Scammel, G.V.  The First Imperial Age;  European Overseas Expansion c. 1400-1715.  London: Unwin Hyman.  1989.

If Scammel were a geologist, he would favor gradualism and downplay catastrophism.  In his world, the Himalayas rise very slowly.  As he tells the story, the salient features of European expansion may not be immediately significant, or may be significant in a much later period.

What are the salient features of expansion?  In the space of about 200 years the geography of entire globe was learned, and learned by the Europeans.  In addition, they worked out the ways to measure and map it with some degree of accuracy.  Perhaps the image of the world and its continents spinning around the sun changed very few features of life for the peasant or the burgher, or even the priest, cleric and scholar, but writers, poets and kings took notice.  Furthermore, accuracy with instruments, naval and astronomical, became an avenue to opening up cultural exchange with Asian empires.

In the first hundred years of expansion, the Portuguese and Spanish had spectacular successes with bullion and spices.  In the 18th century, the English and Dutch harassed, stole from and outperformed the Spanish and Portuguese in trade.  Long-term management of men and materiel, of taxes and percentages and finished goods, across the distances of the Atlantic and Pacific, was simply too difficult.  Bullion drained West to East.  Pirates and colonists were equally ready to cheat the crown. The Holy Roman empire was already dying, but the effort at building an empire hastened it.

Europeans had a very different experience in Asia than in Africa, and again in Africa than they had  in the Americas.   In Asia, peasants and port-dwellers died; in Africa, Europeans died, and in America, aboriginals died.  In each land,
Europeans found outwardly strong empires, and yet were very successful at exploiting disunity wherever they found it. Europeans were particularly successful at exploiting a "local" custom, African slavery, and making it global.  The African Diaspora was both salient and immediately significant to the Americas

It seems hard to believe that Europeans were strongly unified, but Scammel asserts that they were motivated by things that lay outside their lands, by wealth and opportunity, and by a sense of nationalism that apparently had yet to be developed (?) in the lands they went to.  One important motivation, carrying the gospel of good news, of salvation and redemption, was both powerful and problematic,  linked as it was to war, conquest, and subjugation.

European weapons were not that much more technologically sophisticated than those of the Asian empires they fought and traded with; or at least, once found, they could be mastered in all parts of the world and reproduced in most parts of the settled world.  What we might call the "basic science" of the expansion --  carrying on with expeditions that did not, or might not, earn money --  was initially supported by the vanity and curiosity of those who could afford to indulge it, in particular, the Portuguese royal house.  (And this, I would argue, is always the ground of technological advance--a powerful interest group with spare resources).  But further expeditions were carried on by business men, by  those who wanted a guaranteed return on investment.  These men developed the trading houses that functioned to organize  plans, resources and, in the better years,  profits.  Trading associations were not new, the but the scale of these houses may have made them functionally something very different than earlier establishments.

These, then are some of the salient, and some of the significant features of expansion.  Reading Scammel's story, I was reminded of the contemporary wisdom regarding the launch of a new technology.  Depending on consumer receptivity, and the design of the product, the first company in the marketplace is either the company that "corners" the market, or conversely, the company that loses the most money.   If it is the latter case, the first company by its mistakes paves the way for others to learn how to be successful.  Reading about the Spanish  and Portuguese empires , I was haunted by the impression that they paved the way for other, successive and more successful Dutch and English and American empires.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect in many ways.  Successful by whose standards? And for whom? If, as in business, there are winners and losers in the marketplace, then by all measures empires create whole new classes of losers.  And if colonial conquests were intended to strengthen the economy of the home country, then -- to take a different  analogy from Scammel-- the immediate fruits of conquest were sweet, but buying the whole orchard was a doubtful purchase.

It is tempting to find models in analogies, but if empire building is an event, then it cannot be repeated, tested or modeled.  If, however, empire building is a skill,  a cross-cultural or global skill (pardon the pun) then maybe an analogy, as a model, lends some illumination.   Empire builders should master some technological skills, but perhaps more importantly learn how to manipulate local disunities.  Empire builders should not expose revenue to unmanageably high risks.  Empire builders should invest in basic science and exploit profitable local customs....
These may be skills, or lessons, or simply cynical conclusions.  Scammel doesn't indulge.  He simply reminds his readers that at the end of the first expansion, a  foundation for cultural superiority and imperial ambition had been laid.

Note to self:  Scammel's own conclusion is so good that it would be a shame to over look the resource he himself provides.  Copy for files.