European World Empires





Colonial Rivalries

The Colonization of North America and the Caribbean

The Seven Years War

The Revolutionary Wars

Industrialized Imperialism

The Scramble for Africa (and other places)

The High Imperial Age

The Decline of European Empires


This is an introductory article to an astonishing chapter in world history. It deals with the overseas colonial empires of the European nations.


During the Age of Discovery, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal and Spain pioneered European exploration of the world, and went on the found large overseas empires.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to venture out into the Oceans. Their first overseas territory was the North African town of Ceuta, which they captured in 1415. Then, under the direction of a leading member of their royal family, Prince Henry “the Navigator”, Portuguese sailors began sailing down the coast of Africa and out to the Atlantic islands. To do this they exploited recent innovations in navigation, cartography and shipbuilding.

Their ultimate intention was to find a maritime route to the source of the spices which found such a high price in Europe – and the spice trade would play a large part in the development of early overseas empires.

In the 1450s Portuguese ships began returning from the West African coast with lucrative cargoes of gold, ivory and slaves. In the late 1480s Portuguese explorers sailed round the tip of Africa from the Atlantic into the Indian Oceans, proving that there was a sea route to the east and its spices. In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India, and within the next few decades the Portuguese had established a string of fortified trading posts along the coasts of West and East Africa, Arabia, India and South East Asia. Through this network of outposts they dominated the sea-borne trade of spices and other goods to Europe.


This Portuguese network was hardly an empire, but it showed other Europeans how profitable overseas adventuring could be. The next European nation to start on this activity swiftly created one of the largest empires the world had yet seen.

The kingdom of Spain had recently come into being with the union of the crowns of two smaller kingdoms, Castile and Aragon. The Spanish were a warlike people who had spent centuries fighting the Muslims who had occupied most of their country almost eight hundred years before. The united kingdom of Spain ousted the last of the Muslim state from Spain in 1492. In the same year they commissioned an Italian sailor to find out whether it was possible to sail to the Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic.

Christopher Columbus discovered the islands and coasts of what he thought was Asia, but subsequent expeditions showed to be a completely unknown landmass. These expeditions little-by-little charted the Caribbean islands and Atlantic coasts of the Americas (named after one of the explorers, Amerigo Vespucci). These were all claimed for Spain, with the exception of a section of the coast of South America, which was visited by a Portuguese expedition under Pedro Cabral in 1500 and claimed for Portugal. The land behind this coast was named after a reddish wood found there called Brazil.

By the end of the 15th century the Spanish had established small settlements on the Caribbean islands of Cuba and San Domingo.  In the first few decades of the 16th century, however, the situation was completely transformed by two expeditions into the interior of the Americas. the first of these, under the conquistador Henan Cortes, ventured into central Mexico and discovered a large state there, the Aztec Empire. Through a mixture of great good fortune, amazing courage and enterprise, and breath-taking ruthlessness, Cortes’ tiny band succeeded in overthrowing the power of the Aztecs and laying the foundation of Spanish rule in the region. Other conquistadors soon consolidated and extended this rule, across present-day Mexico and central America, and up into the southern USA.

Meanwhile, another small expedition, under Francesco Pizzaro, had achieved similar success in South America, against the huge Inca Empire. Just as in Mexico, succeeding expeditions firmly established Spanish control and pushed its boundaries steadily outwards across the continent.

Very soon the Spanish had found Potosi and other silver mines, and were shipping quantities of this precious metal back to Spain. The wealth that this brought was the basis upon which this nation became the leading European power in the second half of the 16th century and early 17th century.

The long process of expanding its power across most of South America took Spain well into the 18th century. By then it was the largest empire the world had yet seen. As well as territories the Americas, it also comprised the Philippines (named after Philip II of Spain).

Meanwhile, the Portuguese had been expanding their settlements in Brazil. The establishment of sugar plantations there transformed the economic situation of the colonists there. Both here and in the Spanish territories, however, the demand for labour greatly outstripped the supply, a gap which was filled by the shipping of black captives purchased on the coast of Africa to where they were needed in the Americas. The shipments of silver and sugar greatly added to the wealth of the home countries of Spain and Portugal.

Colonial Rivalries

In 1580, king Philip II of Spain inherited the crown of Portugal. For the next 60 years Portugal and its far-flung network of overseas possessions would be ruled from the Spanish capital, Madrid.

By this time, the Reformation had been unsettling Europe for several decades, and the Catholic king of Spain was in a determined fight against Protestantism. His rebellious subjects, the Dutch, were the particular objects of his wrath, together with their allies, the English.

These were both seafaring peoples, and the long, difficult-to-defend shipping routes linking the Spanish and Portuguese to their overseas interests were ideal targets for their enterprising sea captains.

At first, the Dutch and English were content to wage a privateering war against Spanish and Portuguese shipping; but at the end of the 16th century and in the early 17th century they broadened their activities by muscling in on the overseas trade for themselves, and also starting to acquire colonies of their own. In these operations they were joined by France, which, though Catholic like Spain, felt threatened by Spain’s aggressive behavior towards its neighbors. In any case, it was eager to carve out a place for itself in the new trading world.

With its smaller population, Portugal was unable to effectively defend its overstretched network of trading posts, and the Dutch were the first to take full advantage of this to grab the spice trade for themselves. From the end of the 16th century Dutch merchants were forming companies to trade in the East Indies. These companies amalgamated to form the Dutch East India Company in 1602. This company organized fleets which, in a series of audacious moves, captured key Portuguese bases in the East Indies.

The Dutch were followed by the English and French East India companies (in fact the English EIC was founded two years before the Dutch one, but was slower off the mark in actually organizing trading fleets). Neither of these, however, was able to break into the Dutch hold on the East indies, and had to content themselves with establishing trading posts on the coasts of India.

Throughout the 17th century and well into the 18th century the European presence in Africa, South and South East Asia, and even more so in East Asia (China and Japan), was effectively confined to coastal trading posts, dependent upon the good will of local rulers. The only exceptions to this were at the Cape of Good Hope, where a colony of farmers were established to provision Dutch East India Company ships on their way to and from the East, and around Batavia, the main Dutch base in the East Indies, where the Dutch built up a network of alliances with local rulers to secure their position there.

The Colonization of North America and the Caribbean

As for establishing overseas colonies, these had to be on those coasts and islands undefended or weakly defended by the Spanish and Portuguese. The North Atlantic coast of America and the numerous islands of the West Indies were ideal for this. In the first half of the 17th century, French, Dutch, Danish, and above all English settlements were established along the Atlantic seaboard of present-day USA and Canada. These coalesced into 13 colonies, eventually all English-controlled, along the US coast, and a French colony in Canada. From their colony, French traders fanned out and established a number of trading posts over a vast area in the St Lawrence and Great Lakes region. Similarly, an indeterminate but enormous territory was claimed by the English Hudson’s Bay Company in northern Canada, in which was established some widely scattered trading posts.

Meanwhile, in 1621 the Dutch West India Company was founded with the express purpose of taking the hugely profitable sugar trade of Brazil from the Portuguese. It set about capturing Portuguese slaving forts on the coast of Africa, and established a settlement in northern Brazil, around  Recife (1637). This was a direct threat to the Portuguese, and could not be ignored; and by 1654 the Dutch had been driven out again.

The Dutch then set up sugar plantations in some West Indian islands they had seized from the Spanish. the English and French followed their example in the middle and later 17th century, both by occupying Caribbean islands and capturing or establishing forts along the coast of West Africa to act as bases for the slave trade. In this way they ensured black captive labour for their sugar plantations.

The Atlantic sugar trade, and the related slave trade, expanded dramatically on the later 17th century and throughout almost all the 18th century. It brought immense profits to European merchants and plantation owners, and significantly contributed to the growth of wealth in European society of the period, and to the eventual birth of the Industrial Revolution.

The Seven Years War

The acquisition of such lucrative real estate by European powers inevitably increased the rivalry between them. It sparked maritime wars between the Dutch, French and English (or, after the 1707 Union between England and Scotland, the British), in which overseas possessions – particularly the Caribbean islands – changed hands back and forth between one power and another.

In these struggles the first modern navies were forged, and Britain’s Royal Navy soon gained an edge over all its rivals. The reason for this was that, being an island, Britain’s defenses did not require large armies to defend land frontiers, but instead required ships to keep invaders at bay. This had been clear at least as far back as the late 16th century, when a Spanish attempt to launch a great invasion of England had been thwarted by determined English warships and (probably more so) by stormy weather.

In turn, possessing a navy second to none meant that Britain was able to get the upper hand in the struggle for overseas territories. The country gradually outstripped its rivals in its world-wide reach, and the wealth that flowed from it.

The Seven Years War (1756-63: it merged with the French and Indian Wars in North America, 1754-63) was a watershed in the history of the European empires. In the previous decades, France had been making an exerted effort to build up its power in both North America, but a network of forts and trading posts from the St Lawrence, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, hemming in the English colonists on the Atlantic coast. In India, too, the French had been building up alliances with local rulers aimed as securing their own presence and undermining that of the British.

During the Seven Years War the British navy gained a series of decisive victories over the French. Even though the most decisive of these was in European waters, it ensured that Britain controlled the routes to and from America and India. Thus supported by the Royal Navy, British armies in Canada and India were able to utterly defeat French armies, along with their allied native forces. They emerged from the war completely dominant over their European rivals in both theaters. Canada passed from French to British rule, and in India the British took effective control over Bengal, which had been under a pro-French prince. This gave the British a base from which to campaign against hostile Indian rulers, annexed more territory, and to forge an expanding network of alliances with other princes.

The Revolutionary Wars

The Seven Years War had another consequence, less advantageous to the British. It freed the colonists in British North America from the threat of invasion from French-held territory in North America. This, plus growing friction between the colonists and the British government over issues of taxation, led to revolt. In the war that followed, the French sent a powerful fleet to support the colonists, and the unprepared Royal Navy temporarily lost control of the waters off the North American coast – just long enough for the Americans to defeat the British army there. The Thirteen Colonies won their independence from Britain and formed the United States of America.

This was a blow to British pride, but trade between the USA and Britain was soon surpassing former levels;  in any case, at this time the sugar islands of the Caribbean were far more valuable to Britain than any of their other overseas possessions. British global interests continued to expand in India, as we have seen, and also with the discovery and settlement of Australia and later New Zealand, both under British auspices.

Defeat of France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) left Britain as the predominant naval and colonial power, a position it kept throughout the 19th century and beyond. This dominance helped ensure that no more serious naval or colonial clashes took place between rival European powers.

During the wars the British government, under pressure from a popular campaign, had outlawed the slave trade (1807). Other European powers followed this lead, and in the next decades slavery itself was ended in all the European empires.

In the 1820s the countries of Latin America threw off the rule of their European masters, Spain and Portugal. This left only Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and various small territories in Africa still under Spanish rule, and some possessions on the African coastline, plus enclaves in the East Indies (Timor), India (Goa) and China (Macau) to Portugal.

Industrialized Imperialism

In fact, Britain was now by far the largest imperial power. Whereas other European nations ruled only small territories scattered around the world, such as islands or coastal enclaves in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean or the East Indies, Britain held the huge mass of India, along with major stretches of territory in Canada, Australia and South Africa. In the first half of the 19th century she expanded her empire with new acquisitions in South East Asia (Singapore, Malaya) and New Zealand; and by pushing out the frontiers of white settlement in Canada and Australia.

In Britain, the early 19th century saw the Industrial Revolution begin to transform society. This soon spread to other western European countries such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It also spread to North America.

This development generated completely new levels of wealth, and opened up a huge gap between Western economic and technological capabilities and those of other countries. It created a hunger for new resources and new markets – both things which overseas colonies could provide (or so it was thought).

It was not long before industrialization was being applied to warfare, and within a few decades European armies and navies were being equipped with ironclad warships, machine guns and other destructive weapons of war. Just as important was the huge improvement in logistical infrastructure, such as railways, steamships, telegraphy, and other radical improvements on transport and communications. These enabled large bodies of troops to be transported quickly around the world. The forces of non-Western nations were completely outclassed, and this opened the way to a surge of European imperialism in the later 19th century.

The first manifestation of this was the growing imperial rivalry between Britain and France. The latter had started expanding her overseas possessions again, with the occupation of Algeria in 1830. Then, the French used the pretext of mistreatment of their missionaries to invade Vietnam in 1858, and in the following decades step-by-step gained control over that country, along with Cambodia and Laos. Together these came to form French Indochina.

In 1869 a French company completed the construction of the Suez canal. At a stroke sailing times between Europe and the east were cut by up to a half. This allowed trade to expand, and strengthened the European powers’ hold over their eastern territories. But it also sparked Anglo-French competition for control of Egypt, and then of other parts of Africa.

The Scramble for Africa (and other places)

Until the late 19th century, there was very little expansion of European power into the interior of sub-Saharan Africa. A major reason for this was the lethal diseases endemic to the region, above all malaria, to which Europeans were particularly prone. It was not until the drug quinine became widely available, from the 1840s, that this could change.

From the mid-century, European interest in Africa was piqued by the accounts of explorers into the interior, most famously David Livingstone. He told of peoples in need of civilization, of protection against Arab slavers, and of course of Christianity. He also referred to wide expanses of underused fertile land just waiting for white settlers to come and exploit properly.

In the 1870s, rivalry between France and England increased as both sent out expeditionary missions to scope out prospects and claim new territory. Other European powers soon joined in. The king of the Belgians used his agents to bring the Congo under his personal control. The newly-formed states of Germany and Italy yearned for the prestige and economic advantage which they felt flowed from overseas colonies. All wanted to deny other countries a large stake in this new frontier. Tensions rose, diplomatic spats occurred, war threatened. Finally, the Berlin conference of 1885 divided the African continent into spheres of influence between them.

In the decades which followed the European powers occupied their respective spheres: Britain took much of East and southern Africa, plus Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa; France took most of the rest of West Africa; Germany took chunks of East and South West Africa, plus Cameroon in West Africa; Belgium took the enormous Congo basin (or rather, king Leopold of the Belgians did, as a personal fief – probably the most brutal example of European colonialism since the days of the slave trade); Italy took Libya and parts of the Horn of Africa (but, humiliatingly, was repulsed by the Ethiopian army from occupying that country), and Portugal took the opportunity to extend its coastal holdings inland to take in Angola and Mozambique.

The last decades of the 19th century also saw a rush for territory in the Pacific, with France, Germany and Britain – and the USA in Hawaii – taking possession of different island groups.

In inner Asia, too, mutual fears between Russia, occupying ever more territory in central Asia, and Britain, in India, led to diplomatic maneuvering. This was given the label, “the Great Game”. It was only when the rise of Germany as a military power caused both Russia and Britain to fear her more than each other, that tensions subsided. The outcome was that they agreed that Afghanistan become a British protectorate, while control of Persia (Iran) be divided between them.

The High Imperial Age

By the end of the century, the European nations (along with the USA) had divided almost the entire world between them. Only a few countries still retained their independence, and this often only in a formal sense. China, though still ruled by her emperors, was prostrate, with different European powers having a controlling interest in different parts – the huge country had only been spared occupation by them because of he jealousies between them. Siam (Thailand) was formally independent, but it was weak and vulnerable. Ethiopia had beaten off an Italian attempt at conquest, but remained backward and irrelevant to the wider world. The Ottoman Empire remained largely intact outside Europe, but European powers exercised a controlling influence over many areas: Egypt and the Sudan (Britain), Libya (Italy), Syria and Lebanon (France), the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf (Britain).

Only Japan remained truly independent. It did so by successfully adopting Western institutions and technologies and playing the Europeans at their own game.

It was in the late 19th century that the whole idea of imperialism took hold in many European countries. Previously, the possession of overseas territories had been seen largely as a commercial asset. For example, missionary activity was frowned upon by many colonialists where it compromised commercial gain (the missionaries had a habit of irritating colonists by standing up for locals’ rights, and angering local leaders by challenging traditional beliefs and practices; they thus increased tensions on both sides).

In this period, however, overseas empire became a source of great pride to Europeans. They also saw imperialism as a way of spreading superior Christian European civilization to peoples previously denied its benefits. The fact that the colonial powers had to deal with many rebellions against their rule never dented this sense of mission, all too often underpinned by a feeling of racial superiority.

In these years, to be an imperial nation was to sit at the top table of nations. It is no wonder that Japan and the United States joined their ranks by acquiring empires of their own (Japan in Korea and northern China, the USA in the Philippines and the Caribbean, both taken from Spain in a short war in 1898).

Britain’s dominant position overseas meant that London became the commercial and financial capital for the global economy, and her financial institutions acquired a great deal of control over the economies of distant countries, especially in South America and Asia. Historians have called this Britain’s “informal empire”.

The Decline of European Empires

From the point were European empires almost covered the world, the 20th century saw the near-complete disappearance of Europe’s overseas empires.

World War I placed enormous strains on the military, financial and manpower resources of the European powers, Britain and France in particular. The costs of maintaining empire were now more onerous for them.

The post-Word War I years saw the rise of resistance movements, which the colonialists found hard to handle. Their mis-steps, such as the British massacre of Amritsar, made matters worse.

World War II not added further enormous costs, all but bankrupting Britain, for example, it also delivered an enormous blow to imperial prestige when Japan overran French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and British Singapore, Malaya and Burma. For the first time an Asian people had comprehensively defeated a number of European colonial regimes.

All these possessions were restored to their former rulers after the war; however, the subject peoples were no longer in awe of their imperial masters. The Dutch and French faced bitter struggles which eventually resulted in their expulsion.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Britain and France, the leading imperial nations, quickly moved to grant their colonial possessions independence. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s more than fifty new sovereign nations emerged from imperial domination. For most, the transition experience was peaceful, but for some – Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaya, Algiers, Palestine, Zimbabwe – their independence was accompanied by violent conflict. None suffered more than the Belgian Congo, whose colonial masters suddenly withdrew from a huge region ill-prepared for independence in 1960, leaving an anarchic situation which has yet to fully work itself out. the Congo region remains troubled to the present day, and indeed has experienced the worst fighting anywhere on the planet since World War II.

Another colonial aftershock occurred in South Africa, where the white minority clung onto power until 1994.

In the 1970s the Portuguese were reluctantly forced to withdraw from their colonies. However, by the end of the 1970s the era of European empire was well and truly over. Only a few small islands or enclaves were left, and the most important of these, Hong Kong and Macau, were handed over China in 1997 and 1999 respectively. Some remnants of empire continue to cause tensions – the British-ruled Falkland Islands, are claimed by Argentina, and Gibraltar is claimed by Spain. Otherwise the leftovers of this extraordinary episode in world history are tiny islands or scattered outposts, too small to be viable sovereign states in their own right.