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The pith helmet, an icon of colonialism in tropical lands. This one was used during the Second French Colonial Empire.

Colonialism is the policy of a foreign polity seeking to extend or retain its authority over other people or territories, generally with the aim of developing or exploiting them to the benefit of the colonizing country and of helping the colonies modernize in terms defined by the colonizers, especially in economics, religion, and health.

The European colonial period was the era from the 15th century to 1914 when European states established empires. The Belgian, British, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish empires established colonies across large areas. Imperial Japan, the Ottoman Empire and the United States also acquired colonies, as did Chinese imperialism.

At first, European colonizing countries followed policies of mercantilism, in order to strengthen the home economy at the expense of rivals, so regulations usually restricted the colonies to trading only with the metropole (mother country). By the mid-19th century, however, the powerful British Empire gave up mercantilism and trade restrictions and adopted the principle of free trade, with few restrictions or tariffs. Christian missionaries were active in practically all of the colonies. Historian Philip Hoffman calculated that by 1800, before the Industrial Revolution, Europeans already controlled at least 35% of the globe, and by 1914, they had gained control of 84%. The archetypal European colonial system practically ended between 1945–1975, when nearly all Europe's colonies gained political independence.

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Duyfken replica, Swan River

Willem Janszoon made the first recorded European landing on the Australian continent in 1606, sailing from Bantam, Java in the Duyfken. As an employee of the Dutch East India Company, Janszoon had been instructed to explore the coast of New Guinea in search of economic opportunities. He had originally arrived in Dutch East Indies from the Netherlands in 1598 and become an officer of the VOC on its establishment in 1602. In 1605, he sailed from Bantam to its south coast and continued down what he thought was a southern extension of New Guinea, but was in fact the western coast of the Cape York Peninsula of northern Queensland. He travelled south as far as Cape Keerweer, where he battled with the local aboriginal people and several of his men were killed. As a consequence he was obliged to retrace his route up the coast towards Cape York and then returned to Banda. A reference to the outcome of the expedition was made as a result of Willem Schouten’s 1615 voyage on behalf of the Australische Compagnie from the Netherlands to the Spice Islands via Cape Horn.

Janszoon failed to discover Torres Strait, which separates Australia and New Guinea. Unknown to the Dutch, the Spanish or Portuguese explorer Luis Váez de Torres, working for the Spanish Crown, sailed through the strait four months later, although Torres did not report seeing the coast of a major land mass to his south and is therefore presumed not to have seen Australia. As a result of these oversights, Dutch maps did not include the strait until after James Cook's 1770 passage through the Torres Strait, while early Spanish maps showed the coast of New Guinea correctly, but omitted Australia.


Selected biography

Pedro Álvares Cabra

Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467 or 1468 – c. 1520) was a Portuguese noble, military commander, navigator and explorer. Cabral conducted the first substantial exploration of the northeast coast of South America and claimed it for Portugal. While details of Cabral's early life are sketchy, it is known that he came from a minor noble family and received a fine education. He was appointed to head an expedition to India in 1500, following Vasco da Gama's newly opened route around Africa. The object of the undertaking was to return with valuable spices and to establish trade relations in India—bypassing the monopoly on the spice trade then in the hands of Arab, Turkish and Italian merchants. His fleet of 13 ships sailed far into the western Atlantic Ocean, perhaps intentionally, where he made landfall on what he initially assumed to be a large island. As the new land was within the Portuguese sphere according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, Cabral claimed it for the Portuguese Crown. He explored the coast, realizing that the large land mass was likely a continent, and dispatched a ship to notify King Manuel I of the new territory. The continent was South America, and the land he had claimed for Portugal later came to be known as Brazil. The fleet reprovisioned and then turned eastward to resume the journey to India. Cabral was later passed over, possibly as a result of a quarrel with Manuel I, when a new fleet was assembled to establish a more robust presence in India. Having lost favor with the King, he retired to a private life of which few records survive. His accomplishments slipped into obscurity for more than 300 years. Nevertheless, although he was overshadowed by contemporary explorers, Cabral today is regarded as a major figure of the Age of Discovery.


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Colonialism's rise and fall over the past 500 years.


This map shows Colonization's rise and fall over the past 500 years.


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