The Impact of Expansion | European Exploration and Expansion

The record of European expansion contains pages as grim as any in history. The African slave trade—begun by the Africans and the Arabs and turned into a profitable seaborne enterprise by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English—is a series of horrors, from the rounding up of the slaves by local chieftains in Africa, through their transportation across the Atlantic, to their sale in the Indies.

American settlers virtually exterminated the native population east of the Mississippi. There were, of course,
exceptions to this bloody rule. In New England missionaries like John Eliot (1604-1690) did set up little bands of “praying Indians,” and in Pennsylvania relations between the Quakers and Native Americans were excellent. Yet the European diseases, which could not be controlled, together with alcohol, did more to exterminate the Native Americans than did fire and sword.

Seen in terms of economics, however, the expansion of Europe in early modern times was more complex than simple “exploitation” and “plundering.” There was, in dealing with the native populations, much giving of “gifts” of nominal value in exchange for land and goods of great value. The almost universally applied mercantilist policy kept money and manufacturing in the home country. It relegated the colonies to producing raw materials—a role that tended to keep colonies of settlement relatively primitive and economically dependent.

While Europeans took the lion’s share of colonial wealth in the early modern centuries, some of the silver from America financed European imports of spices and luxuries from Asia. Few of the improvements in public health and sanitation that Europeans would bring to the East later on had yet come about, nor had greater public order come to India or Africa, as it eventually would. Most fundamentally, colonialism undermined lifestyles and social arrangements that had survived for centuries without offering equally stabilizing substitutes. As a result most native societies were rendered chronically unstable and insecure.

The West has in its turn been greatly affected by its relations with other peoples. Tobacco, brought into Spain in the midsixteenth century, became essential to the pleasure of many Europeans. Maize, or Indian corn (in Europe corn refers to cereal grains in general), was imported from the New World and widely cultivated in Spain and Italy. Potatoes, on the other hand, did not immediately catch on in Europe; in France they had to be popularized in a propaganda campaign. Tomatoes, or “love-apples,” were long believed to be poisonous and were cultivated only for their looks. Tea from China, coffee from Arabia, and chocolate from the New World revolutionized taste.

Among Westerners, knowledge of non-European beliefs and institutions eventually penetrated to the level of popular culture, where it was marked by a host of words—powwow, kowtow, taboo, totem, for instance. In religion and ethics, however, the West took little from the new worlds opened after Columbus. The first impression of Westerners, when they met the cultures both of the New World and of the East, was that they had nothing to learn from them.

Once the process of interchange had gone further, some Europeans were impressed with the mysticism and otherworldliness of Hindu philosophy and religion, and with the ethics of Chinese Confucianism. Others came to admire the dignity and apparent serenity of the lives of many simple peoples. But for the most part, what struck the Europeans was the poverty, dirt, and superstition they found among the masses in India and China.

Yet exposure to these very different cultures stimulated Western minds and broadened intellectual horizons. The first effect only increased the fund of the marvelous and incredible; early accounts of the New World are full of giants and pygmies, El Dorados where the streets were paved with gold, fountains of eternal youth, wondrous plants and animals. Soon, however, genuine observation was encouraged. The collection of early accounts of voyages edited in English by Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616) in 1589 shows the realistic sense and careful observation of these travelers.

The great discoveries helped to revolutionize the economy and society of Europe. In the long process of inflation and expansion, some groups gained and others lost. In general, merchants, financiers, and business people enjoyed a rising standard of living. Those on relatively fixed incomes, including landed proprietors, suffered— unless they turned to large-scale capitalist farming. Governments also suffered unless they could find new sources of income. Wage earners, artisans, and peasants usually did not find their incomes keeping pace with the rise in prices. In short, the effects of expansion were unsettling as well as stimulating.

For Spain the vast empire acquired in the New World both helped and hurt. Perhaps alone among the great powers, Spain was permanently put into decline by the so-called “general crisis” of the seventeenth century. The Catalonian revolt, the Portuguese insurrection of 1640, and the revolt of the Spanish territories in Italy in 1647 made it increasingly difficult for Spain to defend its far-flung empire against other European powers. Britain in particular began to encroach steadily on that empire. By 1670 England and France were negotiating secretly over the future of the Spanish-American colonies.

The death of Philip IV in 1665 brought to the Spanish throne his four-year-old son, and Philip’s widow acted as regent; she was preoccupied with religious questions, and the royal armies were being systematically destroyed in an attempt to defend Flanders against Louis XIV of France. In 1670 Spain agreed by treaty with England to admit the English to the New World trade and recognized British conquest of Jamaica; two years earlier the formal independence of Portugal and its colonial possessions had been conceded. Spain’s European dominance was ended, and with this collapse went the rapid decline of the empire of Philip II, Spanish mastery of the seas between the New World and Asia, and effective Spanish control over South American colonies.

The transition from medieval to modern history was marked by European expansion. Indeed, the making of one vast new nation in North America—at first a product of European history, then an independent piece of that history, and ultimately a major power within that history—was one of the prime results of the colonial empires and one of the hallmarks of the move from medieval to modern times. Even as Spain declined, the fact that its empire would in part be inherited by another centralizing monarchy meant that the world was drawing more into one.

“There is only one world, and although we speak of the Old World and the New, this is because the latter was lately discovered by us, and not because there are two.”* These words were written by a Spaniard in sixteenth-century Peru. By the eighteenth century it was already clear that one system of international politics dominated the world. European wars increasingly tended to be “world wars,” fought on the seven seas and on distant continents. Sooner or later, any considerable transfer of territory overseas and any great accession of strength or wealth in any quarter of the globe affected the international balance of power.

The one world of the eighteenth century was not one world of the spirit; the great mass of Europeans were ignorant of other cultures. But already Western goods penetrated almost everywhere. Already an educated minority was appearing, from professional geographers to journalists, diplomats, and business people, who dealt with what were now quite literally the affairs of the world. Perhaps the most powerful act of imperialism was that the history of the world and the history of Western civilization increasingly seemed to overlap, and that the history of the non-Western world came to be written in the language of the West, with Western place names imposed upon it.

The conventional date for the end of the great Age of Discovery is 1779—the year in which the English explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was killed on the Sandwich (or Hawaiian) Islands. It was Cook who, in three great voyages, made known the full shape of the Pacific Ocean, from Cape Horn to the Bering Strait, from New Holland (present-day Australia) and New Zealand to Japan, and deep into the Antarctic Ocean. There was, of course, much yet to discover, much fame yet to be won, but from now on it would be more in the interior of the continents and not on the seas.

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