The development of imperialism through various stages is given below:
Mercantilism and Early Trading Empires:
The Ottoman Empire, China under the Ming’s and India under the Mughals were at the same stage of development.
They suffered from one major drawback, however, and that was their domination by a centralized authority which did not provide conditions conducive to intellectual growth.
In contrast, the competition between different European powers encouraged the introduction of new military techniques.
For example, the long range armed sailing ship helped the naval powers of the West to control the sea routes. This increased military power combined with economic progress to push Europe forward and ahead of other continents.
The growth of train’s Atlantic trade was spectacular. It increased eightfold between 1510 and 1550 and threefold between 1550 and 1610. Trade was followed by the establishment of the empires and churches and administrative systems.
The Spanish and Portuguese clearly intended their empires in America to be permanent. The goods obtained from America were gold, silver, precious metals and spices as well as ordinary goods like oil, sugar, indigo, tobacco, rice, furs, timber and new plants like potato and maize.
Shipbuilding industry developed around the major ports of London and Bristol in Britain, Antwerp in Belgium and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The Dutch, French and English soon became keen rivals of the Spanish and Portuguese.
This competition encouraged the progress of the science of navigation. Improved cartography, navigational tables, the telescope and the barometer made travel by sea safer. This strengthened Europe’s technological advantage further.
The discovery of America and of the route to the Indies via the Cape of Good Hope had great consequences for Europe. It liberated Europe from a confined geographic and mental cell. The medieval horizon was widened to include influences from Eastern civilizations and Western peoples.
Portugal had a huge empire in “Asia and then in America and Brazil. Colonial revenues brought in the equivalent of 72,000 pound sterling in 1711. This was almost equal to metropolitan taxes.
One special feature of the Portuguese empire was that she made no distinction between her colonies and the metropolis. No separate colonial department was set up till 1604.
France, like Spain and Portugal, carried out expansion in the Americas – in the regions of Canada and Latin America. This was undertaken by individual Frenchmen supported by the Crown with the aim of ensuring supplies of groceries and increasing naval power.
The task of setting up the empire was carried out by the chartered companies. This worked to the advantage of the state as it was at a minimum cost. After 1660s the colonies became royal possessions and royal agents headed the government. French colonial government was as authoritarian as that of Spain.
French was then an absolute monarchy and ruled colonies without giving them any constitutional rights. Local administration and law in the colonies were modeled on those prevailing in France. Her colonial empire suffered from too much state interference.
France made no fiscal profits on her colonies, in sharp contrast to Portugal. This was despite the fact that more than two fifths French exports in 1788 were to colonial governments. By 1789 France lost most of her colonial possessions in America and India to Britain. The crucial weakness was her inferior naval power.
Of the five big European powers, France, Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia, Britain soon emerged as the leader. She had many advantages – the first was a developed banking and financial system.
The first empires represented European ambition, determination and ingenuity in using limited resources rather than European predominance throughout the world. “Christendom is also the proper perspective from which to view the religious drive behind the Spanish justification for empire.”
(Doyle: 110) Doyle further sums up Spanish and British empires: “Spain and Britain focused on trade in the east, on settlement and production in the west, and neither acquired colonies for immediate reasons of national security.”
The old colonialism had its natural limits. Flow of precious metals declined. By the late 18lh Century Spanish and Portuguese power declined and they lost their colonies. Dutch monopoly on shipping ended.
Colonial rivalry between France and Britain ended in Britain’s preeminence. Britain was now the world leader in empire, finance and trade. As Eric Hobsbawm put it, “Old colonialism did not grow over into new colonialism. It collapsed and was replaced by it.”
So Europe’s conquest of America, Africa and Asia from the sixteenth century was possible only because of her mastery of the seas. In this the countries on the Atlantic seaboard, Portugal, Spain, France, Britain’ and Holland, had an obvious advantage because of their geographical location.
Europe’s domination was disastrous for other peoples: the indigenous populations in the Americas were wiped out and twelve million Africans were made slaves between 1500 and 1860.
Europe benefited vastly in this era when merchant capital controlled the world economy. Institutions such as the modern state and bureaucracy and the scientific revolution in knowledge laid the foundation of the modern world.