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...
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.