List of Largest Empires - European Colonial Empires

European Colonial Empires

The first global empires were a product of the European Age of Exploration that began with a race of exploration between the then most advanced maritime powers, Portugal and Spain, in the 15th century. The initial impulse behind these maritime empires and those that followed was trade, driven by the new ideas and the capitalism that grew out of the European Renaissance. Agreements were also reached to divide the world up between them in 1479, 1493, and 1494.

Portugal began establishing the first global trade network and empire under the leadership of Henry the Navigator. Portugal would eventually establish colonial domains from Brazil, in South America, to several colonies in Africa (namely Portuguese Guinea, Portuguese Cape Verde, Portuguese São Tomé and Príncipe, Portuguese Angola and Portuguese Mozambique), in Portuguese India (most importantly Bombay and Goa), in China (Macau), and Oceania (most importantly Timor, namely Portuguese Timor), amongst many other smaller or short-lived possessions (see Evolution of the Portuguese Empire).

During its peak, the Spanish Empire had possession of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Italy, parts of Germany, parts of France, and many colonies in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. With the conquest of inland Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines in the 16th century, Spain established overseas dominions on a scale and world distribution that had never been approached by its predecessors (the Mongol Empire had been larger but was restricted to Eurasia). Possessions in Europe, Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, the Americas, the Pacific Ocean, and the Far East qualified the Spanish Empire as attaining a global presence in this sense.

Iberian Empire - In 1580, Philip II of Spain inherited the vacant Portuguese throne and became Philip I of Portugal. The Spanish Empire was at it greatest extent at that time, including most of the Americas, Italy, The Seventeen Provinces, and smaller regions of Europe, Asia and Africa. The Portuguese Empire, also significant, included Brazil and the Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia. Even though the empires continued to be administered separately, this so-called "union of crowns" resulted in one of the largest empires of all time, and the saying "the sun never sets..." was used for the first time. The Iberian Empire lasted until 1640 when Portugal restored a Portuguese king to the throne.

Subsequent global empires included the French, Dutch, and British empires. The latter, consolidated during the period of British maritime hegemony in the 19th century, became the largest of all empires by virtue of the improved transportation technologies of the time. At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth's land area and comprised one fifth of its population. Germany and Italy were unified later than the other major European countries and so they joined other European powers in establishing colonies overseas only during the "Scramble for Africa" in the 19th century. By the 1860s, the Russian Empire — continued as the Soviet Union — became the largest contiguous state in the world. Russia continues this distinction, despite having "lost" its Soviet periphery (Russia today includes slightly over half the world's longitudes).

  • Anachronous map of the British Empire

  • Anachronous map of the Dutch Empire

  • Anachronous map of the French Empire

  • Map of the German Empire in 1914

  • Map of the Italian Colonial Empire in 1939

  • Anachronous map of the Portuguese Empire

  • A map of the Russian Empire

  • Anachronous map of the Spanish–Portuguese Empire

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