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Contrary to many popular conceptions, the expansion of European culture actually predates the voyages of Columbus by more than a millennium. From the Greeks, Romans, and Vikings to the nineteenth century, European expansion has typically pursued certain goals: economic prosperity, increased trade, new lands for settlement, and religious converts.
The dominant force in shaping our global society has been the expansion of European society and culture throughout the world following the voyages of Columbus. Some have seen the explosive movement of Europeans throughout the world as a consequence of centuries of repression and cultural darkness that had kept Europeans from exploring the world beyond Europe. One of the most striking examples of that perspective is Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, in which Irving identified the expansion of Europe as one of the fundamental elements of modernity and Columbus as the first modern man, the one who cast off the blinders that had limited European development.
The Ancient World
The expansion of Europe and of European culture has a history that long precedes Columbus’s first voyage. The post-1492 expansion of Europe built upon the expansion of the previous five centuries and reflects a characteristic of ancient European culture as well. The ancient Greek city-states expanded, establishing colonies in Sicily and southern Italy, to which they brought Greek cultural values and practices. The conquests of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 BCE) spread Greek cultural values throughout much of the Middle East and then into the Roman world. According to his biographer, Arrian, Alexander came to see his conquests as the beginning of a world-city, a worldwide community within which all mankind would live in harmony under the guidance of the Greeks.
The Roman Empire also generated a wide cultural community as it expanded from its home in central Italy. Its influence extended well beyond the formal boundaries of the empire, as the barbarian societies along the frontiers adopted elements of Roman culture in the course of their contact with Roman soldiers and merchants.
Greek and Roman expansion was not worldwide, however. The Asian goods that the Romans desired traveled to Rome via ancient trade routes, so that there was no need to seek direct access to the Asian markets. Although Alexander of Macedon was said to have believed in some kind of world community, this was not a concept of much significance in the ancient world. Stoic philosophers did have some sense of a universal human community, but this was the view of a small elite and had little practical consequence.
Medieval Christendom Expands
The beginning of the great era of European overseas expansion associated with Columbus is sometimes linked to the desire to have direct access to the markets of the East, and the creation of a world system beginning in the sixteenth century is often discussed in primarily economic terms, a world economic system. But the desire to preach the Christian Gospel to all mankind was another spur to expansion. The Christian conception of mankind as a single family descended from Adam and Eve and redeemed by Christ motivated missionaries to spread beyond Europe and into regions inhabited by infidels. Christians, echoing the Stoics, could conceive of a universal community embracing all mankind, but they envisioned an institutional structure provided by the Church.
The role of Christianity in the expansion of Europe stretches back to the Byzantine imperial government’s support of missionary efforts to convert the Goths in the third century CE. From the imperial point of view, such an effort was in keeping with the older tradition of acculturating barbarians to the Roman way of life. The expansion of Christianity could thus go hand in hand with the expansion of the Byzantine Empire, a kind of relationship that was to have a long history.
The Latin Church in the West was slower in getting involved in expansion beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Initially it was individuals who went forth to preach the Gospel in the lands of the barbarians. Saint Patrick (fifth century), for example, went to preach to the Irish, a people who had never been subject to the Romans.
The first pope to authorize a mission to a non-Christian society was Gregory I (c. 540–604) who sent a team of missionaries to England, where Christianity had virtually died out after having been introduced during the Roman occupation of the island. The missionaries were followed by other figures who brought England into regular contact with the continental world. During the eighth and ninth centuries, missionaries from Ireland and from England in turn went to the borders of the Carolingian Empire with the support of various Carolingian rulers and with papal blessing to preach to the Germanic peoples, bringing them into the church and under Carolingian domination. This union of spiritual and temporal goals was to be a characteristic of subsequent European expansion.
The Internal Colonization of Europe
With the weakening of Roman power and the population decline that accompanied it, only churchmen were at all concerned with expansion until about the middle of the tenth century. The end of the long series of barbarian assaults on the Roman and Carolingian societies and the beginning of a period of warmer climate from about 950 to 1300 contributed to population growth that reignited pressures to expand. This period began with what the historian Archibald Lewis described as the colonization of the internal frontier of Europe. Forests were cut down and new farming villages and trading towns established. Many of the techniques later used to organize migration to new frontiers on the edge of Christendom and to establish new communities overseas were first developed in the course of this process of internal European colonization.
From the tenth to the fourteenth century Europeans moved aggressively in all directions with varying degrees of success. To the east, the twelfth- and thirteenth-century crusades to regain the Holy Land ultimately failed, but German expansion eastward into the lands of the Slavs that had begun in the early tenth centuries was successful. In the north, during the tenth and eleventh centuries Christian missionaries succeeded in converting the Scandinavians, bringing them into the European Christian cultural orbit, eventually leading to the settlement of Greenland from the eleventh century and the establishment of Christian churches there. Around 1000, Scandinavian adventurers even reached the mainland of North America. To the west and south, the Portuguese and the Spanish were pushing the Muslims back, and further to the west, the English were advancing into the Celtic lands that bordered England, reforming the Celtic branch of Christendom and bringing those churches into conformity with Roman practice.
Medieval thinkers developed legal justifications for expansion and conquest that supplemented the military and missionary justifications; these were later used during the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First developed in the course of Christian encounters with the Muslims and the Mongols during the thirteenth century, these legal justifications forced those who supported the crusades and other forms of armed force against nonbelievers in the process of expansion to justify their actions in legal terms.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the climate turned colder and the Black Death reduced the European population by at least one-third, and as the Ottoman Turks moved further up into the Balkans, dominating more of the Mediterranean, the era of medieval expansion slowed but did not entirely stop. At the western edge of Europe, the Portuguese continued to have a strong interest in expansion as they sought to find a sea route to the markets of Asia that would circumvent the traditional Muslim-controlled routes through the Near East. This required establishing settlements to refit and resupply ships that would make the long journey to the East. The Portuguese were also anxious to protect themselves from Muslim counterattacks and were interested in reconnecting with Christian communities of Asia that, it was thought, might join in a last great crusade. Finally, the Portuguese were interested in converting the non-Christians of the East to Christianity.
Europeans Expand Overseas
All of these motives for a renewal of European expansion, this time well beyond the geographical boundaries of Europe, appear in the literature of the fifteenth century. Portuguese expansion into the Atlantic and along the west coast of Africa, popularly associated with Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), led to the rediscovery of the island chains of the Atlantic, Canary (1340–1341), Madeira (1418–1419), Azores (1427–1431), and Cape Verde (1455–1457), and to the establishment of trading posts on the coast of Africa. Portuguese interest in finding a water route to Asia was encouraged by Genoese financiers, merchants, and seamen who had suffered financially when the Muslims had conquered the Genoese settlements along the Black Sea.
The Age of Columbus
It is, then, no coincidence that it was an ambitious Genoese sailor who had lived and worked in Portugal who initiated the great age of European expansion that eventually led to the development of an international society, if not a true world community. In addition to the motives for expansion mentioned earlier—a desire to find new routes to Asian markets, to preach the Gospel to nonbelievers, and to find Eastern Christian communities to join in a last crusade, Columbus sought personal social and economic advancement. He bridged the two periods of European expansion, employing the motives and experience of medieval expansion in the course of his encounter with the New World.
Columbus’s great significance is that he began the process that opened up not only water routes to the already known Asian world but also to entirely new worlds, the Americas and the Pacific Ocean in particular, as well. The novelty of these new worlds was not, however, initially appreciated. Until his death Columbus claimed to have reached the outer edge of Asia, a belief rooted in the medieval theory that the surface of the Earth was almost entirely land and that the Ocean Sea was a narrow band of water, rather like a river, separating the various landmasses. That being the case, the islands of the Caribbean would have to be the outer edge of Asia. Likewise, Columbus initially identified several plants found in the Americas with the spices associated with Asia, although later he changed his mind. From 1492 to about 1600, Europeans tended to perceive the New World in terms derived from the experience of the Middle Ages, approaching the peoples of the Americas as if they were at a stage of development similar to that of the barbarians who had invaded the Roman Empire.
The European discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513 and then the circumnavigation of the Earth by Magellan’s fleet (1519–1522) stimulated the reexamination of European theories about the surface of the Earth and the peoples who lived there. One result was the realization that the Ocean Sea was not an obstacle to direct access to Asia but a highway that would enable Europeans to sail to all parts of the Earth, a viable alternative to traveling overland. A second result was a growing realization that there existed a wide variety of peoples and societies throughout the world, ranging from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. This experience challenged traditional biblically based theories about mankind, eventually leading to the development of anthropology.
A European World Order
The long-term consequences of the European encounter with the rest of the world can be illustrated graphically in several ways. By 1763 European powers were rising stars among the great imperial powers that politically dominated, at least nominally, the bulk of the globe. Seen in economic terms, the European encounter with the rest of the world generates a map showing the major trade routes that, when taken together, outline what the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has labeled the modern world system, a series of cores and peripheries linking all parts of the world in a single economic order.
Less easy to illustrate graphically is the interpenetration of cultures that was also occurring. In physical terms, this included the importation of a wide variety of products into Europe from elsewhere, products ranging from the traditional Asian spices and silks to such new items as tobacco and potatoes from the Americas. This latter was part of what the historian Alfred Crosby termed the Columbian exchange—the massive movement of flora and fauna (including agents of disease) in both directions across the Atlantic after the European discovery of the Americas.
Above all, the importation of a large amount of precious metal, especially silver, from the Americas had a significant impact on the European economy. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that so much of that specie passed through European hands and on to Asia. Some recent scholarship has suggested that in fact the drain of silver to the East has been one of the major forces shaping the world economy.
Consequences of European Expansion
The desire of Europeans to acquire goods from elsewhere sometimes meant the restructuring of other economies to meet those needs. The demand for sugar that had originally led to the creation of sugar plantations on the islands of the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages led to the creation of similar plantations on the Cape Verde Islands and then on the islands of the Caribbean. This development generated a demand for labor, a demand that the European population could not (or would not) meet, thus generating a market for slaves. Eventually, Europeans turned to Africa as the source for such labor, redirecting the long-standing African slave trade to the New World and away from its traditional markets in the Muslim world.
There were other consequences of European expansion, as Christian missionaries accompanied merchants and adventurers around the world, preaching the Gospel to new ears. The impact of these efforts varied widely, from the mass baptisms that Catholic missionaries often employed in the initial stages of conversion efforts in Latin America to the tiny number of converts that the Jesuits made over several decades of sophisticated missionary efforts at the highest levels of Chinese society. Another result was the development of cults that blended Christian and local beliefs and practices, as well as the incorporation of local beliefs into the Christian context. There also emerged new populations, mestizos and creoles, who reflected the movement of peoples, voluntarily and involuntarily, around the world. Such peoples reflected not only new mixtures of physical characteristics but new languages and dialects as well.
The final consequence of European expansion was the gradual development of a conception of mankind as a community. This is reflected quite clearly in the development of a body of international law designed to regulate relations among the states of the world. This legal order was linked to a conception of mankind rooted in an anthropology that saw a progression from primitive hunter-gathers through pastoralists to agriculturists and from life in the fields to life in urban communities. On the basis of this anthropology, the powerful imperial states were able to assert their superiority, culturally as well as militarily, to all the other human societies and to restrict leadership of the worldwide legal order to the Christian nations of Europe. They could also justify their conquest and domination of large parts of the world on the grounds that they were assisting the development of peoples still at the lower stages to reach their full human potential, an attitude that evolved into racism.
The Decline of Empires
The overseas expansion of Europe that began in 1492 was not an abrupt change in the course of European history. It was an integral part of a process that had developed between 1000 and 1300. In that period, many of the intellectual and institutional structures associated with post-1492 expansion were first created, structures upon which the explorers, missionaries, and settlers who followed Columbus built. The ironic consequence of the success of European expansion was that by the late eighteenth century, the oldest European colonial possessions in the New World were on the verge of a series of revolutions that were to overthrow European political domination without separating the new states from the European economic and cultural world. This in turn was the first stage in a process that only ended in the late twentieth century in a wave of decolonization that destroyed the great European empires. In their place, to an extent not always appreciated, the modern conception of an international order with a legal and institutional structure as an armature has implemented the Stoic and Christian conception of an international community. The empires faded away, but the cultural legacy remained.
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