Setting the stage for Henry Hudson’s expeditions in North America was an earlier movement in Europe known as the Age of Exploration. The Age of Exploration spanned the 15th to the 17th centuries and bridged two dramatic periods in European history: the feudal medieval era of the 15th century and the rise of the modern European nation-states of the 16th century. The emergence of European nation-states marked a shift from the deep-rooted feudal system where peasants paid tithes to nobles who in turn paid tithes to princes and kings. This system laid the groundwork for a centralization of power around royal monarchies. Well-defined geographical borders further identified emerging nation-states as well as language, culture and religious affiliation.
Key to the power of the emerging nation-states was the acquisition of wealth; a seemingly endless source of wealth was found in the viable trade routes to India, China and throughout Asia also referred to as the “East Indies.” These long established and highly guarded routes provided nations with access to gold, silver and the lucrative spice trade. Spices in the medieval world did not only flavor food; they were used in perfumes, in preserving meats, making medicines and embalming the dead. The trade in spices, alone, brought tremendous wealth to Spain, Portugal and later the Netherlands.
During the 1500’s, Portugal dominated the seas setting up the first oceanic trade routes to Asia. Although adept at defending these routes, the Portuguese could not keep up with the increasing demand for spices. Portugal and Spain were allies at the time; but the Dutch had been at war with Spain for 40 years. The route’s value as well as its strategic importance to the Spanish, their rivals, led the Dutch to set sail. In 1596, four Dutch ships traveled to Indonesia, clashed with the Portuguese but returned to the Netherlands with a profitable bounty of spices. In 1599, 22 ships sailed to the Spice Islands of Maluku, returning with a 400% profit. In 1602, in an unprecedented decision, the Dutch government established the quasi-military Dutch East India Company (DEIC). For the first time a commercial company would function much like a nation-state. DEIC was given the right to monopolize trade in Asia and with company created armies, they had the authority to fight for it.
During the Age of Exploration, European explorers, spawned by competition, curiosity and advancements in navigational technology, ventured beyond charted waters to map unknown territories around the globe. Often, the ambitions of explorers intertwined with the goals of monarchies and trading corporations as in the case of the DEIC and Henry Hudson. Hudson believed there was a shorter more efficient sea route from Europe to Asia through the Northern hemisphere and the DEIC hired Hudson to find it. After the voyage of 1609, Hudson returned with news of a “highly cultivatable” land, perfect for fur trading. Although Hudson’s explorations to make the DEIC more competitive in Asia were not successful, his discovery of the area that is modern-day New York State inevitably lead to an alternative source of revenue, the highly profitable New Netherland colony of North America.