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International context

‘Men have travelled, as they have lived – for religion, for wealth, for knowledge, for pleasure, for power and the overthrow of rivals . . . The discovery of the new Western World followed, as an incidental consequence, from the long struggle of the nations of Europe for commercial supremacy and control of the traffic with the East. In all these dreams of the politicians and merchants, sailors and geographers who pushed back the limits of the unknown world, there is the same glitter of gold and precious stones, the same odour of far-fetched spices’

Sir Walter Raleigh, 1509 – as cited in Musgrave T. & W., 2000 An Empire of Plants

European settlement of New Holland occurred in the broad cultural context of the European colonial expansion of the 15th to 18th centuries. Statesmen and merchants alike knew full-well the link between power, territoriality and trade, and that whoever controlled the seas controlled trade, riches and the world.

The Australian story of plants and people at the time of settlement connects strongly with the global story of plants and people that was dominating the world commodity trade in the far east at this time – that is, the lucrative spice trade that emanated from India and the Far East. Since antiquity spices had been traded in Europe commanding high prices – but their origin had remained a mystery.

During this period colonial policies in Asia and the Far East were determined by events in Europe.

Ottoman Empire

Following the Roman collapse, trade had gradually increased between East and West. From China came drugs, silks and, later, porcelain – and from the Far East came spices. In return European countries traded gold, slaves, gems, textiles, and glassware.

The period from 1492-1640 saw the ascendancy of the Muslim Ottoman Empire which lead to Islamic control of the overland caravan routes from Morocco to Beijing. The Greek-speaking Byzantium was the eastern remnant of the Roman empire that had lasted into the Middle Ages. Its capital, Constantinople, preserved classical culture from 330-1453 CE when it fell to the Ottoman Turks to become Istanbul.

Ottomons blocked all land routes to Europe and Europeans had to find other ways to trade with Eastern countries.

Only the Egyptian civilization outlasted the Byzantine culture


From 1500–1800 Europe entered a period of religious and commercial wars, countries struggling to raise the revenue required to support armies and civil government. Countries sought wealth and power by increasing exports in exchange for precious metals which were, in turn, used to obtain other commodities – a policy known mercantilism, a form of trade that followed the medieval feudal systems of Western European countries like Holland, France, and England. Government had a firm grasp of economic life with treaties that guarantees exclusive trading privileges, and also controlling the commercial exploitation of the newly-acquired colonies. In England mercantilist policies had eroded Dutch domination, encouraged industrialization and a vibrant maritime trade. Mercantilism remained until Enlightenment liberal ideas of free trade emerged with the Industrial Revolution.

By the late 18th century England was, after defeat of the French in the Seven Years War of 1756-63, the world’s leading power and, like its European colonial predecessors, no effort was spared in the global search for new resources that would enhance trade, further energise an already thriving industrial sector, and enhance the strategic defense and further expansion of its growing empire. The economic advantages of applied science had become self evident through the gathering momentum of the Industrial Revolution. This was the state of affairs when, in 1768, James Cook set out in on a new ‘scientific’ voyage round the world. The naval victory of Britain over France in the Battle of the Nile in 1798 ended France’s hopes for an eastern empire and war with Britain resumed in 1803.

Colonial empires

For more than three centuries, from the time it became possible to sail the globe, European countries vied for commercial and political supremacy by taking control of trade routes and establishing new colonies.

In the 16th century Spain and Portugal were the dominant European maritime powers, surpassed by Holland in the late 17th century and superseded by Britain and France in the 18th century.

At first it was Portugal that led. With its superior shipbuilding, marine charts, and navigational equipment its navy prevailed over the motley band of buccaneers and merchant adventurers that ruled the waves. Intrepid seamen, the Portuguese marinheiros, now penetrated the southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans, marking the beginning of an Age of Discovery as European commercial interests rapidly embraced the world.

From 15th to 17th centuries, the Portuguese and Spanish had wrestled for control of the spice industry in the far East Indies only to be subsumed by the Dutch in the 17th century. By the 18th century Enlightenment power had shifted to France and Britain. France had taken a major lead in establishing the intellectual climate of these times although, at the time of settlement of New Holland, Georgian Britain had asserted its maritime supremacy. It was Britain at the time of the Enlightenment that would exert a strong influence on the new colonies burgeoning science and scientific institutions.

For Britain, this was a period when its merchants and middle classes prospered until, at the close of the 19th century, London was the financial capital of the world and the British Empire, the largest the world has known, spread across the globe.

East Atlantic Ocean

European colonial expansion beyond the Mediterranean began with four island archipelagos situated in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast off Portugal and the Moroccan coast of NE Africa. Known to the Greco-Roman world as the Fortunate Isles, we now know these as Macaronesia ecoregion consisting of the Azores, Canary Islands, Madeira (Savage Isles sometimes included), and Cape Verde.

Being mostly of volcanic origin these islands have native plants and animals that arrived by long-distance dispersal. Laurel-like trees, called laurisilva, once covered most of the Azores, Madeira, and parts of the Canaries between 400–1200 m altitude (the eastern Canaries and Cape Verde being too dry) and are of immense biogeographic and evolutionary significance because of their connections with the ancient forests that covered the Mediterranean basin and northwestern Africa before the cooling and drying of the ice ages.[1]

These Atlantic islands are historically important because their pattern of settlement (following that of antiquity) would be repeated around the globe during the period of European colonial expansion that followed – including the settlement of Australia – and this all occurred before the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean or the Spanish discovered the spoils of Mexico and Peru.


The nine islands of the Azores were, at first, treated as maritime landmarks – places to provision and collect water. With few predators, rams and ewes were left to breed with herds well established by the early 15th century, followed by cattle and goats.

Portuguese settlers arrived around 1432 and soon cultivated wheat, exporting it back to the mother country.

Madeira & Canaries

The two virgin Madeira islandss were first populated by Portuguese in the 1420s, Porto Santo proving unlivable after the introduction of rabbits. Settlers then moved to the heavily wooded Madeira itself which was a useful source of timber which was cleared and burned. This was followed by the introduction of pigs, cattle, and honeybees, and the cultivation of grapes and wheat. Then by the 1450s sugarcane was introduced as a plantation crop.

By 1600 sugar was a monoculture and the population totalled around 20,000, about 2,000 of these being slaves, a tradition widely followed in future colonial plantations.

Of the three archipelagos the largest in area and with the highest peaks (and therefore hard to miss) were the seven islands of the Canaries, the nearest only 100 km from shore. These were settled by Portuguese as early as about 1290 although the islands had been occupied for about 1,000 years already by natives of North Africa called Guanches (probably Berbers) who had brought, barley, wheat, beans, peas, goats, pigs, dogs and probably sheep from the mainland. They numbered about 80,000 when the main Spanish invasion occurred. Waves of disease reduced the islanders by more than a half and each island was gradually taken over as domestication accelerated. The Europeans introduced cattle, asses, camels, rabbits, pigeons, chickens, partridges, ducks and honeybees as well as grapevines, melons, pears, apples and, most importantly, plantation sugar.

By 1500 the Guanches had capitulated to the Catholic faith and sugar had become the most important crop and export of the island group.[2] Massive deforestation produced erosion and the flow of streams determined whether there would be flood or famine. Weeds surged in, among the worst being the bramble (blackberry).

By the 1530s few pure-blood Guanches remained: they had been deprived of their land, deported or enslaved to work on the sugar plantations, some leaving by choice – but mostly decimated by waves of disease including typhus, dysentery, pneumonia, syphilis and other ailments. Little remains of the Guanches who were the first people driven to extinction by European colonialism)[3]. There is some genetic evidence, several ruins, mummies, pottery shards, and a few words of the native tongue.[4]

These three archipelagos, together with the settlement of the southernmost Cape Verde islands in about 1460, were now European, acting as test sites for the European imperialism to come, and providing a model for the culture of colonial settlement with plantations.

Europeans had conquered by force of arms and technology, especially navigational sophistication, along with the European animals and plants that supported existence and the slave-maintained plantation crops that generated excess for export.

Soon the islands of Macaronesia became a major port of call for provisions and the African slave trade that fed the vast plantations being developed in the West Indies.

Cape Verde

Cape Verde in the central Atlantic Ocean is an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands with a current population of about a half million people. When colonized by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century it was the first European settlement in the tropics, made prosperous in the 16th and 17th centuries by the slave trade, and attracting merchants, privateers, and pirates. Economic decline and emigration followed when slavery diminished in the 19th century but recovering as a commercial center and stopover point for shipping routes. Independence from Portugal was achieved in 1975 and, from the early 1990s there has been a stable representative democracy.

With geographic isolation came endemism, especially in plants, birds and reptiles, these and many others endangered by human development, especially agriculture, the endemic savannah or steppe flora and fauna of the islands were disturbed and have now remained confined mostly in the mountain peaks, steep slopes and other inaccessible areas. There were probably about 250 plant species at the time of European discovery in a natural vegetation of dry forests and scrub, including endemic species, and. with introductions, post-1975 forestation (mostly exotic pine, oak, sweet chestnut and acacia, and eucalyptus on Fogo) and conservation programs. Today there are 664 listed plant species, including two threatened species, and over 80 vascular plant taxa are reported to be endemic.


From antiquity spices had emerged as a prized commodity commanding extremely high prices. However, with the inland trade in spices and luxury goods controlled by Indian and Muslim merchants, today’s global economy was launched by a European Spice Race to discover a maritime route to the mysterious Spice Islands on the other side of the world. Entrepots were established around the world as exploratory expeditions navigated around the world following both western and eastern seaways.

Western route

By sailing to the Fortunate Isles the secret of the temperate trade winds was unlocked and the way was opened for the European discovery of the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America.

In 1492 Columbus discovered the West Indies for Spain and in a demonstration of the state of navigation at that time grossly underestimated the circumference of the world always believing that he had sailed around the world to the East Indies.

By the early 16th century the Spanish had control of the Caribbean. In Mexico the Aztec empire had succumbed to Spaniard Hernan Cortes in 1519-24. The Incas of Peru followed, falling to Francisco Pizzaro in 1531-5. Gold and silver from these conquests would drive the world economy for more than 100 years, much of it being used to pay for the spices.

In this period of exploration and race for resources the Americas had yielded up to Europe not only precious metals but also valuable plant commodities – corn, chili, pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes. There was also the tobacco, sugar and cotton that would later be grown in plantations worked by slave labour to supply the wealthy of Europe and America.

In the meantime, Portuguese ships had penetrated the East as far as the Spice Islands.

Eastern Route

It was Spanish and Portuguese sailors who pioneered an eastern sea route to Asia across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Bartholomew Dias, in 1488, sailed around the southernmost tip of Africa, demonstrating in the process that there was open sea below the continent. He was followed ten years later by Vasco da Gama who extended the route to India. Then, in an extraordinary demonstration of seamanship Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition of 1519–1522 sailing into the southern Atlantic, passing round the Cape of South Africa and across the Indian Ocean into a new body of water that he named the Pacific Ocean. Although Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines the expedition then crossed the Pacific, returning to Europe via a strait that passed through the tip of South America, later named the Strait of Magellan to commemorate his feat. This passage through Patagonia proved an invaluable short-cut that avoided the punishing weather hazards of the Cape. The Strait of Magellan was to remain a trade route for 400 years until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. By sailing constantly westward Magellan’s ships had achieved the most difficult nautical feat of its day, a circumnavigation of the globe, thereby demonstrating that the world was a sphere, providing an approximation of the relative distribution of land and water, vital knowledge of the winds and currents of major oceans – but with terra australis incognito still unrevealed. A high price was paid. Five ships had set but only 15 of the original sailors returned to Seville, exhausted and wracked with scurvy.

So, by the early sixteenth century the naval strength of Spain and Portugal had given these countries a firm grip on world trade, especially the trade in the Indian Ocean with a period of greatest political and military power in the 1580s. By the end of the 16th century Spain had possessions in Central America, the West Indies, western South America and the Philippines. To facilitate trade along the new route a series of trading bases was now constructed as coastal forts and ports, thus avoiding the necessity for settlement or large-scale occupation. This was to be the path for mostly luxury goods – metals, cloth, silk, glass, wine, toys, spices, tea, indigo, calico, and saltpeter.[plants] [Portuguese had held Timor since about 1516]

Columbus’s 1492 arrival in America was first recorded on European maps in 1507. The New World with its vast northern and southern continents was perceived by Europe as vast new territory and resource. Above all it was open land. First settlement by the Spanish was in Ecuador in 1532, the British not settling in Carolina in the north until 1670?. Certainly the precious metals and land resources unleashed by this phase in the Age of Discovery contributed to Europe’s march into the Industrial Revolution. However, the British northern and Latin southern continents followed very different paths with North America eventually dominating the region. Perhaps this northern dominance can be attributed to its geography, climate, natural resources or proximity to Europe. However, historian Niall Ferguson attributes this ascendancy to the way land was managed on the two continental land masses as the indigenous peoples were swept aside and the invaders devised different ways of dividing up the new territories.[5]

Settlers in the north arrived with ideas that were to prove critical for the future of the two continents. English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s view of government, as expressed in his treatise Leviathan (1651), was that a strong and unchallenged (absolute) sovereign was needed to keep people in order. One of his influential successors, philosopher and historian John Locke in his Treatise of Government (1690) challenged this assumption by expressing the view that people should be able to replace a government that was not serving their interests and, in particular, that private property (land) should not be removed from a person without consent. The ‘Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina’ had been drawn up in 1669 by Locke himself and it established a critical link between political representation and private property (land) ownership. Three fifths of the land was to be divided amongst the people and there would be a parliament whose representatives were each required to possess at least 500 acres of freehold land. These parliamentarians would be voted into parliament by those within their constituency who possessed at least 50 acres of freehold land, which was nearly everyone. For those with voting rights there could be only one vote regardless of the amount of land owned. Although Locke envisaged a strictly hierarchical society this process subordinated the ruling class to the will of the people and it was combined with a rule of law as expressed in a Constitution. But people were needed to work the land and many of the first arrivals in the new land were landless indentured servants although after a period of 5-6 years of service they too were entitled to land grants. New labourers in North America could therefore arrive destitute and within a few years possess the dignity of both property and voting rights. Unfortunately this Constitution was also a charter for the expropriation of the land of indigenous people and Locke’s ‘property’ explicitly included slaves who had neither votes or land, an injustice that lead eventually to the American Civil War (1861–1865). So, as in Britain, political power was vested in those who owned land except that In Britain this constituted a very few wealthy landowners.

It was with Locke that the idea of land being owned if it was being ‘cultivated’ seems to have emerged giving rise to the idea of terra nullius (land owned by no-one) for land used as hunting ground by hunter-gatherers.

The English crown had set American colonization in train by granting rights to trading companies. Although Governors were royal appointments colonists would have representative assemblies and this was the case just prior to the American War of Independence (American Revolution) of 1775-1783 for most of the future 13 states. Along with grumbles about taxation, a republican resistance to potential corruption in hereditary rulers, and concern about lack of representation in the British parliament, there was also land at stake as the British government tried to prevent settlement west of the Appalachian mountains in protection of the native Indians. Independence was followed in 1787 by the American Constitution presided over by George Washington, and perhaps the world’s most influential political document ever, which was literally grounded in property rights.

In Latin America the Spanish crown, with the moral authority of God and the Pope, owned all the land which was managed in the form of vast hereditary estates called haciendas that were allocated native Indian labourers. Resistance to Spanish imperial influence came in the form of Simón Bolίvar a Venezuelan military and political leader, viewed as a revolutionary liberator “El Libertador” who, between 1821 and 1825 fought successfully to liberate the land from Spanish imperial rule to form the first union of independent Hispanic-America nations called Gran Colombia of which he was president from 1819 to 1830. But he did not have confidence in a North-America-style republicanism, mistrusting the political maturity of his subjects, the result being his own dictatorship with the right to appoint his successor and wealth remaining concentrated in a few people. For the general populace there was no prospect of social mobility – which was a recipe for the conflict and poverty that would follow. On the other hand Bolίvar’s anti-slavery views had resulted in a mixed racial population totally unlike the strict segregation that had been adopted in North America. In contrast in 1900 about 75% North Americans owned rural property, in Canada, New Zealand and parts of British Africa this was closer to 90%.

From the late 16th century Dutch naval power and political influence steadily increased undergoing, in the second half of the 17th century, a cultural flowering known as the Dutch Golden Age. The Netherlands dominated global commerce, their maritime charts of the 16th century included soundings, standardized symbols for navigation, the location of hazards etc. Between 1618 and1648 Europe descended into The Thirty Years War which from which only France emerged unscathed with France under Louis XIV (1638-1715) Europe’s greatest power although Amsterdam bankers still controlled world trade. An old rivalry was settled when Portugal threw off Spanish rule in ?. After defeating the great Spanish Armada the British now expected a share of the spoils in the Americas and in 1607 a British colony was established at Jamestown, Virginia. Inquisitive about the resources that might lie in lands to the south of the East Indies the Dutch began some exploration.

Holland & New Holland
By 1642 Abel Tasman, under the command of the Dutch East India Company, had sailed to New Zealand and inspected the north and west coasts of New Holland. Assessed as having negligible commercial potential it was then left to the French and British to refine Dutch groundwork by charting, in detail, the outline of New Holland, the South Pacific, Southern Ocean and Antarctica, thereby solving the riddle of the Great Southern Land.

Dutch Golden Age

By 1735 the Dutch had territories in South America, the West indies, South Africa and the East Indies, with an outpost in Japan.

The British held part of Eastern North America, the West Indies and India.

From these countries an immense number of natural history specimens and plants for gardens were being introduced, via Holland and England, into Europe. The Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710 with their trading base at the Cape and the Netherlands itself occupied by France during the Napoleonic wars – the Dutch thus being confined to the East Indies.

France and Britain

France and Great Britain were now the most dynamic nation-states of western Europe. Britain had made gains in the Americas with the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). France had gained ground in India and Europe but with the Seven Years War from 1756–1763 British naval supremacy was established over France. All French possessions in the West Indies were taken in 1762, then Havana and parts of India. By 1783 Britain had gained the West Indies but lost America and with the last Anglo-Dutch battle of 1782 the English put paid to Amsterdam’s economic supremacy. London was now the world’s economic epicenter and England the world’s greatest colonial power, a position it would hold to its zenith at the end of the 19th century. There was some effective resistance. The year 1775 saw an American revolution against British rule with the American War of Independence establishing a republican America by 1793.

British Empire

Following the old colonial powers of Spain and Portugal, superseded by Holland, Britain continued, and eventually prevailed, in its long conflict with France.

The British empire, the world’s largest ever, lasted for 300-500 years. For 100 years, from 1815 to 1914, Britain was the global superpower, its territories encompassing a quarter of the world’s population.

British colonial expansion no doubt entailed the usual greed, lust for power and economic supremacy, along with a desire to secure for its citizens both world standing and whatever material comforts could be gained. It was an integral part of the mix of factors that forged the modern world – its language, religion, politics, sports and, in economics, the promotion of free trade.[7]

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Modern Humans


Africa         -     200,000 BP

India           -     c. 65,000 BP

SE Asia       -     c. 65,000 BP

China          -     c. 65,000 BP

Australia    -     65,000 BP

Europe        -     45,000 BP

Tasmania   -     30,000 BP

Britain         -     11,000 BP

Maldives      -     c. 500 BCE

Sth America  -   c. 15,000 BP



Iceland             -      874

New Zealand  - 1250-1300

Porto Santo    -      1418

Madeira           -      1420

Azores              -      1432

Cape Verde      -     1442


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