This theme focuses on the various factors and motivations that contributed to Europe's interaction with the world since 1450, as well as the impact this interaction had on both Europe and non-European societies.
Beginning in the 15th century, European nations sent explorers into the world beyond the Mediterranean, establishing new shipping routes, trading stations, and eventually, colonies in many parts of the globe. The motivations for these enterprises were complex and have been the subject of much historical debate. Were Europeans driven primarily by the desire for more direct and secure trade routes, by the pursuit of new commercial wealth, or by religious motivations, such as the desire to convert new peoples to Christianity? Whatever the motivations, these explorations created new, complex trade systems that profoundly affected European prosperity, patterns of consumption, commercial competition, and national rivalries. The activities and influence of Europeans varied in different parts of the world. In India and China, centers of high civilizations, Europeans remained on the periphery in trading stations for centuries. In Africa, Europeans also established themselves on the coasts, trading with the indigenous populations of the interior. European settlements in the new world imported religious, social, and political institutions to the Americas, which would forever transform this region and its indigenous peoples. The encounters with non-Europeans peoples profoundly affected European trade, social life, and ideas, both at the time and for centuries to come.
With their American colonies and the global reach of their seafarers, Europeans helped to create a truly global trading system, introducing new foods that changed the food cultures of China, India, and Europe. At the same time as Europe was experiencing the material consequences of its interaction with the world, European intellectuals began to describe and analyze the peoples and cultures with which they came into contact, and collect and catalogue the flora and fauna they discovered. The use of "race" as a primary category for differentiating people coincided with the expansion of slavery, as Europeans sought a workforce for overseas plantations; this categorization helped Europeans justify the slave system. From the 16th to the 19th century, the transatlantic slave trade became a central feature of the world economy, and millions of Africans were transported via the notorious Middle Passage to labor on plantations in the Americas. The vast and cruel slave system led to various forms of resistance by enslaved peoples and began to generate opposition in Europe beginning in the late 18th century. Abolitionists objected to the system on humanitarian and religious grounds. An important strand of Enlightenment thought -- the belief in citizenship, popular sovereignty, equality, and liberty -- promoted by the American and French revolutions also contributed to the ideology of the abolitionist movements, and several European states abolished the slave trade in the early 19th century.
However, critiques of colonialism did have an immediate effect, given that the 19th century was a period of empire building. Driven by the needs of an industrial economy and nationalism, Europeans expanded their territorial control in Asia and Africa through warfare, economic agreements and arrangements, the seizure of property, and, in some cases, immigration. In the late 19th century, the scale and pace of conquest intensified because of asymmetries in military technology, communications, and national rivalries among the Great Powers. In conquered territories, Europeans established new administrative, legal, and cultural institutions, and restructured colonial economies to meet European needs, actions that often led to resistance and opposition in colonial areas. Within Europe, exposure to new peoples and cultures influenced art and literature, and spurred efforts to find a scientific basis for racial differences. Competition for colonies also destabilized the European balance of power and was a significant cause of World War I. In the mid-20th century, the rise of the United States as an economic and military power, the far-reaching consequences of two world wars, and the Cold War resulted in the contraction and collapse of the traditional European empires -- a process known as decolonization. At the end of the 20th century, Europe sought new ways of defining interactions among its own nations and with the rest of the world. At the same time, the migration of non-European people into Europe began to change the ethnic and religious composition of European society and to create uncertainties about European identity.
Students Will Be Able To:
*Language on this page is provided by the College Board.