How were the commercial incentives of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonists similar and/or different?

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Broadly speaking, the four nations had the same commercial incentives for their colonies, using a system called mercantilism in order to profit from these overseas regions. Mercantilism involves shipping the resources of a colony (including but not limited to metals, timber, food, and cash crops) to the home country, then...

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Broadly speaking, the four nations had the same commercial incentives for their colonies, using a system called mercantilism in order to profit from these overseas regions. Mercantilism involves shipping the resources of a colony (including but not limited to metals, timber, food, and cash crops) to the home country, then assembling goods from these resources and selling the finished goods to the colony. The British, French, Dutch, and Spanish all profited from this exchange and could also sell raw goods to each other.

Spain's main sources of wealth from its American colonies were silver and sugar. Spain mined so much silver from the New World, specifically in Mexico and Peru, that they destabilized currencies and devalued silver coins throughout Europe. Sugar became hugely lucrative by the 1700s, requiring massive numbers of African slaves to work on plantations throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

The Dutch controlled a huge amount of global shipping in the 1600s because of their aggressive expansion to build ports and trade centers. Since the Netherlands did not have the population of its larger neighbors, it lacked the ability to send large numbers of people to build far-ranging colonies. Instead, it focused on strategic trading networks: spices from Indonesia, gems from India, slaves from Africa, and furs in New England.

France came into the colony game relatively late, limiting their ability to take over lucrative regions. This was partly a reflection of France's poor navy and their status as the richest European nation with or without colonies. Even so, regions like Louisiana and Quebec allowed them to control access to the Mississippi River and St. Lawrence River, respectively, and made them rich from trade. Much later, the French colonized regions of Africa and Southeast Asia, also seeking to dominate trade networks.

The British were more interested in raw materials to power their Industrial Revolution. This included timber, tobacco, fish, and sugar from the Americas; cotton and tea from India; and silver from Hong Kong. Other colonies were acquired for their geographic value: the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal gave Britain control of the Mediterranean, while Australia was a valuable place to send convicts and debtors.

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The Spanish came to the Americas not so much to colonize as to seek gold and glory. A decidedly secondary reason was to Christianize the Indians, although this was frequently overlooked, and demonstrated more by destroying Indian artifacts as "idolatry" than demonstrating Christian virtue. They had no intention of establishing permanent colonies other than to protect their gold and silver interests. Spain at the time was the poorest country in Europe, and gold and silver from its Empire was used not only to bolster the economy in Spain but also as a source of bullion for trade in Asia. In fact, the first successful settlement in North America, St. Augustine, Florida, was established to guard Spanish shipping against British privateers.

Profit was also the motive for the British colony at Jamestown, although the profit was for the Joint Stock Company, the London Company. Those who settled, however had plans to remain, not to exploit the countries resources and then leave.  Profits for the company were made by the sale of lands and the cultivation of staple crops, primarily tobacco. The settlement there was also considered a way to keep an eye on (and harass) Spanish interests further South. An original source you might consider is Richard Hakluyt's Discourse on Western Planting in which he offers reasons for Britain to establish commercial interests in the New World. Although there was another British Settlement in New England, it's interests were religious, not commercial.

The Dutch at the time were the most powerful mercantile economy in Europe and also possessed the most powerful navy. Their colony at New Amsterdam was established to further Dutch commercial interests, much like the British. They were not that successful, however; after a lengthy war, the Dutch exchanged New Amsterdam (which was soon re-named New York, after the King's brother and the future James II) for the island of Run in Indonesia, a source of nutmeg and other spices. So their interests were primarily to promote their mercantile empire. An excellent book on this subject is Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton.

The French also came for commercial reasons, primarily to trade with the Indians for furs. The French were ultimately far more successful in establishing a successful trade relationship with the Indians than any of the other three European powers. Many French married Indian wives and wore Indian clothes in an attempt to win the loyalty of the Native Americans. They were also hugely successful until the Seven Years War when France lost all its North American possessions to Britain.

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