European Colonialism

Pre-Colonial History

From the perspective of ancient and medieval Western civilization, the known world extended from northern Europe to the Sahara Desert, from the Atlantic Ocean to India (and, in the hazy distance, China).33 The ancient Greeks and (especially) Romans traded with distant Asian cultures via intermediate states; goods were shipped overland or by combined land/sea routes.32 In the medieval period, the Byzantine Empire maintained these trade links; Western European trade collapsed (with the fall of the Western Roman Empire), then recovered in the later Middle Ages.

Major Trade Routes of Ancient Eurasia

The Mongol Empire (ca. 1200-1300), which came to encompass virtually the full width of Asia, simplified Eurasian trade by cutting out middleman states. But while the Mongols were happy to trade with the West, the Ottomans were not. With the decline of the Mongols and the rise of the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300-WWI), conventional trade with Asia was blocked, forcing Europe to seek ocean routes.32

Age of Discovery

ca. 1420-1520

The Early Modern period was, for good and ill, the age of European exploration, conquest, and colonization. Initially, the foremost motivation for these efforts was the search for overseas trade routes with India and China.

The opening phase of European exploration and colonization, known as the Age of Discovery, can be divided into two parts. During the early Age of Discovery (ca. 1420-92), Portugal initiated the global naval era by exploring the coast of Africa (in hopes of finding a way round to India), colonizing several Atlantic islands, and establishing African trading posts (which fostered a booming trade with West Africa in gold, ivory, and slaves). The leading patron of these voyages was Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince.33,46

The turning point in Portugal's quest for a sea route to India was the rounding of the southern tip of Africa, achieved by Bartholomew Diaz. Although Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope (a close neighbour) is much more famous. The Cape of Good Hope marks the point at which the African coastline begins to trend eastward instead of southward, making it the critical turning-point of Diaz' voyage.89

European Naval Exploration
main participants milestone voyages
leader achievement surviving ships
early Age of Discovery (ca. 1420-92) Portugal Diaz rounding of the tip of Africa 2 of 2
late Age of Discovery (ca. 1492-1520) Portugal and Spain Columbus journey to the Americas 2 of 3
da Gama circum-Africa journey to India 2 of 4
Magellan circumnavigation of the globe 1 of 5
exploration after 1520 Portugal, Spain, England, France, Netherlands

During the late Age of Discovery (ca. 1492-1520), Spain joined Portugal as a nation of global exploration and conquest. This period began with the arrival of Columbus in the Americas and concluded with the circumnavigation of the globe by the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan.33

Soon after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World (1492), Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the world with a longitudinal line. Jurisdiction over exploration and colonization west of the line was given to Spain; east of the line, to Portugal (including the exclusive right to pursue trade routes around Africa).30 A similar agreement (the Treaty of Saragossa) was later reached for a line dividing the other side of the world, such that Spain and Portugal each claimed authority over half the planet. (These boundaries were only roughly observed.)

Treaties of Tordesillas and Saragossa

Consequently, Spain settled most of Latin America (as it is now called) while Portugal settled Brazil.30 Both nations enslaved native populations for plantations (especially in Brazil) and mining (especially in Mexico and Peru).K318-19,46 On the other side of the world, Spain took the Philippines, while Portugal seized other islands.

The Pacific Ocean ("Peaceful Ocean") was named by Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first European voyage to sail it. He reached the Pacific through a narrow, dangerous channel that pierces the tip of South America, known today as the Strait of Magellan. Magellan was killed by natives in the Philippines, however, forcing one of his officers (Juan Sebastián Elcano) to finish the journey.33,46

Early Modern Period

ca. 1500-1800

To recap the previous section: global exploration and empire-building were initiated by the Portuguese (early Age of Discovery), who were eventually joined by the Spanish (late Age of Discovery). Following the Age of Discovery, the Iberian nations were joined by Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The world's oceans subsequently experienced a five-way balance of power during the Early Modern age. Only during the nineteenth century did Britain reign as the sole naval superpower.45

Primary Early Modern Colonies (of the five primary colonial powers)
Portugal Brazil Caribbean islands
Spain Latin America (except Brazil), Philippines
Netherlands parts of Indonesia
France eastern Canada/US
England eastern Canada/US, eastern Australia

During the age of sail, which spanned the Early Modern age (plus the early nineteenth century), great sailing ships dominated naval trade, exploration, and warfare. The age of sail was enabled by various advances in navigation and ship design achieved during the later medieval period. The most crucial development was the ability to sail efficiently against the wind.A251,77

Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, the principal venue of European naval conflict had been the Mediterranean; in all that time, the nature of sea warfare changed little. The principal warship was the galley (a shallow-hulled craft powered by rowers), whose main form of attack (apart from moving alongside an enemy vessel, allowing soldiers to board) was simply to ram other boats, though sometimes catapults were used. In the Early Modern age, the galley was succeeded by the man-of-war (a general term for any deep-hulled, sail-powered warship) armed with cannons.44

The French settled the eastern part of Canada and the US; French territory in North America was called "New France". The English competed with the French for eastern North America, while also seizing eastern Australia and New Zealand. The Dutch controlled parts of Indonesia. All five of the great naval powers conquered various Caribbean islands, and trading posts were established along the coasts of Africa and India. Trade with India gradually came to be monopolized by Britain.46

The Early Modern period also witnessed the vast (mostly eastward) expansion of Russia. Russian colonialism was of the traditional kind, however, in which a state simply expands its borders (rather than acquiring overseas territory).

Colonial Empires ca. 1492
Colonial Empires ca. 1550
Colonial Empires ca. 1660
Colonial Empires ca. 1754
Colonial Empires ca. 1800

The northern colonies of the New World (Canada, northern US) provided such resources as timber, fish, and furs, while southern colonies (southern US, Caribbean, Latin America) yielded sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Southern crops were often grown in plantations: vast, single-crop farms. Since warm-climate crops tend to be labour-intensive, these plantations required large workforces; thus did the rise of plantations in European empires fuel the massive expansion of the slave trade.46

The economic growth propelled by colonialism fostered a large middle class in Europe, which was vital to the rise of humanism and the birth of the modern world (see Humanism, Enlightenment). Unfortunately, the human tragedies of colonialism are unspeakably vast. Many thousands of Africans, Native Americans, and other indigenous peoples throughout the world were killed (by violence or disease), enslaved, and/or oppressed in countless other ways (e.g. forced migration to barren land, outlawing of indigenous languages and traditions).

Types of Colonialism

The term "colonialism" is often used synonymously with "imperialism": the imposition of a state's will upon external territory. Yet "colonialism" is derived from the word "colony"; thus, strictly speaking, colonialism is a form of imperialism in which a state settles territory outside its borders.

The colonial age featured two types of empire. In a colonial empire, conquered territories were settled by the conquering nation; a trading empire, on the other hand, was concerned only with the establishment and protection of trade routes (via warships and fortified settlements). A trading empire thus involved little or no conquest of territory, though it did require skilful diplomacy with local rulers (to maintain trade flows and avoid attacks on trading settlements).A299

Colonial empires were mainly confined to the New World, while trading empires prevailed in the Old. The only major Early Modern territorial seizures in the Old World were conducted by Russia (as it expanded eastward) and Britain (which conquered Australia and New Zealand).A299

The British, Spanish, and French Empires were all dual empires, in that they featured both colonial and trading components. The Portuguese and Dutch Empires, on the other hand, were limited mainly to trading. This explains how these two countries (which, given their small populations, lacked great armies) managed to amass mighty global empires.

Indeed, the seventeenth century was the Dutch Golden Age, during which the Dutch Empire flourished as the world's wealthiest power. This incredible achievement can be traced to the unusual degree of freedom enjoyed by Early Modern Dutch society; most crucially, freedom of private economic activity. By allowing private companies and investors to seek their own fortunes, economic growth was propelled by private ambition (rather than depending entirely on state planning). Moreover, economic freedom allowed the Dutch financial system to become the most advanced in the world, most crucially in the fields of investment and insurance.A299,K238-39

In most of Europe, monarchs rigidly controlled the economic activities of their empires. In terms of being a free society (including economic freedom), the only rival to the Netherlands was Britain; yet the economic growth of the British Empire lagged initially, due partly to Britain's underdeveloped investment and insurance markets. After the Dutch Golden Age, the British Empire rose to world supremacy (with London surpassing Amsterdam as the world's busiest financial centre) thanks largely to the adoption of Dutch financial innovations.A299,K238-39


As noted above, colonial settlement occurred primarily in the Americas. The rate of European immigration grew steadily throughout the Early Modern period, peaking in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was due both to massive European population growth resulting from industrialized food production, as well as the rise of of steam-powered transportation (steamships and trains).A367 Yet colonial settlement was heavily lopsided; most immigrants chose to settle in British territory, as opposed to New France or Latin America.

The success of British colonialism may be attributed primarily to Parliament, which provided Britain with strong representative government (see History of Democracy). Representative government ensured that the British people enjoyed relatively robust freedoms (e.g. freedom of speech and religion, freedom of economic activity, freedom from arbitrary fines/imprisonment) compared to other European nations; the notion that government should prioritize individual freedom is known as liberalism. When British territory expanded to include overseas colonies, the British institutions of representative government and liberalism were imported to these colonies.A372,K236-39

In terms of being a free society, Britain was rivalled only by the Netherlands, which had never been subject to strong centralized rule. During the Middle Ages, the Netherlands region consisted of various small, oligarchic states that grew wealthy from manufacturing and trade. Though the Netherlands was absorbed by the Holy Roman Empire ca. 1500, it broke free during the Reformation. The newly-independent Netherlands found itself free of both the Church (due to the Dutch adoption of Protestantism) and centralized monarchy (since the nation was still essentially a loose union of small, merchant-ruled oligarchies), allowing liberalism to flourish.A296

Had the Dutch engaged in large-scale colonization, perhaps the liberalism of Dutch society would have been transplanted throughout the world. Since the Dutch Empire focused mainly on trade, however, British colonies were almost the only option for European emigrants seeking freedom from political and/or religious oppression.

Social conditions were not the only factor in the success of British colonization, however. Another was arable land, which was relatively abundant in the British-ruled portions of the Americas, and especially in the region that would become the United States. Indeed, this region drew as much European immigration as the entire remainder of the British Empire.

British culture (including representative government and liberalism) forms the cultural foundation of British offshoot nations. This includes the United States, which would elevate representative government and liberalism to unprecedented heights, thereby giving birth to modern democracy (see History of Democracy).A372,B208


As described in the previous section, British colonies experienced much heavier settlement than those of other European powers. British colonies were also unique for the extent of their political and economic development. Consequently, while many present-day nations originated as European colonies, only British offshoots are found among the world's most-developed nations.

Once again, this fact can be largely explained by the importation of representative government and liberalism, the latter of which includes freedom of economic activity (i.e. capitalism). Life in the colonies of France, Spain, and Portugal, on the other hand, was much more strictly controlled, by both the absolute monarchies of those nations and the Roman Catholic Church. The political and economic development of these colonies typically did not advance beyond the minimum required to produce raw materials (e.g. crops, metals) for the home countries.B208,B253,K234-39

Modern Period

ca. 1800-1980

The extent of European imperialism in the Old World climbed steadily in the modern age, peaking ca. 1900. At this point, firm European domination had spread across most of the Old World, the only major exceptions being Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), Persia, and Japan. At its peak, the British Empire became the largest empire the world has ever known, at nearly a quarter of the Earth's land area. The Russian Empire became history's third-largest empire, behind the British and Mongol Empires.A731-72,88

In the nineteenth century, the European empires experienced three major changes: the Latin American Wars of Independence, the expansion of European territory in Asia, and the Scramble for Africa.

Most of the Spanish Empire was lost in the Latin American Wars of Independence (ca. 1810-30), sparked by Napoleon's occupation of Spain, which (briefly) replaced the reigning Spanish king with Napoleon's brother. This destabilized the politics of Latin America, where support for independence movements had already grown to dangerous proportions, especially after the success of the American Revolution (the first successful colonial revolution).A370,K318-19

The Wars of Independence gave rise to the modern nations of Latin America. (Brazil's independence from Portugal, though achieved in the same period, was obtained peacefully.) Mexico became the primary power of Mesoamerica, while Brazil emerged as the chief power of South America. The United States, however, remained the overwhelmingly dominant power of the New World.

The final blow to the Spanish Empire was delivered at the turn of the century, in the Spanish-American War. This war began with Cuba's fight for independence, to which the United States lent military support; at war's end, Cuba was granted freedom (as a US protectorate), while other Spanish possessions (including the Philippines and Puerto Rico) were ceded to America.86 (A protectorate is a nation that accepts the control of another country over its defence and foreign policy.)

Independence of Latin American Nations

Meanwhile, four of the European empires (Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands) greatly expanded their Asian territory during the nineteenth century. Britain conquered South Asia, Myanmar, and Malaysia, while France conquered eastern Indochina (Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia).85 Russia expanded eastward and southward, and Dutch control was extended across most of Indonesia. Thailand was the only Southeast Asian nation to evade conquest.84

Most of Africa was conquered by European powers in the Scramble for Africa (ca. 1880-WWI); only Liberia and Ethiopia remained independent.81 The two primary participants in the Scramble were Britain (which seized a wide strip of territory from Egypt to South Africa) and France (which governed most of West Africa). The five secondary participants were Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. British possession of Egypt held particular strategic significance, as it entailed control of the Suez Canal.82

European Colonies by WWI

Two key conflicts of the Scramble for Africa were the Boer Wars, in which Britain successfully fought the Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers) for control of what is now South Africa. In addition to being rich in gold and diamonds, the tip of Africa was a crucial strategic possession for the circum-Africa trade route.A369,87

Asia and Africa were thus both subject to intense European imperialism; neither, however, was heavily colonized. One factor was tropical disease, which rendered much of the Old World (especially inland regions) deadly to Europeans. Moreover, much of Asia (e.g. Persia, South Asia) was already heavily populated, limiting space for settlement and making European control relatively tenuous (given the constant danger of rebellion).

European domination did not necessarily manifest as territorial seizure; another form was economic imperialism. The foremost example is China, which was forced into profoundly skewed trade agreements with Western powers via the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century.

The Opium Wars erupted between China and Britain when the former attempted to ban imports of opium from the latter. Selling opium to China was Britain's method of recovering the currency (mainly silver) used to purchase Chinese luxuries (notably tea).83 The Opium Wars essentially consisted of the decimation of Chinese cities by modern British weapons, forcing China to accept unfavourable trade agreements (including opium imports) and to cede Hong Kong to Britain.K354-55

In the twentieth century, European colonies across the globe were drawn into the two World Wars, which ripped Europe apart and terminated its dominance of the Old World. In the period WWII-1980, which might be called the age of decolonization, regions conquered by European empires gradually obtained their independence (sometimes peacefully, sometimes not).80 National overseas possessions are few today, consisting mainly of small islands.

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