Over the holidays, when I wasn’t watching movies with family (I saw A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time), I read books and articles about the Norse exploration of North America, and this got me wondering why they weren’t the ones to open up the New World to Europe. The world had to wait another several hundred years for Spain to get around to doing it. My answer may be surprising, but it does raise important points to consider about our future.
For review, let’s go over what is known about which Europeans got here first. We know for a certainty that Eric the Red colonized Greenland. His son, Leif Ericsson, spent time exploring the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland and possibly some members of his party got as far south as Cape Cod or Long Island. The Norse settlers stayed in Greenland for almost five hundred years, starting in the late tenth century and disappearing sometime after 1408. So why didn’t the Vikings conquer America?
First, look at the level of technology of the various peoples involved. The Norse had iron weapons, but those were only a slight advantage over the stone projectiles that the Native tribes used. A stone arrowhead is just as dangerous as an iron one. The Viking swords were good tools, but a sword is a contact weapon, and a band of archers can do a lot of damage, especially when they’re shooting from their home soil.
By contrast, the Spaniards had ships, horses, and firearms. Yes, the Norse had horses, but they were smaller than the southern varieties, and the Vikings preferred to fight on their feet. The Vikings also had sailing vessels. Those longships looked like Native canoes, though, only bigger. The Spanish ships were significantly different in design as to appear to be from the gods.
The Spaniards also had guns. We today realize that their firearms were inefficient and could have been defeated by determined Aztec archers, but the peoples of the Americas didn’t have centuries of hindsight to use. They saw men in shining metal using rods that brought lightning and thunder down to the ground. This was devastating to the morale of the Natives.
Another point that favored the Spaniards was global climate. The Little Ice Age started in the early fourteenth century, making Greenland untenable. Greenland has grassy fields growing on its southwestern shores, but the climate in 1000 was warmer than in 1350. The colder Earth also enabled the spread of the Black Death, a plague that limited European contact with the Norse colonies. Columbus, on the other hand, chose a southerly route to the New World, and the first Spanish colonies were founded in the tropics. While the climate in the north was still cold, the Caribbean was unaffected.
But the most important reason is the difference in cultures. Norse society had always been tribal–small communities led by a chief, but with the consensus of the free members. (One point to note is that the consolidation of power under the king of Norway in the thirteenth century weakened general European ties to Greenland and may have contributed to the demise of the colonies.) The Vikings–not the whole of the Norse peoples–were merchants and pirates. The point here is that Norse trade, exploration, and colonization were usually the work of small groups, not the whole state.
Spain was the opposite. The Spanish monarchy had finally expelled the Moors from the Iberian peninsula and unified the Spanish peoples under one flag. Columbus was acting as an agent of the King and Queen, not under his own initiative. The colonies had the backing of the state, unlike the free farmers in Greenland.
And thus it was that the Spaniards, not the Vikings, conquered the New World. In thinking about this, I found it to be a depressing thought, since I favor the Norse model over the Spanish when it comes to social structures and governments, but then I realized that what seems to be the conclusion is not necessarily so.
Here’s the good news: The Vikings did conquer the New World, at least a major part of it. How? Remember that England was conquered by William, a Norman. In other words, a Norseman or Viking. Large parts of England were also ruled by Vikings in the Danelaw before his arrival. English society has been shaped by Norse ways of thinking (along with Celtic and Germanic traditions, which share a lot of the same values).
Compare the English colonies and their successor nations, the United States and Canada, with the areas that were under Spanish control. The economies of the Spanish colonies were based, with the limited exception of some agriculture, on the mining of precious metals. Spain pulled so much silver and gold out of the New World that it caused massive inflation at home and has never really recovered from it. The English colonies were blessed by not having one dominate natural resource and were thus forced into economic diversity.
The Englishmen also valued individual liberties. The Puritans were an aberration, not the norm, while the Inquisition was typical of the monolithic Spanish culture. The English people always pushed back when their rulers got oppressive. Their colonies were expressions of the values of their cultural ancestors. When feudal and aristocratic Europe wouldn’t accept small merchants and farmers taking the economy into their own hands, the adventurous members of the working classes moved to America.
The message here is that while the Norse model of society may not be as efficient in the short term, it is ultimately the better culture, if we value individual liberty and development.