In the early modern period explorers representing western European nations crossed vast oceans to discover other civilizations. With superior material and technological strength, especially firearms, Europeans were able to win empires. The motives for European expansion varied from desire to serve God, to glory, gold, and strategic need.
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,
Henry Hudson had found not only the Hudson River but also Hudson Bay in the far north of Canada. In 1670 English adventurers and investors formed the Hudson’s Bay Company, originally set up for fur trading along the great bay to the northwest of French Quebec.
In the late sixteenth century the Dutch had penetrated far into the European Arctic, had discovered the island of Spitsbergen to the north of Norway, and had ranged eastward across the sea named after their leader, William Barents (d. 1597).
The victories of Ivan the Terrible over the Volga Tatars led to the first major advances, with private enterprise leading the way. By the end of the sixteenth century the Stroganov family had obtained huge concessions in the Ural area, where they made a great fortune in the fur trade and discovered and exploited Russia’s first iron mines.
Russian exploration and conquest of Siberia matched European expansion in the New World, both chronologically (the Russians crossed the Urals from Europe into Asia in 1483) and politically, for expanding Muscovite Russia was a “new” monarchy. This Russian movement across the land was remarkably rapid—some five thou¬sand miles in about forty years.
To reach the East all three of the northern maritime powers used the ocean route around Africa that the Portuguese had developed in the fifteenth century. All three secured African posts, with the Dutch occupying the strategic Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the continent in 1652.