In the 16th century, there was a wave of European explorers, missionaries, and merchants setting out to seek unknown lands. With the knowledge that they gained about Asia, these pioneers would sow the seeds of the foundations for great empire building. Their successors, mercantile companies, would, as foreigners, establish contact with Asian empires, request trade privileges, and defend their trade routes. A few generations down, mercantile imperialism would be replaced by territorial imperialism, where the monarchs of the European nations would become the heads of state for their country's colonial lands.
In hindsight, the consequences of the colonial expansion seem inevitable; yet, it is the motives and factors that led to the expansion of these colonial empires that intrigue us the most. In understanding the factors that led to the European imperial expansion, it is imperative to answer three questions:
Why did the Europeans want to explore Asia?
Why did the Europeans desire to establish relations with Asia?
What would lead them to later establish colonial control over the lands that they conquered?
In answering these questions, I will examine the historical events from three lenses: religion, money, and power, each being viewed as a driving force behind the European explorers and merchants. In doing so, I aim to seek out a unifying theme behind the expansion, and paint a general picture of the European activities and their consequences on historical events.
Economic Plunder and Development
Europe in the 15th century had just come out of tumultuous times – after 7 crusades, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and Inquisition, and the long, unglamorous period of the Dark Ages, Europe was on the brink of development. A long period of relative poverty and disorder was probably enough for the Europeans, who by now, were desiring change. Early explorers sought wealth and glory – glory that would come at home after successfully bringing back the wealth. Indeed, in the poem, 'The Trumpet of Fame', written by Henry Roberts in 1595, he pens:
“The gaine is yours, if millions home you bring... That Phillips Regions may not be more stord, With Pearle, Iewels, and the purest gold1”
Indeed, Pavlov's bell rings here – not for food, but for money and gold. Amongst Englishmen, and amongst other Europeans, there was a burgeoning enthusiasm for them to seek out fertile new lands and new wealth to enrich themselves in the relatively barren land of Europe. In fact, Prince Henry of Portugal was one of those men. Seeking a route to Asia without having to cross paths with the 'Infidels' – the Muslims, who monopolized trade with Asia at that time – was one of his paramount objectives. He wanted, amongst other desires, to open profitable new trades with Christian peoples beyond the land of the Muslim Moors.2 For Portugal, a poor and backward country at that time, Prince Henry's vision of profitable trade would be a strong motivator for them to seek out Asia by sea. The wonderful dream of riches, wealth and fame, illustrated in 'The Trumpet of Fame', would prove too enticing for many explorers and merchants to resist. Indeed, not only would the Portuguese seek out Asian trade; once news of Portuguese success spread through Europe, the Dutch, English and French would follow suit too.
The Dutch would be successors to the Portuguese, replicating and building upon their success to grow even bigger than the Portuguese did. After Portuguese power declined in Asia, the Dutch's initial successes would help to galvanize more groups of merchants in Europe to trade with Asia. Even though the first Dutch venture was largely a failure, it would have made contact with Bantam in Indonesia (later to become their colony), and bring home “enough spices to inspire the formation of several new companies and the dispatch of 22 ships for the Indies in 1598”.3 That isolated successful voyage, led by Jacob van Neck, managed to galvanize the merchants in London to form the British East India company4, which had the mission of seeking out trade in the East Indies. Behind the response by the British was this innate sense of competition – nationalism had taken foothold in Europe, and it was in the British merchants' best interests to compete with the Dutch merchants for a share of the lucrative trade with the East Indies. Competition, in this case, would be a potent force in driving merchants out of their homelands in search of trade.
So far, we have seen that a desire for wealth and rivalry between nations provided a strong impetus for European merchants to seek out Asian trading partners, and as history tells us, it would lead to mercantile imperialism. The Portuguese would first establish a monopoly in India and Indonesia, only to lose it to the British and the Dutch respectively. Yet, it seems unlikely that mercantile imperialism would lead to territorial imperialism. Peaceful trade, without interfering in local politics, was what all merchants of that time desired. Profits were foremost on their mind. The last thing on their mind would be to meddle with local politics and disrupt the order that promoted trade.5 Yet, this ideal situation never happened. European merchants would soon be involved in political struggles in Asia, and would leverage their collective clout in determining the stability of the lands they traded with. There is one important link in the transition between the two types of imperialism – the formation of the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) (also known as the Dutch East India Company).
The EIC was established with the original aim of seeking out profitable trade abroad, and brining the profits home. In particular, their original motive was to “obtain a share of the Indonesian trade in pepper and spices”.6 Pepper and other spices were important to the economies of European nations, for their availability for use as meat preservatives greatly determined the livelihood of the European states' citizens. Spices, being of paramount importance to the Europeans, would be heavily contested for abroad. Not only would the lucrative profits be a big draw, their necessity at home would be a driving force for the merchants to go out and compete for control of the spice trade. Being able to establish a monopoly over the spices would give the merchants' homelands an advantage over rival nations. Nationalism and mercantilism, clearly, are forces at play. Yet, the EIC and the VOC would serve another role later: they would become organized institutions through which merchants, and later the Crown, would exert colonial control over the mercantile colonies, turning them into imperial colonies.
Between the EIC and the VOC – and hence the British and the Dutch – the motives were clear – seek out profitable trade. Yet, the VOC was formed in response to the formation of the EIC – clearly, national rivalry played a part.8 On a wider scale, the lucrative profits that could be won abroad drew envy from rival powers. Indeed, the competition was so intense, that military arms were used to enforce trade monopolies. In fact, when the English Red Dragon arrived in India in 1612, the Portuguese attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to drive them away from Surat by attacking them with their pinnace Ozeander.9 (In fact, it was the outnumbered English who defeated the Portuguese.) The Dutch established a tight grip on their control of Indonesia, while the Portuguese, and later the English, would establish forts on the coasts of India. They would find that mere trade and diplomacy would be insufficient without self-defense; later on, self-defense would be superseded by direct control and administration of the territory around the forts.10 This direct administration would form the rudiments of the colonial governments that would later sprout from these mercantile colonies.
While national rivalry played a role in the decisions to establish administrative control, it is also possible that the delicate balance of power in Asian nations meant that peaceful trade was a volatile proposition – at any time it could be taken away. In India, especially, disorder reigned as the Mughal dynasty steeped further into decline. In any case, the EIC “could survive and prosper only if it could create security”11 for trading to occur. In order for it to create security, it needed to possess the institutions and functions of a local government – tax collection and policing, for example. In a sense, by providing security to Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, the EIC inadvertently acquired a mandate for governing these three areas. As history will tell us, again, they would form the bases from which the British would further their colonial control over India. Similar events would occur in Indonesia, where the Dutch would first secure trade deals with the Sultans, and then proceed to administer Batavia, then Java, and then Sumatra, and finally control the entire Indonesian archipelago.
Henceforth, we are able to see a pattern of progression – initial curiosity gave way to the lure of wealth, and the accumulated wealth had to be secured through military and political maneuvers. The progression that the European powers made from mercantile imperialism to territorial imperialism arose mainly from a need to secure their wealth in these areas. Yet while trade winds blew merchants eastward from Europe to Asia, another force was propelling a different group of people to answer a higher calling.
Christianity in Europe had also come a long way through tumultuous times. Catholic nations not only had to deal with the Muslims, who dominated trade and commerce at that time, but also had to face a 'rebellion' of sorts within their own camps – Protestantism. Spain and Portugal were predominantly Catholic, and they saw themselves as defenders of the faith. They not only wanted to prevent the growth of Islam, they also wanted to spread their faith to peoples abroad. In Azurara's chronicles, one of Prince Henry's main motives for exploring the seas south of Portugal, and hence the route to Asia, was to “convert pagans to Christianity, and to seek alliance with any Christian rulers who might be found”.12 Evidently, their strong conviction was shown even later when Affonso de Albuquerque listed out his plan to capture Melaka in 1511:
“The first aim is the great service which we shall perform to our Lord in casting the Moors out of this country and quenching the fire of the sect of Mohammed.”13
Very evidently, the Portuguese attitude was an outgrowth of the crusades, where the “infidels” had to be conquered and destroyed, while the true faith had to be spread. This fanaticism became a major calling for many priests and religious men, such as Matteo Ricci, who set out for Asia to seek out souls in China, and Affonso de Albuquerque, who sought to destroy the Muslims.
Yet within the Christian faith, a major rift had come between the brothers and sisters in Christ, only to divide them. The Protestants, a relatively newly formed division of Christianity, had established a firm hold in England and the Netherlands. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation, which sought to contain Protestantism at home and spread the Catholic faith abroad. Indeed, this is the world that Catholics like Matteo Ricci were born into14, and it would be logical to infer that the Catholics fervently spread the faith abroad in order to beat the Protestants. Not to be outdone, the Protestants, contrary to popular notion, also made a major effort in spreading their interpretation of the gospels, for the VOC's directors “sent out to the East and maintained at their own expense a total of nearly 1,000 Calvinist predikants.” In addition to that, they built churches and schools, and paid considerably for the printing and distribution of Bibles both in Dutch and local languages.15 The rivalry between the Portuguese and the Dutch is also mirrored in their faiths, and not just in trade. Yet, most of the Protestant efforts were doomed to fail, in part because they submitted God to Mammon rather than Mammon to God, and in part because the Catholics far outnumbered the Protestants, and hence had a broader and deeper scope of effort than did the Protestants.
In examining the relationship between money and godliness, it is interesting to note that the Christian nations' objectives were very exclusive. They wished only to trade with Christian princes, or to convert the lands they traded with to Christianity, and wished to avoid Muslim nations, or wished to destroy them. Muslims, at that time, held monopolies of the trade with Asia, both by land and by sea; to gain control of the lucrative trade, Christian states would have to pit themselves against Muslim states, hence exacerbating the religious differences that both sides would have, which would be easy considering the sore relationship between the faiths after the seven failed crusades. The Protestant Dutch allowed “no toleration of Popery [i.e. Catholicism]” in Indonesia16, the lands that they controlled, further underscoring the rivalry between European nations, and hence the sense of nationalism. Thus, it all highlights how both religion and money were potent forces driving the European nations to expand into Asia.
Between money, land and faith, all three have a common unifying theme: competition – between nations, faiths, and even divisions within a faith. Indeed, it is my conviction that competition was, by far, the biggest factor leading to the European imperial expansion. Without competing nations, without competing religions, or without competing factions, there would be no driving force for each party to outdo the others, and Europe would lie in a state of stagnancy. Explorers would not seek new lands, merchants would not seek trade, holy men would not seek souls, and nations would not seek colonial territories. Without that competitive drive in Europe, history as we know it would have been radically different.
1Andrews, K.R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement p.248. Original poem can be found online at: http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:vxMN8X2H5agJ:www.lib.utexas.edu/epoetry/robertsh.q1c/robertsh.q1c-6.html+%27trumpet+of+fame%27&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;hl=en&gl=ca&ct=clnk&cd=1&client=firefox-a
2Parry, J.H. The Establishment of European Hegemony: Selected Documents p.27
3Andrews, K.R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement p.260
4Andrews, K.R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement p.261
5Murphey, R. A History of Asia, Fifth Edition p.243
6Andrews, K.R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement p.265
7Parry, J.H. The Establishment of European Hegemony p.32
8Andrews, K.R. Trade, Plunder and Settlement p.261
9The First Englishmen in India p.6 – Could not retrieve the original book, so I have attached the source behind.
10The First Englishmen in India p.6
11Murphey, R. A History of Asia, p.283
12Parry, J.H. The Establishment of European Hegemony, p.27 Affonso de Albuquerque's plan to capture Melaka in 1511
13Murphey, R. A History of Asia, p.237, from Affonso de Albuquerque's plan to capture Melaka in 1511
14Spence, J.D. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci p.3
15Boxer, C.R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800 p.133
16Boxer, C.R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire 1600-1800 p.139
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