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The first Europeans to land in the Americas were Viking explorers who arrived in the 1000s. Viking colonisation didn't last, and sustained European colonisation began after the late 1400s when Columbus' expedition arrived.

Chinese explorers ventured into the Indian ocean in the early 1400s, and even brought back a Giraffe from Somalia. Unfortunately for the only Giraffe in China, ocean-going exploration was later banned. So it seems like the Americas weren't explored any earlier by old world powers due to cultural rather than technical reasons.

Could a sustainable colonial presence be achieved in the Americas earlier?
By "colonial" I mean a settlement created by and loyal to an old world power (European, African, Asian nation) with the intent of exploiting American resources (land, people, minerals, etc) to empower the motherland.

If the Americas can be colonised earlier, I'd like to know who could successfully establish a new world colony first, and why they would be the first. The only historical difference in this case would be that an old world power from Europe, Asia, or Africa knew the Americas existed (because reasons) and set out to colonise them.

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by an "old world power"? Obviously, the very first colonists in the Americas came from the old world, tens of thousands of years ago, but I assume that's not what you want. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Nov 23 '17 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott Agree. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Nov 23 '17 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeScott Edited. Any clearer? $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Nov 23 '17 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ One more thing: They knew America existed - this is, well, kind of nothing that would've happened in reality. There have always been mystical lands across the sea, Britain for the Romans for example, but fool prove knowledge that America exists and apparently is worth the trip that persisted for thousands of years or something ... . If you build on an idea that cannot really be, everything built on that idea, well, it doesn't matter as much then if it can happen, does it? As long as you can sell the story, nobody can prove you wrong. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Nov 23 '17 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ The only reason colonization really worked was because smallpox/ect wiped out so much of the Native population/civilization. The drive to colonize "the new world" was only because it was so easy to claim land and basically plunder for resources when people that lived there weren't able to protect their own claim to it. Anyways, people traveled by boat all over the world tens of thousands of years ago, the actual sailing to isn't a problem if you followed the coast and island hopped. It was the development of cities and the need of more raw materials that really made colonies a thing. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Nov 23 '17 at 19:45
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Technical possibility to reach Americas was there since a long time; Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated Egypt had technology to do it a few centuries before CE. Most likely others had it as well.

Problem has always been none knew Americas were there, so none had the idea to go colonize.

Vikings followed they usual routes and ended up in (very) north America where climate was not favorable (no Gulf Current to keep warmth) and desisted.

Columbus had a stroke of luck getting his hands on wrong maps giving a severely underestimated (about one half) value of Earth radius so he thought (wrongly) he could reach Far East sailing West.

Note: correct Earth radius (including knowledge Earth is round, of course) was available in the same time and place where originated Thor's boat.

To come back to your question: Knowledge of existence of such a land would have been enough to spawn attempts at colonization.

As to who, when and how, that's open to speculation (and plot matter), but I strongly suspect it would be tightly linked to exactly how Americas existence became known.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point that the barriers were largely cultural rather than technical. The Vikings, for example, held no loyalty higher than a collection of towns that held their identifiable blood relatives. Even though they did get further south and inland (exploresouthernhistory.com/heavener1.html) there was no country to retain loyalty to, so the village would not qualify as a colony. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Nov 23 '17 at 13:51
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Your question

Could a sustainable colonial presence be achieved in the Americas earlier?

has a very simple answer. No, not before certain technology is discovered. There are some politics/infrastructure issues at play that drove some of those discoveries, and a certain competitive spirit/desire to exploit new lands first, but technology is KEY.

First piece of the puzzle--a compass. And not just any, a reliable one! I know that seems absurdly simple, but introducing this earlier and in a more widespread manner could help (China was 11th Century).

Here's the interesting thing, China and (the Arab world somewhat) actually had more of the tech needed than any other place, earlier. Like you said, it was only a moratorium on travel that prevented it from happening. But it was still only about 90 years before Chris Columbus did his thing.

Improvements in ship design such as sternpost rudder, multiple masts and lateen sails, which happened later.

Let's take a look at the time from discovery to colonization-- 1492 was Columbus, but true colonization by the Spanish didn't really get into full swing until the 1530s. That's a gap of about 40 years. In those 40 years, explorers mapped as much as they could, and enticed with descriptives of the land, bringing back plants and adventures. News travels more slowly, the further you go back in time...and some of that is dependant on, again technology.

Realistically, you need time for the news to spread in order to get investors and candidates for colonization. Looking at the time frame, there is one thing they had that they hadn't had the century before...the printing press. By the 1600s when England got into the act, printed adverts and handbills were most definitely part of what was needed for the push to colonize.

By changing a few things, such as politics and early tech discovery/spread, you MIGHT be able to push the start by several decades, but I'd say no more than 90 years. This is the sort of thing that has a lot of moving parts, and I would hesitate to say yes to.

Note that colonization is not the same as DISCOVERING or simply spreading a culture. For instance India, which was occupied by people and powers was colonized by the Brits. For Colonizing you need COUNTRIES claiming a territory outside their own. col·o·nize ˈkäləˌnīz/Submit verb gerund or present participle: colonizing (of a country or its citizens) send a group of settlers to (a place) and establish political control over.

The Polynesians set up trade routes but the islands had separate cultures--they weren't sending money back to a mother country or being taxed and having resources. From Wikipedia: "While the early Polynesians were skilled navigators, most evidence indicates that their primary exploratory motivation was to ease the demands of burgeoning populations. Polynesian mythology does not speak of explorers bent on conquest of new territories, but rather of heroic discoverers of new lands for the benefit of those who voyaged with them."

That is markedly DIFFERENT from colonization. Colonization involves exploiting resources not simply for the benefit of those who wish to go and develop a different place. It is for the benefit of the country or power that colonizes.

Having global powers interested in this sort of exploitation, plus tech such as a printing press to spread the word is, I think key to this. You need a lot of replacement settlers to do this because of disease and lack of infrastructure.

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel as though "The only historical difference in this case would be that an old world power ... knew the Americas existed (because reasons)" - specifically the "(because reasons)" part - allows the smuggling in of, e.g., "Some visionary woodworker developed [maritime technology X] sooner", assuming that there was no totalitarian/dogmatic ban on shipbuilding R&D. In the realm of alternate history, it's as simple as "the fraternal twin who was perfectly content with manual labor died young instead of the engineering geek." $\endgroup$ – N. Presley Nov 25 '17 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ You make a very compelling point regarding the printing press. It never even occurred to me how important "advertisement" was for the colonization efforts. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Dec 14 '17 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Technology is a factor but I don't agree that it is as essential as depicted in your answer (-1). Non-western cultures have achieved repeated long-distance without western ship design features or even a compass. Cultures from Polynesia have sustained long-distance trade routes where the navigation was much more difficult. They managed to hit lonely (and tiny!) islands thousands of kilometers away somewhere in the Pacific. Compared to their achievments, sustaining ship routes to the gigantic continent of the Americas seems rather easy. $\endgroup$ – eigenvector Dec 14 '17 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @eigenvector Colonization is not the same as DISCOVERING or simply spreading a culture. For instance India, which was occupied by people and powers was colonized by the Brits. For Colonizing you need COUNTRIES claiming a territory outside their own. col·o·nize ˈkäləˌnīz/Submit verb gerund or present participle: colonizing (of a country or its citizens) send a group of settlers to (a place) and establish political control over $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Dec 15 '17 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ @eigenvector The Polynesians set up trade routes but the islands had separate cultures--they weren't sending money back to a mother country or being taxed and having resources. From Wikipedia: "While the early Polynesians were skilled navigators, most evidence indicates that their primary exploratory motivation was to ease the demands of burgeoning populations. Polynesian mythology does not speak of explorers bent on conquest of new territories, but rather of heroic discoverers of new lands for the benefit of those who voyaged with them." $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Dec 15 '17 at 5:24
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There is an alt-history theory that the Ancient Minoans did this as far back as 1500BC, before the Trojan War happened. While this is unlikely, lets look at the idea and see if it might qualify. (Minoan civilization existed between 2600-1100 BC, so we have a lot of room to work).

  1. The Minoans were known to be skilled sailors and traders. They had ships with the ability to sail throughout the Mediterranean sea and carry their trade goods to places far afield. While we have no way of knowing exactly how far the Minoans actually sailed, or what trade chains they were tapping into, Minoan artifacts have been found in very unlikely places, including Northern Germany. Realistically, I would expect the Minoans would be capable of sailing at least as far as Spain, but for the purposes of the OP's question, they can sail much farther.

enter image description here

Ancient Minoan ships as depicted on Minoan frescos

  1. As skilled traders, they may have been compelled to eventually follow the trade chains to their ends, both out of curiosity and to attempt to eliminate as many middlemen as they could. So for these purposes, the Minoans will sail past the Pillars of Hercules (the Straights of Gibraltar) and into the Atlantic. They would follow the coast north, and eventually move either into the North Sea and Germany, and also across the Channel and to England.

enter image description here

Ancient Egyptian trade routes. It is possible the Minoans had established similar networks at the hight of their empire

  1. On these journeys, it would be inevitable that some ships would be blown out into the Atlantic by storms. It is also possible that the sailors could interpret various signs to recognize there were islands farther west (for example, flights of migratory birds heading westwards where no land was known to exist). They would eventually make landfall in the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and then North America. Some of these lost ships or explorers would be able to return with news of their journey.

  2. As sharp traders, they would work hard to establish trading relations with the Native Americans. Initially there would be natural resources like wood, animal furs that were unavailable in Crete, Walrus and Narwhal ivory and all kinds of other goods. They would also be on the lookout for metal, particularly copper and tin.

  3. Following this chain of reasoning, if they were to find copper and tin, it would be extremely profitable to start smelting the ore and casting it into bronze ingots for export back to Europe. This would require a settlement to build the forges, settle miners or at least train natives to mine and bring the ore for trading, and all the other skilled trades needed to run the operation. As a bonus, overseas Minoan colonies would not have been affected by the explosion of the Thera volcano which is thought to have weakened or destroyed the Minoan civilization.

  4. So by following this chain of events, the Minoans would be settling North America some time before the Trojan War (between 1500 and 1300 BC).

enter image description here

Archilles, why are we wasting our time here. Have you heard what those Minoans are up to?

Edit to add: There is reputedly evidence preserved in ancient Egyptian mummies of anomalous chemicals like nicotine (from the Tobacco plant, which is definitely not native to Europe or Asia), and other things like accurate carvings of maize. I certainly don't know the veracity of these claims, but accurate reproductions of ancient ships by the likes of Thor Heyerdahl or Tim Severin show it is possible to cross the Atlantic with ancient ship's technology. What is missing is identifying the motivation to do so, which is the point of this answer. I make no claims that it was done, only that if the circumstances in the answer were obtained, it is possible to do so at an incredibly ancient date.

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  • $\begingroup$ That map of trade routes doesn't mean that the Egyptians made the trips in question, only that the cargo made the trip. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 23 '17 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ As for the Minoans, why would they go to the Americas for wood and furs when the rest of Europe which hads trees and fur-bearing animals is right there? As for the bronze, that's a straight up no. Tin is exceptionally rare to find, with only one known deposits ever worked in North America, a small one in northwestern Mexico. Copper isn't found near the Atlantic coast of the Americas. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 23 '17 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ The Egyptians may or may not have made the trip, for the purpose of the question the Minoans are the sort of people to follow the trade routes to the end to discover any new opportunities, cut out middlemen and otherwise maximize profits. Timber, especially tall timber was actually in short supply in the ancient Middle East, deforestation was quite pronounced and is thought to have been an exacerbating factor in the great collapse of Bronze Age civilizations @ 1200 BC. Exotic furs which are not found in Europe would be prize finds for Minoan traders. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 24 '17 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ Such Minoan explorers, without the ability to determine their location upon the Earth and to navigate, without an understanding of the ocean currents, and with only rudimentary sails, seem likely to perish in the ocean long before reaching the Americas. And very unlikely to find their way back. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Nov 24 '17 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ They are simply using the same method the Viking did millennia later, hopping from England, to the Faroes, to Iceland, the Greenland and to America. Each individual hop is relatively short, and the Minoans did have a reputation as excellent sailors. Navigation by star sighting and understanding attitude was indeed possible own ancient times, and repeated voyages would allow the Minoans to understand the currents, much like the Polynesians did in the Pacific. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 24 '17 at 4:55
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Realistically, given the parameters you cite (exploiting resources), then no, not really. The problem, as others have mentioned, is ship technology. In order to exploit the resources you have to have the capacity to transport them in reasonable quantities with reasonable safety and in a reasonably short period of time.

Heyerdahl's "experiment", which was mostly based on a nonsense understanding of history, only demonstrated that a one-time transit in one direction is possible, but that's a far cry from demonstrating that someone would intentionally set out to do it. A Roman ship hugging the coastline of Spain and France to reach Britain could get blown out to sea and, theoretically, the crew could survive and end up in the Americas, but that's a far cry from the Romans being able to intentionally create a trans-Atlantic route on purpose.

The earliest would likely have been in the 1300s or so, when the carrack started being developed.

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  • $\begingroup$ I postulate that one-way voyages happened every 2 generations or so. That would keep legends alive and explain all archological anomolies like tobacco in Egypt. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 25 '17 at 0:04
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The last 20 years has seen an explosion of opinions about the Chinese having discovered America as early as 1,300 BC. Both credible historians and sensationalists have written books about it.

Therefore, the simple answer is "yes."

Right up until you said "with the intent of exploiting American resources (land, people, minerals, etc) to empower the motherland." Exploring takes a little boat and luck (the littler the boat, the more luck is needed). Shipping takes a big boat because greedy merchants tend to hate (bad) luck getting in the way of low-risk profit.

Now, the somewhat less simple answer is "no."

But, the shorter the voyage, the smaller the boat needs to be to facilitate shipping. The Vikings (Norway, England, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Nova Scotia, America and return), are probably the only likely candidates and they'd be AD 800+ at least. Remember, this is including your requirement that goods be shipped back to the motherland. They wouldn't be much, but they could be predictable due to the short distances involved.

So, why didn't they? Because that wasn't the nature of their culture. Said another way, their socio-political infrastructure wasn't particularly suited to trade. They're generally remembered as devourers of conquest. So while they could have done it — they didn't. (Now, had they been the Ferengi... we Americans would all have our mothers chewing our food today.)

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  • $\begingroup$ That story is a load of crap. The "ancient Chinese characters" aren't actually Chinese characters and the newspaper story is nonsense conflating the bullshit Ruskamp has been peddling for years with confusion about one theory of how the Americas were colonized which would have happened at a minimum 13,000 years before. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Nov 24 '17 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ Both credible historians and sensationalists have written books about it. $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 24 '17 at 15:07
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As others pointed out, with the then-state of the art of boat building, the answer is no.

To have round trip travel, you need a boat that can tack against the wind at a reasonable angle -- say 45 degrees off the wind. This is tough on a strictly square rigged ship. But lateen sails were used by the Greeks. As @Ziobyte below points out, the usual routine was to take advantage of the subtropical easterlies going west, and coming north to use the westerlies coming back. But if you can't tack up wind, you are hostage to the weather gods. You need to be able to tack to fend off a leeward shore, to get into harbours with the wrong wind. Until you can do this, you're playing roulette.

However it's not clear to me why the progress in boats was so slow. The tech that built the Santa Maria would seem to be achievable by Romans. And there isn't that much difference between the Santa Maria and the Bluenose, and only a small step to the Cutty Sark.

(A while ago there was a question, "Could the Romans copy a steam engine" and the bulk of the answers were, 'but what would they do with it' Sail the Bluenose into a Roman harbour and I bet there would be a LOT more interest.)

So, given that the tech is reachable, who would have done this?

A: Arabs. Islam roared out of Arabia in the 8th century, and made it halfway through Spain in one direction, and Indonesia in the other.

B: Somalia. Had trade with India and as far away as China.

C: Vikings, given better ships.

So why then rears it's head.

A: Conversion -- Islam, Catholicism... B: Schism -- The early catholic church was beset with various herasies during the first centuries. The urge to go somewhere else could well have hit then. C: Food. Early settlements in what is now Canada were places to dry cod. Fish was valuable enough in the 1500's that it was worth it to cross the Atlantic twice to bring home a hull full of cod. D: Fur. The Hudson Bay company was in effect a British colony. While later they alamgamated with the Northwest Company, they initially were running the fur trade from York Factory on Hudson's bay. Given reasonable boats, and suitable demand for beaver felt hats, there is little reason this couldn't have happened far sooner.

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    $\begingroup$ That is not true. Even much later (XVI-XVII centuries) none was going to "tack against the wind" for long distances. Actual commerce (and Columbus travels, if that matters) were done in a circle going west at tropical latitudes exploiting trade winds and coming back on a much northern route exploiting westerlies. $\endgroup$ – ZioByte Nov 24 '17 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ Good point about circle routes. That said, until you can tack, you are hostage to the winds. See logs of sailing the Straights of Magellan, and later, in the Napoleonic wars holding station off Brest. $\endgroup$ – Sherwood Botsford Nov 24 '17 at 23:38
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I think we need to look at the logistics of colonization. The ability to get from point A to point B is only part of what is required.

So it's been brought up that lots of cultures have gone a long ways way back in antiquity, but it didn't seem like colonization (in the sense we are talking about here) didn't happen in a big way till the 15th century. So why the gap?

To run a successful colony, you have to be able to do a few different things.

You have to get there in sufficient numbers. You need enough of your countrymen, loyal to home, to establish a place to live, and more importantly, a place to defend against locals who might object. Show up in one boat or twenty, you need enough people to hold their own, survive, and thrive.

There needs to be an economic incentive for the home country. Gold, Furs, Slaves, Fish, Cotton, Tea... The list goes on and on. You have to want it bad enough to completely dominate the locals, not just trade with them. This economic incentive also keeps the home country sailing back and forth keeping the colonists supplied and reinforced with more and more troops to expand the territory.

Your home country also needs the will to take the risk of committing naval and other military resources to the endeavor. If half of your armada is in the new world, you are going to have a harder time fending off the Spaniards, so you better be sure that the reward is worth it.

Prior to the 15th century, the would be colonizing civilizations weren't generally large enough to do all of this at once. They would each be missing one or another of the above requirements, until the ability to move large quantities of stuff, goods, and or people back and forth reliably. The Chinese had the resources but may have lacked the sailing ability. The Vikings had the boats, but not enough other resources to maintain a force consistently on the new land. Romans found it easier to go overland and simply conquering other lands rather than sailing away to other places.

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Prerequisites for maintaining a motherland (mother city) – colony relationship

There are some mostly social prerequisites to maintain a colonial relationship, including a sufficient literacy rate. The first networks of colonies were maintained by Phoenicians and Greeks in the Mediterranean area around 800 BCE, both having a simple and easy-to-learn writing system. You also need some durable but light-weight writing material (papyrus or parchment will do in the pre-paper era)

Technological prerequisites

Ships that can endure a round trip from the mother harbour to the colony and back. This is probably a demanding requirement due to the presence of naval shipworms in the Carribean sea. But the Greeks and Phoenicains already had techniques to deal with shipworms, so it might be possible from 800 BCE on.

Geography

The motherland/mother city should have a geographic location that makes a colony in the new world an attractive asset. A city on the Moroccan, Southern Spanish or Portuguese coast would be ideal. Unfortunately, this region was colonialised by powers from the centre of the Mediterranean (Karthago and Rome), delaying the exploration of the Western seas for a long time.

Summary

In an alternate history with some powerful city on the Atlantic coast in, say, 400BCE, that does not fall under the regime of Karthago or Rome, it is conceivable that a colony in the new world could be established at around that time.

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