poor, the laws protecting property are draconian. Theft on even a quite trivial level is a capital offence.


Yet although such laws remain on the statute book, they are widely recognized as being unjust. More than half those condemned to death have their sentences commuted to imprisonment, and the trend is accelerated after a law of 1768 specifically grants judges this option of leniency. As a result Britain's prisons are bursting at the seams.

The preferred solution is transportation abroad. The American colonies are ideal for the purpose, and many criminals are shipped there to work as indentured servants and labourers. But after the American Revolution in 1776 this outlet is no longer available. Australia, as Banks points out, seems a viable alternative. In 1786 parliament resolves to establish a penal colony.


Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet: 1787-1788

Arthur Phillip, a naval captain, is given command of the first fleet transporting convicts to Australia. He is also to be governor of the colony of New South Wales.

The fleet which sails from Portsmouth in May 1787 consists of eleven ships carrying some 750 convicts (nearly 200 of them women), 400 sailors and 200 marines to keep discipline. By October they are at the Cape of Good Hope, their last contact with civilization. Here they take on board a large number of animals of various kinds for the proposed settlement. On 20 January 1788 they reach their intended destination, Botany Bay. It has been given this enticing name by Cook and Banks, but those expected to settle here find it barren and unprepossessing.


On January 21 Phillip sails a few miles north and finds the great natural harbour of Port Jackson. Here he selects an inlet with a good water supply as the site for the new colony. He names the place Sydney Cove in honour of the home secretary, Viscount Sydney.

A prefabricated house of wood and canvas, designed in London for the governor, is erected at the centre of the settlement. Tents are put up for the marines and the convicts, with a separate encampment a little distance away for the women - who are kept on the ships until everything is ready. On February 6 they disembark. After a pep talk from the governor and a religious service there are festivities of celebration.


This inaugural party is soon followed by inevitable difficulties in the founding of the first British settlements in Australia. But it is the beginning of an extraordinary movement of one clearly defined group of people, from the British isles, to another region on the other side of the globe.

It will be a pattern repeated half a century later in the British colonization of New Zealand. In both cases British culture is transplanted, almost unaltered, to provide the dominant language and pattern of life throughout large self-contained land masses - a phenomenon unique in the story of the movement of peoples.


Previous page Page 7 of 9 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF MIGRATION