Eras and Their Highlights

European Colonialism

When did European colonialism begin?

Seeking out colonies for economic benefit dates back to ancient times: Even the Romans ruled colonies in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. But colonialism took hold during the Renaissance, between 1400 and 1600, when powerful European countries sent explorers to find new lands and forge new trade routes.

Portugal and Spain sought sea routes to India and the Far East. In the process, the Portuguese gained control of what is now Brazil; they also established trading posts in West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Spain gained control of most of Latin America and vast regions of what is now the United States. However, the Dutch, English, and French also had influence in these areas. And of course, the English eventually established thirteen colonies in North America. The English also became a strong influence in India and Africa, while the Dutch gained control of the Indonesian islands (which became the Dutch East Indies).

The results of colonialism were many. While trade was expanded and there was an enormous exchange of raw goods, the colonies were also rife with conflict: Indigenous peoples were killed or forcibly displaced from their lands, and foreign powers fought with each other for control of the same areas (the British and French fought four wars in North America between 1689 and 1763 alone). Further, Europeans brought to these new lands their own languages, religions, and systems of government, imposing their culture, beliefs, and ideologies on native peoples.


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