Colonial Empires on the Eve of Revolution

Between 1492 and 1750, European powers invaded and conquered much of the Americas. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English had carved out large colonial empires from the Arctic to Patagonia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This article surveys those colonial empires, their dimensions, and key characteristics in 1750.

In the century and a half after 1492, Europeans invaded, conquered, and colonized much of the Americas from Canada to southern South America.

A. The arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 was one of the most important moments in the history of the world.

  1. It began the sustained and ongoing process of exchange between two worlds that had lived in isolation for millennia.
  2. Old World germs decimated Native American peoples, killing perhaps 85–90 percent of them within half a century.
  3. The colonial empires the Europeans constructed became the first powerful step in the rise of Europe to world supremacy in the modern world.

B. Eventually, all the European powers established colonies in the Americas.

  1. The Spanish arrived first and constructed the largest of these empires from what today is the southern United States to southern South America.
  2. The Portuguese carved out a wealthy colony in what is today Brazil.
  3. In the 17th century, the French and English moved into eastern North America and the Caribbean.

The Spanish American Empire in the Americas had been in place for more than 250 years by the mid-18th century.

A. The core regions of Spanish America were Mexico City, Lima, and Havana.

  1. Silver flowed from Mexico and Peru, financing the empire.
  2. Havana formed the great commercial and military gateway to the empire.
  3. The Caribbean, New Spain, and Peru also had the largest and densest populations of Indians and slaves.

B. These were rich regions with well-developed Spanish and Creole elites.

  1. The Creoles and peninsular Spaniards sat at the top of the huge socioeconomic pyramid ruling over large Indian and black slave populations.
  2. A smaller midsection of the pyramid consisted of the growing groups of racially and culturally mixed peoples.
  3. By 1750, the Creoles were increasingly anxious to exert greater control over their homelands in the Americas.

Portuguese America did not get off the ground as a colony until the late 16th century.

A. Brazil emerged after 1560 as an enclave on the coast of eastern South America.

  1. The introduction and spread of sugar cane and the massive importation of African slave labor made Brazil the first major plantation society in the Americas.
  2. At the beginning of the 18th century, the discovery of gold in the mountains in the interior of the southeast made Brazil and Portugal the richest empire in the world.

B. By 1750, Brazil also had a well-developed colonial elite, but one without a strong sense of local identity.

  1. Like Spanish America, the small white elite dominated an enormous non-white labor force that consisted primarily of African slaves and their descendants.
  2. The colony consisted of a few enclaves along the Atlantic coast, with the exception of the gold mining center some 200 miles inland.

French and English America emerge much later than Spanish and Portuguese America.

A. The French begin to explore and set up colonies in the Americas as early as the 16th century, but it is not until well into the 17th century that they develop any substantial settlements.

  1. In North America, their most important colony is in Quebec, but they face continual pressure from the British.
  2. Their most important colony by the 18th century is Saint Domingue, the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
  3. Saint Domingue may be the richest colony in the Americas by 1780, and it has the greatest concentration of slaves in a plantation society anywhere in the Americas.

B. The British are also latecomers to colonization in the 17th century.

  1. In the early 17th century, British colonists begin to establish themselves along the coast of North America, from present day Canada, through New England, and, eventually, to Georgia.
  2. Beginning in the 1650s, the British move into the Caribbean, wresting control of Jamaica, Barbados, and other islands from the Spanish.
  3. In Canada and New England, the colonists develop small-scale farming, commerce, and shipping as their principal activities.
  4. From Virginia to Barbados, they develop slave plantation societies similar to those in Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean.
  5. As we shall see, the small white colonial elites in New England and Canada developed in very different circumstances than their peers in the slave plantation colonies.

C. In all these European colonies in the New World, the European and Europeanized elites would become increasingly restless in the last half of the 18th century.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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