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European colonialism began in earnest in the 15th century, as first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English projected their newly found power onto the world stage. The initial quest was for control of the Indian East/West trade, which had until the 1400s been dominated either by the great Asian land empires or by the principle Mediterranean marketplaces and their merchants, above all those in Italy, the Levant (modern day Israel/Palestine, Syria and Lebanon), and Egypt.
Beginning in the 1490s, European states cast themselves out into the world, eventually occupying vast amounts of territory. The Spanish conquered much of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and large chunks of the North American west and south. The Portuguese carved out Brazil, a tremendously lucrative area once sugarcane and coffee were introduced. The Dutch took for themselves islands in the Caribbean, Indonesia and small pieces of North America, which they were not destined to hold. In the painting below, the Javanese Prince Dipo Negoro is shown surrendering to the Dutch conquerors. The Dutch Java Wars were part of a broader series of Dutch wars of conquest in the East Indies, allowing for the Dutch to set up a lucrative trade in local commodities based on a centrally controlled plantation system. Like most representations of conquest in this era, the surrender of Dipo Negoro is styled here as a peaceful, calm, honorable, and reasonable transfer of power. A relative latecomer to the Age of Exploration, Britain formed settlements on the east coast of North America and on islands in the Caribbean. In Africa, the major European powers established trading posts, from which they could engage in trade with local African powers, the most important of which was providing guns in return for African slaves. This guns-for-slaves exchange grew to become one of the central pillars of the emerging Atlantic economy. In East Asia, European powers jockeyed for control of the spice trade, capturing coastal cities, bombarding ports, attacking competing vessels with newly built ships with on-board cannons.
By the 1700s, the need to keep large navies in distant waters was becoming a real burden on the finances of European states. Wars for control of trade were costly; ships with cannons were costly, paying the salaries of thousands of sailors was also costly. While the private business sector provided much of the capital for these ventures, the states were also large contributors. Moreover, the quickening of trade with Asia accelerated a long-standing trend in relations between the east and west, which saw Europeans paying gold and silver for Asian goods. This meant that money in Europe was scarce and states had to go to banks time and again for loans. European countries in the 1700s sought to reverse this spiral. The answer to this trade imbalance was to take control not just of trading routes but also to reorient local taxation schemes and the economic production of conquered territories. We see emerge, thus, the beginning of massive agricultural plantations based on cash crops like sugar, tea, coffee, cotton, black pepper, and tobacco. We see the creation of European-owned mining and timber operations. We also see the dismantling of traditional modes of economic behavior, like the destruction of the Indian cloth industry. Above all, we see the imposition of taxes on local residents of the newly acquired territories, taxes that forced local producers to abandon their positions as small-scale farmers or manufacturers and to enter the world of wage labor.
India was the prime example of this transformation from British trading partner to British subject. The Indian subcontinent had once been ruled by a powerful and wealthy dynasty, the Mughals, but internal turmoil between the Muslim dynasty and the Hindu provinces ripped the empire apart in the early 1700s. Both Britain and France took advantage of this chaos to establish territorial domains in India. Over the course of the next one hundred years, the British East India Company, backed by the power of the state, would gain control of most of India, winning out over the French. The process of reorienting the Indian economy began immediately, sped up by the industrial revolution in England and the creation of the textile industry. In a matter of decades, India went from the world’s largest producer of cotton cloth to an exporter of raw cotton and an importer of finished cloth. Additionally, the East India Company began to transform parts of northern India into poppy plantations to create opium for export to China. By the mid-1800s, as India passed from company rule to government rule, its economy and society were being transformed to meet British needs. This often came with utter disastrous consequences, like the Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed millions of people.
Other areas of the world fared no better in terms of preserving their traditional social and cultural practices. British and Dutch settlers in South Africa fought bloody wars against the Zulu peoples, forcing them off their land and into the British and Dutch controlled farms and mines. In Egypt, British control over the economy grew to such an extent that the Britain moved to militarily seize control of Egypt when its economic and trade interests were threatened. France pushed deep into Africa from the west coast. Germany, a new-comer to the colonial scramble, carved out territories in southwestern and eastern Africa. Even in areas of the world where the Europeans did not have direct control, like China and Japan, their influence could be strongly felt. By 1900, this long process of imperialist expansion had left few parts of the world untouched.