"I and my companions suffer a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold"
- Conquistador Hernan Cortez, 1519, to the Aztec monarch Montezuma.
Around 1400, Prince Henry the Navigator sponsored a series of Portuguese expeditions which sailed down the African Atlantic coast. This was the unwitting beginning of the European world takeover. Portugal and Spain, newly freed of Arab rule, both set sail for far-off parts. The British and Dutch followed behind as pirates and merchant adventurers. Suddenly, a 400-year race was on, chasing booty, slaves, business, territory and control. Swashbuckling white-men were on the rampage, unstoppably.
At first, white men weren't the only expansionists. While European sailors plied new oceanic sea routes, the Japanese tried taking Korea, the Chinese took chunks of Central Asia, the Ottomans spread into the European Balkans and North Africa, Russia was colonising Siberia and the Moghuls were subjugating most of India. There was an impetus to carve up the world.
By the time the white man came, many African states were in decline, having peaked in the 1300s – Songhai, Mali, Ashanti, Zimbabwe, once great, were now rotting. Fascinated by medieval stories of gold-rich, exotic African kingdoms, European sailors disappointedly reported home that Africans were unexpectedly backward. Actually, they were in cultural recession. This disappointment fed subsequent white attitudes toward black people in times to come.
Europeans weren't initially interested in colonisation – except the Spaniards, who wanted to build a world empire. The Spanish conquistadors quickly overthrew the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans – by mad bravery, trickery and the convenient assistance of epidemics they unknowingly yet conveniently brought. One culture in Amazonia simply disappeared between Portuguese visits just five years apart.
In 1500, South America's indigenous population was around 60 million. By 1900 it was 5 million.
The transatlantic slave trade wasn't thought out in advance. Arabic and African states traded their own captured slaves for European goods. Meanwhile, the new plantations in America sought labour. A sorry triangle of trade grew up, sending goods from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to America and raw materials from America to Europe.
Europeans established trading and strategic bases around the world, at Cartagena, Capetown, Goa, Calcutta, Malacca and Macao, all to become important trading ports. In the Far East the Europeans paid silver for silks, china, spices, tea and other luxuries. China, the world's richest nation, simply sold goods without buying any - in China's eyes, they had everything and needed nothing. This trade imbalance was deviously changed in the 1700s when the British decided to undermine China by trading opium from India. This led to massive national disintegration in the 1800s in China.
Sir Francis Drake was commissioned by the British government as an explorer and admiral after having conducted a profitable pirate career by raiding Spanish galleons. By the 1600s many adventurers like him played power-politics with rulers the world over. Some 'went native', falling in love with Siam, India or Africa.
By the time the 1700s came along sizable trading companies, the earliest multinational corporations, controlled trade, land and sometimes even whole countries in far-flung parts. Subsequently, governments followed, establishing colonial administrations and gaining control of these colonies.
The Spaniards colonised South America systematically, establishing plantations, missions and cities from Texas to Chile. Further north, European settlers, many of them refugees with tragic stories to tell, founded colonies on the east coast of North America in the 1600s.
The white population slowly grew and new nations were born as if established on empty land, when in fact these were the natural territories of people being slowly exterminated. Between the 1780s and 1820s, most of the new European American nations gained independence – a 'new world' had been born.
In 1650, Eurasia was Muslim-dominated – Muslims ruled from Hungary to Indonesia. By 1800, everything was different. Eurasia was by then European-dominated. Britain, rapidly industrialising and isolated from Europe by the Napoleonic Wars around 1800, set out to rule the high seas and to lead the 19th Century colonial race.
The European powers, and also the new upstart nation called USA, set about carving the world into colonies, dominions and client states. By 1900, the race was over. The world was mapped, staked out, under control.
Humanity was jerked into a new way of life, living at the mercy of competing traders, missionaries, commanders and colonialists. Governors, troops and administrators extended European control into the hinterlands. Boundaries were laid down - these were later to cause much trouble. Some of the 'natives' were co-opted into white man's ways, first as servants and later as educated appointees.
Colonialism changed the world – it changed Europe too. Born from this time were USA and Russia, Nigeria, Brazil, Canada, Australia and Malaysia. It brought much interchange, suffering and opportunity, all rolled together.
The world was being incrementally bound into one system, dominated by white man's values, tempted by his gizmos, driven by his engines and disciplined by his guns. Whole societies either broke down or radically changed. Some populations died out while others grew in size. Today, the world is a melting-pot of historic cultures and ethnicities – or perhaps it is an unfolding tapestry of backdrops in a modern movie, with myriad distinct threads in the plot.
Colonial empires died much faster than they grew, mainly between the 1940s and 1970s. The last important colony to be handed back to its own people was Hong Kong, returned by Britain to China in 1997.
Western ways reached their peak of influence during the 20th Century. Capitalism and individualism penetrated people's hearts worldwide. The whole world now watches TV. In Year 2000, the colonial period is gone, yet its effects remain enormous.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
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