However, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands were pushed aside by the British and the French. During the 1700s, Britain and France industrialized, emerged as the strongest world powers and spent the next 100 years struggling for dominance. France’s advantages were its central location in Europe, large population and rich agriculture. Britain’s advantages were its island location (it has not been successfully invaded in modern times), stronger industrial development and strong navy.
Improved agricultural productivity in the 1600s and 1700s increased food supplies and European populations, and the industrial and scientific revolutions increased their lead in military technology, leading to lopsided battles between rapidly-improving European small arms and artillery versus traditional low-tech weapons around the world. The industrial revolution also increased European competition for overseas territories, raw materials, captive markets and cheap labor. The result was the outright takeover or domination in the 1700s and 1800s of virtually the entire world. The so-called ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late 1800s was particularly blatant, with the European powers drawing straight border lines on maps with complete ignorance and disregard for which peoples lived where and sometimes without even knowing the actual location of landmarks. The resulting artificial borders split populations and put traditional enemies in the same country, while captive trading in mercantilist economic systems distorted local economies in favor of export crops and minerals. Those decisions still affect these nations today in the form of ethnic conflict and dependence on colonial-era exports.
Wars in this period were limited in time and scope by slow transportation and restricted material and human resources, lack of motivation by mercenary armies and rulers’ unwillingness to engage in total war against other monarchs who were sometimes relatives. There were several great powers (i.e. those with large populations and territory, a strong military and strong economy) competing in this multipolar environment. They engaged in constantly changing alliances and constant wars. Britain won the Seven Years War vs. France and its other rivals in 1763. The French struck back by helping Britain’s American colonies become independent in the 1780s. However, after the bloody French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise, international conquests and eventual defeat in the early 1800s, Britain again emerged as the strongest world power.
Britain’s manufacturing, financial and naval muscle resulted in its gaining the largest share of colonies and trade around the world, with France second and others with smaller shares. By 1900, Britain controlled a quarter of the world. In Asia, they held what are today India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, plus special rights in parts of China. In the Middle East, they controlled Egypt and the crucial Suez Canal. They held Canada and Australia. In Africa, they held Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana and South Africa. (“The sun never sets on the British empire.”)
France held much of Northern Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco), much of Central Africa (today’s Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Senegal, etc.), Madagascar and what is today Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. On a smaller scale, the Dutch had Indonesia and the Portuguese had Angola, Mozambique and some small ports. Meanwhile, in the early 1800s the Spanish lost their colonies in Latin America to home-grown revolutions.