What moved New England's colonial economy

Europe between colonialism and decolonization

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Metzler

Prof. Dr. Gabriele Metzler

is Professor of the History of Western Europe and Transatlantic Relations at the Institute for Historical Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin and Director of the Affiliated Institute Center Marc Bloch.

Her main research interests are: Change in statehood since 1945; State and Terrorism as well as the History of Western European Societies in the Experience of Decolonization.

From the 15th century, the New World is considered a source of immeasurable wealth in Europe. Those willing to emigrate see the chance for a better life there and private entrepreneurs exploit local raw materials that merchant ships bring to Europe. This is made possible through the use of slaves. But the notion of universally valid human rights that emerged with the French Revolution in 1789 is increasingly calling the prevailing practice into question.

A world map from 1502 shows in the center left the demarcation line from 1494, which, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, separates the areas of influence of Portugal and Spain. (& copy INTERFOTO / Granger, NYC)

The claim of the European powers to divide the world among themselves is often associated with the era of high imperialism in the late 19th century, but it goes back much further. In fact, at no time can it have been raised more emphatically and comprehensively than in the Treaty of Tordesillas, which Spain and Portugal concluded with each other in 1494, mediated by Pope Alexander VI. With this treaty they drew a line between the north and south poles on the map of the world known at the time, which roughly corresponded to today's 46th degree of longitude. What lay east of this line, that is, Africa and Asia, should belong to Portugal; the western part, especially South America, was recognized as a Spanish sphere of interest. An exception was today's Brazil, which was still part of Portugal's sphere of influence, which is why Portuguese is spoken there to this day and not Spanish - which is otherwise common in Latin America.

Five phases of European expansion from the 15th to the 19th century

With this stroke of the pen, which is almost breathtaking from today's perspective, the two dominant sea powers of their time started the expansion of Europe into the world. The historian Benedikt Stuchtey distinguishes five phases in which this reaching out took place: Waren (1.) initially Spain and Portugal were the driving forces, then from the 17th century (2.) with England, France and the Netherlands competitors on the scene, who in turn began to control their own territories (Fig. Map I). In the 18th and early 19th centuries (3.) Great Britain rose to become a global superpower. Around 1770, the Europeans had established important colonial empires, for example in North America (Great Britain, France), South America (Spain, Portugal), India (Great Britain, which soon also ousted France there), Southeast Asia (Netherlands, Great Britain), South Africa (Great Britain, Netherlands) as well as New Zealand and Australia (Great Britain). Admittedly, the first colonies already renounced their respective mother country in this phase: Great Britain lost the 13 colonies in North America in 1776 and 1783, France lost Haiti in 1804, Spain had to give up its possessions in South America in the 1820s and Portugal in 1822 on Brazil.
Shortly afterwards, in 1830, France took Algeria and thus gave the starting signal for the colonial penetration of the African continent (4.), which determined the epoch of high imperialism in the late 19th century. During this time the USA began to establish itself as an imperialist great power. In the war against Spain in 1898 they conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam (5.). The rise of the United States and its actions as a global power have since been an important factor influencing international politics.

The distant world is getting closer
The form and intensity of colonial rule varied widely. In many cases it was just a matter of military bases, which, for example, the British government had built along the West African coast to secure the sea route to India. Sometimes, however, settler colonies also emerged, such as in North America, South Africa or Australia. European states have not always been the driving force behind it. Often there were private trading companies with a royal statute, such as the English one East India Company set the pace for expansion. The economic penetration of the colonial areas also varied: it ranged from the exploitation of local raw materials and the trade in luxury goods to the establishment of large plantation economies, which in turn were dependent on the slave trade. A side effect of colonial rule and economy was a pronounced "ecological imperialism", according to the American historian and geographer Alfred Crosby: With the people from Europe, previously unknown pathogens came to the New World and led to massive deaths of the local population. In addition, plants and animals were moved from their original, natural habitat to new surroundings in order to achieve greater profits there with their cultivation or breeding - which sometimes had serious consequences for the fauna and flora on site.

For the people of Europe, the colonies were far away before the advent of modern means of mass communication - and yet they were very close to them. Because the New World fueled fantasies and worldviews, it was a space of imagination that "the others", long described as "noble savages", populated. The New World was considered a source of immeasurable wealth, which gold and silver imports from South America, for example, seemed to confirm. It was firmly present in exotic goods, for example in spices and expensive materials such as silk, in luxury goods such as sugar, cocoa, coffee or tobacco, but also in intoxicants such as opium. European rulers and upper classes displayed their social status by consuming such luxury goods, while these remained inaccessible for the majority of the population for a long time.

But the colonies also offered the middle and lower classes opportunities for a better life and social advancement. People who were persecuted for religious reasons or who were economically marginalized emigrated en masse to the colonies. The Americas (North, Central and South America) were the preferred destination, but people from Europe also sought their fortune in Southeast Asia, South Africa and Australia. Politically persecuted people also strived for security there. And employment in the colonial system of rule ensured income and social recognition for an aspiring middle class. However: not all went voluntarily. In the 18th and 19th centuries, colonies were also used as penal camps for European prisoners, such as Australia and French Guiana.