For Your Enlightenment: Early modern colonialism for fictional empires

Now that the first article discussing the basics of the early modern era, is out of the way, we can get started dissecting the elements that can be used by worldbuilders.

One of the features that defined the early modern period was globalization. The world went from being a collection of regional powers that only interacted with neighbors to being relatively connected worldwide. Unfortunately, the vehicle for that increased connection was European imperialism and colonialism. These trends hurt a lot of people for the benefit of a few, but worldbuilders can use these events to create realistic empires of their own.

Let’s talk about colonial motivations, charters and companies, managing empires, and imperial conflicts.

Colonial Motivations

  • To simplify greatly, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople was the catalyst for the Age of Discovery (which led directly to colonialism and imperialism). Christian Europe was nervous that Silk Road trade was now controlled by a Muslim Empire, so they began looking for ways around them. Once Europe started to move ahead militarily and technologically, they began subjugating the locals—the first modern colonies.
  • Historians use the phrase “Glory, God, and gold” to describe the motivations behind colonialism. (And you thought that was something Disney made up for Pocahontas.) “Gold” is the easiest to understand. Governments were looking for revenue, both through setting up trade routes and by extracting local resources. “God” refers to the push to convert locals to Christianity. The religious fervor of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation was a huge factor behind this. Lastly, “glory” captures both the drive for individual explorers to make a name for themselves and for governments to one-up each other. Of course, “glory” on the governmental level often boiled down to “gold” anyway.
  • One last thing to consider is how these considerations affected the nature of the colonies themselves. There are a few ways to classify colonies, but the simple system we’ll use differentiates between “settler” and “exploitative” colonies. The vast majority of colonies were exploitative, meaning that their main goal was to extract local resources. These resources were used to maximize the wealth of the “metropole,” or the colonists’ homeland (this is where we get “metropolitan”). A minority were “settler” colonies, meaning that the focus was providing a place for immigrants to live. The North American, South African, and Australian colonies were all mostly settler, while the rest were mostly exploitative (though South American colonies were kind of mixed).

Charters and Companies

  • This isn’t a massive point, but it’s an interesting phenomenon that would make sense in many settings. For much of Europe’s colonial history, governments lacked the resources and organization to fund and manage a true empire. To remedy this, they would provide companies with “charters,” or official permissions to found and run colonies. The largest and most famous examples were the British and Dutch East India Companies. There were many others, some with incredibly small jurisdictions permitted by their charters.
  • Chartered companies were less common at the beginning and end of the early modern period for different reasons. At the start, the commercial innovations of proper corporations and joint-stock companies limited the for-profit sector’s ability to contribute meaningfully to colonization efforts, so empires like Spain and Portugal managed their colonies directly. At the end, nations became strong and bureaucratized enough that the companies were no longer necessary, so they started being reabsorbed into their governments.

Managing Empires

  • The classic way to classify colonial administration systems is a spectrum from “direct” to “indirect.” This scheme is awkward both in timing (it was devised in the early 20th century by British and French theorists advocating for ways to manage their nations’ empires) and accuracy (the spectrum’s applicability has been challenged in recent decades), but it works well enough for worldbuilding purposes.
  • Direct administration, typified by the French Empire, involved immigrants from the metropole taking active charge of local government. It understandably required large relocation efforts to supply the required manpower, and could take a lot of resources. The benefits were that the imperial government had a lot of control over how things were run in the colonies.
  • Indirect administration, typified by the British Empire, left local officials in power, but made them subservient to the imperial government. Direct systems often left some locals in government, but reduced them to figureheads intended to provide the illusion of representation to keep the locals in check. Under indirect rule, the locals genuinely governed themselves, though they could only do so within the bounds that the metropole set. This was significantly cheaper, though it could get hairy if the locals decided to try and defy their overlords.
  • Another drawback of the indirect system was that it fell apart if the local culture didn’t have a centralized government to begin with. This was the case in several African regions. There, the British would arbitrarily pick a local and put them in charge. These “warrant chiefs” (named after the warrants that gave them authority) were poorly received and respected for several reasons. The most obvious is that people didn’t feel the need for such an authority figure, so why would they obey? Another was that the colonizers would usually pick warrant chiefs that matched their image of a good leader, which often didn’t align with the personalities that locals actually valued. Warrant chiefs were almost universally men, artificially creating a patriarchal structure in areas where there wasn’t one before. These areas tended to see the most resistance to imperial rule.
  • It’s worth mentioning that the direct-indirect spectrum applies only to exploitative colonies. Settler colonies don’t want to rule the locals, they want to displace them and settle their land.
  • A final consideration is how the colonizers related to the locals. This was a debate within French circles after the French Revolution, with the two sides representing “assimilation” and “association.” Those in favor of “assimilation” believed that the ideals of the Revolution were universal human constants. They advocated for culturally reeducating the locals and forcing them to adopt the metropole’s customs and language. While this was the dominant theory in the French Empire for a long time, it wasn’t the only one. Dissidents favored “association,” which said that the local society should be kept mostly intact, though usually separate from the colonists.

Imperial Conflicts

  • When colonial empires clashed, the results could be ugly. While empires were often hesitant to fight in their homelands, it was easier on the conscience to dictate distant bloodshed. As such, the colonies were often the sites of horrible proxy wars, frequently using locals as conscripts and mercenaries. In the most extreme examples, all the colonies would get involved, as in the Seven Years’ War (which is considered to be the first true global conflict; sorry, World War I).
  • Even when empires weren’t officially at war, there was a constant hum of low-level conflict. One of the simplest vehicles for this was the privateer system. Privateers (also called “corsairs”) were pirates that were given permission by specific governments to raid the vessels of their enemies. The “letters of marque” they were given as symbols of this permission theoretically made them immune from prosecution by other nations—even their targets—though some (notably Spain) didn’t honor these letters. (Random trivia: the US Constitution gives the federal government the power to hire privateers.)
  • Privateers often reverted to piracy once the war ended or their letters expired. Pirates could range for much longer distances than popular culture often remembers. One short-lived route, called the Pirate Round (used by pirates known as “roundsmen”) went all the way from the New York colony, down around the southern point of Africa, past Madagascar, and raided the ports of India. Just something to keep in mind—your pirates don’t have to stick to areas the size of the Caribbean.

And there you have it! Looking forward to feedback and suggestions in the comments.


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