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Europe's Empires Expand
What were the motivations of the private adventurers who claimed land for European countries?
Last updated: Oct. 22, 2019
This week's big question
What were the motivations of the private adventurers who claimed land for European countries?
Learning outcomesAt the end of this week you should be able to:
- describe some of the major locations and bases for European overseas expansion in the 15th through 17th centuries;
- explain something of the different motivations for overseas expansion;
- explain the basis for the integration of the New World into the emerging Atlantic economy;
- outline some of the major economic, political, and cultural reasons for overseas exploration and colonization.
Questions to consider, and learning activityRemember what you've learned about secondary sources and "historiographical thinking" from the Lesson just before Reading Week on Agricultural Revolutions? Once you've read over this page, begin your preparation for the Week's Forum by reading the chapter from Appleby. In your discussions with your Forum colleagues, keep Appleby's perspectives and interpretations in mind as you use your reading and analysis of 3 to 4 of the primary sources to answer one or more of the questions below.
Also remember to try your best to fulfill the criteria for a good Forum contributions that you can find in the course syllabus.
- How would you characterize the motives of these writers for colonizing the New World? Drawing on the cultural and political ideas you’ve seen in the first module, do you see some of those influences at work in the discussions of colonization? Do you see patterns among the different writers? Differences?
- What can the images tell us about early modern understandings of the New World? What did early modern viewers “see” when they looked at these images? Discuss different ways the maps can help us understand the process of imperial expansion. Do the maps speak to the same motivations as the texts?
- How did these authors justify their plans to take over these newly discovered lands?
- Why did Parkhurst urge English colonization of Newfoundland? Why was he writing to Hakluyt? How is he similar/different from what we read in Hakluyt? Was Newfoundland different than the other cases?
- Biard was a Jesuit missionary -- how does that influence how we should interpret this document?
- None of our primary sources, including images, were produced by Indigenous Americans. What does that tell us about the sources we use? Are they, in fact, primary sources? And if they are primary sources how might we qualify their importance? What does this mean for our (i.e. Western) understanding of early modern American history?
- How was America drawn into the Atlantic world?
BackgroundParalleling the development of the centralized state and the agricultural revolution, western European states also began utilizing improvements in map-making, navigation devices, and ship construction that allowed them to explore further along the coasts of Africa and ultimately to venture further to the west. We will not, in this course, pursue these technological questions relating to navigation. Instead we will focus on the question of what encouraged Europeans to venture further afield, and what motivated them to colonize the Americas. An interesting dimension of this early exploration is who was leading these expansive movements. While we often speak of these states as actors –- that is, that England (or France, or whatever) did things (explored, colonized, whatever) –- it was not the states themselves leading the way but private adventurers acting in the name of these states. This in part explains why some of the most famous “explorers” were Italian seamen such as Cristoforo Columbo (who in English we call Christopher Columbus) and Giovanni Caboto (who we call John Cabot) sailing for Spain and England respectively. Our questions this week focus on these adventurers’ motivations for exploring, what value they saw in the new lands, how they encouraged their sponsoring states to continue to support their endeavours, and ultimately what motivated the states to support expansion.
In other words, our topic this week is the rise of European colonialism, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is very much one of those longer-term stories that we discussed in past weeks. But the exact parameters aren’t clear. We might be tempted to say this story began with Columbus arriving in the Caribbean in 1492 –- and certainly in many ways it did –- but of course all that really happened on those voyages was that Europeans learned that there was another continent across the ocean, what they came to call the New World. And while significant consequences began very quickly in places like Mexico and the Caribbean, the emergence of European power in the Americas, Africa, and Asia did not begin that day. It took centuries to reach the point that we might now recognize as the colonial world being under the control, or domination, of Europe. When we can begin to speak of a European dominance of the Americas is not clear.
This raises several big questions: Why did the European empires form? Why did European colonization take place? Why did it take so long? And if it took so long, and is not especially clear as to why it happened, how can we even understand it as a story? We won’t answer that question this week. Indeed, historians don't completely agree on the answers anyhow, but as we proceed over the next few weeks we’ll begin to see some patterns.
This week, we’ll emphasize two features of this story. First, that much of the “imperial expansion” of Europe looked quite different on the ground than it did in the minds of (and as seen on the maps of) the European powers. There are five early modern European powers that we should keep in mind: Britain, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal. While the Spanish and Portuguese did make significant inroads in terms of conquering and controlling territory in the Caribbean and South America, France, Holland, and Britain’s place on the ground in North America was much less impressive –- especially much less impressive than its cartographers imagined. As we’ll see in a few weeks, New England and the other British colonies would grow quickly, but even by the time of the American revolution -– almost 300 years after Columbus! -– they remained tightly enclosed along the Atlantic seaboard. Similarly, French maps depicted their control of much of eastern North America, but the actual place of French power was limited to a few enclaves along the St. Lawrence River.
Second, what the European states and their private adventurer-proxies thought the best actions on the ground were not always the same things, and often not at all compatible. While private adventurers had to maintain the good graces of their Old World political supporters, in the New World they had a lot of latitude on the ground. There was no army –- i.e., no state force -– there in the New World or in Africa to enforce the expectations of Kings or legislators. Thus, these merchant-adventurers were taking risks if they tested their rulers' authority, but the lure of profit –- and power –- could be great. Moreover, again as will become clear in future weeks, even that limited presence could have profound consequences.
Before you read this Lesson's sources, make sure you review the Toolbox entries from the three Lesson's of Module 1. In the First Module you practiced the effective analysis of primary and secondary sources, and you also learned about the importance of paying attention to the different perspectives historians take when they analyze sources. Don't forget what you've learned in these Lessons. Your goal should be to build on your skills throughout the course.
In your Forum entries for this week's Lesson, you will continue to practice the analysis of primary sources. Pay particular attention to the perspectives in each document. In a way similar to historians having different interpretations of the same questions, so too did people in the past have different interpretations of their worlds. You can consider questions such as:
- Who was the author and what economic or social or religious or political interests did that person have?
- When did he or she create the source?
- What is the source about and what did the author think about that subject?
You can probably think of other general questions that will help you to think about the perspective in any source. These are questions that are related to the skills of "sourcing" that you learned about in Module 1 (if you're having problems viewing the video, see the instructions in the Toolbox for the first Lesson on Rulers and Subjects). To find our more about the general kinds of questions you should always have in mind when you consider a source's perspective, see the two Historical Thinking worksheets available through the link. The particular questions to think about for this week (in the Lesson above) will also help. Together, these general and particular questions will guide you as you look for differences (and similarities) in the perspectives of each primary source.
Primary sourcesRead any 3 or 4 of the following documents (and, to be clear, 3 doesn’t allow you to read less –- it means read some of the longer docs). Pay attention to the bibliographical details below (e.g., page numbers).
- Christopher Columbus to Luis de Sant Angel [a high-ranking minister to King Ferdinand of Spain], 1493.
- Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: of the Commodities and of the Nature and Manners of the Naturall Inhabitants (1585), 5-9.
- Richard Hakluyt, the elder, “Inducements to the Liking of the Voyage Intended towards Virginia ”, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume III (London, Macmillan, 1979), 64-69.
- John Cotton, God’s Promise to his Plantation (1630).
- Letters from Anthony Parkhurst, Newfoundland, 1577 and 1578, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume IV (London, Macmillan, 1979), 5-10.
- Stephen Parminius to Richard Hakluyt the Younger, Newfoundland, 6 August 1583, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume IV (London, Macmillan, 1979), 21-2.
- “Petition of Merchants of London and Bristol for a Newfoundland Charter, 1610”, in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, volume IV (London, Macmillan, 1979), 131-2. [in the same file as Parminius]
- Pierre Biard, “Reasons why the Cultivation of New France ought to be Undertaken in Earnest”, Rueben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, volume IV (Cleveland, 1894), 111-7.
- John Brereton, A Briefe Relation of the Description of Elizabeth's Ile [Cape Cod] (London, 1602).
Secondary sourcesJohn C. Appleby, "War, Politics, and Colonization", in Nicholas Canny, ed., The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, vol. I of The Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford, Oxford University press, 1998), 55-78.
All your assignments are linked on this page.
In this full-year course, each of you will complete three assignments - two first term, and one second - and you have some choices.
First term, there are three possible assignments to choose from - do two only.
In Second term, there are three possible assignments to choose from - do one only.
They have different dues dates, are on different topics, using different forms, and to some extent will be produced in different ways. Any or all of these may determine which you chose.
Term 1's two assignments are worth 15 points (7.5 each)
Assignment 1 (due Friday, Oct 9th by 5 pm, EDT) Wikipedia Analysis
Introduction: This assignment asks you to critically evaluate a Wikipedia entry on a major course topic. It’s an assignment that gets you to practice using and thinking about sources.
Wikipedia has become the go-to source for basic information on almost any topic. In this assignment, we want you to think critically about Wikipedia as a source for historical research. In particular, we want you to identify potential problems and strengths in Wikipedia pages, and we want you to compare some of your own primary and secondary readings on some major topics with what we find on Wikipedia. This allows you to think about differences between primary sources, traditional scholarship (secondary sources), and broadly disseminated knowledge (tertiary sources) such as Wikipedia.As historians, we always have to think about how we know things, how information is created, and what the sources of this information are. The advent of digital forms also demand that we think about how that information is circulated on the web versus in traditional publishing modes.
Go to one of the Wikipedia entries below and assess its content. These entries are ones that you are also required to read during one of the weekly Lessons. Look at what is presented in the entry. Do you see debate? Discussion? Look at the edit pages. Do these show debate/discussion? What does it mean that debate is buried and some kind of consensus is highlighted? You’ve read some scholarly material on these topics. How do these materials and the Wikipedia pages compare? Do they agree on the basic account of a subject? On the meaning of that subject?
In 3 double-spaced pages (roughly 750 words) using the historians’ tools we’ve been working with, and looking to the readings from the past few weeks, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one of the four Wikipedia pages. To be clear, this assignment is not asking you to bash Wikipedia. We love Wikipedia, and use it regularly. But it’s still quite different than traditional scholarly writing and we try to be aware of what that means. Thus, while Wikipedia is undoubtedly valuable, we know there are limits to that value. Discuss the strengths and limits of one of the following four topics.
Required resources: Students are to choose one of the following four Wikipedia entries.
Estates of the realm
Great Chain of Being
British Agricultural revolution:
Due in the Assignment tool by the end of the day on 9 October.
(i) Submit only one attachment
(ii) Only use file types: Word (docx), PDF, HTML, RTF, or plain text.
(iii) Always include the file extension (.docx etc).
Assignment 2 - Critical Map Reading (due Friday November 6th, 5 p.m.)
We love maps, especially but not only historical maps. And while we love google maps and all the GIS-based tools we have at our fingertips these days, we also still own map books. Prof Samson still carries road atlases in his car because while Google offers great directions the broader map allows him to see more context, to have a physical sense of where we're going, where we are, where we should be, what’s nearby, how did we get lost?
Historical maps are packed with data. They give us a view of landscapes, territory, communication networks, political relationships – in short, views of the political and spatial organization of societies. The image above is a detail from the Cantino planisphere, a Portuguese map made in 1502 outlining Europe, Africa, and the then newly discovered islands of the Caribbean. The detail shows Elmino castle, a large Portuguese trading centre and military installation in what is today Ghana. The size of the castle is obviously not to scale, and may never have been meant to be. Its size and style suggests it was meant to symbolize Portuguese power in Africa. But this unusual representation raises the question of what's meant to be accurate and what's meant to be symbolic - and for that matter if there's a difference. At minimum it asks us to read this map critically and carefully.It's clear that maps can give us good hard data. But it's also true that we tend to assume that such data is objective: that these lines and objects marking places/spaces are real and beyond any substantial degree of interpretation. Over the past few years, historians and geographers have demonstrated that in fact maps are, like most texts, social constructs and thus can be read in different ways. They typically bear a relationship to power and are thus historically situated in particular political, economic, and social worlds. Maps, the geographer J.B Harley reminds us, make claims to truth, but they almost always betray that they are constructions designed to support claims to truth, more than simply "true" in any objective sense.
Maps are representations of space but because they often bear a powerful resemblance to concrete geographic features of the planet, we tend to think they are factual, or true. As we've seen, they do contain real concrete facts. But they also contain interpretations; the map makers often made choices in what to represent and how to represent it. This human process of interpreting and selecting data adds complexity to how we must understand maps as sources and ask the same critical questions we'd ask of any sources. Are maps biased? Of course they are, but so is all human-produced data. Almost all maps contain elements that are objective, as well as elements that are subjective. The trick is to read it carefully, and critically. How then do we "read" historical maps as data?
There's lots to look for. Some maps have a lot of textual data in addition to the basic details of names and locations. Look, for example, at this detail from John Mitchell's famous map of the territory Britain and France claimed in North America on the eve of the Seven Years War. Here we're looking at the tiny section of the map which includes the area east and north of Lake Huron. The map is exquisitely detailed, but also contains over 3000 words of text (not including place names!) referring to history, territorial claims, navigation routes, distances, and much else. Such information was useful, practical information for someone (one might ask for whom?); it was also felt to add credibility, additional proof of its careful and accurate research. But is the information accurate? This text points to a real event - the Mississauga people were defeated in a war with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the 17th century, but neither they nor any other peoples ever became "the eighth nation" of the Iroquois League. Does this matter? Does it matter that this information is only partly true, or misleading at best? Would it have mattered to an eighteenth-century observer? What inferences might such an observer have about this and similar information on the map? Think too about its production. Remember that maps are authored, like any text, and are usually intended for a particular audience.There were literally 100s of maps of North America available in this period. Why commission another one? Why one with this level of detail? Who would have wanted such a map? Why? Why was this map produced when it was produced? What about that moment made this information important?
Look, too, beyond the geographic features of the map itself. The legend, for example, often contains important information that can be helpful in understanding the map: what it records, where, when and by whom it was made. Legends are often inside more elaborate and artistic renditions that are called a cartouche. A cartouche is usually a frame or image designed both to add additional information - often the publication information or a legend - as well as artistic embellishments. Some are more ornamental than others, but all contain potentially useful information. One can often see themes being represented in the cartouche: a kind of key to thinking about the map. The planisphere on our header was one of the first to depict the North And South America in relation to Europe and Africa. At this point, only the Portuguese were actively venturing along the western coast of Africa and thus this map presents knowledge more or less completely new to other Europeans. It's also worth noting however that Portuguese explorers had travelled as far south as modern-day Ghana, but had gone no more than a mile or two inland - the rest is pure imagination. But these images shouldn't be dismissed as mere flights of fancy. They very often offer symbolic clues to how the mapmakers understood their subjects and the purposes of these maps.
The Newberry Library offers a nice overview of questions and important issues for when approaching historic maps as primary sources.
The assignment: Write an 800-word essay (approximately three double-spaced pages) on the following early modern maps of Africa. Devote roughly half of your text to a discussion of one of the maps, and the other half comparing that map with the other two. They were produced in different times and different places and probably for different purposes. Each sought to show an audience how to see Africa: how it was shaped, who its people were, how they lived and governed themselves, and so on. And yet they also made other claims of knowledge, ones rooted more in their authors and their authors' contexts than in Africa itself. What can these maps tell us about Africa? What can these maps tell us about the early modern Atlantic World?
Resist the urge to dismiss them as all being biased. They are, no doubt, but so are most sources. The real trick is to critically examine these texts so as to find as much useful information as possible. And what is useful information? Well, that depends on what question we're asking. If we're asking about the map's ability to convey accurate geographic information, then we head in one direction. If we're asking how the map tells more about the map makers and their societies, then that sends us in other directions. But if we think those questions are unrelated, then we may be missing a lot.
Here, as in your Forum entries, you will continue to practice the analysis of primary sources. Pay particular attention to the perspectives in each document. Just as historians have different interpretations of the same questions, so too did people in the past have different interpretations of their worlds. You can consider questions such as:
- When was the map made and by whom and for whom? i.e. who was the author? what economic or social or religious or political interests did that person serve?
- When did he or she create the source? Is there a broader historical context? (The Mitchell map above was made on the eve of the Seven Years War, after decades of political-military struggles over North America.)
- What is the source about and what did the author think about that subject?
- What information did the author wish to communicate?
You can probably think of other general questions that will help you to think about the perspective in any source.
Are you required to do any outside research?
Due Friday November 6th, 5 p.m.
John Senex, Africa: corrected from the observations of the Royal Society at London and Paris (London, 1725). Source: Library of Congress.
Aaron Arrowsmith, Africa: to the committee and members of the British association discovering the interior parts of Africa this map is with their permission most respectfully inscribed. London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802. Source: Library of Congress.
Emanuel Bowen, A new & accurate map of Negroland and the adjacent countries (London,1747).
Planning tip: in the weeks before this is due, we'll do lessons on European Expansion and Early Modern Africa, two topics that will both be useful for you in thinking about these maps and their construction. The story of these maps are very much related to their context in European expansion, Early Modern African politics, the slave trade, and the broader development of markets in the Atlantic World. And no need for bibliographies, footnotes, etc - you're not doing any additional research (just looking at these maps). If you make direct use of the Newberry Library piece noted above, or materials from the course, just say so.
Assignment 3 - Comparison of two historiographical interpretations (Friday, November 27th, 5 p.m.)
(Blackburn and Seeman???)
Cartography and Empire
The Seven Years War changed the political arrangement of North America. Nowhere was this more evidence than in Acadie/Nova Scotia. Three maps of Nova Scotia, each was British but before (1755) and after (1765) the Expulsion of the Acadians, shows a kind of cartographic ethnic cleansing. You should use the high-resolution versions available by clicking on the links.,
Morris, Charles, (Surveyor), "A Chart of the Sea Coasts of the Peninsula of Nova Scotia", 1755. Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.
Amherst, Jeffery Amherst, Baron, "A Chart of The Peninsula of Nova Scotia 1765 [sic, 1761]", Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center,
Morris, Charles. "A chart of the peninsula of Nova Scotia",  Map.
[Charles Morris], Description and State of the New Settlements in Nova Scotia in 1761 by the Crown Surveyor, in Report on Canadian Archives, 1904 (Ottawa, Dept of Agriculture, 1904), 294-301 [includes unpaginated maps GET BOOK - DIGITISE FIRST TWO MAPS].
Section on Minas Basin - Cornwallis to Tatamagouche - most note already improved acreages available, some villages with quite large amounts - 3000 acres marshland, 3000 acres improved upland - on settlements that date from 1760 (i.e.a year ago - i.e., they're not new, they're re-possessed Acadian farms).
Jonathan Fowler, Archaeology at Grand-Pré
Barry M. Moody, ˜Delivered from all your distresses: The Fall of Quebec and the Remaking of Nova Scotia", in Phillip A. Buckner and John, G. Reid,, eds, Revisiting 1759: The Conquest of Canada in Historical Perspective (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2012).
Jonathan Fowler, "From Acadians to planters in the Grand-Pré: an archaelogical perspective", in Stephen Henderson and Wendy Robicheau, eds., The Nova Scotia Planters in the Atlantic World (Fredericton NB, Acadiensis Press, 2012),
Geoffrey Plank, An Unsettled Conquest: The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia (Philadelphia, University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 122-39.
What did conquest and the expulsion of the Acadians mean for Nova Scotia? Why was it important for the British to erase Acadie? What does conquest mean for our understanding of history before the conquest? How do maps, both historical and contemporary, help/hinder our abilities to understand those layers of history. Does this exercise help us think about Indigenous history?