HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Europe's Empires Expand

This week's big question

What were the motivations of the private adventurers who claimed land for European countries?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

Remember what you've learned about secondary sources and "historiographical thinking" from the Lessons 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.


Paralleling 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 outside of Europe?  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: England, 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 England’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 Lessons 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:

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. 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 sources

Read 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).

Secondary sources

John 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.

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