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Colonization The creation and collapse of empires is not a phenomenon of modern history alone but a theme revisited time and again throughout human experience. However, the period of the past 500 years has seen global expansion via imperialist colonization on an unprecedented scale. Colonization in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Oceania, and Asia by Europeans forever changed the course of human history and affected people's lives in unprecedented ways. The age of European exploration initiated in the 15th century was fueled by several factors. The most potent force initially driving Europeans to sail the seas was to discover new routes to India and Indonesia, where prized luxury items like spices and textiles were available for export to a Europe hungry for the goods. When Christopher Columbus inadvertently landed in the "New World" of the Americas in 1492 while searching for a Western route to Asia, he triggered a landslide of catastrophe for millions of Native Americans and ushered in the era of European hegemony. On hearing of his remarkable discoveries, including the unknown populations of the Americas, their material treasures, and the raw materials their lands had to offer, rulers in Spain, Portugal, England, Holland, and France sent expeditions west toward the Americas in search of treasure and lands they could claim as their own. Spanish conquistadores dominated Mesoamerica and the South American Continent. Such leaders as Hernando Cortés, Ferdinand Magellan, and Francisco Pizarro drove their forces through densely populated regions and vast wilderness expanses searching for golden treasures and subduing local populations. Meanwhile, the British sent such men as Henry Hudson and Francis Drake to North America with similar designs on the locals and their lands. Ultimately, conquests of the Native Americans were achieved due to devastating epidemics that spread unchecked with the Europeans' arrival, as well as by advanced technological weapons used by the invaders and, at times, brutal massacres. Fantastic stories of unlimited wealth, exotic plants and animals, and human beings with entirely different lifestyles and belief systems captivated European audiences, provoking further interest in the New World and giving rise to serious colonial efforts by the early 16th century. By 1550, the Spanish and the Portuguese had established colonies not only in India and East Africa but also throughout Mesoamerica and South America. Two major social elements fueled that colonial project: merchants hoping to become wealthy and missionaries hoping to spread Catholicism throughout the remaining native populations. In the first century of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, fast wealth was made by exploiting natural resources and the plunder of the natives' property. As that initial bounty was drained, settlers turned toward establishing large plantations for cash crop production, ranches, and more labor-intensive mineral mining. Those changes built a foundation for the import of slaves from Africa to the New World, as well as the forced labor of Native Americans. The African slave trade became the most elaborate and devastating slave trade in history as it dislocated millions of Africans from their homes and families and affected society and culture on both sides of the Atlantic. The Dutch and English, meanwhile, spent most of the 16th century exploiting the natural bounty of North America's wildlife without establishing large-scale colonies. They fished, trapped game, and logged for export to Europe, but the harsh climatic conditions made settlement less appealing until later. By the early 17th century, however, northern Europeans were more anxious to establish colonies in the Americas as their rivals in Iberia were doing. Some of the earliest settlements failed due to the Europeans' naiveté about the climatic conditions and the willingness of the native population to abide them, but by the mid- 16th century, it was clear that the English in particular were building strong colonial settlements that were viable. Many who came to settle in the Americas from England were nonconformist Protestants hoping that the new location would provide religious toleration unavailable in their native country, while others were societal underlings who wished to make better lives for themselves in a new land. Other colonists were convicts and indentured servants exiled to the colonies, and still others were African slaves who were brought against their wills to work on cash crop plantations and serve white settlers. Indeed, slave labor fueled the success of the English colonies and their raw materials production as much as any other factor. Mercantilism drove the economics of 17th- and 18th-century colonialism and forced the colonies into a dependent relationship in which they were economically weaker than the "mother country," which controlled the triangular trade. Supplying cash crop raw materials like cotton, tobacco, and sugar, colonists were then meant to purchase finished goods manufactured in Europe with their harvests. However, fluctuations in the economy, particularly driven by European failures to provide finished goods at a pace adequate enough to meet the needs of burgeoning colonial populations, led economists like Adam Smith to call for an end to the mercantile system and supported colonists' increased disgust with their European governments. By the mid-18th century, English-governed colonists in the Americas were preparing to break away from Britain; in 1776, the United States was declared, and the first stage of European colonialism was waning. Ultimately, the Americans launched their own colonial project as they moved west to conquer the people and places of the rest of the continent under the ideology of manifest destiny. Although most of the world formally colonized by Europeans has achieved legal independence, new forms of exploitation exist in the form of neocolonialism. Fueled by the global economy and increased forms of mass culture exported from Western nations to the developing world, many fear that a homogenized consumer culture promoting the products of multinational corporations will usurp variety and difference as well as maintain economic disparity between former imperial masters and their colonies. The full effects of neocolonialism remain to be seen. However, it is clear to historians that the colonization of the world by Europeans in the past 500 years has irrevocably affected the lives of most of the world's population. Further Reading Fields, Lanny B., Russell J. Barber, and Cheryl A. Riggs, The Global Past, 1998; Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994; Smith, Bonnie G., Imperialism: A History in Documents, 2000. MLA Stockdale, Nancy. "colonization." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2011.