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Historians use a standard shorthand, “Gold, God, and Glory,” to describe the motives generating the overseas exploration, expansion, and conquests that allowed various European countries to rise to world power between 1400 and 1750. “Gold” refers to the search for material gain through acquiring and selling Asian spices, African slaves, American metals, and other resources. As merchants gained influence in late-medieval western Europe, they convinced their governments to establish a direct connection to the lucrative Asian trade, leading to the first European voyages of discovery in the 1400s. “God” refers to the militant crusading and missionary traditions of Christianity, characterized in part by rivalry with Islam and hatred of non-Christian religions. “Glory” alludes to the competition between monarchies. Some kings sought to establish their claims to newly contacted territories so as to strengthen their position in European politics and increase their power at the expense of the landowning nobility. They also embraced the ideology of mercantilism, which held that governments and large private companies should cooperate to increase the state’s wealth by increasing the reserves of precious metals. Motivated by these three aims, several western European peoples gained control or influence over widening segments of the globe during the Early Modern Era. By 1914 Europeans dominated much of the world politically and economically.
The Spanish and Portuguese were pioneers in the new era of overseas expeditions because they had a favorable geographic location facing the Atlantic and North Africa, a maritime tradition of deep sea fishing, an aggressive Christian crusading tradition, and possession of the best ships and navigation techniques in Europe by the 1400s. They were also motivated by the desire to circumnavigate the Venetian domination of Afro-Asian trade into Europe. Combining Chinese and Arab technologies with local inventions, the Portuguese, Spanish, and other Europeans built better ships to sail the rough Atlantic and learned how to mount weapons on ships, increasing their advantage at sea. The Spanish and Portuguese, using artillery, naval cannon, and muskets, could now conquer or control large territories in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, whose people lacked guns. The English were building the most maneuverable ships and the best iron cannon by the late 1500s. By the 1700s European land and sea weapons greatly outclassed those of once militarily powerful China, India, Persia, and Ottoman Turkey.
The intense competition between major European powers led to increased exploration, the building of trade networks, and a scramble for colonies—subject territories where Europeans ruled and directly controlled economic production and trade. In the later 1400s the Portuguese began direct encounters with the peoples of coastal West and Central Africa. By 1500 Portuguese explorers had opened a new era of exploration by entering the Indian Ocean, reaching East Africa, and then sailing to India. Soon, they seized several key Asian ports. Meanwhile Spanish fleets led by a Genoese mariner, Christopher Columbus, discovered that a huge landmass to the west, soon to be named America, lay between Europe and East Asia. Columbus had hoped to find the sea route to the silk- and spice-rich lands of China and Southeast Asia, and to introduce Christianity into these distant realms. Both the Portuguese and Spanish promised the pope to evangelize and colonize the “heathen” peoples they encountered.
By the later 1500s the Spanish had explored large regions of the Americas and conquered many of its peoples, including the great Inca and Aztec empires, and the Portuguese had established footholds in Brazil. Diseases brought from the Eastern Hemisphere, especially smallpox, killed off some 90 percent of the American population in the 1500s and 1600s, facilitating colonization. The only practical sea route to Asia via the Americas was finally discovered in 1520, by a Spanish expedition across the Pacific led by Ferdinand Magellan. After sponsoring their own explorations of the Americas, England, France, and Holland also colonized eastern North America and some Caribbean islands, and, like the Portuguese and Spanish, sent emigrants and Christian missionaries to what they called “the New World.”
Various European states established colonies or outposts in several African regions and carried increasing numbers of enslaved Africans to the Americas to work on plantations growing cash crops, such as sugar, cotton, and coffee, for European consumption. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Dutch colonized parts of Indonesia, including Java and the Spice islands, and the Spanish conquered and Christianized the Philippines. The English and French became active in Asia in the 1600s. American minerals supported a great expansion of the European economy and allowed Europeans to buy into the rich Asian trade, especially of goods from China. These conquests and economic activities enabled the transfer of vast resources to Europe, especially silver, gold, sugar, coffee, and spices.
Thanks to exploration and conquest resulting from the quest for “Gold, God, and Glory,” Europeans gradually brought various peoples into their economic and political sphere, laying the foundations for Western global dominance. Undergoing a profound economic, intellectual, and political transition, western Europeans left many of their medieval beliefs and institutions behind, and between 1750 and 1914 introduced even more profound changes in the world, including capitalism, industrialization, and the building of great Western empires in Asia and Africa.
- Abernethy, David B. 2002. The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1415–1980. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Boorstin, Daniel J. 1983. The Discoverers. New York: Vintage.
- Marks, Robert B. 2007. The Origins of the Modern World. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
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