Pedro de Gante.

Statue of Pedro de Gante in Mexico City, presented by the province of East-Flanders in 1976, and removed in 2020 in the context of the decolonisation movement. De Gante founded the first Christian school on the American continent | Wikimedia Commons

c. 1480 - 1572
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Pedro de Gante

Europeans in a ‘New World’

In 1523 a Franciscan from Ghent travelled to Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City. His name was Pieter van der Moere, but he became known under his Spanish name of Pedro de Gante. On the American continent he was one of the first Flemish witnesses of the devastation caused by the European colonisers.

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After a stay of fifteen years as a lay brother in a Franciscan monastery in Ghent, Pieter van der Moere, supposedly from Idegem (today a constituent municipality of Geraardsbergen), crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He travelled in the footsteps of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés and wanted to convert the Aztecs, the indigenous population of present-day Mexico, to Christianity. The superiority of Christian civilisation was indisputable for him. Partly as a result he was shocked by the devastation caused by the Europeans and by the merciless exploitation of the local population. He denounced the abuses in letters to Charles V and his successor Philip II.

Antwerp, Stadhuis Antwerpen

Fresco by Piet Verhaert (1852-1908) in the stairwell of the Antwerp city hall (1899). The various scenes recall the Golden Age of the city in the 16th century. Here the mayor of Antwerp welcomes the first Spanish ships with sugar from the Canary Islands. The flourishing of the town was due to the colonial trade, and the sugar came from plantations where enslaved Africans worked.


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Europeans in a ‘New World’

After the expedition of Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spanish conquerors crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Not long after, other European countries also found the way to America. That was the starting gun for European expansion into all parts of the world. For centuries Europeans brought riches from conquered areas to numerous European towns. The first modest steps had been taken at the beginning of the 15th century, when the Portuguese began to look for new trade routes to the Indies.

The Portuguese mostly limited themselves to trading posts along the coast or on rivers. The Spaniards went further inland and in parts of Central and South America founded large colonies such as New Spain, New Granada, Peru and La Plata. In so doing they put an end to the kingdoms of the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas. To be able to control an extensive area with millions of inhabitants, the Spaniards maintained local structures. The elite of the indigenous population could retain considerable power and prosperity by collaborating with the coloniser.

The (Southern) Netherlands were a territory of the Spanish Habsburgs from 1506 until 1713. And from there too sailors, soldiers, tradesmen, missionaries and other adventurers left for the overseas territories. Through the Atlantic trade Antwerp, with its excellent relations with Lisbon and Cadiz, was able to grow in the 16th century into a world-class harbour. The town on the Scheldt was the final destination of the riches brought by Europeans from the ‘New World’.

Focal points

Codex Kingsborough.

London, The British Museum, 261490001

A local inhabitant is abused by the owner of an encomienda. Codex Kingsborough, 16th century.



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A Cruel System of Overseas Exploitation

The coming of the Europeans to America had dramatic results for the indigenous population. The local population was forced to work on plantations and in mines. In exchange for labour they were given food, shelter and Christian education. In practice the encomienda system soon degenerated into true slavery. The Europeans also brought diseases with them, against which the indigenous population had not yet developed an immunity. Measles and smallpox caused so many deaths that the colonial authorities soon had to deal with a shortage of labour.

For that reason the Europeans greatly expanded the slave trade with Africa. Thus arose the notorious trans-Atlantic trade triangle: European slave traders sailed to the West African coasts to buy people with textiles and weapons. They were traded in America for ‘colonial goods’ like tobacco and sugar, which in turn could be sold in Europe with a nice profit margin. Between 1500 and 1875 more than 12.5 million Africans were shipped to America as slaves, the vast majority after 1700.An estimated 15% died during the journey of disease, privation or abuse. In the initial phase a few Antwerp and Bruges traders were involved in the slave trade. Later, in the 18th century, there were also traders from the Austrian Netherlands.

Some clerics criticised the policies of the conquerors. De Gante was one, like the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas. In 1542 the latter was able to convince Emperor Charles V to impose restrictions on forced labour. However, the influx of enslaved Africans continued unabated.

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias

Wikimedia Commons

On the ceiling of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias in Horta, on the island of Fayal in the Azores, there are eighteen coats-of-arms of colonist families: Silveira and Goularte refer to the Flemish colonists Willem Vanderhaegen and Louis Govaert respectively.

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Flemings in the Azores

Around 1450 a group of Flemish colonists landed in the Azores. This group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean had been in the hands of the Portuguese since the beginning of the 15th century. They had established a springboard there for their voyages of discovery. Sparsely-populated Portugal encouraged people from friendly countries to migrate to the unpopulated islands and colonise them. But the Portuguese also transported enslaved Africans to the area. They experimented with sugar plantations and slave labour, which later would be used on a large scale in America.

Portugal maintained good relations with the Burgundian Netherlands. And so several hundred Flemings found themselves in the Azores. It was a socially diverse group, most of whom came from the Bruges region. The Azores proved to be anything but a paradise. Life was hard, as the volcanic islands had to be deforested before they could farm. How many Flemish colonists were in the Azores is not known, but their presence must have struck the celebrated voyager Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who described the Azores as the ‘Flemish Islands’. They were to remain known by that name until the 17th century. Around 1600 the Flemish presence in the Azores declined, but a village name like Flamengos is a still a reminder today of those colonists.

Azteeks offermes.
London, The British Museum, 01613400997

Margaret of Austria collected, besides works of art from Africa and China, objects from the so-called ‘treasure of Moctezuma’: Aztec clothing, weapons, a feather crown, all stolen by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. This is a knife with a handle made of pieces of mosaic.

Joos De Rijcke.
Paul Drieghe

Memorial plaque for the Franciscan Joos de Rycke on the Old Court Building in Ghent. De Rycke travelled to the Inca kingdom in South America in the 16th century. His account from 1536 is thought to be the oldest preserved Dutch-language travelogue on the New World.

Aardglobe Mercator.
Sint-Niklaas, Collectie Koninklijke Oudheidkundige Kring van het Land van Waas v.z.w.

The world map of Gerard Mercator, 1569. The map is designed in a cylinder projection, also called a Mercator projection. Mercator recorded on his map the world as it was known in Europe at the time.

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