In college and university courses, the history of world civilization is divided into one course covering the 6,000 years before 1500 AD and another covering the 500 years since. The reason is that 1500 marks the period in which a part of the world that had previously been backward and insignificant for 1,000 years began to gain an advantage in weapons and ships that made it ruler of the world. This was Western Europe.
In 500 AD, when the Polynesians were traveling thousands of miles across the open seas using sophisticated double-hulled canoes and a star navigation system, some Europeans were still painting themselves blue. When the Indians, Chinese, Native Americans and Africans had cities 25 miles around with huge markets, wide boulevards and police forces, many Europeans were living in mud and thatch huts. At that time, nine out of ten of the world’s largest cities were outside of Europe.
After the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, it took twelve centuries for Europeans to regain that level of development. They gained knowledge from the Arabs, including translations of the Greeks and Romans. Because of constant warfare, they developed superior weapons. Soon they had muskets and cannons. Although Europeans didn’t know yet what most of the world actually looked like, in 1494 the Pope divided it in half, giving the Western Hemisphere to Spain (which conquered and plundered it of huge amounts of gold and silver), and giving Africa and Asia to Portugal, which moved out to find new trade routes. The Portuguese first crept along coasts of Africa, trading in slaves and gold. Gradually they used the open seas to reach the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia and China, setting up trading ports. They made so much money trading in spices that if they survived the trip (generally only 50% did), a captain could retire after one voyage. The Dutch, and later the British and French, came hot on their heels.
They could conquer because their ships and weapons (cannons, muskets and later rifles and machine guns) were consistently ahead of the weapons of Africa and Asia. At first the margin was small, but by the 1800's the scientific and industrial revolutions had produced weapons of overwhelming power. In The River War, a young journalist named Winston Churchill wrote poetically about gunboats and Maxim machine guns mowing down thousands of Sudanese during the 1898 Battle of Omdurman.
With these weapons, the Europeans conquered the world and developed theories of European cultural and biological superiority. Some European colonists studied and appreciated local languages and culture, but the majority were ignorant and arrogant. One old photo from India shows a British officer lounging in his underwear in a wicker chair. One servant fans him and another gives him a pedicure. In 1930s Shanghai, a sign in the park in the French concession read, "No Chinese or Dogs Allowed."
Setting up colonies as their political strategy, Europeans followed the mercantilist theory of developing trade surpluses and maximizing their holdings of gold and silver in order to increase national power. They did this by setting up monopoly trading systems in which they bought cheap raw materials - spices, cocoa, coffee, jute, copper, tin, gold and silver - and sold manufactured goods at high prices. In some countries, they took over the best land and began growing cash export crops. In Indonesia, locals were required to grow only spices, so that they would be dependent on selling their crops cheaply and buying their food from high-priced company stores (like miners, plantation workers and sharecroppers in the U.S.).
The colonial powers also trained a small number of people (often local minorities or immigrants from other countries) in the European language, government procedures and business, in order to help run things. Ironically, it was often from the ranks of these co-opted educated locals that revolutionaries later sprang, demanding the rights that they had learned from western schools and universities.
By the late 1800's, virtually all of Asia, Africa and the Middle East were controlled by the European empires. In the elegant rooms housing the Berlin Conferences, European countries divided Africa among themselves. The Americans, Germans and Japanese also joined the imperialist game. Japan took Taiwan and Korea. Germany took Namibia, Tanzania, Cameroon, part of New Guinea and other Pacific islands, while trying to expand its influence in Latin America. Attacking a weakened Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War, the U.S. took control of Cuba, and took Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines outright (after a 2-year war to defeat the Philippine independence movement). The U.S. also took Hawaii (in spite of a petition from a majority of the population asking to restore the monarchy) and half of Samoa (without bothering to consult the Samoans). All provided ports for the newly-constructed U.S. Navy.
Marx, Lenin and Hobson explained all this as the result of competition among capitalist countries for markets, raw materials and investment opportunities. Wallerstein has added the factor of cheap labor in the ‘peripheral’ countries (such as Nike’s Indonesian and Levi’s Chinese sweatshops) being exploited by multinational corporations from the rich, hi-tech ‘core’ countries. Capitalist theorists more or less agree with the critics on how things work, but praise the system’s productivity and material progress. They also say that workers in poor countries are grateful for even low-paying jobs.
The results of the imperialist era can be seen even today. Besides artificial borders that cause conflicts by dividing tribes into different countries and lumping traditional enemies together in the same country, the economies of many of the former colonies are still dominated by colonial exports and hobbled by export-oriented infrastructure. Sugar in Cuba, copper in Chile, coffee in Kenya, cocoa in Ghana - these commodities continue to fall in price relative to the cost of imported manufactured goods and solidify the poverty of the Global South. (Ghana’s Kwame Nkruma asked, “How many tons of cocoa does it take to buy a tractor?” Answer - more each year.) The transportation systems and other infrastructure in these countries ran to the coastal ports to facilitate exports. Before the recent rise of local airlines, a trip to a neighboring country often required first traveling to a former colonial transportation hub. In the days before cell phones, calls to neighboring countries had to be routed through Paris or London. Today, in some countries much of the best land is still owned by whites. In addition, the local leadership trained by the colonial powers has been corrupt and repressive.