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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
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
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.
Stockdale, Nancy. "colonization." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 24 Aug. 2011.