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READ: Survey of Transoceanic Empires, 1450 to 1750

European ships linked the world’s oceans and created a global network of colonies and commerce. The changes this created would drive social change, conflict and economic disruption in the early modern world.

Oceanic Empires, 1450 to 1750

By Jack Bouchard
European ships linked the world’s oceans and created a global network of colonies and commerce. The changes this created would drive social change, conflict and economic disruption in the early modern world.
If you traveled back to the year 1590 and visited the city of Seville, in Spain, you could easily find passage on a ship heading west across the Atlantic. Two months later, you would arrive at the port of Vera Cruz in New Spain, a Spanish colony in what is now Mexico. If you were feeling brave, you might then travel overland to the west coast and then embark on one of the most dangerous sea voyages possible: crossing the vast Pacific, from Acapulco to the city of Manila in the Philippines, on a massive Spanish galleon. But even this wasn’t the end of the line: at Manila (also a Spanish outpost) you could find a boat to Macao or Guangzhou in southern China, or even to Nagasaki in Japan. In these ports you could find a Portuguese ship headed to Goa in India, center of the Portuguese empire in Asia. From there, a long and dangerous voyage would carry you around the continent of Africa and back to Seville, having circled the globe by water.
Early 17th Century Japanese image of Portuguese merchants and sailors visiting Japan, as well as a Catholic church. Many of the visitors are probably from other parts of the Portuguese Empire in Africa and Asia. Mary Griggs Burke Collection, The Met, public domain.
As you moved over the world’s oceans you would pass through different waters and different empires. At each stop you’d encounter a new point in a global network of trade and colonies, and the different states competing to control them. In each encounter you’d meet the communities that kept these new, networked empires functioning, often in unexpected ways: Malay sailors running Portuguese ships in Goa; Cantonese merchants selling to Spanish officials in Manila; enslaved African workers offloading European ships in Nagasaki; Italian financiers and Nahuatl laborers in the streets of Vera Cruz. Not many people undertook (voluntarily or involuntarily) such a long and dangerous voyage, but the fact that it was possible tells us something about how the world changed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Long voyages weren’t new, but the global network sure was.

Transforming oceans, connecting the world

The sixteenth century’s global links which could take you from Seville to Manila and back—7,500 miles each way—had their roots in the fifteenth century, when several important changes began to take shape:
  • The establishment of direct and permanent links between all the world’s major oceans, by mariners
  • An increase in the scale, scope, and intensity of global networks and exchange—the Columbian Exchange
  • The rise of new “maritime empires” and their colonies, especially in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans
  • The development of new techniques and technologies to manage these empires and commercial routes
The earliest European maritime exploratory voyages focused on the long western coast of Africa, which generations of Portuguese navigators slowly charted across the fifteenth century. They sought access first to trade and markets in coastal Africa, and then directly to the Indian Ocean. Then, in 1492 a Spanish voyage you’ve probably heard of reached the Caribbean successfully, establishing a route to and from the Americas. Six short years later, a Portuguese voyage reached India by sailing around Africa and back. Together, the two voyages linked Europe to the Americas, West Africa, and the Indian Ocean world. Within a decade, Spanish colonists seized islands in the Caribbean, and Portuguese navies descended upon the mercantile cities of India. In the process, Europeans encountered communities and cultures new—and sometimes wholly unexpected—to their experience. At the same time, their arrival was often met with active and successful resistance by local communities.
In the early 1500s, the Portuguese focused on seizing crucial points to gain access to trade and control of waterways. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Portuguese established fortified coastal trade posts, then later they planted colonies in Brazil. In the Indian Ocean, Portuguese violently seized key cities in which they controlled trade, exacting fees from local merchants and dispatching the most valuable goods back to Europe. The result was an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, but it was an empire of widely distant points: a city here, a fort there, a few ships in between.
In the Atlantic, Spain began by colonizing islands in the Caribbean Sea, but quickly leapt beyond islands to the mainland, so that by the 1550s, a series of wars and epidemics instigated by Spanish freebooter conquistadors had brought much of Mexico, Central America and the Andes under Spanish control. In their new colonies the Spanish mined silver, a precious metal used globally as currency, which was soon moving along the new global maritime trade routes to Europe, India, and east Asia. In these same colonies settlers used the forced labor of indigenous American and enslaved Africans to produce valuable crops like sugar, tobacco, rice and dyewood.
From non-European perspectives, this overseas expansion could look different. In the Indian Ocean, Europeans were often seen as interlopers, a small number of ships in a sea already filled with maritime traffic. But over in places like sub-Saharan Africa, China and Japan, Europeans arrived as traders who had to work within existing powerful states and established rules. Meanwhile in the Caribbean and Americas, the arrival of Europeans brought about violent warfare, epidemic disease, land grabs and widespread slavery. In all these encounters Europeans relied heavily on local knowledge and labor to build new connections and to control water and land. More than anything, the new colonies and empires were adaptations to local settings

Maritime empires

Historians call these empires “maritime empires.” To be sure, they were state-centered (Spain, Britain, France) with rule over colonies, conquered territories, trade posts, and military outposts. But they relied entirely on waterways to link the coasts, islands and port cities which they controlled. The resulting far-flung empires were global in scale—and that scale was new. The Spanish Empire, in 1590, controlled the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and the Andes, but it didn’t stop there. They were also in the Philippines, parts of North Africa and the Mediterranean, and even had influence over eastern Canada. By the 1750s, Britain and France were fighting inter-imperial wars simultaneously in Europe, North America, the Caribbean and India. This was a major change in global politics.
Conquering, managing and defending a maritime empire was a costly prospect. For this reason, early European expansion relied heavily on what we might call private actors. Noblemen, merchants and warlords were given the freedom and power to explore, seize, and develop new territories and seas in exchange for legal protection. This allowed states to shift the burden of cost to private actors, while gaining the benefits—you know; taxes, territory, trade—of new conquests.
But then in the seventeenth century business was no longer limited to individual actors, because that’s when states licensed private associations called joint-stock companies to undertake the financial burden of empire.1 In North America, for instance, the French and British would use private joint-stock companies to fund the first settlements at Virginia, New England and New France. Over time, many exercised so much authority in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans that they were more like states than companies. For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the most powerful of these was the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the flow of trade from the Indian Ocean and ruled over colonies in what is today Indonesia.
Map of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) world, by Susan Reese. ©Laura Mitchell
European maritime empires found ways to manage their new territories, but faced challenges, choices and unintended consequences which proved much harder and more disruptive to resolve. How should they manage the flow of exchange unleashed by maritime commerce—through careful control or free trade? What would be the social and legal place of new “creole” populations in the Americas, fusions of European, indigenous and African cultures in the Americas? How would Europeans respond to new questions of race, especially as the Atlantic slave trade expanded? How should empires respond to resistance? These are the kinds of debates the new maritime empires unleashed, and which heated up by the seventeenth century.

Imperial rivalries

As maritime empires proved successful, new and competing powers stepped in. By 1600, the Netherlands, France, and England aimed to compete with Spanish control of the Atlantic and Portuguese influence in the Indian Ocean. The Dutch would follow the Portuguese path of a point-based empire. In the Indian Ocean, the Dutch East India Company seized the East Indies and ports in India. Ruthless, opportunistic and extremely efficient, Dutch merchants and mariners were exceptionally good at expanding overseas commerce and controlling the flow of goods and finance. They made the Dutch one of the most powerful economic forces on the planet, and its capital Amsterdam a hub of global commerce.
Dutch control would not last beyond the seventeenth century, and England and France would emerge as the rivals to replace them. Both England and France had established colonies in North America in the early seventeenth century, and in the Caribbean by the 1650s. This occurred just as a major change was taking place in the Atlantic economy. Sugar, the sweet food-drug, was suddenly in high demand in Europe. Supplying it required intensive production in the tropical Americas, giving rise to plantation economies. By 1700, the new British and French colonial projects prompted a fierce rivalry, and began a century of wars between these two global maritime empires.
The world looked radically different in 1750 than it had in 1450, or even 1590. You could still sail from Seville to Manila and back, but there were more European empires and now companies to encounter, and conflicts between them. Far more ships were crossing the seas, carrying goods produced by forced labor in Atlantic colonies and Indian ports. The still unresolved questions of how to control commerce, and how to integrate and organize new cultures and societies, would become a focal point for debate and would explode in the Age of Revolutions, setting the stage for our modern world.
Author bio
Jack Bouchard is a historian of fishing, food and island environments in the early Atlantic. He serves as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Culture project

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