European Challenges to Iberian Dominance

How Spain and Portugal’s international power waned in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Samuel de Champlain
Catherine of Aragon
Sir Francis Drake
John Cabot
Martin Frobisher
Terra Australis

French Exploration and Colonization of Canada

The French were among the first of the European nations to join Spain and Portugal in their race to colonize America, their exploration of Canada beginning in the early 16th century.


Jacques Cartier led three voyages to the region between 1534 and 1542, sent by King Francis I of France to find a route to Asia through North America, but instead he discovered the St Lawrence River and claimed much of what is now eastern Canada for France.

Étienne Brûlé took these explorations further inland, traveling as far west as Lake Ontario and trading with local Indigenous peoples. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City on an island at the mouth of the St Lawrence River.

A high priority for the French was the creation of fur-trading posts throughout what is now Canada, which allowed valuable resources like beaver pelts to be sold back in Europe for a profit. This helped fund further exploration efforts while also providing them with a foothold in this new land they had claimed for themselves.

Religious Rivalries and Political Feuds


For northern European nations such as England and Holland, rivalry with Spain and Portugal was compounded with political feuds that stemmed from the Reformation.

During the upheaval of the reformation in the 16th century many Christians broke away from the Catholic Church and formed new Protestant denominations.

In England, this process was driven by King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile – a request that the pope denied.

With the marriage a matter of political and dynastic importance, Henry’s divorce, and England’s adoption of Protestant religion along with it, soured diplomatic relations with spain.

English Hostility towards Spanish Imperial Ambitions

This hostility manifested itself in a number of ways, extending to the nations’ respective imperial ambitions.


Queen Elizabeth I, for example, supported piracy against the Spanish as a way to weaken Spain without engaging in a direct war – interrupting their trade and undermining their colonial power. “Privateers” like Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins were issued royal letters of marque, which gave free reign to attack Spanish ships and settlements.

Between 1577 and 1580, Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe while attacking settlements along the Pacific coast of South America, and capturing vessels of gold and silver. His exploits earned him a knighthood.

The rivalry between England and Spain came to a head in 1588, when the Spanish Armada, a fleet of ships sent by King Philip II of Spain, attempted to invade England. This was successfully repelled by Drake and other naval commanders, marking a major victory for Protestant England over Catholic Spain.

British Claims to North America


Myths of transatlantic voyages circulated in Britain during this period.

A British legend, later used to argue priority over Spain’s discovery, claimed that North America was explored by a Welsh prince, “Madoc”, in the 12th century.

A sixth century monk, known as “Brendan the Navigator”, was also said to have found land in the Atlantic in his search for Paradise, but there is no solid evidence to suggest that either voyage took place.

In May 1497, it was John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), an Italian explorer sponsored by the English King, Henry VII, who became the first European to reach North America since the Vikings. He set sail from Bristol, England, with a small crew and one ship, the Matthew.

After a voyage of about six weeks, Cabot reached the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. He claimed the land for England and planted the English flag, becoming the first European to reach North America since the Vikings.

English Attempts to Find a Northwest Passage


Other English efforts to challenge Iberian dominance in the Age of Exploration, much like the French, focused on finding a Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia.

In 1576, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a former privateer, Martin Frobisher, set sail with three ships in search of this route, but instead discovered Baffin Island off the coast of Canada. He returned with samples of ore which he believed was gold, though it turned out to be worthless mineral rock.

John Davis followed suit in 1585 when he sailed around Greenland and explored its icy coastline before heading south towards Newfoundland and Labrador. His expedition also failed to discover a Northwest Passage but did provide valuable information about Arctic geography that would later prove useful for other explorers such as Henry Hudson who attempted similar voyages during the early 17th century.

These attempts at trans-Atlantic exploration demonstrated England’s determination to compete with Spain and Portugal for control over global trade routes during this period.

Emergence of Northern European Trading Companies in the 17th Century

The turn of the 17th century marked the emergence of two powerful trading companies for Northern Europe, founded during a period of intense competition for control of the lucrative trade routes to Asia.


The English East India Company was founded in 1600 by a group of merchants who received a charter from Queen Elizabeth I granting them a monopoly on English trade with the East Indies. It quickly established trading posts in India and Southeast Asia, becoming a major player in the global trade of spices and textiles, and luxury commodities.

This was matched in Holland. In 1595, following in the footsteps of the rest of Europe, the Dutch set out for the East Indies in 1595 – an enormously profitable venture for spices that paved the way for further private expeditions.

These competing companies would soon form an alliance to form, in 1602, the Dutch East India Company or “VOC” (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie). This company was granted a 21-year monopoly on all trade between Europe and Asia.

Dutch Exploration in Search of the Terra Australis


The founding of the Dutch East India Company instigated a period of Dutch exploration in South East Asia for new lands, particularly in search of the “Terra Australis” or a “southern continent”

This hypothesized continent can be traced back to ancient Greek geographers and philosophers, who believed that the earth needed to be balanced by a large southern landmass to counterbalance the known northern continents. Such a land promised new wealth and land equivalent to that in America.

In the search for this continent, two merchants in the service of the VOC made significant new discoveries in the region. In 1606, Willem Janszoon set foot on Australian soil when he landed on the Cape York Peninsula. And in 1642, merchant Abel Tasman reached New Zealand and the islands of Fiji and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Despite these ventures, little attempt at this time was made to colonize this land, since they deemed it unfit for cultivation.

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