4.4.E: State Building and Expansion 1450 to 1750

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Learning Objective 4E

 Explain the process of state-building and expansion among various empires and states between 1450 and 1750.

Historical Development 1

Major European powers established maritime empires.

Historical Development 2

The expansion of European maritime empires fostered the growth of some African states.

Historical Development 3

Some Asian states adopted restrictive or isolationist trade policies. 

Key ideas

Major European powers established maritime empires.

There were two major phases of European maritime expansion.

Europeans established both trading post and colonial empires.

European expansion initially helped some African and Asian states prosper through trade with European merchants.

China and Japan began limiting European trade to limit European influence over their societies.


Europeans Established Maritime Empires

Early European exploration and trade missions were profitable, and the return on investment of these journeys was often multiple thousands of percent. This profit was the prime motive for the establishment of European maritime empires. By 1750, European powers had reshaped governance across the globe as they expanded their naval empires.

Major European empire builders

European empire builders before 1750 included the following:

The Portuguese 

The Spanish

The Dutch

The French

The English

Phases of European maritime expansion

European expansion and empire-building had several phases between the 15th and 20th centuries.

Phase 1: European conquest of the Americas and direct colonial control by the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch. The establishment of trading post empires in Asia and colonization of the Philippines. Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the Portuguese and the Dutch were the first successful European empire builders. The French, English, and Dutch later began establishing colonies and trading posts in the Americas and Asia.

Phase 2: As Europeans lost control over the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, their attention turned to the east.

  • Asian and African trading post empires expanded from coastal areas into continental interiors.
  • As more and more non-European natives fell under European control, European control over political, economic, and social systems in Asia and Africa increased.
  • Oceania also fell under direct European control. In Australia and New Zealand, Europeans displaced natives in a process similar to the Americas, with natives’ land stolen from them and many dying from newly introduced diseases. As European colonists flooded into the region, Europeans built societies founded on European ideals. Like the Americas, little native culture remains in modern-day New Zealand and Australia.

During the 2nd phase of European colonization, the French, the Dutch, and the English were the major European maritime colonizing powers.

Trading post empires

The goal of European trading post empires was influence and control over trade. Trading post empires primarily consisted of settlements and forts that Europeans built along African and Asian coasts. The strategy of maintaining trading posts was most common during early European colonization in Africa and Asia. Direct colonization in Asia was initially only imposed upon the Philippines by the Spanish.

Europeans failed to completely control African and Asian maritime trade: The Europeans could never establish monopoly control over commerce in the Indian Ocean. However, as time went on, Europeans became increasingly influential in the region’s exchange. Unlike their trade domination in the Americas, Europe never held monopoly control over Indian Ocean commerce.

Colonial empires

Direct colonial control is when a colonizer controls the colonized’s political, economic, and social systems of foreign civilizations. Often the colonizers’ culture is imposed upon native peoples and systems.

Colonial empires in the Americas: The Americas were predominantly under direct European colonial control, and European colonizers destroyed entire civilizations like the Aztec and the Inca. Europeans also replaced native social systems in the Americas, and white colonizers became the elite class as natives lost all social power, status, and mobility.

Trading posts empires later transitioned to direct colonial control in Africa and Asia: European powers such as France, the English, and the Dutch later (later 18th – early 20th centuries) expanded their colonial empires into Asia following the weakening of Portuguese and Spanish influence in the region. Trading posts enlarged to include more and more people territory and more and more native peoples. By the early 20th century, the British Empire forcibly ruled over 400 million non-Britishers, over 23 percent of the world’s population.

European Expansion Helped Foster the Success of Some African and Asian States--Initially

In the early centuries (phase 1) of European expansion, some African and Asian states prospered due to expanding maritime trade.

Asante in Africa: Asante was a powerful West African state in today’s Ghana between the 18th and 19th centuries and was one of the largest sources of African slaves for the English and the Dutch. In exchange for slaves, the Asante received firearms, which they used to defeat neighboring groups and expand their regional power. In the 1820s, friction increased between the Asante and the British coastal trading posts established near Asante territory. When conflict initially broke out in the 1820s, the Asante defeated the British. However, when fighting again broke out in the 1860s, British weapons and military superiority defeated the Asante. The British incorporated Asante territories into the British Gold Coast colony.

The Kingdom of Kongo in Africa: The Kingdom of Kongo was a powerful kingdom located on the Atlantic portion of the Central African coast between the 14th and 20th centuries. Early contact with the Portuguese led to some European cultural traditions diffusing into Kongo’s culture. The most significant cultural trait adopted from the Portuguese was Christianity following the Kongo ruling family’s conversion. Contact with Europeans led to increased revenue from the trade of slaves, ivory, and manufactured goods like copperware, cloth, and pottery. In the 19th century, growing rivalries within Kongo resulted in the weakening of the monarchy’s control. As regional and clan leaders arose, conflicts often became violent. In a weakened state, the Kongo kingdom officially became a Portuguese colony in the 1850s.

Some States Instituted Restrictive Trade Policies

Some states looked upon European expansion with suspicion and instituted restrictive trade policies to prevent the growth of outside influences within their territories. 


Ming dynasty: Having freed China from foreign Mongol rule, Ming emperors were generally more suspicious of outside influences within China. The first Ming emperor Hongwu imposed trade restrictions on merchant activity on maritime trading routes along China’s eastern coast. The emperor wanted all foreign maritime trade to occur through the government-sponsored tribute voyages of Admiral Zheng He. Known as Haijin, these restrictive trade policies resulted in the growth of illicit markets and illegal trade along the Chinese coast. Hongwu’s Ming successors reversed these trade restrictions.

Qing dynasty: Between the 1640s and 1660s, Qing rulers reinstituted bans on maritime trade. The Chinese started the Canton system in 1757 and focused all foreign maritime exchange to the southern Chinese port of Canton. The Canton system resulted from Chinese fear of European political and economic threats. When merchants arrived in Canton, they could not leave the port areas without approval.


Tokugawa Japan: In 1635, Japan instituted the Sakoku edict, which intended to eliminate foreign influence from Japan. These restrictive policies severely limited foreigners’ ability to enter Japan. The Japanese government during this period also restricted Japanese commoners from leaving Japan. The goal of the policy was to prevent foreign colonial and religious influence from entering Japan. The Tokugawa Shoguns worried that this influence would weaken their hold over powerful regional lords and daimyo, who might use outside contacts to build up their personal armies with modern gunpowder weaponry. The Japanese did not end all outside communication. Chinese traders were still allowed access to Japanese markets through the port of Nagasaki. The Dutch were also allowed to trade with Japan through the port of Dejima.