European Maritime Exploration Turned Into Conquest and Empire Building
Major European powers established two types of maritime empires–colonial empires (mainly in the Americas) and trading post empires (mostly in Africa and Asia).
Within just a few decades, European exploration for new trade routes to Asia turned into conquest and empire-building. Power and profit were the primary motives as Europeans conquered the Americas and built trading empires across Africa and Asia.
Pre-1750 European conquerors and empire builders:
Types of European empires
Europeans built two types of maritime empires—trading posts and colonial.
Trading post empires: The main goal of European trade empires was to influence and control trade to increase commercial profits. While trading empires controlled and conquered some land, controlling large territories and populations was not the primary purpose. Instead, trade empires consisted of European-controlled ports built along the African and Asian coastlines. Europeans sometimes negotiated with local rulers for the land on which they built their trading posts. Other times, they took the land by force.
Colonial empires: Direct colonial control is when a foreign power takes over a civilization’s political, economic, and social systems. Europeans moved to colonial empires in higher numbers than trading post empires which made destroying native culture and shaping it to be more European easier.
Phases of European expansion
Europe did not go from exploration to global domination overnight. It was a process that played out over 500 years that went through several phases:
Voyages of exploration to the Americas and Asia
Conquest of the Americas, the Philippines, and Indonesian spice islands
Revolutions resulted in lost colonies in the Americas
Trading post empires in coastal regions of Africa and Asia
Colonization of the South Pacific
Trading post empires transition to direct colonization
Europeans Completely Conquered and Colonized the Americas
Europeans completely conquered and colonized the Americas. They placed all political systems under European control.
By 1750, Europeans had colonized and directly controlled much of the Americas. The Spanish were the first dominant European power in the region. After their success, other European powers staked claim to American territory, with the English becoming the second most significant colonizing force in the new world.
Conquest in the Americas resulted in Europeans seizing complete political control over conquered societies.
European political systems replaced indigenous political systems.
Europeans controlled all positions of political power.
European laws replaced native customs and traditions.
Europeans used the legal system to privilege themselves and strip natives of rights.
For various reasons, Europeans were able to conquer the Americas much easier than many places in Africa and Asia.
American natives lacked gunpowder weapons
American natives lacked domesticated animals like horses for warfare.
American natives’ politically fragmented tribal societies made organized resistance difficult.
American natives died from new diseases making military conquest easier.
• Southwest North America • Latin America • Most of South America outside of Portuguese Brazil • Caribbean islands of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico
• Eastern coast of South America (Portuguese Brazil)
The Netherlands (Dutch)
• Northeast Atlantic coast of North America—later incorporated into Britain’s North American colonies • Caribbean islands of Aruba and Saint Martin • Dutch Guiana along the northern coast of South America
• The Mississippi River valley in North America • Central and Eastern Canada • The Caribbean island of Haiti • French Guiana on the northern coast of South America
• East coast of North America • Caribbean islands of Antigua, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and Saint Kits and Nevis • British Guiana on the Northern coast of South America • British Honduras in Latin America
The destruction of the Aztecs (Mexica): Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztec Empire was the strongest power in Latin America. Their defeat by the Spanish was a significant turning point in the political history of Central America.
- The conquest of the Aztecs began when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes (1485 – 1547) arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, modern Mexico City, in November 1519. Aztec leader Moctezuma (c. 1466 – 1520) welcomed Cortes to the city. While the details of what happened next are controversial, many historians argue that Moctezuma submitted to Spanish authority—believing them to be the return of important figures in Aztec folklore.
- By the spring of 1520, Aztec and Spanish relations turned violent following a rebellion by the people of Tenochtitlan after the Spanish killed several people in a temple during a religious festival. The Aztecs drove the Spanish from the city. The Spanish-Aztec War lasted from 1519 – 1521. Because the Spanish armies were small, they allied with the enemies of the Aztecs. Cortes’ army conquered most of the Aztec territories outside the capital before returning to Tenochtitlan in August 1521 and capturing the city. The Spanish and their native allies destroyed the city.
The conquest of the Inca: The early 1530s was a period of political instability for the Inca Empire as two family members fought for control of the empire. This war weakened the Inca right when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1478 – 1541) was arriving on a mission of conquest.
- The conquest began when in November 1532, the Spanish asked to meet Inca leader Atahualpa (c 1502 – 1533). The Spanish attacked Atahualpa and his soldiers. Many Inca soldiers died, with only minor injuries among the Spanish.
- Over the next decade, the Spanish brutally conquered most of the Inca Empire despite the fierce resistance of the Inca people. Like in their conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish only had a small number of troops. To increase their strength, they allied with natives who were enemies of the Inca.
- In 1537, the remaining Inca leaders established a new Inca state in Eastern Peru. It survived until June 1572, when the Spanish attacked and destroyed it—ending what remained of Incan political power in South America.
Indigenous tribes of the North American east coast: Most contacts between indigenous people and Europeans in North America before the 1820s were along the Eastern Atlantic coast. Like in the rest of the Americas, North American natives had their lands taken by Europeans. When eastern tribes lost their lands, they had to move west onto the lands of neighboring tribes—resulting in increased conflict and warfare between tribes.
Like the Spanish, the English and French formed alliances with indigenous tribes. Europeans then used these alliances to fight their conflicts with other American natives or with other European powers.
- During Metacom’s War (1675 – 1676), indigenous tribes in New England fought against the English and their native allies. The war began after Chief Metacom of the Wampanoag rebelled against his former English allies after they continually violated agreements and took Wampanoag lands. The war ended with an English victory and the continued loss of land for Metacom’s people and allied tribes.
- The French and Indian War (1754 – 1763) was a fight between the English and French to control land in North America. Both sides had support from various indigenous tribes who thought their support might protect their lands—it did not.
- Following the American Revolution (1775 – 1783), American colonists continued to push south and west. By the 1850s, America’s westward expansion resulted in most American natives having their lands stolen and American leaders forcing them west onto reservations. A similar process took place in portions of Canada.
European Trading Post Empires in Africa and Asia
Until the 19th century, Europe mostly had trading post empires in Asia. These empires focused on creating wealth through trade, not trying to control large pieces of land and rule over large numbers of people
European activity in Africa and Asia primarily focused on building trading bases linked together into trading empires. From these bases, Europeans sought access to Asian goods they would import into Europe. They also created revenue by taxing merchants and ships that moved through European-controlled waters or trading bases.
Aside from a few areas under direct colonial control—the Philippines, the spice Islands of Indonesia, and Goa—European trading posts had far fewer political impacts than colonization in the Americas.
- Kept political power
- Controlled most land outside of European trading bases
- Followed their own cultural traditions
Reasons Europeans held less power in Asia—at least initially—included:
The Portuguese in Africa and Asia
The Portuguese were the first to establish a trading empire in Africa and Asia. As early as 1505, King Manuel I (1495 – 1521) sent a permanent Portuguese force to India. From their Indian bases, the Portuguese continued to establish new trading bases across the Indian Ocean region.
1505: The Portuguese defeated an Egyptian and Indian fleet off the coast of North India. This victory made the Portuguese a powerful competitor in the Indian Ocean. They also attacked the Swahili cities on the African east coast. They established trading bases near defeated Swahili city-states.
1507: A force under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque (1452-1515) seized control over the port of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Portugal now controlled the flow of Asian goods into land trade routes in the Middle East.
1510: De Albuquerque conquered Goa, India. Goa became Portugal’s main trading port in India.
1511: De Albuquerque seized the Southeast Asian port of Malacca. This port was the main transit point of goods from China to India, from which traders bought most Indonesian spices.
1543: The Portuguese are the first Europeans to sail to Japan
1590s – 1660s: The Dutch attacked Portuguese territories, eventually replacing them as the dominant European trading power in Asia.
The Dutch in Africa and Asia
The Dutch challenged the Portuguese for control over European trade in Asia. By the mid-17th century, they had replaced the Portuguese as Asia’s dominant European trading power.
1595: Dutch merchants sent out their first expedition to the Asian spice islands. The trip was so profitable merchants sponsored more trips.
1602: Dutch merchants combined and formed the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to prevent conflict between competing groups. By 1605 the VOC had negotiated with the leader of Calicut and established a trade base in Asia.
1605 – 1641: The Dutch attacked and took control of important Portuguese trading for much of the 17th century. In 1605, they took the Indonesian island of Amboyna from the Portuguese. In 1619, the Dutch began a blockade of the port of Malacca. Control of this port was vital to control Indonesian trade. The Portuguese resisted for over twenty years before finally surrounding the port to the Dutch in 1641.
1652: The Dutch East India Company (VOC) established the Dutch Cape Colony in modern South Africa.
The English in Africa and Asia
The English established their eastern trading empire around the same time as the Dutch. The competition between the two was intense. While the Dutch were primarily interested in controlling the spice trade, the English wanted to buy Asian goods and sell their goods, like woolen cloth, in Asia. The English became the dominant European power in India by the middle of the 18th century.
1600: Merchants founded the British East India Company in London. Queen Elizabeth I granted the company a monopoly over trade with East Asia without interference from the English government.
1613: The British East India Company established its first port factory in Surat, Gujarat.
1615: The English and Indian Mughal emperor Jahangir agreed to give the English preferential trading rights over other European powers in India. In exchange, the English provided English luxury goods to the Mughal emperor.
1652 – 1784: The British and Dutch fought four naval wars to gain a dominant position in Asian trade. By the end of the fourth war, the English had replaced the Dutch as the dominant European trading power in Asia—although the Dutch did keep control over much of the Indonesian spice islands.
1757: Armies of the British East Company defeated the military of the Nawab (ruler) of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey. This British victory began the direct rule of the British East India Company over India. Over the next 100 years, the British would increase the size of their Indian territories.
Trade With Europe Initially Benefited Some African and Asian States
China and Japan began limiting European trade to limit European influence over their societies.
Before Europe’s complete conquest of Africa and Asia in the 19th century, European trade in these regions allowed some states to prosper financially.
India: When Europeans arrived in the 15th century, South Asia had several powerful states. The Mughal Empire in the north and Vijayanagara in the south were the largest. Both of these states became significant trading partners with European merchants. Textiles were a primary export product from India. By 1665, hundreds of thousands of textiles left India to be sold in Europe yearly. In economically prosperous years, that number jumped well above one million pieces.
Asante in Africa: The West African Asante was a powerful state near modern Ghana. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it became one of the largest sources of enslaved Africans. In exchange for enslaved people, the Asante received firearms, which they used to defeat neighboring groups and expand. In the 1820s, conflict increased between the Asante and the British. When fighting initially broke out in the 1820s, the Asante defeated the British. However, when fighting again broke out in the 1860s, British weapons and military superiority defeated the Asante. The British incorporated Asante territories into the British Gold Coast colony.
The Kingdom of Kongo in Africa: Another powerful African state was the Kingdom of Kongo (modern northern Angola) on the central Atlantic coast. Contact with Europeans increased revenue from the trade of enslaved people, ivory, and manufactured goods like copperware, cloth, and pottery. In the 19th century, growing rivalries within Kongo resulted in the weakening of the monarchy’s control. The Portuguese took advantage of a weakened Kongo state, conquering it and making it an official Portuguese colony in the 1850s.
Some States Shut Their Borders to European Traders
Some states viewed Europe’s expanding role in African and Asian trade with suspicion. Some rulers placed restrictions on merchants and outsiders inside their borders to protect their societies from foreign influence.
Trade restrictions in China
The Ming dynasty: Having freed China from foreign Mongol rule, Ming emperors were generally suspicious of outside influences within China. The first Ming emperor Hongwu imposed trade restrictions (called Haijin) on merchant activity along China’s eastern coast. The emperor wanted to force all foreign maritime trade through the government-sponsored tribute voyages of Admiral Zheng He—it didn’t work. These restrictive trade policies resulted in the growth of illicit markets and illegal trade along the Chinese coast. Hongwu’s Ming successors reversed these trade restrictions.
The Qing dynasty: In the 1750s, the Qing dynasty introduced new trade restrictions, which came to be known as the Canton system. The new rules required most foreign merchants to only trade through the Southern Chinese port of Canton. When merchants arrived in Canton, they could not leave the port areas without approval.
Trade restrictions in Japan
Tokugawa Shogunate Japan: In 1635, Japan instituted the Sakoku edict to eliminate foreign influence from Japan. Japan’s leaders, the Tokugawa Shoguns, worried those foreign influences would weaken their hold over powerful regional lords and daimyo, who might use outside contacts to strengthen their personal armies with modern gunpowder weaponry. These restrictive policies limited foreigners’ entry into Japan and prevented most commoners from leaving Japan.
The Japanese did not end all outside communication.
- Chinese traders were still allowed access to Japanese markets through the port of Nagasaki.
- The Dutch were also allowed to trade with Japan through the port of Dejima.