Europe's Empires Expand
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 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 by Klooster for historical context and a deeper explanation of some of the motivating factors for European Expansion. Use this context to help you read and analyze 3 of the primary sources plus one of the maps in order to answer one or more of the questions below.
- How would you characterize the motives of these writers for colonizing the New World? Drawing on the cultural, political, or economic ideas you’ve seen in the first module (e.g., the Great Chain of Being, or Catholic vs Protestant views about authority), do you see some of those influences at work in the discussions of colonization? Do you see patterns of similarity among the different writers? Differences?
- What can the images included on this page 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? Was Newfoundland different than the other cases?
- Biard was a Jesuit missionary -- how does that influence how we should interpret this document?
- 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 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.
In the First Module you practiced the effective analysis of primary and secondary sources, were introduced to historiographical debates in our lesson on Agricultural Revolutions, and practiced the slow reading of documents by transcribing them. These early lessons will provide a solid base upon which to build your skills throughout the course. You may wish to review the skills of "sourcing" that you learned about in Module 1.
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?
To find out more about the general kinds of questions you should always have in mind when you consider a source's perspective, see the Historical Thinking worksheets available through the link.
In addition, this week we will spend some time thinking about maps! You will notice that many of our lessons include images and maps as both tell us much about the imaginations, motivations, and ideologies of their creators. Choose one map, and spend some time analyzing it in your forum post.
- Observe the map, in other words, describe what you see. What area does the map describe? What do you notice first? What size and shape is the map? Does anything look strange or unfamiliar? Does the map offer any textual descriptions?
- Analyze the map, using the same questions you might ask of any primary source. Who created the map? When? For what purpose? For whom (intended audience rather than a specific individual, although that may also be applicable)? What does this map tell you about how much the creator understood the subject? Did they have first hand knowledge of the area?
- Finally, can you connect the map to at least one of our primary sources? How might they support the interests of European Expansion described in the document?
Primary sourcesRead and analyze any 3 of the primary sources plus one of the maps.
- 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).
- “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.
- 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).
Klooster, Wim,' The Northern European Atlantic World', in Nicholas Canny, and Philip Morgan (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World: 1450-1850 (2011; online edn, Oxford Academic,18 Sept. 2012).
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This page references:
- Henricus Hondius, Poli Arctici, et Circumiacentium Terrarum Descriptio Novissima (Amsterdam, 1636)
- Samuel de Champlain, Carte geographique de la nouvelle France (1612)
- Robert Morden & Herman Moll: A New Mapp of the West-Indies, or the Islands of America in the North Sea, 1740
- Alberto Cantino, "Planisphere" (1502)
- A Map of New England New Yorke New Iersey Mary-Land & Virginia (London, 1676)
- Philippe Buache, Carte minéralogique où l'on voit la nature des terrains du Canada et de la Louisiane (Paris, 1752).
- A Map of New-England