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In the modern era, there were several European countries that were very successful at colonising other countries around the world. In fact, it became a race to see who could colonise the greatest amount of new land - Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands or England. It was known as the Age of Exploration and started with the 'discovery' of the Americas in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. It continued to the 19th century when European countries started to colonise countries just for the purpose of growing their empires. This chapter will briefly look at the great modern colonising powers of Portugal, Spain, France and Britain.

First European colonisers

The first European explorers were the Spanish and Portuguese. They were accustomed to sailing in the rough waters of the Atlantic and had developed a ship, called a caravel, which made ocean travel easier and safer. Initially, the Spanish and Portuguese were trying to find a sea route to India so that it would be easier to trade goods. As new lands were discovered, however, they realised that they could exploit the lands and people for precious resources.

Portuguese empire

The Portuguese Empire was the earliest and longest lived of the colonial western European global empires. The Portuguese Empire was guaranteed by the Treaty of Tordesillas on 6 June 1494 with Spain. This treaty between Spain and Portugal was used to divide the world between themselves. They drew a line down the earth and all land to the east of the line belonged to Portugal and all land to the west belonged to Spain. The treaty very quickly became meaningless. Refer Image 1

Brazil became the main colony of Portugal. From Brazil, Portugal gathered resources such as gold, precious stones, sugar cane and coffee. The population in Brazil grew quickly as settlers moved from Europe to Brazil and slaves were imported from Africa. Today Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world.

Portugal also established trading ports at locations such as Goa, Malacca, the Maluku Islands, Macau, and Nagasaki; and colonised parts of Africa. After World War II, Portugal began abandoning its colonies, and its overseas empire ended in 1999, when it handed Macau over to China.

Spanish Empire

The Spanish Empire was one of the first truly global empires. It was also the fourth largest empire in world history between 1740-1790 when it controlled about half of South America, a third of North America and countries in the Pacific. Trading routes were opened across the Atlantic Ocean between Spain and the Americas, and across the Pacific between East Asia and Mexico via the Philippines. Refer Image 2

By colonising new lands, Spain had access to gold, silver, sugar, porcelain, spices and silk from South America and Asia. It also undermined the power of France and created new Catholic countries as well as defending Europe against Islam, mainly from the Ottoman Empire.

Spain remained a vast empire until the 19th century when wars, rival powers and other factors contributed to its decline. Other European powers, such as the Portuguese initially, and then the French, the English, and Dutch became stronger and began to compete with Spain for territories and resources.

French Empire

France has had colonies around the world since the beginning of the 17th century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, France's global colonial empire was the second largest in the world behind the British Empire.

France's colonial empire really began in 1605 when a colony was established in North America, in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1608, Quebec was founded and became an important fur-trading colony of New France (also called Canada). France also had colonies around the world in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific.

There were more countries or territories where France had major economic and political interests; but due to British opposition, it was prevented from colonising them. The French colonial empire gradually declined during World War II.

British Empire

The British Empire was the most extensive empire in world history and for a time it was the strongest power in the world. By 1921, the British Empire consisted of a population of between 470 and 570 million people (approximately one-quarter of the world's population) and it was about one quarter of Earth's total land area. Refer Image 3

Britain wanted colonies so that it could grow in wealth and power. The British colonies in India, Africa, the Pacific, America, Asia and so on were used to provide land and resources and to set up trading routes and partners. Some colonies, such as Australia, were established as a penal colony so that Britain could send its prisoners from its crowded jail cells. By establishing these colonies, the British were able to stop rival countries, such as France, from seizing control.

Very few countries that were colonised by these modern powers were unpopulated. Colonisation greatly affected the indigenous populations, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The next topics will look at the indigenous population of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and the effect that the British colonisation of Australia had on them.


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1. Which empire from 1740-1790 was the fourth largest in world history?

The Spanish Empire

The British Empire

The French Empire

The Portuguese Empire

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