Africa,  Eastern Europe,  England,  India,  Phoebe,  Portugal,  South America,  United States,  Western Europe

The Role of Religion in Empire Building

English and Indians Meeting at Jamestown in 1607 Photo Credit-
English and Indians Meeting at Jamestown in 1607 Photo Credit-

Although Empires began and subsequently expanded for a variety of reasons, religion and culture played an important part, both as a catalyst and subsequently in the shaping of newly established Empires regardless of the initial motive for conquer. Examples of trade, security, lack of resources in the core nation, financial gain, religion and exploration demonstrate this, from various periods of their history covering expansion in similar areas, I will show how these motives affected the conquered nations as well as the settlers and associated parties involved. I have chosen to concentrate on non-contiguous Empires for my examples.

Spain’s successful overthrowing of their Moorish conquerors from the eleventh century onwards gave them a special sense of themselves as being on a divine mission which gave them the notion that they were from a religious perspective morally justified in their later actions in South America. It is claimed by some historians that during this period of reconquest, Spain, driven by her desire to capture the Canary Islands and rid their prospective Empire of Muslims and Jews, that those indigenous peoples in areas of conquest were given an ultimatum of Christian conversion or slavery.

It is possible that the British Empire started life as the desire to imitate Spain’s success in finding precious metals in the Americas. Religious justification lent weight to this need after the Reformation when it was argued that England had a religious duty to build a Protestant Empire to match the ‘Popish’ Empires of the Spanish and Portuguese. There are further examples we can see from Hernan Cortes’ journey through the Aztec nation of Mexica with several references to his Catholic beliefs as the correct ones, and corresponding documentary evidence highlighting the Mexica tribes as Heathens worshipping false Gods and so forth.

Contrary to this view, however, Portugal was far from feeling a desire to spread the Catholic faith, and instead was driven to expand their territory overseas purely as they lacked sufficient land within their home nation to provide enough natural resources to sustain its economy. They were unable to expand contiguously as they bordered with Spain to the East, therefore the only option available to them was maritime expansion, from the coast at Lisbon. Portugal, was the first country to ‘establish… global European empire’ and over what appear as three main periods of Imperial expansion, demonstrated several of the thematic factors depending on the area they were colonising at the time. During their early exploration of the South Atlantic Ocean they passed around the southern coast of Africa, past India and towards Asia, establishing a lucrative sea route to the Far East, alternative to the land route that was inaccessible to them. However, although religion did not appear to be a defining factor in their need for expansion, upon reaching Goa, it is seen that Albuquerque encouraged Portuguese soldiers and sailors to settle there and marry local Indian Women, uniting the Christian and Hindu populations against their Muslim enemy.

Shortly thereafter, they conquered Brazil although initially as they did not share the success of the Spaniards in sourcing gold, they did not consider this to be significant. It was only during the later growth and initial trade monopoly of the sugar industry that Portugal was able to establish from Brazil, and as a solution to the failure of the Brazilian natives to cope with the strain of working on the plantations that their very profitable African Slave trade began, and Brazil became their most important Imperial commodity.

This in turn led them to concentrate on colonising their territories in Africa and Asia. Here, financial gain and religion played a large part. They had discovered gold in Africa, established sugar plantation on the western islands around the coast, and beaten the Muslims on their own ground capturing Cueta in the process. Their other aim was then to find the legendary Christian king Prester John who would help them spread the word of God outside of Europe. Historians argue that this quest was ideologically of the utmost importance to their crusading ambition of bringing Catholic Christianity to the heathen.

Hernan Cortez meeting the Aztec king in Tenochtitlan. - f Photo Credit-
Hernan Cortez meeting the Aztec king in Tenochtitlan. – f Photo Credit-

It also seems to suggest that this religious dedication ultimately contributed to the downfall of Portugal in India, when the Dutch VOC, who were comparatively completely uninterested in spreading their own Calvinist religious views, were able to make subsequent changes in the established trading systems which were linked to the maximisation of their own profits to the detriment of the profits of the Portuguese, eventually causing them to lose their trade to the Dutch.

If we compare this with the British Empire’s expansion into India, which could be said was ultimately one of the two major successful colonisations of the Empire, the initial reasons for such was simply to establish a share in the trade possibilities the country generated. In the later part of India’s Imperial link with England, many Indians adopted various aspects of the British culture, such as western dress, religious conversion and higher education amongst other things. They saw it as in their best interests to westernise themselves as much as they could, as it gave them a degree of elitism over fellow natives, socially. There were instances of inter-racial marriages and relationships.

England’s expansion into North America such as that of in Newfoundland from 1584 was initially also to establish small seasonal enclaves, for the purpose of supplying the fish trade, and trading for luxury items such as furs, to take home and sell for a profit. Interaction with the local populations, if there were any, seemed to be restricted to ensuring they had lodgings and provisions. We can see from this example that provision of resources and financial gain were the important factors. We could argue against this example being part of Imperial expansion for the reason that the fishermen involved were not staking a claim on the land territory for England.

Shortly afterwards were failed attempts to colonise both Florida and Roanoke Island, the latter leading to the infamous ‘Lost Colony’. Theories have long since been offered that when the assistance from Britain failed to arrive, the remaining colonists established a relationship, and later integrated, with the local native population. Subsequent meetings were recalled with Native Americans of the area who not only presented with grey and blue eyes, and some with blonde hair, but were able to speak English, had English surnames and were aware of the Christian faith.

Successful English settlement of North America became more widespread and permanent at the beginning of the seventeenth century when the Virginia company established a colony in Jamestown, although even those initial attempts at colonisation of Jamestown almost failed as the settlers, who were not accustomed to hard labour were too busy trying to find gold instead of planting their crops and building shelter.

The Jamestown colonists were followed closely by dissenters to the Church of England who made their voyages to escape religious persecution and helped establish the first permanent settler colonies in Plymouth for the purpose of being free to follow their beliefs. Whilst the ships they sailed on were hired and financed by English investors, to whom the colonists were contracted as employees for seven years. Their purpose was to establish a more permanent trade supply of fish, tobacco and other profitable items from North America, and to explore the country further for purposes of increased expansion. It was religion that made this possible as they were the only groups whose desire to establish their own faith over-rode the reluctance to make the journey due to the lack of success previous colonists had encountered.

The Pilgrim fathers as they would come to be known as, landed in New England in 1620. The settlers themselves were allegedly motivated by a desire to escape religious restrictions imposed on them in the Core nation. The idea was to populate these colonies with self-sufficient groups. However, the investment motivation behind the attempts to establish these initial settlements was for purposes of privateering. That the colonists would be able to confront Spanish ships and steal their cargoes of precious metals for the Crown. It was a purely financial motivation for those organising the venture.