The World Economy and Colonial Expansion

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Gayle K. Brunelle

The integration of Europe into the world economy, following a period of insularity between the disappearance of the Roman Empire after about 500 and the beginning of the Crusades in the eleventh century, took place in three stages. In the early Middle Ages, under the pressure of repeated waves of barbarian intic Ocean, confined them mostly to the world familiar to the Romans, the Mediterranean basin. The caravan trade across central Asia along the famous Silk Road flowered in the thirteenth century under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, but despite the fame of Marco Polo, the actual quantity of goods and travelers that made the overland journey to China was quite small. Only after 1450 did the Portuguese successfully round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the complex, monsoon-driven commercial world of the Indian Ocean, initiating what J. H. Parry called "the age of reconnaissance."

The second and third phases of European expansion are more controversial than the first. Sometime between 1492 and 1900, Europe moved from the edge of the world economy to its center. In the process it was transformed from a relatively backward, underpopulated region in which at least 90 percent of the population worked in agriculture, to a highly industrialized, urbanized society that controlled much of the world, either directly through colonies or indirectly through economic and military hegemony.

Historians disagree as to when Europe moved from being a backwater to the dominant economic In their judgment, European society during the Renaissance rejected the stagnation of the Middle Ages. Instead it developed qualities such as individualism, faith in reason, and curiosity about the natural world that other cultures lacked. Europeans also had the good fortune to inhabit the most favorable climate in the world, which, unlike the tropics, fostered good health, energy, and action rather than torpor and disease. As a result, the expansion of European economic and military might was inevitable, and positive, in that Europeans through colonization spread worldwide the benefits of their superior civilization. In developing this interpretation, European historians were deeply influenced by Europe's relatively early and easy conquest of the New World, and by the success of the second wave of colonization and "gunboat diplomacy" of the nineteenth century.

Most historians today reject this highly Eurocentric interpretation. They discern two stages in European expansion after 1450. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, Europe managed to insert itself into preexisting trade networks in Asia and Africa, although its success relied heavily on the use of force. Scholars recognize that the influence of European culture on most non-European societies was quite limited before 1800. In regions outside of Africa and the Eurasian landmass, notably the New World, European diseases decimated the vulnerable native populations. In these areas Europeans established colonies in which voluntary and forced migration from Europe and Africa provided labor to supplement or replace the diminished indigenous supply of workers. The first confirmed European landing on the coast of Australia, that of Abel Tasman (for whom Tasmania is named) took place in 1644. The first European settlement in Australia was established still later, in 1788, after the North American colonies had become independent. Even so, the history of European colonization in Australia and New Zealand closely resembles the patterns established in North and South America, especially in the devastating impact of European diseases upon the native populations. In Asia and Africa, by contrast, where the inhabitants possessed societies and immune systems more capable of resisting European microbes and weapons, Europeans were obliged to content themselves with wresting trading privileges and fortified enclaves from the local authorities. The European impact on these societies before 1800 was thus much more limited than on those of the New World and Australia.

After 1800, however, Europe's rapid industrialization afforded it the wealth and military might with which to expand its political and economic control over large swaths of Africa and Asia, even as some of its older colonies in North and South America began to slip from its grasp. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a veritable orgy of colonization as Europeans and now the United States as well, used gunboat diplomacy to carve up Africa and Asia and open China forcibly to outside trade and missionaries. The British in India used the "country trade," or intra-Asian exchanges, to generate capital with which to acquire Asian products in demand in Europe. The advent of the steamboat and treatment for yellow fever and malaria permitted Europeans to explore deeper into Africa than in the past and to establish colonies designed to produce commodities for export. Although most of the later colonies in Africa and Asia lasted less than a century, as decolonization commenced in earnest after World War II, they profoundly affected the development of Europe and the rest of the world.


New worlds: Africa. The expansion of Europe began as part of the Iberian reconquista (reconquest), which in turn was one front in the larger European contest with Islam known as the Crusades. Although we associate the Crusades primarily with the Holy Land, in fact Europeans saw in the Crusades a worldwide struggle against an aggressive, heretical Muslim enemy. The contest had not ended with the Muslim overthrow of the last crusader kingdom in the Holy Land in the thirteenth century. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, generating shock waves of fear that reverberated throughout Europe. The advance of Christianity down the Iberian Peninsula culminated in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the last Muslim caliphate on Iberian soil. The Spanish and the Portugese in the fifteenth century carried the war against Islam into North Africa, where ports, such as Algiers, offered havens for Muslim pirates who preyed upon shipping in the Mediterranean. That is why the first step in Portuguese expansion was across the Strait of Gibraltar to the wealthy Moroccan city of Ceuta in 1415. Safety for European merchants at sea, as well as a desire to spread Christianity, were the main inspirations of the fifteenth-century Portuguese explorers and of their famous patron Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator, 1394–1460), brother of the Portuguese king. A prince without a kingdom of his own and an official of the crusading Order of Christ, Henrique hoped that the voyages he sponsored would bring him both fame and fortune, the former as a crusading defender of Catholicism, the latter in the form of access to the sub-Saharan goldfields.

He failed in both regards, in that he neither gained a reputation as a great crusader nor alleviated his chronic poverty with African gold, but the voyages around the bulge of Africa that took place under his aegis opened up the Atlantic world to Europe. In 1434, the Portuguese sailor Gil Eannes became the first European to round Cape Bojador on the Saharan coast. He subsequently discovered the Madeira Islands on the return voyage to Portugal. The Canaries had been known since the fourteenth century and the Azores since 1431. Europeans stumbled upon the Cape Verde Islands in 1456. Bartolomeu Dias explored the full length of the Atlantic African coast and rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama finally entered the Indian Ocean and sailed up the East African coast. After visiting the trading ports of Mozambique, Mombassa, and Malindi, where he was disappointed to find a significant Arab merchant community already present, he located a native pilot familiar with the Indian Ocean who was willing to guide him to India, which he reached in 1498. In 1500 the Portuguese sailor Pedro Álvares Cabral reached the coast of Brazil, largely by accident. The strong southerly Canary Current flowing down the coast of Africa required mariners to swing west into the Atlantic both in order to return to Europe from the Gold Coast and as the easiest means to catch the southern trade winds and then the westerlies that most efficiently conduct ships around Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

The names of the three coasts in tropical Africa where the Portuguese concentrated their attention, the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, and the Slave Coast, as well as the name of their principal outpost, Elmina (the mine), reveal the primary commodities that attracted the Portuguese. At first they concentrated on gold and ivory. But with the growth of the Atlantic plantation economy in the sixteenth century, the demand for slaves, and the profitability of the slave trade, expanded enormously. Nor did the Portuguese have Africa to themselves for long. The Castilians had shadowed them down the African coast, and by the seventeenth century the Dutch and the English were challenging Portuguese domination of both the African and Indian Ocean trades.

In this period Portugal possessed neither the population nor the military capability to overwhelm and colonize large swaths of tropical Atlantic territory. In the Niger River delta and the Congo River basin, as well as the Swahili cities of East Africa, the Portuguese encountered wealthy, populous kingdoms that were willing to trade with them but were also quite capable of defending themselves against Portuguese aggression. By the same token, the Portuguese were less interested in settlement than in commerce in Africa, especially as they lacked immunities to yellow fever, sleeping sickness, and a form of malaria endemic to the continent.

Trade with Europeans gradually distorted the African political economy over the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. African demand for European products, especially weapons, and European craving for slaves, led to an expansion of slave raiding that destabilized many weaker African polities and disrupted normal trade patterns. The European impact on African society was even greater in the nineteenth century, when with the aid of steamboats, mosquito nets, and quinine they were able to travel deep into the African interior and carve out colonies there. Still, in the early modern period Africans, rather than Europeans, controlled the production, accumulation, and transport to the coast of the merchandise Europeans purchased, including slaves.

Sugar, however, more than any other commodity, was the engine driving the economy of the Portuguese empire in the Atlantic basin. Portuguese, Castilians, and Catalans had already experimented successfully with sugar cultivation on the Balearic Islands, the Canaries, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Islands, where they were able to enserf or enslave the native populations. These early conquests and plantation-style settlements became the prototype for later plantations in the tropical Americas, from South Carolina to Brazil. In 1549 the Portuguese began to plant sugar in Brazil. Ecological conditions proved favorable, and soon it became apparent that the only real obstacle to the expansion of sugar cultivation was the absence of a reliable workforce, especially as the growing European taste for sugar ensured an expanding market for it in Europe. Sugar production was extremely labor intensive and physically demanding. European diseases ravaged the indigenous Tupinambá of Brazil, and the survivors either melted into the rainforest or died under the harsh conditions of plantation labor. Overwork and ill treatment killed many of the African slaves brought to the sugar plantations to replace the Tupinambá. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were importing growing numbers of slaves from both East and West Africa, not only for use in their own colony in Brazil but also to supply the Caribbean islands, where sugar production also was spreading. Already by the beginning of the seventeenth century, almost 300,000 African slaves had been shipped from Africa to the New World. By the end of the next century the number rose to about 1.5 million. Sugar production, including the refining process, brought enormous wealth to European investors as sugar became widely available to the European masses rather than a rare luxury of the wealthy.

In 1580 the Portuguese royal line died out when the heir to the throne was killed in an ill-advised crusade in North Africa. From 1580 until 1640, the crowns of Spain and Portugal were merged, and Castilian merchants began to compete with the Portuguese in the African trade, although Brazil itself remained Portuguese. Nor were the Iberians able to monopolize the slave trade. The Dutch and French attempted to carve out enclaves in Brazil, seeking brazilwood, which yielded a red dye useful for tinting cloth, and to establish sugar plantations and trade with the Portuguese colonies. Although the Portuguese and the Spanish eventually drove the interlopers out of the South American mainland, they were unable to close the Caribbean to English, Dutch, and French pirates and colonists, who alternately traded with and raided the Spanish colonies. The fleets carrying American silver to Spain were especially tempting targets for marauders, but much of the illicit trade was in slaves. The licit slave trade to Spanish colonies took place almost entirely under asientos (licenses) issued to foreign firms. The Portuguese dominated in the sixteenth century, the Dutch for much of the seventeenth, and the French and English in the eighteenth. Ironically, it was the British who squelched the slave trade in the nineteenth century. Their chief opponent in this trade was the Portuguese, who continued to supply slaves to the Americas, including Brazil, where demand remained high. In 1856 the British, finding themselves unable to rein in the Portuguese slavers, who eluded them on the high seas, threatened to turn the British navy loose against Brazil. This ended the trade, although slavery itself remained legal in Brazil until 1888.

The Americas and Australia. Two momentous events took place in Spain in 1492: the fall of the kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim polity on Iberian soil, and the voyage of Christopher Columbus. At the time, it was the former far more than the latter that seemed most significant to Europeans. Rediscovery of the past—the classical golden age of Greco-Roman culture and the spiritual purity of the early Christian church—inspired European intellectuals during the Renaissance and Reformation. Like the Portuguese adventurers, the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) were driven by a crusading spirit and tales of medieval heroism. Above all, however, Europeans dreamed that their forays into the Atlantic would reveal a new passage to the riches of Asia, one that was free of Muslim domination.

The Portuguese achieved such a route in 1498 when Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean. The trip around Africa was highly lucrative but also long and arduous, and in East Africa and the Indian Ocean the Portuguese again had to contend with Arab-dominated trade networks. When Columbus arrived at the royal court in Lisbon seeking funds for his venture, he failed to elicit much interest, especially as the scholars and mariners advising the Crown were justifiably skeptical about his low estimate of the distance between Europe and Asia. Isabella of Castile, on the other hand, was willing to take a chance on the Genoese mariner. Her decision had profound consequences for the development of Spanish civilization. As queen of Castile, she bestowed the right to trade with and colonize the New World exclusively to Castilians, which meant that Castile, and especially the Castilian cities of Seville and Cadiz, reaped the benefits of New World trade and plunder, whereas Aragon, which was focused on the Mediterranean and traditionally the more urbanized, wealthy, and commercial of the two kingdoms of Spain, languished. The balance of power between Aragon and Castile, and between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic regions of Europe, was altered irrevocably as the economic and, eventually, cultural center of Europe migrated north and west toward the Atlantic littoral.

The first civilizations the Spanish encountered in the New World, the Aztecs of the central Mexican highlands and the Inca of the Peruvian Andes, were highly sophisticated, populous, wealthy, and urban cultures. The Aztecs built their capital, Tenochtitlán, in the middle of Lake Texcoco. An intricate hydraulic system, which the Spanish subsequently destroyed, provided the city's 400,000 inhabitants with water for their famous chinampas, or floating gardens, and with a means of transportation and sanitation superior to that of European cities. The Incas had a well-developed system of communications based on roads crisscrossing the Andes. Both societies possessed all the conventional hallmarks of civilization, including religion, science, monumental architecture, and trade networks. Even so, several factors rendered them vulnerable to the tiny invading Spanish forces (Cortés had fewer than five hundred Spanish soldiers with him when he reached Tenochtitlán).

The most useful allies of the Europeans in their conquest of the New world were diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis to which the native Americans lacked immunities. Europe ecologically belonged to a vast Eurasian disease pool that also included Africa to a lesser extent. Trade, migration, and military invasion led to frequent movement of human beings and their livestock, which constituted a significant reservoir of disease, among the geographically contiguous continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although the Sahara acted as a limited barrier and thus disease filter, enough caravans crossed the desert to ensure that Africans were exposed to at least some Eurasian microbes. At the same time, Africans harbored unique pathogens of their own, such as yellow fever, which inhibited Europeans from advancing very far into the African interior until the nineteenth century.

An infectious disease attacking a new host population quickly becomes virulent. Mortality rates as high as 90 percent often result. Over time, either the disease kills so many people that there are no new hosts available, in which case it dies out itself, or it evolves into a weakened form that becomes endemic in the population. In that form it preys mostly upon the feeble, the very young, and the old, whereas survivors of childhood infections are partially or fully immunized as adults. Smallpox and measles, both endemic illnesses in Europe by the Renaissance, ravaged the native American population. Europeans also transferred influenza and typhus to the New World, the latter new and highly lethal to them as well, and through the slave trade brought to the New World from Africa yellow fever and malaria. Other indigenous populations unexposed to the Eurasian disease pool suffered similarly, including the Aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand. Historians once thought that North and South America had been relatively sparsely populated upon the arrival of Europeans, except for the obviously densely peopled Aztec and Inca empires. Now scholars believe that the New World may have supported as many as 100 million inhabitants in 1492, and that as many as 90 percent of them may have died during the following century, mostly from disease.

Ecology and evolution aided Europeans in another respect as well. As part of the Eurasian cultural pool, Europeans had learned by Greek and Roman times to domesticate large mammals as food sources and beasts of burden. Horses, cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep all did well in the European climate, which produced adequate fodder and was free of parasites, such as the tsetse flies of Africa; these flies carry sleeping sickness and thus greatly limit the range of horses and cattle on that continent. Aside from the llama and alpaca of the Andes, the native populations of North and South America lacked large beasts of burden. Some sizable game animals existed: the buffalo of the Great Plains and the tapirs of South America, as well as kangaroos, ostriches, and emus in Australia. But neither in the Americas nor in Australia did herds of animals able to support a significant pastoral economy exist. Moreover, unlike Europeans, many peoples around the world do not have the gene that permits humans to digest nonhuman milk and milk products after weaning. Thus Europeans were able to benefit doubly from the cattle they brought to the New World because they were able to consume highly nutritious milk and cheese as well as beef. Cheese kept well on voyages and supplied a significant source of portable protein and calcium. Many of the animals the Europeans introduced to the New World and Australia quickly adapted to their new environment and became feral, thus providing successive waves of explorers and conquerors with an abundant and familiar food supply.

Europeans also possessed weapons and horses new to the native Americans and Australian Aborigines. It is important to note that throughout North and South America indigenous peoples eventually adapted their societies to both horses and guns and even turned them against European colonists. The peoples of the Great Plains made the horse, which proved an invaluable tool in hunting buffalo, a new pillar of their culture. Contemporary Spanish accounts no doubt exaggerate the awe and fear that the mounted Spanish soldiers and their guns inspired. After their initial confusion the Aztecs and Incas fought bravely against Cortés's men on a number of occasions. Still, guns and horses greatly enhanced the effectiveness of each of the Spanish soldiers, helping to compensate for their enormous numerical inferiority. Also important was the Spanish style of warfare. The goal of much Aztec combat was to capture prisoners for ritual sacrifices, which demoralized the enemy while pleasing the gods, rather than to indulge in wholesale slaughter. The Spanish, many of them battle-tested veterans, fought according to different rules and did not shrink from using ruses and guile and inflicting significant casualties, often through very brutal means, such as setting ferocious dogs upon unarmed civilians. The Aztecs and the Incas were thus in many ways unprepared for what soon became a life and death struggle with the European invaders.

The Spanish were also supremely fortunate in timing. The Aztecs were a relatively young empire; it was only in 1325 that they had settled on Lake Texcoco, and they had consolidated their empire less than one hundred years before the arrival of Cortés. The Aztecs were not well liked by many of their subject peoples, and as a result Cortés was able to cultivate numerous, invaluable native allies, among them La Malinche, his interpreter and lover; without the aid of these indigenous allies he would not have succeeded in his war against the Aztecs. Similarly, the Incas had barely ended a bloody civil war when in 1531 Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru, and he too was able to take advantage of their internal divisions and augment his forces greatly with fighters drawn from the native population. Wherever Europeans established commercial or colonial empires, in Spanish America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the British Raj in India, they consistently profited from divisions within indigenous societies, among whose members they found allies willing for a variety of reasons to aid them. Non-Europeans experienced contacts with Europeans in a variety of ways and were actors in creating their own destinies rather than passive victims of European aggression.

European contacts with the New World and Australia had profound effects on both European and indigenous native American and Aboriginal societies. The ecological impact alone was enormous. In what Alfred Crosby has termed the "Columbian exchange," Europeans were able to bring much useful flora and fauna from other parts of the world to the Americas. Like the disease microbes, most of these plants and animals were able to flourish in the more isolated and thus less biologically diverse and competitive New World. A similar process took place in Australia and New Zealand. Many of the animals became feral and often overwhelmed native species. Pigs, goats, and rabbits, for example, have taken a serious toll on Australian wildlife, despite efforts to introduce natural predators to reduce their numbers. Wild horses, called "brumbies," throve in the Australian bush. The Argentine pampas and the American West also became home to vast herds of wild horses, donkeys, and cattle. Such transfers had of course happened before in the peripatetic human past. Aborigines most likely brought the dingo, a kind of dog, to Australia thousands of years ago. Still, the Columbian exchange witnessed more massive introductions of new species over greater geographical ranges and on a shorter time scale than ever before, with much greater consequences for ecology and human history.

The migration of plant species around the world, both in the form of planned cultivation and accidental dispersion, was even more significant than that of animals. The clover and grass ubiquitous in North American lawns and meadows came from Europe. Europeans brought wheat, sugar, and coffee, all originally from the Middle East, cotton from India, and a host of other edible grains, fruits, and vegetables to the New World and Australia, many of which became valuable export crops in these regions and, along with the tobacco indigenous to the New World, the mainstay of plantation economies. They also carried with them a plethora of less useful or even harmful plants that, like the animals, tended in the absence of natural predators to occupy ecological niches that native species once held. Such weed species are still being introduced today and threaten the biodiversity of the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia. Of equal importance were New World plants that Europeans introduced to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Corn, tubers such as the Andean potato and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and squashes have all become central to the diets of many Europeans, Africans, and Asians.

The economic impact of interaction between Europe and the New World was similarly of great consequence. On the one hand, Europeans disrupted native societies and economies, the highly structured Aztec and Inca civilizations being the earliest and most deeply affected. Massive depopulation alone destroyed Mexican and Peruvian trade networks and agriculture, markets collapsed, and fields remained untilled. The conquistadores enslaved many of the natives for use as labor in the mines and on their encomiendas, the large estates in the New World granted them by the Crown. Forced labor, such as the mita in Peru, which took men away for their homes for months at a time, weakened traditional village life and kinship ties.

The popularity of the "Black Legend"—the belief that Spain's cruelty to subject peoples exceeded that of other colonial powers—notwithstanding, the native Americans had defenders within Spanish society. The Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas greatly publicized their plight and petitioned the Crown to rein in the Spanish settlers who insisted on enslaving them and working them to death. Missionaries attempted to gather as many natives as possible in the missions, where they were proselytized in the Christian religion and protected from exploitation. The Crown sympathized with these efforts and decreed repeatedly that the natives were not to be enslaved except under very specific circumstances, such as open rebellion or religious backsliding. Determined to prevent the haughty conquistadores and their descendants from carving out semi-independent feudal domains in the New World, the Crown established an elaborate hierarchy of royal officials, centered on Madrid and charged with the responsibility of governing the new colonies in accord with Crown policies. Unfortunately, although the royal officials were able to reduce the power of the encomenderos (holders of royal land grants), they frequently were unable to carry out their mandate to protect native Americans. The Habsburg Crown was embroiled in almost constant warfare in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Charles V (Charles I of Spain, 1516–1556) ruled an empire that stretched from Spain to Austria, and from Italy to the Low Countries. He and his son, Philip II (1555–1598), needed every ounce of silver they could extract from the American mines to finance their armies. Their thirst for silver often outweighed their moral scruples regarding the treatment of the native Americans who worked in the mines and payed tribute to the Crown.

The European economy gained enormous wealth from the Americas. The vast quantities of precious metals, especially silver, flowing from Mexico and Peru to Spain played an essential role in the expansion of Europe's economic and political power throughout the world after the fifteenth century. Historians have always recognized the importance of American silver in the development of the European economy. Formerly, however, they emphasized the negative consequences of that flow of silver over the positive. Europe during the sixteenth century suffered from significant price inflation, which had serious economic and social consequences, especially for people whose incomes were fixed, such as nobles living off rents and artisans and peasants whose wages rose more slowly than the cost of living. By the same token, Spain, in whose American territory the silver mines lay, failed to invest in manufactures and infrastructure, relying instead on the seemingly endless flow of wealth from the New World to pay for products imported from more industrialized societies, such as the Netherlands. This condemned Spain to stagnation and decline, scholars asserted, once the silver began to run out in the seventeenth century and as other nations forged industrialized economies.

More nuanced views of the role of American silver in the evolution of the European economy prevail today. The prime engine of sixteenth-century inflation appears to have been population growth and a concomitant rise in the price of grain and other essentials, rather than the influx of silver. Likewise, American silver was only one of many factors in the underdeveloped economy of Spain, although there is no doubt that silver from the New World flowed through Spain like water through a sieve. Most of it ended up in the hands of the Dutch, English, and French merchants who supplied Spain with manufactures. Still, the chronic European military contests in which Spain's Habsburg rulers were embroiled drained capital that could have been invested in Spanish manufacturing and trade. Much of this wealth ended up in the hands of Dutch merchants who, ironically, sold the Spanish many of the weapons they later used against Dutch Protestant armies. The Dutch, in turn, exported the silver to Asia. European merchants had little else that the Asians were willing to accept in exchange for the luxury products so much in demand in Europe. Thus Europeans financed their growing importance in Asian trade networks with precious metals from their colonies in the New World. In this respect, historians are in agreement that American silver was the linchpin of Europe's ability to compete in Asian trade. Only after 1850 did European industrial superiority usher in the age of "gunboat diplomacy," during which force and opium replaced silver as the key to Europe's expanding role in Asia.

Asia and East Africa. The history of Europe's interaction with Asia and Africa was quite different from the history of the conquest and colonization of the New World and Australia. Asian and African societies were populous and urbanized. Complex maritime trade routes based on the seasonal monsoons of the Indian Ocean connected China, Southeast Asia, and the Spice Islands with the ports of India, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and East Africa. This trade, much of it in Arab hands, had existed for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. Although Europeans succeeded, largely through the threat of force, in abrogating a portion of it to themselves, they did not dominate it or supplant native merchants until the nineteenth century.

As in the case of Africa, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to enter the Indian Ocean. Like the Spanish in the New World, the Portuguese were uncannily lucky in timing. During much of the Middle Ages, the Chinese under the Sung and Yuan dynasties were the dominant maritime power in Asia. They sent out a series of enormous flotillas designed to collect tribute and emphasize China's world hegemony. Some historians have posited that if these Chinese expeditions had continued, the Portuguese, despite their superior armaments, would have found themselves faced with an adversary too formidable for them to dominate. In 1433 the Ming dynasty, preoccupied with a renewed Mongol threat, abandoned the voyages, leaving a vacuum of power in the Indian Ocean that the Portuguese subsequently occupied. In the Indian Ocean trade tended to be conducted far more peacefully than in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean and most commercial vessels were only lightly armed. Outsiders in the established Asian trade networks, the Portuguese found few willing trading partners. Without the powerful Chinese navy to hinder them, however, they were free to use force to pry open the Indian Ocean markets that otherwise would have been closed to them.

At first, the Portuguese ran a maritime "protection racket." They used their superior firepower to conquer Goa on the west coast of India in 1510. Subsequently they occupied Malacca in the Malay straits (1511) and Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (1514), and constructed a fort at Colombo, all key points in the Indian Ocean trade. From these outposts as well as from a series of fortified trading posts from East Africa to Nagasaki in Japan, they were able not only to conduct their own trade but to oblige merchants of other countries to buy permits from them in order to sail without fear of Portuguese attack. Eventually, the Portuguese, like the British and the Dutch, were obliged to adapt to Indian Ocean trading patterns by entering the "country trade." They generated the wealth with which they acquired exports for Europe by participating in the preexisting trade between India and East Africa, exchanging Indian cloth for African gold, slaves, and ivory.

Despite the breadth of the Portuguese Asian empire, and the stunning speed (less than seventy years) in which it was created, tiny Portugal's limited resources always circumscribed its power. The Portuguese soon found themselves hard pressed to defend their overseas empire from European interlopers. Their most aggressive and dangerous competitors were the English and Dutch, each of whom in the seventeenth century carved out their own spheres of influence. The Dutch dominion, like that of the Portuguese, was a trading empire, consisting of strategically located territorial enclaves embedded within larger indigenous kingdoms and a series of fortified and unfortified "factories" (trading posts). By 1670 the Dutch had established a vast empire in the Indian Ocean, stretching from Nagasaki in Japan and Fort Zeelandia on Taiwan to Ceylon. Although the Portuguese demonstrated remarkable staying power, retaining Goa as well as strengthening their hold on Brazil, the Dutch dominated most of coastal India. Spanish and Chinese merchants competed in the Philippines and the Portuguese held Macao, but the Dutch had the Moluccas (Spice Islands) all to themselves.

The English finally crushed Dutch naval power in the late seventeenth century through a series of commercial wars fought in Asia and the New World (1652–1654, 1665–1667, 1672–1674). The wars of the late seventeenth century, the first in which Europeans fought as much outside of Europe as at home, helped to shift the balance of power away from trading-post empires to colonial empires, in which control of territory, the generation of colonial markets for European goods, and access to raw materials to fuel European industrial expansion mattered more than the exportation of precious metals, spices, and luxury items to Europe.


Several factors distinguish the "new imperialism" of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the early modern European commercial and colonial empires. Like the explorers and conquerors of the preceding centuries, European imperialists of the modern era sought wealth, converts to Christianity, prestige for themselves and their fellow countrymen, and strategic advantage in the competition among European states. The nature of that competition, however, and of the economic role that Europeans expected colonies to play in the enrichment of the mother country had changed. Europeans now sought primarily raw materials from the colonies to feed Europe's growing industries. The growth of consumerism in Europe reinforced the need for inexpensive raw materials that European workers could transform into manufactured goods for European consumers. Dynastic rivalries had become geopolitical struggles among nation states waged on a worldwide stage as Europeans maneuvered to build and protect empires made up of colonies spread around the world. The British, for example, acquired Egypt in 1882 because they were determined to safeguard the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, which they regarded as the key to safe and easy transport to and from India, the "jewel in the crown" of their empire. The economic power of mechanized industry, superior weaponry (which the 1884 invention of the first machine gun symbolized), and the steamship and the railroad, which greatly improved the speed and reliability of transportation, led to an accelerated pace of European conquest and colonization in the nineteenth century. Likewise, during this period the first real "world economy" came into being, with industrialized Europe at its center and all the continents linked in a vast network of unequal exchange of raw materials and manufactured products. Finally, many scholars also argue that it was only during the new imperialism that European political and cultural influence significantly penetrated indigenous societies and affected the everyday lives of ordinary non-Europeans.

Another significant shift had taken place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Due in part to limited means for disseminating information and in part to the limited impact of overseas conquests on the lives of ordinary people, most Europeans before the eighteenth century knew very little about European overseas conquests and trade. Fantastic fictions about strange overseas lands tended to be mingled with accurate information in most maps and publications about the non-European world. Only during the modern period did the rise of nationalism fuel a ground swell of support in Europe for the creation of national empires. As late as the eighteenth century, the setbacks of the South Sea Bubble, which bankrupted scores of investors, and the American Revolution fed the doubts of many Europeans about the utility of empires. By the nineteenth century, however, Europeans of all social classes not only had come to see overseas empires as lucrative investments vital to the growth of European capitalism, but had also come to share the view of their rulers that empires were powerful symbols of national glory.

The primary goals of European imperialism in the early modern era had been twofold: to obtain Asian goods for export to Europe through a series of fortified trading bases and to establish colonies containing a substantial population of settlers from the mother country that would export commodities in demand at home. Luxury goods, such as precious metals, silks, beaver pelts, and the products of plantation agriculture (sugar, spices, and tobacco), tended to make up the most valued portion of these early cargoes from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Only over the course of the eighteenth century did the advantage of colonies as markets for European manufactured products become a central factor in colonial policy. Thus Britain's desire to restrict the growth of manufacturing in its North American colonies, in order to eliminate competition with British industry, played an important role in the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. During the nineteenth century the British suppressed cotton cloth manufacturing in India in order to prop up the market throughout their empire, including India, for British-made cloth, often woven from raw cotton imported from the plantations of the southeastern United States and from India itself. This shift made the fortune of the cloth industry in northern England, but at the expense of Indian cloth manufacturing, which was ravaged. Many political and economic struggles in the underdeveloped economies of Asia and Africa in the present stem from their peripheral role in the world economy Europeans forged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The spread of plantation agriculture in Africa and Asia —facilitated by the steamboat, harbordredging capability, railroad construction, mechanization in agriculture, and such improved treatments for disease as quinine—assured a steady supply of commodities for European industry, but only at great cost to indigenous peoples. Europeans often subdued uprisings with force: the soldiers of Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo Free State slaughtered thousands between 1876 and 1909 to protect the goldfields and rubber plantations. Further, plantations tended to disrupt the ecological balance where they were located by encouraging monoculture at the expense of native agricultural systems that had evolved in closer harmony with local climate and topography. Small-scale village and family agriculture gave way to export farming, which in turn made the population dependent on imports of food and manufactured goods from outside. European merchants profited from this situation, which through lower prices fostered rising consumerism in Europe but often led to weakened social structures and economic impoverishment among colonized peoples.

The Opium War (1839–1842) between Great Britain and China in many ways exemplifies the world economy that the new imperialism created. Because England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lagged behind the Portuguese and the Dutch in establishing itself in the Indian Ocean, it lacked access to the richest sources of spices. Nor did England possess New World colonies rich in silver and gold with which to pay for the Asian merchandise it wanted. Forced to make the best of a bad situation, English merchants generated capital with which to buy goods for export to Europe by taking part in intraregional Asian trade, called the "country trade." This necessity had two important consequences. It drew the English East India Company, and eventually the British government, ever deeper into the direct rule of India, culminating in the 1861 appointment of the first British viceroy of India and the 1877 proclamation of Queen Victoria as empress of India. It also led the British to develop a complex commercial web linking its colonies, in which political control, through either direct rule or indirect hegemony, of other places such as China and Egypt was necessary to ensure that the system functioned without disruption.

Already by the 1830s, the British found that they could no longer pay for their Chinese tea and silk with English wool and Indian cotton. They had, however, identified another commodity, opium, that was in demand in China. Opium had two other advantages. It was produced in India, a territory already under British control, and it was addictive, which meant that once it was introduced into a market, demand was likely to grow indefinitely. The Chinese, naturally, did not share the British enthusiasm for opium. The social problems that widespread opium addiction fostered alarmed Chinese authorities. Worse, they were humiliated because the economic tables were now turned: Chinese importers paid for the opium with silver, thus shifting China for the first time from a net importer of silver to a net exporter. The Chinese government reacted by destroying a store of British opium in Canton in 1839, opening the Opium War, which ended three years later in Chinese defeat. The war exposed Chinese military weakness in the face of European gunboat diplomacy. Soon the European colonial powers and the United States jostled with each other to carve out their own spheres of influence and treaty ports in China where their commerce would be free of interference.

A similar frenzy marked the scramble for Africa, which Leopold II initiated in 1876 with the creation of the African International Association to exploit the Congo goldfields. The Berlin Congress of 1884 confirmed Leopold's hold on the Congo and set the standards by which European occupation of African territory was hence recognized as legitimate. Within three decades all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia was under direct European rule. Even the Germans, who sat out the early modern wave of colonization, carved out four African colonies for themselves in the nineteenth century. Especially rapacious was Cecil Rhodes, whose British South Africa Company ruthlessly suppressed an uprising of the Ndebele and Shona peoples of Zimbabwe and initiated the Boer War (1899–1902). Although European racism obviously played a significant role in both modern and early modern imperialism, the treatment of Boers, who were white Dutch Calvinists, demonstrates that race was by no means the only factor behind the ruthless logic of nineteenth-century European colonial expansion. Ironically, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most of Europe's older colonies in the New World had become independent. By 1914 Europe controlled a new colonial empire; the end of World War II ushered in a new process of decolonization.


Since 1960 social historians, drawing on the work of anthropologists, have profoundly altered our understanding of Europe's interactions with and influence on the rest of the world since the Renaissance. The triumph and sense of inevitability that surround the phrase the "rise of Europe," so ubiquitous in Western civilization textbooks, and the heavy reliance on modernization theory have gradually ceded influence to a much less Eurocentric perspective. Although European civilization changed profoundly after the Middle Ages in ways that clearly enhanced the quantity and profitability of its contacts with the rest of the world, historians studying European expansion have reduced their emphasis on the unique nature of European culture and society. They are less likely to follow Max Weber and ascribe Europe's rise to dominance in the modern world to innate moral qualities lacking in other peoples. They have also, for the most part, rejected environmental determinism, or the belief that Europe's uniquely favorable climate shaped European culture, economy, society, and even its human biology in such a manner as to afford Europeans a decisive edge in a worldwide competition for wealth and power.

By the same token, following the anthropologist Eric Wolf, they now recognize that non-Western peoples, whom Wolf ironically called "the people without history," at least from the perspective of European scholars, indeed did have a history. The evolution of European contacts with non-Western peoples is a history of interaction, in which each side deeply influenced the other and non-Europeans devised creative ways to cope with, adapt to, and even profit from the European exploitation of their societies.

See alsoModernization; Health and Disease (volume 2); and other articles in this section.


World History

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World Systema. d. 1250–1350. Oxford and New York, 1989.

Blaut, J. M. The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History. New York, 1993.

Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. Translated by Siân Reynolds. 3 vols. New York, 1981–1984.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years. New York, 1995.

Lewis, Martin W., and Kären E. Wigen. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley, Calif., 1997.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York, 1989.

European Exploration and Empires

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London, 1991.

Andrews, Kenneth R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire, 1480–1630. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Bentley, Jerry H. Old World Encounters: Cross Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. Oxford and New York, 1993.

Conklin, Alice L., and Ian Christopher Fletcher, eds. European Imperialism, 1830–1930. New York, 1999.

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1986. Discusses in depth the Columbian exchange.

Curtin, Philip D. Cross Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge, U.K., 1984. Especially important for trading post empires and the concept of cross-cultural brokerage.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229–1492. Philadelphia, 1987. Shows the connection between medieval expansion, especially in the Canary Islands, and the patterns of conquest and colonization in the New World.

Israel, Jonathan I. Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585–1740. Oxford, 1990.

Phillips, J. R. S. The Medieval Expansion of Europe. 2d ed. Oxford, 1998.

Russell-Wood, A. J. R. A World on the Move: The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America, 1415–1808. Manchester, U.K., 1992.

Scammell, G. V. The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion c. 1400–1715. London and Boston, 1989. An excellent, up-to-date overview of European expansion in the early modern era.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ed. Merchant Networks in the Early Modern World. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1996.

Tracy, James D., ed. The Political Economy of Merchant Empires. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Tracy, James D., ed. The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long Distance Trade in the Early Modern World. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley, Calif., 1997. One of the most significant books since World War II. Wolf, an anthropologist, obliged historians to see native peoples as actors rather than mere victims in the interaction between Europeans and non-Europeans.

Atlantic World and Australia

Altman, Ida. Emigrants and Society: Extremadura and Spanish America in the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley, Calif., 1989.

Brunelle, Gayle K. The New World Merchants of Rouen, 1559–1630. Kirksville, Mo., 1991.

Cervantes, Fernando. The Devil in the New World: The Impact of Diabolism in New Spain. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Davidson, Basil. Africa in History. London, 1991.

Eccles, W. J. The French in North America, 1500–1783. Rev. ed. East Lansing, Mich., 1998.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. New York, 1987.

Karttunen, Frances E. Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors. New Brunswick, N.J., 1994. Karttunen is especially good on La Malinche, Cortés's native American mistress and interpreter.

Padden, R. C. The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Exploration in the Valley of Mexico, 1503–1541. Columbus, Ohio, 1967.

Postma, Johannes Menne. The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1815. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Seed points out effectively the immense cultural gap between the Europeans' world view and that of the native peoples they encountered in the New World.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Trigger, Bruce G. Natives and Newcomers: Canada's "Heroic Age" Reconsidered. Kingston, Ontario, and Manchester, U.K., 1985.

Wightman, Ann M. Indigenous Migration and Social Change: The Forasteros of Cuzco, 1520–1720. Durham, N.C., 1990.

The Middle East, Asia, and the Indian Ocean Trade

Adas, Michael, ed. Islamic and European Expansion: The Forging of a Global Order. Philadelphia, 1993.

Ames, Glenn J. Colbert, Mercantilism, and the French Quest for Asian Trade. DeKalb, Ill., 1996.

Chaudhuri, K. N. Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Frank, Andre Gunder. ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Lach, Donald F. The Century of Discovery. Vol. 1 of Asia in the Making of Europe. Chicago, 1965.

Lach, Donald F., and Edwin J. Van Kley. A Century of Advance. Vol. 3 of Asia in the Making of Europe. Chicago, 1993.

Pearson, Michael N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore, 1998.

Prakash, Om, ed. European Commercial Expansion in Early Modern Asia. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1997.

Rafael, Vicente L. Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450–1680. Vol 2, Expansion and Crisis. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1993.

European Conceptions of the World

Campbell, Mary B. The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400–1600. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Elliot, J. H. The Old World and the New, 1492–1650. Cambridge, U.K., 1970.

Fausett, David. Writing the New World: Imaginary Voyages and Utopias of the Great Southern Land. Syracuse, N.Y., 1993.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago, 1991.

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c. 1500–c. 1800. New Haven, 1995.

Schlesinger, Roger. In the Wake of Columbus: The Impact of the New World on Europe, 1492–1650. Wheeling, Ill., 1996.

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