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There were many reasons that a country would want to colonise another country or territory. Mostly, it was to exploit the new land and its resources and to gain more power and prestige over other countries. Sometimes, however, it was to change or 'civilise' the indigenous people. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, the Portuguese and the Dutch built 'trading empires' in Africa and Asia for the exploitation of resources. The Spanish and Portuguese also established important colonies in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, for the purpose of exploiting the mineral wealth of the lands they conquered. In all circumstances, the European settlers assumed that they were superior to the indigenous population and were intent on leading them to what they believed to be a 'higher level' of civilisation and culture.

New land and territory

The Age of Exploration was a period in history that began in the early 15th century and continued into the early 19th century. This period was made possible by improvements in map making, navigation and ship building. Many European explorers sailed around the world and found land, and, in doing so, encountered people and cultures that had not been seen before. The first discoveries caused great excitement and encouraged further exploration. Refer Image 1

There was great competition between countries to find and settle these new lands and territories. The first European explorers were the Spanish and Portuguese, later followed the Dutch, the French and the English. Each country was determined to find and colonise more land than the other countries and thus have a larger territory and become more powerful. More land would mean more military glory and diplomatic advantage over other countries.

Land and resources

An important reason to colonise a country was to take control of its land and resources. Many of the new lands had resources that could either be used to make the colonising country more rich and powerful, or could be traded with another country. Gold and silver were particularly important resources that were much sought after. The Spanish, in particular, found great quantities of gold in Central and South America and used the indigenous population or slaves to mine it.

Exotic food and spices were also in great demand. Many of the new countries and islands that were being discovered had new foods and spices that could be traded or used by people back in Europe. If the country was colonised, it would mean that the colonising country would have control over these resources. Even today, the resources that a country has may determine how wealthy or powerful it is.


One of the main historical reasons why one country colonised another was to set up a trading route or trading partner. As the world's population grew, there was more demand for food and other goods. A lot of these goods, such as silk and spices, came from India and China. European traders soon realised that if they obtained the goods directly from the source rather than through other traders, they would be significantly cheaper and more profit could be made. Refer Image 2

The Spice Islands, or Maluku, are a group of islands in eastern Indonesia that were discovered and colonised by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. Many sought-after spices such as cloves and nutmeg grew on these islands, so the Portuguese established a trading centre. In the 17th century the Dutch took control of these islands and secured the monopoly on the trade of cloves. This reduced competition and made the venture more successful. Refer Image 3

Plantation colonies were also established to control the trade of certain goods and food. These colonies used black slaves to grow crops such as tobacco, bananas and pineapples. By establishing a colony, it meant the food resource could be controlled.

Trade routes

Another reason to colonise other countries was that trade routes could be better controlled. A trade route, such as the Silk Road, is the route taken over land or sea for the transport of goods. The problem with trade routes is that they can cross many different countries and territories, which increases the potential for conflict on the journey. If, however, various countries along the trade route were colonised, the journey could be made safer, faster and easier.

Religion and new ideas

Religion and other ideas were also important factors for countries choosing to colonise. There was a great rivalry between the Catholic Church and the Protestants. Each church wanted to bring more and more people into their own churches and they set out to do this by converting other cultures to Christianity - in some cases by force. They also wanted to stop the spread of other religions, such as Islam, around the world.

Colonisation can bring new standards of government, administration and health services to a country; but it can also mean exploitation, the breakdown of traditional lifestyles and the disruption of the indigenous civilisation and culture.

Europeans also had little respect for, or understanding of, indigenous cultures. These indigenous cultures had been developing in their own ways for thousands of years and each culture had their own unique relationship with the land. Europeans saw their own culture as superior. They felt it was their duty to colonise and rule these indigenous populations in order to establish what they believed to be a higher level of civilisation and culture.

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Question 1/5

1. What islands in eastern Indonesia were called the Spice Islands?


The Maluku Islands


The Dutch East Indies


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