After the fifteenth century, explorers from western Europe
hacked out empires in the Americas and redefined the nature
of international exchange. New areas of the world regions of
Africa, the Americas, and Polynesia were brought into the
system for the first time. The level of exchange between
civilizations became so critical that it affected older
political and cultural traditions. In some cases, areas of
Asia and the Middle East began to emulate developments in the
- The West's First Outreach: Maritime Power
From the Middle Ages, people in the West were increasingly
familiar with the luxury goods of Asia. Early European
attempts to enter the world trade system suffered from
ignorance of trade routes and hesitancy to break the barrier
presented by the Atlantic Ocean. Fear of the emergence of
the Ottoman Empire and the declining supply of gold in the
West spurred renewed efforts to discover routes to Asia.
Initial successes in colonizing the islands just off the
Atlantic coast of Africa offered encouragement, but
technology did not permit more aggressive attempts to cross
the open sea.
- New Technology: A Key to Power
A number of technological developments made ocean passages
possible. New ships designed for ocean traffic and to carry
heavier weapons were built. The compass and improved
mapmaking allowed more proficient navigation for long
voyages. The combination of gunpowder and advanced
metallurgy led to the use of ship-borne artillery. Such
weaponry was more sophisticated than that used in other
- Portugal and Spain Lead the Pack
A Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, initiated the first
voyages of discovery along the Atlantic coast of Africa
during the fifteenth century. By the end of the century,
Portuguese sailors succeeded in sailing around the Cape of
Good Hope at Africa's southern tip. Vasco da Gama was the
first Portuguese captain to successfully reach India in 1498.
Other voyagers soon followed. One such expedition headed to
India was blown off course to Brazil. To protect their
commercial interests, the Portuguese constructed a series of
forts along the Atlantic coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean
coast of India. By 1514, the Portuguese had reached as far
as the islands of Indonesia and China. Another expedition
reached Japan in 1542.
Spanish colonial ventures began with the voyage of the
Genoese captain Christopher Columbus in 1492. His early
explorations of a direct western route to Asia led to the
discovery of the Americas. Ferdinand Magellan sailed around
the tip of South America into the Pacific. His ships reached
Indonesia and claimed the Philippines for Spain. Portugal
held trade forts in Africa and India, rights in Indonesia,
China, and Japan, and Brazil as a result of early
explorations. Spain claimed the Philippines and most of the
- Northern European Expeditions
In the later sixteenth century, northern European nations
became more active in sponsoring voyages of discovery.
Utilizing lighter and faster vessels, the northern European
nations concentrated on lands in the Americas north of the
Spanish and Portuguese claims. French explorers first
reached Canada in 1534 and pressed inland along the system of
waterways to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River valley.
England, in search of a northwest passage to Asia, instead
established colonies along the Atlantic coast of North
The Dutch soon rivaled the Portuguese in the Asian trade
network. Their merchants succeeded in displacing the
Portuguese from Indonesia. Dutch merchants also established
a small way station on the southern tip of Africa. In the
cases of the Dutch and English explorations and colonization,
private companies played a major role. The Dutch East India
Company and the British East India Company received
monopolies from their respective governments, but financed
their activities from privately raised capital.
- Toward a World Economy
Europe's entry into the Atlantic and Pacific created an
international exchange of goods, created a new world-wide
economy including the Americas, and paved the way for the
establishment of colonies.
- The "Colombian Exchange" of Disease and Food
One of the negative aspects of the new trade system was the
dissemination of European diseases such as smallpox and
measles to the Americas and Polynesia. The indigenous
peoples of these regions suffered massive population loss
over a period of a century and a half. On a more positive
basis, New World crops particularly corn and potatoes
supported population growth in areas as diverse as China and
Europe. European and Asian animals were introduced into the
Americas, which had previously lacked animal power.
- The West's Commercial Outreach
The ability of the West to dominate the seas allowed Western
merchants to displace others from the world trade system.
Internal or regional trade remained in the hands of Asian or
Muslim merchants, but transoceanic voyages were the monopoly
of Europeans. Control of the sea lanes improved Europe's
profits from trade. Dominance at sea was the result of
military and technological advances that made European navies
more powerful than the fleets of other civilizations.
Initially, Europeans did not seize much territory as part of
their trading initiative, but limited their incursions to
fortified trading posts along the coasts of Africa, India,
and the islands of Southeast Asia. Where forts could not be
constructed, European merchants entered local trade networks
through the establishment of enclaves in cities. This
pattern was evident in the Ottoman Empire, Japan, and Russia.
- Imbalances in World Trade
The earliest of the colonizers, Spain and Portugal, declined
in the face of later competition from England, France, and
Holland. These nations exported manufactured goods in return
for raw materials to expand their profit margins. Relations
with colonies were affected by the policies of mercantilism,
which were crafted to benefit the colonizers. Outside of
the core region of Europe lay areas that were economically
dependent on the world trade system. These regions produced
commercial crops sugar, spices, tobacco, cotton, and slaves
in return for the manufactured products of Europe. The
construction of core and dependent areas was critical the
formation of the world trade system.
- A System of International Inequality
The division into core and dependent areas lasted until the
twentieth century in many cases. Even in dependent areas,
however, some were able to take advantage of local trade to
grow rich. Some areas of the Americas and Africa managed to
remain outside the world trade system for centuries.
Nevertheless, in most regions the advantages of trade lay
with the merchants of the European core. Involvement in the
world trade system increasingly involved dependent regions in
reliance on coercive labor.
In the Americas, the economy of Latin America, the Caribbean,
and the southern British colonies relied on the importation
of African slaves. Also in Latin America, many of the
indigenous peoples were brought into an estate system that
was able to extract labor. Both in the mines and plantation
economies of the Americas, coercive labor systems were
common. Similar structures existed in the spice plantations
of Southeast Asia and the cotton plantations of India.
Forced labor and European control of exchange resulted in
weaker colonial governments with limited tax revenues.
- How Much World in the World Economy?
Huge areas of the world remained outside the trade system and
retained indigenous economies with little incentive for rapid
technological change or consumption of manufactured products.
East Asia largely remained outside the world trade system.
China simply ignored European trade in favor of continuation
of its traditional reliance on an internal system of
exchange. With the exception of some copies of European
firearms, the Chinese kept the Europeans at arms' length
until the eighteenth century.
Japan initially showed some interest in trade with Europe,
but quickly reversed course. From the seventeenth until the
nineteenth century, Japan's rulers maintained isolation
except for the single Dutch enclave near Nagasaki. The
Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires within the Islamic world
similarly limited European merchants to enclaves within their
cities. Russia's trade was oriented toward central Asia.
Much of Africa, with the exception of the slave trading
kingdoms, remained outside the orbit of European trade.
- The Expansionist Trend
Over time, the world trade system expanded. Areas of
Southeast Asia and India were brought into the system on a
more complete basis in the eighteenth century. Both the
British and French East India Companies regarded India as
suitable for incorporation as a dependent region and a
producer of cotton. Britain passed tariffs to prohibit the
importation of Indian cotton cloth and suppress the
development of manufacturing in South Asia. In this fashion
India was slowly introduced to the world trade system as a
supplier of raw materials for the looms of Britain. Eastern
Europe was drawn into the western European market system as a
supplier of grain to feed the growing cities of the West. In
return, Western manufactured goods began to infiltrate
- Colonial Expansion
The Western control of the seas permitted Europeans to
achieve dominance over a variety of cultures and peoples.
Most colonies were immediately reduced to dependent status
within the world trade system. Western leaders fostered
colonialism as a means of creating controlled markets for
- The Americas: Loosely Controlled Colonies
Colonization in the Americas, where Europeans enjoyed
enormous technological advantages, was particularly
attractive. The Spanish seizure of lands in the New World
began with the Caribbean islands, then moved to the Central
American mainland in 1509. A small expedition succeeded in
conquering the Aztec Empire. In South America, the Spaniards
defeated the Incas in 1531. Portugal's colonial expansion in
Brazil proceeded at a slower pace until the wealth of the
interior became more readily apparent. Colonial
administrations were established by small groups of
adventurers loosely controlled from the mother countries.
As agricultural settlements were made, more formal
administrative structures were put in place. Aggressive
conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism provided
another layer of administration. France, Britain, and
Holland established colonies in North America somewhat after
the foundation of settlements in Central and South America.
- British and French North America: Backwater Colonies
The colonies that more fully adopted Western institutions and
culture were located in British and French North America. As
late as the eighteenth century, European nations remained
largely disinterested in the Atlantic colonies, because they
supplied less valuable raw materials than plantation
colonies. Although the southern British colonies of the
Atlantic coast did develop plantation economies, coercive
labor systems, and patterns similar to the Caribbean and
Latin America, as a whole, the North American colonies were
of less economic value than their Latin American
More heavily settled than other areas, the British colonies
were closer to European models of government, religion, and
political theory. With less direct intervention on the part
of the mother countries, the Atlantic colonies produced their
own merchant class and engaged in international trade.
British attempts to regulate colonial trade came late in the
eighteenth century and contributed to rebellion. Atlantic
colonists remained abreast of European intellectual
movements, such as the Enlightenment. As a whole, the
colonists thought of themselves as part of the European
Denser settlement led to almost total elimination of the
indigenous populations of the Atlantic colonies. European
immigration produced a corresponding Indian emigration to the
plains. Colonists did not intermarry extensively with
indigenous groups, as had occurred in Latin America. In
plantation economies, colonists imported African slaves.
Interaction with African culture was a characteristic that
separated the colonies from the culture of the mother
- North America and Western Civilization
Colonists reproduced in North America most of the patterns of
Western culture. Nuclear families remained the norm.
American households tended to be more child-centered as a
result of their dependence on young laborers. As the
frontiers moved westward, household formation and family
patterns more closely approximated the European norms. Even
in rebellion, colonists after 1776 couched their resistance
in European political theories. Diversities arose between
the plantation colonies of the American south and the more
mercantile colonies of the north.
Canada was originally founded as a French colony, but the
region was ceded to the British in the Treaty of Paris of
1763. Relations between the original French colonists and
new British settlers were strained.
The thirteen American colonies of the Atlantic coast all
developed representative institutions. Economic equality was
greater in the colonies than in Europe, and there was no
formal aristocracy. Greater density of population, a sense
of political independence from the mother countries, and a
sense of identity contributed to the colonial rebellion of
- Africa and Asia: Coastal Trading Stations
Although most of the European colonization of Africa was
limited to coastal fortification, two more intrusive
settlements were attempted by the Portuguese in Angola and
the Dutch on the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch settlers fanning
out from the trade station created the Cape Colony. Their
expansion brought them into conflict with indigenous peoples
such as the Bantus. In most cases climate and the prevalence
of disease caused Europeans to limit their interests in
Africa until the nineteenth century. Actual colonial
ventures in Asia were also limited. The Spanish colonized
the Philippines and the Dutch controlled the islands of
Indonesia. Few Europeans ventured to these settlements.
After 1700 Britain and France began to contest control of the
potentially valuable trade with India. Following the decline
of the Mughal rulers, the French and British East India
Companies were able to construct trade forts along the coasts
of the subcontinent. The close cooperation of the British
East India Company with the English government, its access to
sea power, and its control of the Ganges River valley from
Calcutta tilted the contest in favor of the British.
Outright war between the military forces of the two companies
broke out during the Seven Years' War. In this conflict, the
British emerged as winners and expelled the French from
India. British military influence soon extended to the
island of Ceylon, as well. In the late eighteenth century,
the British government took over the administration of India
from the East India Company. The administration operated
through a series of alliances and agreements with indigenous
rulers. Economically, India was drawn into the world trade
system. Nascent manufacturing centers were discriminated
against by British tariffs in order to reduce India to
economic dependency. Few Europeans settled in Asia other
than government administrators, military units, and
missionaries. Latin America drew more settlers from Spain
and Portugal, who often intermarried with the local
population, but Europeans remained a small minority of the
- Impact on Western Europe
European nations fought many wars over colonial possessions.
Colonial production of sugar permitted its use to become
widespread among all classes in Europe. In Africa and Asia,
Western colonial penetration affected civilizations, but did
not attempt to Europeanize them. Western colonialism had a
more dramatic effect on Latin America, but even there
indigenous cultures survived.
- Conclusion: The Impact of a New World Order
The creation of a world economy largely dominated by the West
was a major shift in history. Latin America, Africa, the
southern colonies of the American coast, and some other
regions were drawn into a system that condemned them to an
inferior, dependent status. The global economy created new
and more extensive links among civilizations. The emergence
of the West called forth responses from other civilizations,
creating world-wide change.