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12

What prompted Europeans to establish colonies in the Mediterranean and Atlantic - and how new was this phenomenon?

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What prompted Europeans to establish colonies in the Mediterranean and Atlantic - and how new was this phenomenon?

It used to be thought that Europe's westward expansion into the western Mediterranean and then into the Atlantic world was driven by the rise of the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Turks capture Constantinople in 1453, it used to be theorized that that broke down irrevocably the connections between east and west and that Europeans, in order to get the stuff that they needed, had to start moving west; they couldn't move east anymore.

It turns out that this distinction has been exaggerated, that there were plenty of avenues for trade and commerce with the east, even after this event. The catalyst might be thought of as the fact that Europeans, for a very brief period of time (about two centuries), were able to trade directly with China. When the Mongol Empire controlled China, Europeans were traveling along the Silk Road and were able to have access to luxury goods and to bring them back to Europe. However, after the Mongol dynasties are deposed, China closes its borders to western travelers, and so travelers have to start looking westward.

They have to start looking westward because Europe's capacity for producing gold and silver for coinage has shrunk; the mineral deposits in Europe have exhausted themselves. Moreover, European money is going to the east to buy these luxury goods that Europeans want. Therefore, Europeans start looking for other sources of gold, and they look at Africa.

The traders and explorers who start to make these first forays into Africa tend to be those groups of people - the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Catalonians - who have direct access to the Mediterranean. They start establishing colonies on the islands of the western Mediterranean, including the island of Sicily but mainly on more western islands. And they start using colonial processes that, while not new, are familiar to us from the modern world. They start displacing native populations, which in this case are Muslims. They bring in colonists and establish plantations and there is a high degree of violence. They then start moving down the coasts of Africa, and so on.

The question of whether this is new is, as I said, difficult to answer. If we think back to the western civilizations that we've been studying in this book, we have to remember that the Phoenicians had trading colonies all over the Mediterranean and indeed as far north as the British Isles in the middle of the second millennium BCE. So, colonial impulses are not new. What is new here seems to be obviously the direction and the scope of these endeavors, but I think we have to remember: that humans desire a capacity to explore and that humans need to expand their resources and their power bases is really a recurring theme in western civilizations and in human history.