If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Americas in 1750

In 1750, European empires controlled the Americas. They extracted resources and tried to impose their will on a trade-intensive world of shifting of social relations. Everywhere, people resisted.

Americans in 1750

By Bennet Sherry
In 1750, European empires controlled the Americas. They extracted resources and tried to impose their will on a trade-intensive world of shifting of social relations. Everywhere, people resisted.

Europeans Empires in the Americas

European empires dominated the Americas in 1750. The largest were Spain’s viceroyalties1 of New Spain and Peru. A viceroyalty is a place governed by a viceroy. A viceroy is a person sent by a monarch to someplace outside of the kingdom, where the viceroy governs on the monarch’s behalf. These stretched from the Andes Mountains to what is now California. The British Empire’s 13 colonies dominated the east coast of North America, while the French controlled much of Canada and the Mississippi River. All three of these empires held island colonies in the Caribbean. The Portuguese maintained a colony in Brazil, while the Dutch and Russians clung to colonies in South America and the Pacific Northwest, respectively.
There were independent states and communities, as well. Indigenous Americans, escaped enslaved people, and others lived and governed at the edges of colonial control. In North America, the Iroquois Confederacy claimed territory from Canada to Kentucky. In other places, smaller communities and tribes governed themselves in ways that rejected and resisted colonial hierarchies, or levels of power.
European states didn’t build empires thousands of miles away from London, Paris, and Madrid for no reason. Like any big business, these empires were expensive. European rulers sent administrators, soldiers, and sailors to their colonies to expand and maintain control. These armies and navies fought wars against Indigenous Americans and against other Europeans.
Map of European colonies in the Americas in 1750. However, even within the shaded areas, there were some who managed to live outside of colonial control. Public domain.
European governments were willing to pay this price in blood and gold because their colonies were hugely profitable. American resources and labor made Western European countries economic powerhouses.

Extraction and control

The resources, labor, and markets of the Americas reshaped life in Afro-Eurasia. American food crops, like potatoes and corn, allowed Europe, Africa, and China to expand their populations. Raw materials from the Americas—such as sugar, fur, cotton, and timber—allowed European workshops to manufacture consumer goods and build huge navies.
With the resources of the Americas, Europeans produced more goods and fed more people. But they needed someone to buy the fur hats, furniture, and finery made in European workshops. Luckily for European producers, European governments controlled access to millions of consumers in their colonies. Colonial governments restricted trade with other European powers and limited production in the colonies. For example, in the eighteenth century, the British Parliament passed laws that limited the production and export of hats and iron goods from their American colonies. Notice they didn’t stop them from sending fur and actual iron, though. Laws like these forced colonists to export raw materials to England while importing consumer goods from English manufacturers. It was like picking tomatoes and lettuce from the garden, then having to buy salad from the only country allowed to chop it up.
This system of colonial resource extraction linked European empires to their colonies and to global networks of trade. The American colonies sent raw materials to Europe in exchange for manufactured goods. In Europe, these raw materials were manufactured into more consumer goods and then traded to African rulers in exchange for people. Europeans enslaved Africans and sent them to the Americas, where their forced labor produced more raw materials. These and many other types of exchange increased the global network of merchants and consumers.

Plantations and enslavement reshape the world

European colonialism and the plantation system reshaped social orders around the world. Anthropologist Anna Tsing describes plantations as “the engine of European expansion. Plantations produced the wealth—and the modus operandi (method)—that allowed Europeans to take over the world.” Europeans used the wealth from their American plantations to fund later conquests in Asia and Africa.
18th-Century Slave Shackles from Tamale, Northern Ghana - International Slavery Museum - Liverpool - England. By Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0.
American resources fed and clothed the world, while plants and animals from Eurasia transformed life in the Americas. In the eighteenth century, American foods increased the global population by a third. We went from 650 million mouths to 1 billion by the nineteenth century. Potatoes and corn from the Americas fed people in Afro-Eurasia. Meanwhile, large herds of European cattle trampled local ecosystems, destroying forests and food sources.
On the plains of the American West, Indigenous Americans adopted the horse into their culture. Europeans brought sugar, a product that reshaped local ecosystems and populations through intensive agriculture and the importation of millions of enslaved people.
Whatever economic limits European governments imposed on their white colonial subjects, others suffered much more. Between 1500 and 1900, Europeans enslaved roughly 12 million African people and transported them to the Americas. Most enslaved Africans were taken to the Caribbean islands and Brazil to labor on sugar plantations. Men were enslaved at higher rates. This created new social dynamics in the Caribbean and also back in West Africa where they were taken from, as women increasingly outnumbered men.
An artistic rendering of the racial hierarchies in the Spanish colonies. “Las Castas Mexicanas,” by Ignacio María Barreda (1777). Public domain.

Hierarchy and resistance

The period from 1500 to 1750 saw the construction of entirely new social structures, identities, and class and racial hierarchies. Caribbean plantation societies were complex. The Spanish government had dozens of formally recognized castas, or categories, for people of mixed ancestry. French and British colonies developed similar racial hierarchies for their subjects. In each European empire, the government attempted to regulate romantic and sexual relations between white colonists and those of indigenous or African descent. In each case, they failed.
European empires imposed a rigid system of racial hierarchies, but the real story is that these categories were fluid. Hierarchies were based on skin color, and people of mixed ancestry often claimed to belong to castas of higher status. Many slave owners had children with women they enslaved. When these children were freed, it further complicated social relationships. Free people of color often owned enslaved people themselves and had more wealth than poor white people. Wealthy white women maintained the households of American plantations, directing enslaved people and servants. These women were responsible for maintaining the boundaries of class and race in plantation societies. So, while wealthy white women were socially subordinate to their husbands in colonial society, they also perpetuated that system.
Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia. By David Edward Cronin, public domain.
Slave revolts were a constant concern. The wealth of European colonial governments depended on the labor of enslaved people, so when harsh working conditions and high mortality sparked revolts, it threatened the lifeblood of empire. Maroons were the descendants of people who had been enslaved but escaped. They established communities in remote areas outside colonial control. In Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and many other islands in the Caribbean, maroons settled in the mountains, in some cases fighting wars against colonial armies. In the southern United States, thousands of maroons fled deep into the Great Dismal Swamp along the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. Many lived there from the beginning of the eighteenth century until the end of the American Civil War.
Colonial authorities imposed their religious, social, and racial ideas on the peoples of the Americas. At the same time, however, in all parts of the Americas, Indigenous Americans and people of African descent adopted and adapted the culture of the colonizers to meet their own needs and beliefs. For example, in Cuba, enslaved people and the descendants of West Africans developed a religion called Santería. Santería combines parts of the Yoruba religion of West Africa with Catholicism, mainly the worship of Catholic saints. In this way and in many others, colonized peoples found ways to hold on to their culture and to co-opt the belief systems their colonizers imposed on them.

The curious case of New Orleans

One region of the Americas that touches upon all the points in this article is that of New Orleans. The city was composed of a mix of Indigenous Americans, Africans, and Europeans. These communities intermingled, although they generally had very unequal statuses. Indigenous Americans had lived in this fertile region for thousands of years, with different tribes, such as the Caddo, Houma, and Choctaw, carving out regions and interacting through networks of exchange. In 1718, the city of La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was officially founded by the European (French) settlers who claimed it as their own. But life in the swamp proved to be more difficult than the French imagined. Hurricanes, disease, and a lack of enthusiasm for “respectable” settlers to the colony meant that the French colony was more of a drain on the finances of the monarch than productive. As part of the European treaties hashed out after the French and Indian (Seven Years’ War), France ceded—or signed over ownership—of the territory to Spain in 1763. The Spanish then ruled over the region for the next 40 years.
Plan de la Nouvelle Orleans Capitale de la Louisiana (Plan for the city of New Orleans, capital of Louisiana), 1728. Public domain.
During the Spanish control of New Orleans, they imposed the racial system of classification of the castas mentioned earlier. But the people who lived in New Orleans embodied the notion that these classifications could be very fluid. This was a city of both enslaved Africans and free people of color, Creoles, French, Spanish, Indigenous Americans, and smaller communities with German and British ancestry. There were also many people living in the colony who were considered “undesirable,” in particular pirates and prostitutes. And while the official faith of both the French and Spanish colony was Catholicism, there were a number of different African, Indigenous, and syncretic faiths as well, including what would become known as voodoo. It was most certainly an eclectic mix of peoples, cultures, and faiths. In many ways, it represents the changing nature and demography of the Americas in the eighteenth century.
New Orleans was also positioned along a thriving network of exchange, as it sat at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which connected the northern regions of the Americas with the Caribbean and beyond to the Atlantic and Latin America. It was, therefore, considered an important region to control. In addition, there was a thriving sugar plantation industry along the river. The Americas were a cauldron of shifting social orders, cultural collisions, and economic exploitation. All of this helped lead to the tension between colonial control and resistance that would launch an age of industrial and political revolutions after 1750. These revolutions would lead to a complete upheaval of European power and colonial control.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt’s World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.