Colonial conflicts and competition between European countries

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Since colonial competition between European countries was among the direct causes of the Seven Years War, it is important to have an overview of the evolution of European colonization prior to this conflict.


European voyages of exploration

Through the 15th and 16th centuries, European powers engaged in intensive exploration of the world now known as the “Age of Discovery”. The renaissance of science in general and the evolutions in the science of navigation in particular played a big role in the emergence of this movement. In past ages, Europeans thought that the earth was flat. They only knew about the lands close to their home countries. Most sailors thought that, if they sailed in the Atlantic Ocean, they would wander in the fog and will never return to their home countries.

However, the emergence of a number of theories, especially those who concerned the spherical shape of the Earth, in addition with the evolution of navigation techniques such as the introduction of the compass and astrolabe, which the Europeans borrowed from the Arabs, allowed their vessels to acquire a much larger freedom of movement. European exploration were driven by several factors, the most significant being economic: they wanted to find a sea route to India to get rid of the monopolies of Arab and Italian merchants trading spices imported from the east. The various taxes and fees imposed on the shipments of spices made them very expensive once arrived at destination in Europe. Furthermore the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1452 threatened to interrupt this trade with Europe and was another reason explaining why the Europeans wanted to find an alternative trade route with the East.

Religious factors also played an important role in the emergence of European explorations. Missionaries had repeatedly manifested their desire to spread Christianity to the detriment of the Islamic religion. Since its birth, this missionary movement had received full support and blessings from the pope.

Spain and Portugal were the first European countries to undertake voyages of exploration. Their geographical location at the extreme west of Europe as well as the religious proselytism and intolerance characterizing the kings of these countries explain their role of precursors in these voyages of exploration.

The name of the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) is closely associated with the first voyages of explorations. He was at the same time a Christian fanatic and a scholar well versed in the studies of geography and astronomy. He received the blessing of the church to find an alternative road to India along the West African coast, thus bypassing Islamic territories. Henry sent several expeditions to achieve this purpose. After his death, the Portuguese continued to explore the many islands of the South Atlantic and founded a series of trading posts along the western coast of Africa. Certainly the most important of these voyages was the expedition conducted by Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 where he sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa to reach the eastern coast of this continent. A few years later, in May 1498, another Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, set sail for another voyage along the African coasts and reached Calicut and Goa on the coast of India. He then returned to Portugal in 1499 with ships laden with spices and oriental products, opening the way for trade with India and the Middle East.

In the meantime, Spaniards tried to reach India by sailing westwards, basing their approach on the theory of a spherical Earth. Christopher Columbus, a Genoese navigator in the service of Spain, finally obtained the support of the Spanish Queen Isabelle after trying for seven years. He built the ships needed for the trip and, on August 3 1492, set sail from the port of Palos in Spain. He reached the Bahamas Islands on October 12 believing that he had reached the East Indies. He then explored the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola before returning to Spain where he arrived on March 15, 1493.

From 1499 to 1502, another Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, in the Portuguese service took part in several expeditions on the eastern coast of South America. During these voyages he realised that Columbus had in fact discovered an entire continent. Ironically, from 1516 this continent was known as “America” after Amerigo Vespucci while it should have been more properly named “Columbia”.

The era of the voyages of exploration was coming to an end, gradually replaced by the age of colonialism and exploitation of the newly discovered territories. A steady flow of money and treasures began to enrich Spain and Portugal, inciting other European powers to initiate their own voyages of exploration. England, France and the Netherlands sent expeditions to explore new commercial routes and to establish colonies in America, Asia and Africa. These powers soon entered into a bitter struggle to impose their supremacy on colonies and trade routes. Long and repetitive wars resulted from their competition.

European colonial rivalry in the 17th century

By the end of the 16th century France, England and the Netherlands were competing with Spain and Portugal for supremacy. In 1578, the young King Sebastian I of Portugal, who had no heir, had been killed in the Battle of Ksar El Kebir. This led to the Portuguese succession crisis of 1580 which allowed Philip II of Spain to unite the two kingdoms under the rule of the Spanish kings for the next 60 years. However, he neglected the Portuguese colonies and declared war to England. This conflict resulted in the disastrous destruction of a large part of the Spanish fleet (Armada) in 1588 which marked the end of the Spanish colonial supremacy. By the end of the 19th century the Spanish Empire would have almost completely disappeared.

The Netherlands seized the opportunity, rapidly doubling their naval strength in an attempt to take over Portuguese colonies in India and the East Indies. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company was established. It soon managed to give to the Netherlands control over most of the Portuguese colonies, and was able to establish a colonial empire based on trade with Southern Asia, more specifically spice trade with the archipelago of Indonesia, India and the Persian Gulf.

In 1621, the Netherlands turned their attention towards America, establishing the Dutch West India Company which soon established some colonies in Brazil and North America.

At the beginning of the 17th century the English and the French entered the arena of colonial conflict, sending trade missions and establishing colonies in different parts of the world. They engaged into an intense competition with the Dutch sphere of influence. England tried to establish trading posts in India and along the Persian Gulf while simultaneously establishing colonies in North America. England then entered into a series of wars with the Netherlands known as the “Anglo-Dutch Wars” which seriously weakened the Netherlands and confirmed England as the predominant naval power in Europe.

During the 17th century, France too was very active, creating the French East India Company in 1601 and establishing a number of trading posts on the eastern and western coasts of India, as well as organising a number of commercial agencies in the Persian Gulf which entered into intense competition with their Dutch counterparts.

The French also turned their attention toward the New World and founded many colonies in Canada and on the Atlantic coast. The Third Anglo-Dutch War saw France and England allied against the Netherlands.

At the beginning of the 18th century, France tried to grab naval supremacy from England and to control trade routes and colonies. This led to collision of English and French interests and these two countries entered in a bitter struggle for the control of the colonies and the domination of trade routes and commercial sources.

Colonial conflict between Great Britain and France

The competition for colonies and trade centres between France and Great Britain (the union of England and Scotland) was one of the main reasons who led to a series of wars and conflicts between these two countries from 1701 to 1763. This period represents the peak reached by colonization and colonial trade in these two countries who redirected their attention from their domestic problems and internal disputes to the extension of their influence in many parts of Asia, Africa and North America. They established settlements and trading posts, particularly in North America and India; and soon entered into an intense rivalry to impose their control and hegemony over the colonies and trade routes.

Researchers believe that the state of political instability experienced by European countries at the beginning of the 18th century, and the development of their naval capabilities compared with the declining naval power of colonial leaders like Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, is what led to polarize the colonial conflict during the 18th century between France and Great Britain. Another important factor was the geographical location of their colonies whose expansions could only be accomplished to the detriment of each other. This led to a state of constant friction and collisions between their colonies, particularly between their colonies of North America. All these reasons contributed to the severity of the colonial conflict between these two countries.

This conflict took various forms. In India it was an intense commercial competition between the British East India Company and the French Compagnie des Indes. The latter succeeded in establishing commercial relations with India and was headquartered in Pondicherry (present-day Puducherry) and had trading posts in Bengal, Malabar and Masulipatam (present-day Machilipatnam). The British East India Company had its headquarters in Madras (present-day Chennai) and trading posts in Bengal, Bombay (present-day Mumbai) and Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). The presence of the colonial powers contributed to the deterioration of the political situation in India. In the 16th and 17th century, most of this country formed part of the Mughal Empire, a Muslim dynasty. After the death of its greatest ruler, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), this empire started to decline. Provincial governors gradually gained virtual independence from the emperors. This independence facilitated interference of the British and French companies who extended their influence and meddled in the affairs of local princes. Gradually, these companies became local governments in India and took measures to build their military forces under the pretext of protecting their settlements and commercial interests. The competition between these two companies for commercial supremacy soon became a conflict between France and Great Britain.

In North America, colonization by these two countries started almost simultaneously. A British colony was established in Virginia on the Atlantic coast in 1607 while the French founded Québec in 1608. British colonies soon expanded along the east coast of the Atlantic while French colonies expanded along the Saint-Laurent Valley and the Great Lakes.

Over time, the expansion of the British colonies in North America created frictions between them and the French colonies. The French colonies stretched, in the form of a curved line, around the British colonies and stood in the way of the expansion of the British colonies westwards.

These colonies were in constant conflict to expand into new territories or to control trade centres in the interior of the continent. These conflict culminated during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713) where Great Britain played a major role in the defeat of Louis XIV. France then ceded its colonies in Newfoundland and Acadia to Great Britain.

Most colonial conflicts occurring in North America were initiated after the outbreak of wars in Europe who had started for reasons associated to European political context. Usually, war was first declared between the two countries in Europe, then the local forces of the colonies and their local allies engaged into military operations between each other. This was the case for the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1738) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

However, for the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the pattern was rather different. In fact, competition between Great Britain and France for the colonies in North America was one of the main reasons that led to the outbreak of the conflict. British and French colonies were in a state of war since 1754, two years before the outbreak of war in Europe in 1756.


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Abbass Hassan Obbaiss, a historian from Babylon in Iraq, for the initial version of this article