Colonial Era


Columbus’s voyage of discovery inaugurated a series of developments that would have vast consequences for both the Old World and the New.

It transformed the diets of both the eastern and western hemispheres, helped initiate the Atlantic slave trade, spread diseases that had a devastating impact on Indian populations, and led to the establishment of European colonies across the Western Hemisphere.

The pioneer in European expansion was tiny Portugal, which, after 1385, was a united kingdom, and, unlike other European countries, was free from internal conflicts.

Portugal focused its energies on Africa’s western coast.

It was Spain that would stumble upon the New World.

Columbus underestimated the circumference of the earth by one-fourth and believed he could reach Japan by sailing 2,400 miles west from the Canary Islands.

Until his death in 1506 he insisted that he had reached Asia.

But he quickly recognized that the new lands could be a source of wealth from precious minerals and sugar cane. Relations between the French and Indians were less violent than in Spanish or English colonies.

In part, this reflected the small size of France’s New World population, totaling just 3,000 in 1663.

Virtually all these settlers were men–mostly traders or Jesuit priests–and many took Indian wives or concubines, helping to promote relations of mutual dependency.

Common trading interests also encouraged accommodation between the French and the Indians.

Missionary activities, too, proved somewhat less divisive in New France than in New Mexico or New England, since France’s Jesuit priests did not require them to immediately abandon their tribal ties or their traditional way of life.

By 1700, Britain’s North American colonies differed from England itself in the population growth rate, the proportion of white men who owned property and were able to vote, as well as in the population’s ethnic and religious diversity.

The early and mid-18th century brought far-reaching changes to the colonies, including a massive immigration, especially of the Scots-Irish; the forced importation of tens of thousands of enslaved Africans; and increasing economic stratification in both the northern and southern colonies.

A series of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening helped to generate an American identity that cut across colony lines.

The French colonial administration did create a network of roads and a mobile health system in Ubangi-Shari to fight disease, and Roman Catholic churches set up schools and medical clinics.

However, the French also used the Central Africans for forced labour to increase the cultivation of cotton and coffee, as well as of food crops to supply French troops and labour crews.

The French conscripted Central Africans and sent them to southern Congo to construct the Congo-Ocean Railway, which linked Congo to Pointe-Noire. During World War II French Gen.

Charles de Gaulle called on the residents of the colonial territories to help fight the Germans, and 3,000 responded from Central Africa.

After the war these troops returned to their homeland with a new sense of pride and a national, rather than ethnic, identity.

After the war de Gaulle organized the French Union and created new local assemblies—consisting of French colonists and a handful of Africans—with regional political representatives.

In November 1946 Barthélemy Boganda became the first Central African elected to the French National Assembly.