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Maritime Empires

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Maritime Empires

For two millennia, the principal world empires were land-based. From the Romans to the Mongols, the Aztecs and the Inca, and every Chinese Dynasty in between, the world was organized by an empire's capabilities in conquering adjacent lands and funneling the spoils of war back home. With the advent of new naval technology in Europe, including new ships, sailing mechanisms, and navigation charts, the stage was set for the maritime empires to dominate the world through trade and naval fleet superiority.

Maritime Empires Definition

The maritime empires refer to the European global dominance of territories in Asia, Africa, and America from the period 1450 to 1750 through naval power. The five main European powers that became maritime empires are Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands.

Maritime Empires Britain Study SmarterA British ship sailing into port. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Based on the economics of mercantilism, these five European countries competed with each other in accumulating extreme wealth and extending their influence into distant lands. The prospects of economic gain fueled the European discovery of America in 1492. Christopher Columbus convinced King Ferdinand II of Magellan and his wife Isabella, the rulers of Spain, that he could find a new route to India through the Atlantic Ocean. While he did not find a new route to India, Columbus's discovery did kickstart an era of new and hungry European Empires.

Term Definition
Maritime Referring to the sea; seafaring, nautical
Empire A large territory of states governed by a single central power or government
Mercantilism The maximization of a nation's wealth through profitable trading, exportation of goods in exchange for silver or gold, and the establishment of global colonies that provide resources and workforces.

Maritime Empires Location

Unlike the empires of the Middle Ages and before, the maritime empires were not landlocked. Ancient and Middle Ages empires typically saw direct land expansion from a central capital or province, like Rome for the Romans or Tenochtitlan for the Aztecs. With the introduction of new technologies for producing powerful navies, the European powers could colonize an island on the other side of the world, or reliably trade wool with places such as India and China. Therefore, maritime empires were located all across the globe.

The map below highlights a region in a specific color, signifying which European power was dominantly in colonial control. Reference the table below to see which color correlates with each European power.

Maritime Empires Map Study SmarterMaritime Empires Map. Source: Rafy, CC-BY-3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Country Color Colonized Regions
Britain Red Canada, East Coast of Modern USA, Australia, India, parts of Africa.
Netherlands (Dutch)Peach (Indonesia) Indonesia, part of South America.
FranceLight BlueMiddle of Modern USA, Southeast Asia, Madagascar, much of Northwest Africa.
SpainYellow-green Much of Western North America, Latin America, much of Western South America. The Philippines.
Portugal Purple Brazil, parts of Southern Africa.

Maritime Empires Examples:

Other than the five main maritime empires discussed in this article (that of Britain, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Spain), there were several other maritime empires, or European powers who embarked upon global colonial efforts from 1450 to 1750. Among them was Italy (as part of the Holy Roman Empire), Russia, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany. If you were a European ruler with an awesome fleet during the age of maritime empires, you had a good chance of establishing your own global empire.

Maritime Empires History

Beyond new naval technologies, what made the Europeans so successful in establishing their maritime empires? How did they afford it? How did maritime empires even function, beyond having ships with wide sails and big cannons? Thankfully, historians have a plethora of written personal records and financial transactions that have helped us understand how Europeans came to dominate the globe.

Funding for Maritime Empires

The first major expedition of the era of the maritime empire was, as was already mentioned, Columbus's voyage to the Americas. Columbus was funded by the King and Queen of Spain, marking the first of many royally funded expeditions. Monarchs, especially the New Monarchs, soon became aware of the vast wealth available through the expansion of maritime influence.

Maritime Empires East India Company Study SmarterFlag of the Dutch East India Company. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Other than Monarchial support, joint-stock companies were formed to finance expeditions. To hedge your entire life savings on a single global expedition was expensive and extremely risky. But through joint-stock companies, individual investors could provide support to many different expeditions, leveraging their risk while increasing profitability. Two examples of joint-stock companies are the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, which were very successful during the age of maritime empires.

Joint-Stock Company:

A business structure that is owned by a multitude of investors, known as shareholders.

The Methods of Maritime Empires

The expectations of Monarchs and private investors in supporting the expansion of maritime empires were directly related to Mercantilism. Simply put, they wanted to acquire wealth. Primarily this was done through trade with foreign entities like India or China, but each trade negotiation was backed up by military force.

The European powers almost always had the dominant naval force in their maritime expeditions, meaning they could establish trading posts and colonies, or finalize trade deals in their interests and against the will of the native people. In South America, the Conquistadors Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro respectively toppled the Aztecs and Incan Empires to achieve glory, fame, and profit.

“Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country's industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of under-development and poverty, or at all events sinks into it more deeply.”

-Frantz Fanon

Supporting the expansion of maritime empires was a backbone of religious missionary work. Catholic missionaries traveled the globe, financed by the Catholic Church and other European powers to spread Christianity into new and foreign territories. Along with Christianity came European languages and customs, easing a distant country's transition into the hand of European maritime empires.

The Forced Labor Systems of the Maritime Empires

To fuel their maritime efforts, European powers often extracted natural resources from the lands they colonized abroad. But to extract those resources, they needed a workforce. Many times, the European powers forced the native populations into laboring for them. In the case of the Americas, European powers such as Spain, Portugal, and Britain shipped enslaved Africans overseas to act as a workforce in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Maritime Empires Triangular Trade Study SmarterThe Atlantic Triangular Trade. Source: Weson, CC-BY-SA-2.5, Wikimedia Commons.

The Atlantic Slave Trade made up one arm of the Triangular Trade (depicted in the map above), a global trading system that brought extreme wealth to European powers at the expense of the African population and American natural resources (especially in South America). Forced labor systems were implemented elsewhere, within both Africa and Southeast Asia. The competition for wealth between European powers was costly to many foreign lands (although some countries did directly benefit from trade with Europe).

Maritime Empires Significance

The domination of the European maritime empires from 1450 to 1750 did not end abruptly. For decades after, even extending into the late 19th century, the colonies and trading posts established by the maritime empires continued to exploit the surrounding regions for the gain of the European powers.

The maritime empires marked a turning point in World History from land-based empires to empires of global trading networks, where a small European country such as Britain or France could extend its power across the world. The rise of maritime empires marked Europe as the center of commerce and power when moving into the modern period.

Maritime Empires - Key takeaways

  • The European maritime empires dominated global trade through mercantilism from 1450 to 1750.
  • Among the dominant maritime empires were Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands. Between them, they conquered territories in Asia, Africa, and America, trading with local powers, extracting natural resources, and exploiting populations as forced labor to achieve their goals of profit and influence.
  • Both monarchs and joint-stock companies (a collection of individual investors) invested in maritime expeditions.
  • The Atlantic Triangular Trade, which included the brutal Atlantic Slave Trade, was integral to the development of many of the European maritime empires.
  • The success of the maritime empires set Europe as the center of power and wealth in the world when moving into the modern period.

Frequently Asked Questions about Maritime Empires

The maritime empires refer to the European global dominance of territories in Asia, Africa, and America from the period of 1450 to 1750 through naval power. The five main European powers that became maritime empires are PortugalSpainFranceEngland, and the Netherlands.  

When moving into the modern era, Britain continued to establish itself as the most powerful maritime empire in world history. 

The maritime empires were at their height in the period 1450 to 1750. Each related European power established itself as a maritime empire during this period. 

The maritime empires brought great wealth to the European nations, who competed in an economic system called mercantilism. More expansion meant more profit. 

The maritime empires started as a handful of exploratory expeditions, such as Columbus's discovery of America, that led to European domination of foreign lands through naval superiority. 

Final Maritime Empires Quiz

Question

Who led the expedition which discovered Brazil?

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Answer

Pedro Alvares Cabral

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How was Brazil discovered?

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Answer

Cabral went drastically off course while attempting to reach India.

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Why was Pedro Alavres Cabral chosen to head the expedition?

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Answer

The assignment was a political move, Cabral had ;little to no naval experience. 

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Question

What does brazilwood provide?

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Answer

Brazilwood produces a bright red dye.

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What European disease caused the most damage to the native Brazilian population?

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Answer

Smallpox

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Question

Did the Portuguese bring any religious practices with them?

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Answer

Yes, Brazil is now a largely Catholic nation even in modern-day.

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Who led the voyage that Cabral was intending to copy?

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Answer

Vasco de Gama

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What year did Pedro Alvares Cabral arrive in Brazil?

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Answer

1500

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Question

What was the triangle-shaped sail that allowed sailing with and against the wind called?

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Answer

Lateen

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What was the small quick ship that used lateen sails called?

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Caravel

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What was the name of the ship that was large, used to transport goods, and was defensive?

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Answer

Nau

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What was the device that navigators could use to find their location? 

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Answer

Astrolabe 

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What device found longitude?

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Quadrant 

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What kind of map had currents and routes listed?

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Answer

Portolan Map

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Why did the Portuguese begin innovating sea faring? 

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Answer

To find a sea route to India 

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Question

True/False

The Portuguese invented the Compass

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Answer

True

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Which boat was easy to maneuver? 

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Answer

Caravel 

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Who hired experts to improve Portugal's sea faring?

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Answer

Henry the Navigator

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Who incited the Age of Discovery?

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Answer

Prince Henry the Navigator

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What was the ship design that enabled oceanic travel?

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Answer

the caravel

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What did the Portuguese add to nautical charts to denote the direction of seawinds?

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Answer

The Wind Rose


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What celestial body did the Portuguese introduce as a navigational tool?

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Answer

The Southern Cross

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How did Manuel I limit access to Portuguese maps?

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Answer

He prohibited the sale of Portuguese maps outside of Portugal 

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What famous explorer utilized the caravel design during his 1492 voyage?

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Answer

Christopher Columbus

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What was different about the caravel compared to previous ship designs?

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Answer

The caravel had triangular sails as well as a slim hull compared to the quadrangular rigging and round hulls of previous designs. 

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Where did Portuguese sailors first explore?

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Answer

The shores of Africa

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What did triangular sails allow sailors to do which was impossible previously?

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Answer

Sailors on a caravel could sail in multiple directions without relying on a wind from directly behind the ship. 

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What kind of boats was the design of the caravel based upon?

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Answer

Small fishing boats

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What was the precursor to the compass rose?

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Answer

the wind rose

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Question

Which two women had claims to the Castilian throne?

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Answer

Isabella of Castile and Joanna la Beltraneja 

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Who did the Treaty of Alcacovas declare queen?

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Answer

Isabella of Castile

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The treaty of Alcacovas confirmed that Portugal had a monopoly over land west of which continent? 

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Africa

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Which islands did Spain receive through the treaty?

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Answer

Canary Islands

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Why did the treaty include the marriage of Isabella of Aragon and Prince Afonso?

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Answer

To eventually combine Spain and Portugal

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Which Papal Bull backed the treaty?

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Answer

Aeterni Regis 

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Why was Joanna's legitimacy questioned?

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Answer

Henry was infertile

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Which Portuguese king married Joanna?

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Answer

Afonso V

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True/False

Isabella and Ferdinand's marriage began the unification process of Spain.

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Answer

True

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True/False

The treaty was a land win for Portugal and a sea win for Spain.

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Answer

True


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When was the Treaty of Tordesillas signed?

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1494

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What was used to divide the world between Portugal and Spain in 1493?

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Answer

The Line of Demarcation

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Why did Portugal and Spain need the pope to draw the Line of Demarcation?

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Answer

Both Portugal and Spain wanted to claim the islands that Christopher Columbus located

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True/False

The Line of Demarcation only applied to places without a Christian king.

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True

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Why did Portugal need the Line of Demarcation moved?

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It was too close to Africa so the Portuguese ships needed more room to sail.

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Which Treaty replaced the Treaty of Tordesillas?

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Answer

The Treaty of Madrid

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Which treaty replaced the Line of Demarcation?

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Answer

Treaty of Tordesillas

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Question

Which pope issued the line of Demarcation?

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Answer

Pope Alexander VI

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Question

True/False

Isabel and Ferdinand threatened the pope for a more favorable Line of Demarcation.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of the following is untrue about the Treaty of Tordesillas

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Answer

It was signed in 1750

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Question

Define Maritime. 

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Answer

Referring to the sea; seafaring, nautical  

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