Economic Motives for European Colonization of Southeast Asia

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Around the same time that Europeans began colonizing the New World, they also sailed to the east. In this lesson, we take a look at why Europeans were so interested in Southeast Asia.

A Dreamland

Close your eyes and think of the words 'Spice Islands'. You get an image of swaying palm trees, warm water, beautiful people, and delicious food. Now switch your imagination to the middle of a cow pasture on a rainy, cold fall day in Europe.

As you can see, Southeast Asia was already a paradise for the European explorers.

However, sunny weather and palm trees aren't enough to cause competition over such a far away place. That said, there were plenty of reasons for the Europeans to be interested in Southeast Asia for so long. In this lesson, we're going to look at three of them, each taking place at a slightly different time.


Chances are you've got some pepper in your pantry. If you like to bake, you may even have some cinnamon, nutmeg, or cardamom. For us, these are relatively cheap things to pick up at the grocery store. Fine, cardamom isn't exactly cheap, but it's not more expensive than a good steak, now is it?

Some spice was worth more than its weight in gold.

That was not the case in the world of Renaissance Europe. Black pepper was worth more than its weight in silver. Meanwhile, people could go their entire lives without seeing a nutmeg. Now bland food is one thing, but not having the ability to cover up spoilage (and bad cooking - both real worries in the medieval kitchen) was another. As a result, when the Europeans were able to sail beyond their coasts, one of the things they most wanted was spices. Southeast Asia had them in abundance.


The Suez Canal made trips from Europe to Southeast Asia much easier.
suez canal

Within a few centuries, by around the 1800s, the focus had shifted from just spices. Now, people wanted more trade with China. However, there were only two routes to get to China. You could either sail around Africa or sail around South America. The voyage around South America was particularly dangerous, and with the opening of the Suez Canal, which cuts through between Egypt and Israel, most people decided to just sail through the Indian Ocean.

That made Southeast Asia even more vital. Ports were built to act as waypoints on the trip from Europe to China and beyond. These ports were already rich from selling spices, but became even more important as trading posts. One of the most important sites in the British Empire, Singapore, started as a stop between trade in China and Europe.

Singapore as a trade center

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