Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Once a land of ancient empires and legendary rulers, Asia saw itself turn into a colony of the expanding European powers in the Early Modern period. Drawn to the Asian silk and spice trade, their colonization efforts were initially directed to harness the continent’s economic power. Eventually, the European states started to use more and more force, and by the start of the 20th Century, the Eastern world would be almost entirely in the hands of Colonial Empires. Welcome to our quick rundown on the European expansion in Asia and the Pacific. This is a prelude video to our series on the Pacific War - we’ll release weekly episodes with events that started 80 years prior, don’t forget to subscribe to never miss them!
In 1492, the European discovery of the New World ushered a new age of maritime exploration. For the last century, Portuguese explorers had been already trying to bypass Muslim territories to trade directly with West Africa while also attempting to reach the Indies and its lucrative spice trade. The Portuguese sent an expedition into African waters, at last discovering that the Indian Ocean was accessible through the Cape of Good Hope. On May 20, 1498, an expedition led by Vasco da Gama finally managed to reach India by sea. Thus, the Portuguese Colonial Empire was born. Soon, they established entrepôts in Kochi, Calicut, and Goa, later expanding their Estado da Índia across the region with the crucial acquisitions of Diu, Darman, Pulicat, Colombo, and Chittagong, among others. In Southeast Asia, the Portuguese captured Malacca and established settlements in the spice islands of Solor, Ternate, and Ambon, as well as on East Timor and Makassar, but they also disrupted and diverted trade in the region and spread Christianity in eastern Indonesia. Commercial contact was established with mainland realms in Southeast Asia as well; and in Burma, Portuguese mercenaries became essential for the expansion of the Toungoo Empire. In China, after a long period of conflict, the Portuguese would be allowed to establish an entrepôt in Macau; while in Japan, they benefited from the state of civil war - the Sengoku Jidai, and the Chinese embargo to monopolize trade between Japan and Europe.
The Portuguese also managed to spread Christianity in Japan, successfully converting one of the daimyos to Catholicism, who granted them the small fishing village of Nagasaki to act as a center of trade in the region. Although direct control of the village ended just a couple of years later, Nagasaki would nevertheless remain the main port of call for the Portuguese ships thanks to its predominantly Christian population.
Meanwhile, thanks to the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation, the Crown of Spain managed to discover and gradually colonize the Philippine archipelago. The Spaniards also established themselves in the spice island of Tidore, sparking a decade of conflicts with neighboring Portuguese Ternate that would be concluded with the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529, granting the Philippines to Spain and the Moluccas to Portugal. From their center in Manila, Spanish colonists would go on to settle Guam and the Mariana, Caroline, and Palau Islands.
In 1580, the establishment of the Iberian Union led to the decline of the Portuguese Empire in the East, as England, France, and the Dutch Republic began to create their own overseas empires. The Dutch would be the main culprits for the downfall of the Portuguese, successfully attacking their possessions in Asia and eventually taking control of Malacca, Ceylon, the Moluccas, the southern Malabar Coast, and regions of Coromandel and Surat.
The initial course of action taken by the Dutch East Indies would be to found a chartered company, the VOC, and to establish a colonial center in the city of Jakarta, which the Dutch renamed to Batavia. From there, the Dutch would continue to assault the commercial interests of the Portuguese, slowly expanding their control over Southeast Asia, leaving only East Timor and Macau in the hands of the Portuguese. They would also colonize the southern tip of the island of Formosa - modern-day Taiwan to use as headquarters for attacks against the Philippines. In response, the Spaniards established their own colony in the north of the island, although it was soon overtaken by the Dutch. The fate of Formosa would be finally decided when the Chinese warlord Koxinga invaded in 1661, managing to take full control of the island. Meanwhile in Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate started to show animosity towards the religious intentions of the Portuguese, leading to their expulsion in 1639 and the establishment of the Sakoku isolationist policy in Japan. Yet again, the Dutch benefitted from this to establish a monopoly over Japanese trade, being the only European power to operate in Japan from the port of Deshima in Nagasaki. With the fall of the Portuguese hegemony over the East, the British and French Empires would also start establishing their own chartered companies in the 17th Century.
Whereas the French arrived late and only established a few colonies in India, the British East India Company quickly set out to found trading posts in Sumatra, Bengal, and India. From there, they expanded their control over Bengal, established their first colony in Malaysia with the acquisition of Penang Island, and managed to expel the Dutch from Ceylon. Once the British had gained a foothold over this island, they soon warred against the Kingdom of Kandy and established a protectorate over the entirety of Ceylon and the neighboring Maldives. Following a series of conflicts with the French and Dutch Empires, the British would manage to take most of their possessions in India, becoming the dominant European power in the region. Within a century, most of the Indian subcontinent gradually fell under the rule of the British East India Company, which prompted the establishment of the British Raj in 1858 to assume direct control over India. In Burma, relations with the British East India Company had been always tense after the Burmese annexation of Arakan, leading to a war in 1824. This was one of the most expensive operations of the chartered company, but in the end, it saw the British takeover of Manipur, Assam, Arakan, and Tennasserim, as well as the birth of British supremacy in Asian coastal waters. A second war broke out in 1852, in which the British annexed the province of Lower Burma, leaving the Burmese state in shambles.
In the 19th Century, the British also decided to take a more expansionist role in Malaysia, sponsoring a coup in the Sultanate of Johor and founding the colony of Singapore. They would then negotiate with the Dutch for the cession of Malacca and the remaining Dutch forts in India in exchange for all British possession in Sumatra and the recognition of Dutch rights to Indonesia. British Malaya would continue to grow across the century, as the Straits Settlements were established and the Malay Sultanates were gradually annexed as protectorates. At the same time, the British established a protectorate over the Raj of Sarawak in northwestern Borneo and then established a colony on the Labuan islands. Meanwhile, the French would take great interest in the region of Indochina. After enjoying very good relations with Vietnam, the French Empire would start to continually intervene in the country in the 19th century, culminating with an attack on Tourane and the founding of the colony of Cochinchina. In 1867, all of Southern Vietnam fell under French control and a protectorate over Cambodia was officially established. The French would also go on to establish protectorates over the islands of New Caledonia, Tahiti, Tahuata, and Wallis and Futuna. Initially, the Tahitians would offer strong resistance against the colonists, yet they would be subdued at last and the French would go on to expand across modern-day French Polynesia. With the British, they would also establish an Anglo-French condominium over the New Hebrides; with one English side, and the other one French.
Meanwhile in China, there was an increasing demand for opium that was strongly damaging the Chinese population, prompting the Daoguang Emperor to end the opium trade with the Europeans. In response, Britain sent a military expedition in 1839, thus starting the first of the Opium Wars. The Chinese would be defeated in a humiliating way, and as a consequence, they would have to open their foreign trade with Europe and to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British Empire. Furthermore, China was left in a state of social unrest, and it would need the help of French and British troops to quell the Taiping and Nian Rebellions. In 1856, another incident over opium would renew war with the British Empire. Joined by the United States and the French and Russian Empires, the British would win again, further opening commercial areas in China, legalizing the opium trade, and acquiring the Kowloon Peninsula next to Hong Kong.
The Russian Empire, which over the last centuries had been expanding across Central Asia and Siberia, would also go on to annex the entire region of Outer Manchuria. In 1884, the French Empire would obtain control over northern Vietnam following their victory over China in another war, thus consolidating their colony in Indochina. But the success of the French also threatened the British position in the region, prompting them to declare war against the Burmese and annex the province of Upper Burma. This left the Kingdom of Siam entirely surrounded by European powers, and the Siamese would have to relinquish some territories on the frontiers to maintain their independence. Thus, the British received the Shan states and some possessions in Malaysia while the French enlarged their Indochinese colony with the addition of modern-day Laos.
In the 19th Century, the Dutch also started to gradually expand their East Indies across maritime Southeast Asia, and by 1920 they had acquired the modern-day borders of Indonesia. Meanwhile, the British expanded into Brunei and North Borneo and managed to colonize Fiji, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, the Union Islands, the southern Solomon Islands, and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. By the 20th Century, Great Britain also colonized the islands of Tonga and Niue, the Phoenix Islands, and the southeastern side of the island of New Guinea. Yet, the crown jewel of their Oceanic Empire would be the colonies of Australia and New Zealand, from where the British controlled all their Pacific possessions.
At the end of the century, the assassination of German missionaries in China would spark another conflict with European powers, culminating with a scramble for concessions in 1898 that awarded the Germans with a lease over the Jiazhou Bay and Tianjin, that granted the British a lease over Weihaiwei and the New Territories of Hong Kong, and that gave a lease over Guangzhouwan to the French. The recently established German Empire also colonized the northeastern part of New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, the northern Solomon Islands, Western Samoa, and Nauru. Finally, the entrance of the United States into the Pacific, the last main foreign player in the region, would coincide with the downfall of the Spanish Empire. In 1898, the same year that the US annexed Hawaii, American intervention in Cuba led to the ultimate conquest of the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific.
Weakened from their defeat against the US, the Spaniards could no longer protect their Pacific possessions, including the Mariana, Caroline, and Palau islands; so, in 1889, they sold these territories to the German Empire for a significant sum of gold marks, ending the Spanish presence in the region.
The start of the next century would also see an increasing American interest in the Pacific with the colonization of Wake Island, the Midway Atoll, the Johnston Atoll, Eastern Samoa, and the Howland and Baker Islands, thus completing the colonization of Oceania. As you can see, most of Southeast Asia and Oceania were leftin the hands of Western powers by the turn of the 20th Century.
Our prelude series that will soon morph into the weekly coverage of the Pacific War will continue next week as we observe how the Japanese turned from an isolationist state into a regional power in the East, laying the initial groundwork for the rise of the Japanese Empire, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see the next video in the series. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely.