29. The Columbian Exchange and European Colonialism (1492 – 1776)

Summary The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 led to a profound exchange of flora and fauna, diseases, human populations, technologies and raw materials between Eurasia and Africa on the one side and America on the other side. Western European powers colonized the Americas and controlled trade posts along the coasts of Africa, India and southeast Asia in order to gain control over the international maritime trade. The resulting immense influx of knowledge into Europe led to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

Keywords Domesticated Species; Globalization; History of Western Europe; History of the Americas; Seafaring; Scientific Revolution; Technological Superiority

Columbus Taking Possession

Christopher Columbus arrives in America in 1492. (© L. Prang & Co., Boston, in 1893 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Partially due to the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453, which blocked the trade routes from Europe to the east, European seafarers set out to explore the oceans in the late 15th century in order to find an alternative trade route to India. This led to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, a Genoese who sailed on behalf of the Crown of Castile. In the same year the Christian Reconquista, which had begun with the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, ended by the conquest of the Muslim Emirate of Granada, and Spain started to be a world power. The following centuries were called the Age of Discovery or the Age of Sail. While no long-term intercontinental contacts had emerged from the previous Viking discovery of north America around 1000, the European discovery of America in 1492 had deep impacts both on the civilizations in the Americas (the New World) and in Eurasia and Africa (the Old World), due to the so-called Columbian Exchange of flora and fauna, diseases, human populations, technologies and raw materials.

European diseases killed an estimated 90% of the American natives. Weakened by this catastrophe, and generally being on a lower technological level, the Aztec Empire in today’s Mexico and the Inca Empire along the western side of the Andes were conquered by small armed forces around the Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés in 1521 and Francisco Pizarro in 1533, respectively. Horses, pigs and wheat were brought to the Americas; and maize, potatoes and tomatoes were brought in return to Eurasia. The rich silver mines in the Americas, especially in Potosí in Bolivia, significantly increased the amount of traded silver worldwide, which in turn influenced Sino-European trade. The first naval circumnavigation of the globe was accomplished in 1519-1522, marking a deepening globalization. These developments took place under the rule of the Habsburg king Charles I of Spain (r. 1516-1556), who was also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and who founded the line of the Spanish Habsburgs (1516-1700). The Spanish Habsburgs also ruled the Portuguese Empire in personal union in 1580-1640. After the rule of Charles I, however, the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by his Austrian relatives. Under Habsburg rule Spanish arts and literature flourished and underwent a Golden Age.

Colonisation 1754

Western European colonial empires in 1754, together with the Russian Empire and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. While the western European powers controlled vast areas in the Americas (the New World), they only controlled narrow land stripes in Africa, India and southeast Asia (the Old World). (© User:Andrei nacu / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Brazil was colonized by Portugal after it was discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500. The major part of the Portuguese Empire, however, was set up in the east: Vasco da Gama’s ships reached India via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in 1498, and Jorge Álvares reached China by boat in 1513. Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque captured strategically important trade points such as Ormuz (Iran) in 1507, Goa (India) in 1510 and Malacca (Malaysia) in 1511, and the Portuguese Empire subsequently dominated the profitable spice trade in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century.

Since the late 16th century also Britain, the Netherlands and France became active colonizing powers. The mighty Spanish Armada was defeated by the English and the Dutch fleets in 1588. The new colonizing powers got control over various trade posts in Africa, India and southeast Asia, and they created settlements in the Americas. From the late 16th to the early 19th century these powers engaged in the Atlantic triangular slave trade: black slaves were shipped from west Africa to the Americas to work on plantations and in mines; sugar, tobacco and cotton were shipped to Europe; and textiles, rum and manufactured goods were shipped back to west Africa. Capitalism has its roots in the companies which were formed in these northwestern European countries in the early 17th century and which asked for investments for their overseas operations and later gave back parts of their profits in return, for example in the Amsterdam Stock Exchange which was established by the Dutch East India Company – otherwise known for the colonization of parts of Indonesia – in 1602. European colonialism also went hand in hand with the Christianization of large parts of the Americas, of Australia, the Philippines and of parts of Africa.

Partially due to the influx of knowledge from all over the world, European scholars had to rethink their world view which was up to then dominated by Christianity. In the 17th century, through the works of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, it became clear that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice versa – a realization which is called the Heliocentric Revolution –, and Isaac Newton formulated the fundamental laws of classical mechanics in his work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687. These events were cornerstones of the Scientific Revolution. The Age of Enlightenment, during which traditional beliefs were further challenged in the name of reason, followed in the 18th century. Building on such ideas, the United States declared their independence from Britain in 1776 and could successfully defend it in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Also the Spanish colonies and Brazil became independent in the 1810s and 1820s. While the countries in the New World became independent around 1800, the countries in the Old World, however, would enter a new phase of colonialism and imperialism in the 19th century, due to the Industrial Revolution and the rising British Empire.

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