When Did European Colonialism Begin?

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European colonialism began around A.D. 1400 when the leaders of powerful European countries sent explorers to find new lands and forge new trade routes. Colonizing for economic benefits dates to ancient times, when the Romans ruled colonies in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. No such expansion occurred in Europe throughout the Middle Ages (A.D. c. 450–c. 1500). In the fifteenth century Portugal and Spain were the first to seek new sea routes to India and the Far East, gaining control of Brazil and setting up trading posts in West Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Although Spain acquired most of Latin America and large portions of what is now the United States of America, the Dutch, English, and French also carved out their own colonial empires in North America. Along with establishing the thirteen colonies in the present-day United States, the English controlled India and portions of Africa, while the Dutch acquired the Indonesian Islands, which became known as the Dutch East Indies.

Colonialism produced both positive and negative effects in the lands occupied by Europeans. Trade expanded, thus increasing the exchange of raw materials and benefiting the economies of the colonies. Yet colonialism produced disastrous consequences in the new territories (which Europeans called the New World), as the colonizers either killed or moved native peoples in their quest for more land and natural resources. Europeans caused even more disruption by forcing their own languages, ideas, religions, and systems of government on native peoples. Europeans also brought diseases to the New World, which killed many natives in epidemic proportions. Eventually the New World became a battleground for the European powers, which fought wars over the territory. For example, between 1689 and 1763, the British and French engaged in four wars in North America alone.

Further Information: "Colonies and Colonialism." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/61/0610E000.htm, October 20, 2000; European Colonialism in the Americas. [Online] Available http://www.uwec.edu/Academic/Geography/lvogeler/w11/gold/htm, October 20, 2000; Saari, Peggy, and Daniel B. Baker, eds. Explorers and Discoverers: From Alexander the Great to Sally Ride. Detroit: UXL, 1995.

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