Journals on Exploration

The European discovery and exploration of the New World commenced in earnest in the late fifteenth century and continued for the next three hundred years and beyond. The primary motivation for these journeys was commercial—at first, in hopes of discovering a westward route to Asia and its coveted spice trade, and also in the perennial search for gold and silver. An additional priority of the rulers of Christian Europe was to spread their “one true faith” among the native inhabitants they encountered.

Given the expense of sponsoring these voyages of discovery, and the sense of imperial competition among the European powers, explorers were under pressure to return with good news. Christopher Columbus himself, whose world-historical voyage of 1492 marked the beginning of European colonization of the Americas, omitted to mentioiussbb-pn in his letter to the Spanish court the loss of his flagship, the Santa Maria, emphasizing instead the abundant resources on the Caribbean islands he had discovered, and the need for more ships and men to conduct further voyages. Other explorers on behalf of, primarily, England, France, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands similarly “talked up” their discoveries—which, though none included a westward spice route to Asia, did include seemingly boundless woodlands for fuel and construction material, as well as a landscape teeming with plant and animal food sources and natives who were either nonthreatening or easily overpowered. The message was, the New World was a suitable place to establish colonies and expand overseas empire, to the greater glory of the king and God.

Reports written by explorers and colonists also contain the earliest European impressions of the native peoples of the Americas. The European encounter with natives was dominated by the twin concerns of commerce and religion: The “Indians,” as they were initially dubbed when it was assumed explorers had discovered the east coast of India, were both potential trading partners and “heathens” (non-Christians) whose souls were in need of saving. Both concerns, economic and religious, brought about intimate cultural interaction—not to mention conflict—and prompted European explorers and colonists to study these foreign cultures closely and document what they saw, with varying degrees of sympathy. Descriptions of the natives reflect this diversity of concerns: whether they were a help or a hindrance to the colonial project, and whether they were amenable to conversion. In many cases, however, the reports share a common element with all the European journals of exploration: the human urge to record and describe never-before-seen phenomena for one’s fellows and for posterity.