2.4 Imperial Competition
- There had been wars before the fourth wave of globalization, but what was the major difference between those wars and the ones described in this chapter?
- Which European countries, does Professor Sachs say, played major roles in the competition for empires and colonial territory?
Globalization created global capitalism. Globalization created conditions of impunity. Globalization created conditions of biological exchange, including the spread of pathogens with devastating effects.
And globalization created conditions of war, as well. One of the features of the new age of ocean-based globalization that began in the early years of the 1500s was the competition of European empires. China, remember, had pulled itself out of…out of the action, back in the 1430s when it had scraped its great naval fleets.
Europe, through its navigational advances and its military advances came to find the sea routes to the Americas and the sea routes to Asia and quickly began to try to conquer and dominate those regions, at least to establish trading centers and colonies, to establish plantations, to exploit natural resources, whether the mineral resources of the gold and silver mines of the Americas or the biological resources of the new crop varieties and the plantations that would be made possible with slave labor from Africa.
This was lucrative business. This was also a matter of power. This was an ability to grow foodstuffs, to collect timber, to raise living standards, it was thought, and to create a basis for added national glory. AIt was immediate, when the European powers began to compete with each other, right from the very start with Columbus’ discoveries, Portugal and Spain in rivalry asked the Pope to intervene to demarcate the lines of what should be Spanish colonies and what should be Portuguese colonies. And in the famous or infamous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, a line was drawn in the Indian Ocean and in principle, around the world, which ended up in essence giving the papal blessing to Portugal’s control over Brazil because Brazil fell to the east of this line of demarcation and giving Spain the colonial rights to the west which meant the Spanish empires of North and South America and of the Caribbean Basin.
The other powers of Europe, France and Britain as a start, were certainly not going to stand still and take the Pope’s word for it. The Dutch who were becoming a rising power in the 16th and then especially the 17th century looked for their own empires. Of course, these countries were already at war with each other over the demarcation of kingdoms and empires within Europe, but now as they sought colonies and possessions abroad, these became the new causes of war within Europe, as well. And the advent of global scale war took place, really beginning Iin the 18th Century where you had global scale conflict taking place in the Americas, in Asia, and in Europe, truly world war for the first time, with the fight for colonial possessions being a very important part of that.
This map just helps us to get some orientation. Henry the Navigator had put Portugal, a tiny country, on a path of imperial possessions by dint of its Atlantic facing coastline and its navigational prowess and its ability to take on the military advances of the gunpowder age, including the cannon power on the Portuguese vessels. And Portugal established, thereby, colonies in Brazil, the Atlantic islands of the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde, across and down the west African coast in Portuguese Guinea, in Sao Tomé, Angola, Mozambique and the beginnings of imperial possessions in the East Indies, as well, in the Moluccas and other islands of the Indonesian Archipelago and in south Asia.
Spain quickly followed and became the leading empire of the 16th century with its claims to a growing part of South America, especially the Caribbean Basin, Mexico and the Andean region, as well as colonial possessions in the Philippines and in the archipelagos of southeast Asia. And with the lines drawn by the Pope, being able to claim imperial possessions on both sides of the world from Spain. Soon enough, the Dutch, the British, the French, got into the competition and as of 1700, the map of colonial powers became more and more crowded, more and more complex. Of course, by this time Britain had its colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, the colonies that eventually would declare their independence and become the United States of America.
France had its empire in both parts of what is today the U.S. Midwest and up into what is today Canada and Quebec Province and along the St. Lawrence seaway. Both Britain and France began ever so slightly their colonial presence in Africa and in Asia, trying to get footholds into India.
But still, this was the age of the Mughal Empire of India and at this early stage of Europe’s economic development, these countries certainly did not have the military power and advantage with their small numbers and their limited technologies to be able to do more than to colonize small parts of the coasts in Asia and more in the Americas where they faced a drastically outnumbered and weakened Amerindian population.
The 18th Century was marked by these global wars. Wars that both took hold within the colonies and simultaneously, were fought on the European continent itself. One might say that the first of these world wars was the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763, a competition between Britain and France, that in North America is called the French and Indian Wars, but really was a kind of world war because it was the battle both in the Americas and Europe simultaneously of these two rising powers.
In the event, Britain was able to win control of much of France’s territory in Canada and thereby gain an advantage in North America. Ironically, advantages like this turn out to be very deceptive often as this one did, because as Britain pushed away the French the colonists of the 13 original colonial states asked themselves why should we continue to obey British dictates when we now have a clear way in to settle the Midwest of the United States?
So ironically, Britain’s victory turned out also in a way to be its downfall soon afterwards in North America, because the colonists took the opportunity a few years after the end of the war, precisely in a dozen years later, to begin their effort at winning independence, which they indeed would do.
Well that independence war which was from the early skirmishes in 1775, the Declaration of Independence by the thirteen American colonies in 1776, and the end of the war in 1783 in a way flipped the accounts because in that war, which was a continuation of the great competition between the French Empire and the British Empire, the French sided with the breakaway colonists and it was the French military power and financing that enabled these weak colonies actually to defeat a much more powerful home empire.
And so it was with France’s help that Britain was defeated in the American War of Independence. Well, you might say thereby France gained a great advantage. Well again, you would be mistaken. Looks are deceiving because the French Empire actually spent a lot of resources to help defeat the British. The French government took on a lot of debt. And by the 1780s, found itself in a fiscal crisis, in no small part because of its financing of the American Revolution. Well lo and behold, starting around 1787, the French finance minister tried to raise taxes. This is never a popular moment. Significant backlash occurred in 1789. We now call that the French Revolution. It was started as an anti-tax revolt. It ended up overthrowing the French monarchy and laid France low.
Well you might say, that was to the British advantage. But you would be wrong. This war continued, because who rose to power in the midst of this upheaval of the French Revolution, but a military officer who came to be known as one of the most bloody and greatest generals of history, Napoleon. What followed the French Revolution, of course, were the Napoleonic wars. Europe was thrust into war again. These became global.
The U.S. calls it the War of 1812, between the U.S. and Britain, but from Britain’s point of view this was the, what turned out to be the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, which ended finally with Napoleon’s defeat in Waterloo, in the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The point that I’m making is that globalization also is accompanied by profound changes and competition in geopolitics. In this event in the period of history that I’m discussing, what I’ve called the fourth wave of globalization from the great ocean discoveries until essentially the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the competition of European empires was brutal.
War, one wouldn’t say was nonstop, but it was absolutely continual. It gained in ferocity in the number of deaths because of continuing advances of military technology. And it became global. The fighting embraced the world. Just as globalization had knit the world together in a world of economics, a world of population movements, a world of pathogen movements, and now a world of true global-scale geopolitics.
As of 1800, the world empires looked something like this. Spain still held onto its empires in the southwest of the United States, Central America, and the western part of South America. Portugal held its empire in Brazil. The European powers had coastal possessions around the coasts of Africa, both on the west and the east coasts. And coastal possessions in south Asia and southeast Asia. Russia was expanding as a great land-based empire. That familiar east-west pattern because Russia was spreading across a shared ecological zone of the cold north and the continental climate of mid-latitude Russia from Europe, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
This world would continue to be roiled by geopolitical change and in fact, we’re now just at the verge of a new wave of globalization, and that is the age of industrial globalization. And that is an age that would be dominated by Britain and by the United States. The beginning of the Anglo-American world.