The French, Dutch, and English all sought to gain footholds in South America, but had to settle for the unimportant Guianas. They thoroughly broke up the Spanish hold on the Caribbean, however. In early modern times these islands were one of the great prizes of imperialism. Cheap slave labor raised tobacco, fruits, coffee, and, most profitably, cane sugar.
European Exploration and Expansion
To the north and west of the fourteen colonies, in the region of the St. Lawrence basin, the French built upon the work of Cartier and Champlain. The St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes gave the French easy access to the heart of the continent, in contrast to the Appalachian ranges that stood between the English and the Mississippi River.
The English did not immediately follow up the work of the Cabots. Instead, they put their energies into breaking into the Spanish trading monopoly. In 1562 John Hawkins started the English slave trade; his nephew, Francis Drake, reached the Pacific and claimed California for England under the name of New Albion.
Spain and Portugal enjoyed a head start of nearly a century in founding empires of settlement. The northern Atlantic states soon made up for their late start, however. As early as 1497 John Cabot (d. c. 1498) and his son Sebastian, Italians in English service, saw something of the North American coast and gave the English territorial claims based on their explorations.
By the Treaty of Tordesillas Spain and Portugal had divided the world open to trade and empire along a line cut through the Atlantic, so that Brazil became Portuguese. This same line extended across the poles and cut the Pacific, so that some of the islands Magellan discovered came into the Spanish half. Spain conveniently treated the Philippines as if they, too, were in the Spanish half of the globe, though they were actually just outside it.
As he neared the end of his first voyage, Christopher Columbus prepared a letter for the king of Spain in which he described the islands he had discovered.