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 zeal — 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, they also established themselves on the coasts, trading with the indigenous populations of the interior. In the Americas, they created colonies and imposed their religious, social, and political institutions on the native peoples. Europeans also brought new diseases to the Americas, which hastened the collapse of the indigenous cultures on the two continents. However, cross-cultural influence flowed in both directions. The encounters with non- European peoples profoundly affected European trade, social life, and ideas.
With their American colonies and the global reach of their seafarers, Europeans helped to create a truly global trading system, introducing new foods (such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and corn) 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, as well as to collect and catalogue the flora and fauna they discovered. The use of “race” as a primary category for differentiating peoples 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 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 European states abolished the slave trade in the early 19th century. From the late 18th century to the era of decolonization, these Enlightenment principles influenced those who opposed Europe’s global domination.
Yet, this critique of colonialism did not have an immediate effect, given that the 19th century proved to be 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, 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. These actions often led to resistance in colonial areas. Within Europe, exposure to new peoples and cultures influenced art and literature, and spurred on 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, two world wars, and the four-decades-long Cold War led to a decolonization movement that diminished Europe’s economic and diplomatic place in the world. 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.
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