Grade 10 - European expansion, conquest and the slave trade 15-18th century

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Bartholomeu Dias, the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa. Picture: SAHO collage

This topic now explores how and why, in less than two centuries, Europe was able to colonise large parts of the world. The focus is on the early processes of colonisation and the consequences on the colonised societies, on ideas of racial superiority and on the balance of power in the world.

These themes are examined through 2 case studies, namely;

  • America: Spanish conquest; and
  • Africa: Portugal and the destruction of Indian Ocean Trade; and the Dutch East India Company.

Each case study examines the following topics:

  • the processes of conquest and colonialism;
  • how colonisation led to the practice of slavery;
  • the impact of slave trading on societies; and
  • the consequences on the indigenous societies and in the world.

Understanding the reasons for colonisation may require some background reading, provided in this text box.

Reasons for colonisation

A quick way to remember the main reasons for establishing colonies is ‘gold, God and glory’, but you need to understand each reason in more detail.

Economic reasons

Colonies were important sources of raw materials (such as raw cotton) and markets for manufactured goods (such as textiles). The colonising country could prevent competitors from trading with its colonies. This is known as a trade monopoly. The exploitation of mineral and other resources provided great wealth for the colonising country. Gold, in particular, was a highly sought-after commodity. Individual investors saw opportunities to make personal fortunes by helping to finance the establishment of colonies. Both slavery and colonisation provided cheap labour which increased profits and added to the wealth of the colonisers.

Humanitarian reasons

Europeans believed that it was their duty to spread Christianity among ‘heathens’ (non-believers) in other countries of the world. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries were sent to remote areas in order to convert people to Christianity. Missionaries also offered the indigenous people Western education and medical care, which they believed were better than those offered by traditional teachers and healers. They believed they were doing God’s work and helping to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world. They were known as humanitarians because they were concerned about the welfare of their fellow human beings. Unfortunately, many greedy and ruthless people hid behind religion to disguise what they were actually doing – destroying whole cultures and civilisations so that they could have control over the people and their land.

Prestige

Countries with large empires were respected and admired. Increased wealth resulted in greater military and political power. A small country like England became one of the most powerful empires in the world by taking over large areas of land and dominating international trade. Competition and rivalry among the colonial powers often resulted in war, as they tried to take over each other’s colonies.

Strategic reasons

Certain colonies were acquired for their strategic importance. This means that they were well positioned in times of war. They also enabled the colonisers to control trade routes. The settlement at the Cape is a good example of a strategic reason for acquiring a colony. As long as the Dutch controlled the Cape, they controlled the sea route to the East. The Dutch built a fort on the Cape peninsula to defend the colony against attack from rival colonial powers.

This information is part of the grade 10 archive, a lesson developed in 2009 called ‘the impact of colonialism’, please click on the link for the full lesson.

Colonisation is the process of acquiring colonies. European powers took over land by force and then settled European people on the land. The conquered land then became known as a colony.

Imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means.

Last updated : 27-Feb-2018

This article was produced by South African History Online on 09-Nov-2011

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