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On top of the New World

When five countries entered into the 16th-century race to colonise much of the earth, they stopped at nothing to control its riches. Rod Savage reports

God, gold and glory - the three reasons why five countries, from the 16th century, rose up from Europe to cast their influential shadow over much of the globe. Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain - in that order - settled much of the Americas, Africa, India, parts of Asia and the Pacific islands to make economic gains, to spread the word of religion, or to simply have the glory of being the most powerful nation on the planet. What were the conditions that encouraged this colonisation?

In 15th-century Europe there were a number of emerging nations that competed intensely with one another. The attitude was "expand or die". Contrast this to 15th-century China, a vast and strong nation with the technology and finances to expand. But it was also unified and therefore had little fear of competition. Europe, however, was fragmented and competed fiercely for any advantage over its neighbours. Economics made nations strong and new worlds with new sources of income were the greatest source of wealth.

Politics also played a great part. Countries were defeated and empires changed hands. The colonies and their people became pawns in the grasp of the ruling aristocracy of Europe. An ink scrawl on a treaty would push entire countries into new historical directions and shape the world as we know it today.

While colonisation has a history going back to the Greeks and Romans, European colonisation can be traced to when the Portuguese conquered the oceans with boating technology. Their expeditions in the early 1400s, such as claiming Moroccan coastal towns in 1419, paved the way for future colonisation and power struggles among the "big five" European nations for the next 500 years. It was the development of the caravel - a long-range Portuguese seafaring vessel - and navigational techniques developed by Henry the Navigator, at his School of Navigation, that made Portugal the most powerful European nation between 1400 and 1500.

The Portuguese were at their most prolific between 1419 and 1500. In these 81 years they became the first Europeans to sail the west coast of Africa, to reach India by sea, to trade with China and Japan, to see Australia (200 years before Captain Cook), to discover Brazil and to settle Newfoundland. Colonisation made Portugal the richest country in Europe in the 16th century. They had a string of strategic bases, such as Hormuz at the tip of the Persian Gulf, Goa on the western coast of India, and the Straits of Molucca in Indonesia, which guarded the gateway between the China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Portugal controlled the sea trade of the entire region. They also gained much wealth from their colonies in Brazil, having forced the native population to work the land. This cheap labour netted maximum rewards.

The Portuguese were virtually unchallenged from any quarter. Other European nations had not yet started their colonial quests while, in Asian regions, the Chinese had recalled their fleets as the nation was strengthening internally instead of looking to expand its borders. Arab and Indian ships did not carry guns. Under these conditions Portugal and her empire flourished. However, Portuguese power was entirely naval so in 1492, when Christopher Columbus - an Italian financed by the Spanish to find a route to Asia across the Atlantic, but who discovered the Americas instead - showed Spain the way to the "New World" and new riches, Portugal's days as the most powerful nation were numbered. Columbus made numerous journeys to the New World, established outposts and claimed areas for Spain. Gold and silver flooded in.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI approved the division of the unexplored world between Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by both countries in 1494, allowed Portugal rights over Brazil, Africa and India. Within a few years Spain had sent fleets of conquistadors (conquerors) to Central and South America. Hernando Cortes overwhelmed the Aztec civilisation in Mexico in 1519 and the powerful Incas in Peru were defeated between 1531 and 1533 by Francisco Pizarro. Spain now had the New World, Mexico and Peru and her coffers bulged with gold and other treasures. It was the beginning of the empire's Golden Age during which it became so great that its influence is still seen today, with more than 200 million people outside of Spain speaking Spanish as their native language.

With two expanding empires, one had to give. Spain at the time was also trying to expand Christianity through its Inquisition - the brutal purging of Jews and other non-Christians from Spain and surrounding regions - and it sent Inquisitors to Portugal, resulting in the expulsion of Jewish traders. This caused a great commercial decline for Portugal, as it became an empire based on trade, but with no commercial expertise.

Meanwhile, in Morocco, muslims launched an assault on their Portuguese occupiers to devastating effect. The Battle of the Three Kings, as it became known, resulted in the death of 20,000 Portuguese, including most of its nobility and its king. In 1581, with its wealth diminished and all heirs to the throne dead, Spain not only claimed Portugal, but her empire. It was not until 1640 that Portugal gained independence once more.

But the great Spanish empire was becoming too big for its boots. Spanish power was at its height in the 1580s and Spain's leader King Philip II pledged to conquer the Protestant heretics in England and convert them to the Church of Rome. It was already fighting the Eighty Year War with the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, which had revolted against Spanish rule in 1568. The "invincible" Spanish Armada was sent into the English Channel in 1588 and was defeated by the English fleet, commanded by Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake. This incredible defeat, coupled with the gold from the Indies being squandered in other European religious wars, including the Eighty Years War and the Thirty Years War, meant Spain exhausted her soldiers and her economy. Its treasury was ruined, its land depopulated and its cities devastated. Among the significant agreements of the Treaty of Westphalia, signed by Spain in 1648, was the Netherlands gaining independence from Spain. The treaty ended Spanish supremacy over Europe.

The colonial gap left by Spain was filled by the Netherlands. In 1652, 90 Dutch settlers established an outpost on the Cape of Good Hope, called Kaapstad (Cape Town). They would become the Boers, their language Afrikaans, and after the collapse of the Dutch East India Company in 1794, when England claimed the colony, they would struggle for political control of South Africa until the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century.

The Netherlands, however, had a history of colonising countries that dated from 1602. It chartered the United East India Company to search for a passage to the Indies and on the way claimed any uncharted territories in the name of the Netherlands. In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson, who was acting for the United East India Company, entered the area now known as New York in an attempt to find a north-west passage to the Indies. He went as far as Albany, up a river that now bears his name, and claimed the land for his employer. This gave the Netherlands control of one of the best fur-trading regions in North America, known at the time as New Netherland. The town was called New Amsterdam in 1626, which was to become New York.

Britain gave the Netherlands Indonesian territory in 1677 in return for their help in quelling rebel uprisings. This foothold eventually led to the Dutch controlling all the port cities of Indonesia and dominating trade. They introduced the plantation system, which forced the indigenous population to work the land as slave labour. The Dutch would hold on to Indonesia until the Second World War, when it was handed over to Japan. The Netherlands would stay one of the most powerful nations in Europe until the late 1700s, when defeats to the English fleet and the collapse of the Dutch East India Company stripped it of power and influence, and left Britain to struggle with France as the two superpowers.

The foundations of Britain's power-base were set at the same time as the Netherlands was building power through colonisation. In 1600, it granted a charter to the East India Company to establish overseas commercial and trade interests. This lead to England trading with China, Africa and the Americas. In the 17th century England established colonies in the Caribbean and a string along the North American eastern seaboard, which were to become the foundations of the British Empire. They established sugar plantations in the West Indies and, in 1655, conquered the Spanish colony of Jamaica. It was the first English colony to be taken by force. The scattered outposts of England brought spices, coffee and tea from India and the East Indies. And the increased demand for sugar and tobacco in Europe in the 17th century led to the growth of plantations on Caribbean islands and in southern North America. The plantations encouraged small numbers of European settlers to relocate there and the colonies soon developed representative institutions modelled on English lines.

The plantations also demanded cheap labour and this caused an explosion in the African slave trade. Chartered companies secured posts on the African coasts as markets for captured slaves from the interior of Africa. Slaves were traded for West Indian molasses and sugar, English cloth and manufactured goods, and American fish and timber. Between 1650 and 1900 historians estimate that at least 28 million Africans were forcibly removed from central and western Africa as slaves. The English faced stiff opposition from the French to their expansion policies in the 17th century. The French had established a wide range of outposts and settlements, particularly in what is now Canada. In 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain found the colony of Quebec as a fur trading centre. Not just interested in Canada for financial reasons, the French also wanted to convert the indigenous population to Christianity and used the fur trade to fund their missions.

The further the French expanded, the more they ran into the British. In 1673, French explorers reached the Mississippi River and travelled down it as far as the Arkansas River. In 1682, a French expedition reached the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire river valley for Louis XIV, King of France. It was named Louisiana. As the French gained more control in North America, they developed a rivalry with England that would lead to the great wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. By this stage, the "big five" European powers had colonised most of the New World. The colonies would develop and grow and with that growth came a sense of separation from the motherland and strong feelings of nationalism. This resulted in colonial uprisings, wars of independence, the formation of constitutions and the birth of new nations - an entirely different chapter of history.

By the late 20th century, colonialism had become obsolete. In 1970, the United Nations General Assembly - then dominated by a huge majority of former colonies - declared colonialism a crime. Yet the economics of old colonial systems linger, particularly in those colonies that were exploited more than settled. These nations still struggle to overcome depressed economies and chronic class divides - legacies of a time when the fate of a country could be decided by the whim of a ruler and the stroke of a pen.

* A six-part series, Empire, written and presented by Oxford professor Niall Ferguson, begins with "Why Britain" on Channel 4 on January 16. Niall Ferguson's book Empire: How Britain made the Modern World is published by Penguin on January 13.

A review of the new British Empire and Commonwealth Empire exhibition appears on page 39


Examples: English colonies in parts of the US, Canada and Australia. Dutch colonies in South Africa

* These resulted when the colonising country migrated to, and eventually took complete control of a new area. These would become dominated by foreigners, animals and crops. Settlers often excluded the indigenous population from society or killed many of them, either through violence or disease.

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