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11.6: Around the Globe

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    Even as the British were actively participating in the Slave Trade in the Atlantic region, they began the process of seizing control of territory in India as well. There, they set up self-contained merchant colonies (called factories) run by the English East India Company (EIC), which had a legal monopoly of trade just as its Dutch counterpart did in the Netherlands. The original impetus behind the EIC was profitable trade, not political power per se.

    Britain, however, eventually came to control India outright. As of the mid-eighteenth century, however, British power in India was limited to its factories, which served as clearinghouses for trade with Indian merchants. In 1756, however, an Indian prince sent an army to Calcutta to drive out the British, whom he hated and resented, resulting in the massacre of hundreds of English noncombatants and thousands of their Indian colleagues and allies. The next year, a small British force of 800 men with 2,000 Indian mercenary troops (called sepoys) defeated the prince at the Battle of Plassey, then began the process of taking over the entire province of Bengal.

    The takeover of Bengal started the slow creep of British power: tax revenue supplemented mercantile revenue, which allowed the British to hire tens of thousands of sepoys, who they armed with modern European weapons. That, in turn, both allowed the British to drive out the French from Indian territories and to dominate Indian princes, thereby seizing yet more Indian territory. In this patchwork fashion, the EIC expanded its power in India over the next century, directly controlling some territories, indirectly controlling others through Indian puppet princes, and economically dominating others. The result was that the EIC, a private corporation backed by the British state, controlled almost all of the Indian subcontinent by the middle of the nineteenth century.

    On the other side of the world, while far less economically important than the Caribbean, North America was still a focus of European colonization. Britain was one of the two major powers – France the other – that colonized areas of the eastern seaboard of North America. While initial attempts at colonization either failed or struggled to survive (e.g. almost all of the original settlers at Jamestown in Virginia were dead by the time more arrived in 1610), the survivors discovered that they could at least grown one cash crop that would both enrich themselves and tempt other Europeans to immigrate: tobacco. Likewise, a relatively small part of the slave trade soon included the importation of slaves to work first the tobacco fields, and then later cotton fields, farther south. Simultaneously, a French explorer named Samuel de Champlain founded the colony of Quebec on the St. Lawrence river. That soon became the center of New France, and its cash “crop” consisted of furs gained through barter with Native American groups or taken by French trappers.

    Until the latter half of the seventeenth century, these were small-scale colonies compared to the vast states of Central and South America. Slowly but surely, however, colonists did arrive in North America, and not always for economic reasons. Britain came to boast the largest population of colonists among Europeans in North America in the seventeenth century because English religious dissenters, Puritans, fled persecution from the Anglican state and began to settle in Massachusetts by the thousands in the 1620s (this was during the period under James I and Charles I before the English Civil War). That said, the North American colonies all remained small and economically unimportant compared to the colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean until well into the eighteenth century.

    Spain, of course, still held the largest overseas empire. The Spanish not only held almost all of South America, all of Central America, and the American West as far north as Oregon, but they held territory in the Pacific island chain of the Philippines as well. South American silver passed through both Spain and the Philippines en route to China, where it paid for luxury goods that were shipped back to Spain. The Spanish crown, especially under a branch of the Bourbon royal family that became the royal dynasty of Spain in 1700, exercised direct control over colonial trade and taxation (rather than relying on a corporation as did the Dutch and English).

    Map of the Americas depicting the Spanish empire, encompassing most of South America and Central America and a large swath of the southern and western parts of North America.
    Figure 11.5.1: Spanish territories in the Americas in the eighteenth century, at the height of their territorial expanse.

    What set the Spanish empire apart from the other overseas empires was the fact that its colonial system suffered from infighting between Spanish-born royal bureaucrats and the creole elites who dominated the Spanish New World itself. Many of these creole elites lived more like traditional nobles in Europe, dominating land-based economies, rather than overseers of a more commercially-based agriculture like the plantations of the Caribbean or Brazil.

    To be clear, South and Central America were important regions within the global trade network, but the Spanish state itself did not enjoy the same level of direct control over, or power derived from, its colonial possessions as did its European rivals over theirs. Instead, the vast Spanish empire was relatively fragmented, with regional elites exercising a high degree of local autonomy. Thus, even the vast wealth still generated within the Spanish empire did not translate into an equivalent degree of state or military power for the Spanish monarchy.

    Meanwhile, the overseas empire of Portugal steadily shrank as its colonies and factories were seized or handed over to the Dutch and British in the seventeenth century. While Portugal had enjoyed a (relatively brief) period of ascendancy that began with the remarkable voyage of Vasco Da Gama in the fifteenth century, it was not able to complete with the better-funded and equipped forces of the Netherlands and Britain, and thus most Portuguese colonies and trading posts were lost over time to its rivals. The major exception was Brazil, which was hugely profitable, and which imported staggering quantities of slaves; Brazil was also the last European state to outlaw slavery, in 1888.

    Finally, while Russia's emergence as an independent state is considered in in a later chapter, it should be noted here that Russian explorers moved eastward across Siberia from the period of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries in search of furs. Furs were so critical to the Russian economy at the time that they were often used in lieu of currency outside of the major cities. In turn, Russian fur trappers and traders arrived at the Pacific in the late seventeenth century. From there, they sailed across to Alaska and then down the west coast of North America, establishing small churches and forts but not colonizing territory (i.e. for the most part, they did not stay and establish families). By the early eighteenth century, the various branches of European exploration and expansion converged in the Pacific Northwest of what later became the United States: in the eighteenth century, Russian fur trappers, French fur trappers, Spanish missionaries, and English explorers all arrived in what eventually became the American states of Washington and Oregon.

    This page titled 11.6: Around the Globe is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Christopher Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.