The importance of the New World to Europe, in the first century after the Discovery, chiefly rested on the fact that it was found to be a huge storehouse of gold and silver. To a large extent its resources in this respect had already been worked by the aborigines. Gold is the only metal which occurs in its native or unmixed state, and is largely found in the debris of those rocks which are most exposed to atmospheric action. It therefore early attracts the attention of savages, who easily apply it to purposes both of use and ornament; and more elaborate working in gold is one of the first arts of advanced life. Silver attracts attention and acquires value from its similarity, in most qualities, to gold; in Mexico both metals were regarded as of directly divine origin. The Toltecs, or people of Tollan, were reputed the earliest workers in gold and silver; and as this pueblo was understood to have been founded by a Nahuatlacan tribe at least as early as A.D. 780, these metals had been sought and wrought in the Mexican district for at least 700 years. There is no reason for concluding that after being manufactured they were largely, or indeed at all, exported; hence the immense accumulations of metallic wealth which were found in the Mexican district—accumulations greedily seized by the Conquistadores, and poured through Spanish channels into the mints of Europe, where the stock of gold had probably not been substantially increased since the fall of the Roman Empire. Still larger accessions to the mineral wealth of Europe followed the discovery and conquest of Peru—especially after the Spaniards became masters of the mines of Potosi—and of New Granada, where an almost savage people had laid up great quantities of the precious metals in the form of utensils and rude works of art: and from the discovery and conquest of these richly endowed countries, and the plunder of their stored-up wealth, date the serious efforts of European nations other than Spain and Portugal to acquire territory in the New World.
Twenty-five years passed between Colombo's discovery and the first intelligence of Mexico. During this period Spanish America was limited to the four greater Antilles—Espanola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. On the northern shore of the South American continent, in what is now Venezuela, attempts had been made to effect a lodgment, but in vain; this district, and indeed the continent generally, was long regarded as a mere field for slave-raiding, the captives being sold in Española and Cuba. The smaller islands, and the other adjacent continental coasts, remained unconquered and uncolonised; much as on the opposite side of the Atlantic the Canaries and the Madeira group were parcelled into feudal estates and parishes, while the neighbouring shore of Africa remained unattempted. The Spaniards, wholly new to their task, had to gain experience as colonists in a savage land. Often their settlements were founded on ill-chosen sites. When Isabella, Colombo's first colony in Espanola, had to be abandoned, San Domingo was founded on the opposite side of the island (1494); the site of this,