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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective Prompt:

Discuss how the objective (find a direct to the Orient) of the Age of Expansion and Conquest was carried out through a three step process: geographical expansion, political expansion, and commercial expansion.

Give at least one detailed example of each step or phase of its development. 



The objective of the age of expansion and conquest were carried out through a three-stage process.

First, there were the sea captains. who were responsible for the geographical expansion. These men made the major discoveries of the new continents and trade routes.

Second came the conquerors. or the first wave of settlers who were responsible for the political expansion. This is exemplified by the development of the English colonies or by Spanish soldiers such as Cortez and Pizarro, who laid the foundation for a vast European empire by overwhelming flourishing native cultures in the New World .  

Third came the task of exploiting what had been found or commercial expansion. This was usually done by the use of joint-stock companies, or by the use of royal officials who were used to replace the conquerors. The joint-stock company was the forerunner of the modern corporation. In a joint-stock venture, stock was sold to high net-worth investors who provided capital and had limited risk. These companies had proven profitable in the past with trading ventures. The risk was small, and the returns were fairly quick. But investing in a colony was an altogether different venture. The risk was larger as the colony might fail. The start up costs were enormous and the returns might take years. Investors in such endeavors needed more than a small sense of adventure.

Who led these English colonial expeditions? Often, these leaders were second sons from noble families. Under English law, only the first-born male could inherit property. As such, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert were all second sons with a thirst to find their own riches.

Merchants who dissented from the Church of England were also willing investors in New World colonies. There were plenty of Puritans who had the necessary capital, and with the Catholic-leaning Stuart monarchs assuming the throne the Puritans' motive to move became stronger.

With an excess landless population to serve as workers, and motivated, adventurous, or devout investors, the joint-stock company became the vehicle by which England finally settled the Western Hemisphere.

This starkly contrasted with Spanish and French settlements. New Spain and New France were developed by their kings. The English colonies were developed by their people. Many historians argue that the primary reason the relatively small and late English colonization effort ultimately outlasted its predecessors was because individuals had a true stake in its success.

This third phase which developed during the age of discovery would soon be modified into a new economic philosophy called mercantilism. Mercantilist policies were adopted by the nation-states in order to gain economic unity and control and to achieve national and international power. There were two basic ways in which this was done. The first objective was the acquisition of as much gold and silver as possible. The importance of money was emphasized because of its growing use in trade and business and to establish a country as a military power.

If a country did not have mines from which to draw the bullion (as the gold or silver was called), it was deemed necessary to have a favorable balance of trade as the second alternative. This meant encouraging industry and agriculture in order that a nation would not be dependent upon foreign-manufactured goods or products. The raw materials which were unavailable at home might be obtained from colonies--as was the case in the third and final stage of the age of discovery.

Mercantile policy also called for a large shipping industry, a strong protective navy, and control over exports and imports. Competing imports were restricted and exports of finished products were encouraged in order to bring in a cash balance. Colonies then became important not only as locations of gold and silver mines, but as suppliers of raw materials and purchasers of finished products manufactured in the mother country.

In conclusion, mercantilism , not a direct route to the Orient, became the main objective of European nations by the time they had reached the third phase of the age of discovery. For England, which is our main concern, this occurred about 1650 with the passage of the navigation act of that year.

Give at least one detailed example of each step or phase of its development by reading through at least one of the following articles: