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Maritime Empires

Unit 4: c. 1450-1750

Main Ideas:

  • Europeans developed trading-post empires, which used mercantilist principles & were run by joint-stock companies, facilitated by the global circulation of silver

  • Colonial economy was based on agriculture, which relied on the use of various labor systems, mostly African slaves; This also led to cultural and religious synthesis

  • Europeans partnered with some African kingdoms to get slaves (triangular trade), which made some kingdoms very powerful at the expense of others; Also led to widespread use of polygyny (man with multiple wives)

Trading-Post Empires

Europeans Built Trading-Post Empires based on Mercantilism 

Key Ideas:

  • Spanish, French, English, and mostly the Dutch & Portuguese built global trading post empires based on mercantilism
    • Mercantilism: The idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, and the wealth is measured in gold → Europeans wanted more of this gold

    • Dutch & Portuguese had many trading posts throughout Indian Ocean

      • Portuguese also had many trading posts in West Africa

  • Joint-stock companies profited these trading post empires

    • Joint-stock company: Multiple merchants pool their resources together → Increase profit & decrease risk of robbery

    • Dutch had VOC, a joint-stock company that profited from Indonesian spices

    • European Kingdoms adopted laws & policies in favor of these joint-stock companies → Yielded huge profits for Europeans

  • Global circulation of silver (mined in Spanish America) facilitated international trade

    • The Spanish mined silver in the Americas → Shipped it via the Manila Galleons to Philippines → Traded in China for luxury Asian goods & also satisfied Chinese demand for silver (which they used as currency​

  • While many kingdoms sought to integrate themselves into European trading-post empires, some sought to remain isolationist to protect their culture

    • Many African kingdoms (discussed below) integrated themselves into European trading-post empires & profited significantly​

    • Ming & Qing Dynasties of China and Tokugawa Shogunate (Japan) sought isolationism to protect their culture from European influence


Europeans Partnered with African Kingdoms to get Slaves → Political & Social Turmoil

Triangular Trade:

Raw materials cultivated by slaves



Manufactured goods 



Key Ideas:

  • Europeans partnered with African Kingdoms to get slaves (triangular trade), benefiting those kingdoms at the expense of others

    • Europeans gave guns to African kingdoms to raid other kingdoms to get slaves → Those kingdoms got super powerful with so many European guns → Other African kingdoms (that were raided for slaves) declined

    • Fostered growth of many African Kingdoms such as Asante, Hausa, and Kongo Kingdoms


  • Most African slaves (who were sent to Americas) were men → Shortage of men in Africa → Social & economic problems

    • Many African men took on multiple wives (polygyny)

    • Many families couldn't economically survive without their male family leaders

Colonial America

The Colonial Economy Depended on Agriculture & Relied on African Slaves

Key Ideas:

  • The Colonial economy was based on the cultivation of cash crops, and it relied on new & existing labor systems
    • Existing labor systems in Americas: Mit'a system (Incas used it)

    • New labor systems: Encomienda, Hacienda, Chattel slavery

    • These labor systems employed people to work on American plantations or silver mines

    • Europeans in the Americas owned plantations of cash crops such as sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, rice, etc. & sent most of the produce to Europe

  • Growth of colonial plantation economy → Increased demand for African slaves

    • European diseases & poor working conditions → African slaves died easily → Europeans in the Americas needed more of them

    • Sugarcane plantations (in Caribbean & Brazil) had especially harsh working conditions → Slave mortality was high → Demand for fresh slaves was high

  • Growth of slavery in Americas → Creation of syncretic slave culture

    • Slave culture harmonized different African traditions with Christianity

    • Voodoo is an example

Labor Systems in the Americas:


Failed for 2 Reasons

Spanish supervisors (encomenderos) employ Native Americans to work on plantations

1. Natives got sick easily
2. Natives knew the land & could escape


Americans who were in debt would work on plantations to pay off their debts


Existing Incan labor system; all adult males are drafted to work in silver mines


Slaves from Africa come to the Americas to work on plantations

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