The European Overseas Empires

"The East offering its riches to Britannia" by Roma Spiridone
"The East offering its riches to Britannia," painted by Roma Spiridone for the boardroom of the British East Asia Company. (Wikimedia Commons/CC0)

Europe is a relatively small continent, especially compared to Asia or Africa, but during the last five hundred years, European countries have controlled a huge part of the world, including almost all of Africa and the Americas. The nature of this control varied, from the benign to the genocidal, and the reasons also differed, from country to country, from era to era, from simple greed to ideologies of racial and moral superiority such as 'The White Man's Burden.' They are almost gone now, swept away in a political and moral awakening over the last century, but the after-effects spark a different news story almost every week.

Why Explore?

There are two approaches to the study of the European Empires. The first is straightforward history: what happened, who did it, why they did it, and what effect this had, a narrative and analysis of politics, economics, culture, and society. The overseas empires began to form in the fifteenth century. Developments in shipbuilding and navigation, which allowed sailors to travel across the open seas with much greater success, coupled with advances in maths, astronomy, cartography, and printing, all of which allowed better knowledge to be more widely spread, gave Europe the potential to extend over the world.

Pressure on land from the encroaching Ottoman Empire and a desire to find new trade routes through to the well-known Asian markets—the old routes being dominated by Ottomans and Venetians—gave Europe the push—that and the human desire to explore. Some sailors tried going around the bottom of Africa and up past India, others tried going across the Atlantic.

Indeed, the vast majority of sailors who made western 'voyages of discovery' were actually after alternative routes to Asia—the new American continent in between was something of a surprise.

Colonialism and Imperialism

If the first approach is the sort you will encounter mainly in history textbooks, the second is something you'll encounter on the television and in the newspapers: the study of colonialism, imperialism, and the debate over the effects of empire.

As with most 'isms,' there is still an argument over exactly what we mean by the terms. Do we mean them to describe what the European nations did? Do we mean them to describe a political idea, which we will compare to Europe's actions? Are we using them as retroactive terms, or did people at the time recognize them and act accordingly?

This is just scratching the surface of the debate over imperialism, a term thrown around regularly by modern political blogs and commentators. Running alongside this is the judgmental analysis of the European Empires. The last decade has seen the established view—that the Empires were undemocratic, racist and thus bad—challenged by a new group of analysts who argue that the Empires actually did a lot of good. The democratic success of America, albeit achieved without much help from England, is frequently mentioned, as are the ethnic conflicts in African 'nations' created by Europeans drawing straight lines on maps.

Three Phases of Expansion

There are three general phases in the history of Europe's colonial expansion, all including wars of ownership between the Europeans and indigenous people, as well as between the Europeans themselves. The first age, which began in the fifteenth century and carried on into the nineteenth, is characterized by the conquest, settlement, and loss of America, the south of which was almost entirely divided between Spain and Portugal, and the north of which was dominated by France and England.

However, England won wars against the French and Dutch before losing to their old colonists, who formed the United States; England retained only Canada. In the south, similar conflicts occurred, with the European nations being almost thrown out by the 1820s.

During the same period, European nations also gained influence in Africa, India, Asia, and Australasia (England colonized the whole of Australia), especially the many islands and landmasses along the trading routes. This 'influence' only increased during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Britain, in particular, conquered India. However, this second phase is characterized by the 'New Imperialism,' a renewed interest and desire for overseas land felt by many European nations which prompted 'The Scramble for Africa,' a race by many European countries to carve up the entirety of Africa between themselves.

By 1914, only Liberia and Abysinnia remained independent.

In 1914, the First World War began, a conflict partly motivated by imperial ambition. The consequent changes in Europe and the world eroded many beliefs in Imperialism, a trend enhanced by the Second World War. After 1914, the history of the European Empires—a third phase—is one of gradual decolonization and independence, with the vast majority of empires ceasing to exist.

Given that European colonialism/imperialism affected the whole world, it is common to discuss some of the other rapidly expanding nations of the period as a comparison, in particular, the United States and their ideology of 'manifest destiny.' Two older empires are sometimes considered: the Asian part of Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

The Early Imperial Nations

England, France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The Later Imperial Nations

England, France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The European Overseas Empires." ThoughtCo, Jul. 6, 2017, Wilde, Robert. (2017, July 6). The European Overseas Empires. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The European Overseas Empires." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).