In the late 16th and early 17th cent., the English, Dutch, and French began to undertake colonization through the agency of chartered companies. The greatest of these private trading companies was the British East India Company, which played a vital role in the history of the British Empire.
The French generally adhered to mercantilist theory in establishing their colonies, using them mainly for the economic advantage of France. The English colonists in North America, however, were, in many respects, virtually independent of the parent country, the most serious restriction being the establishment of a trade monopoly by the home government through the Navigation Acts. Because their territory was suitable for settlement, rather than exploitation, the residence of the British colonists in America tended to be permanent. The increase in overseas trade and colonial consumption helped to stimulate the Industrial Revolution, which in turn, because of the increased technological superiority afforded Europe, especially Great Britain, and because of the greater desire for markets and raw materials, gave added impetus to colonization and made it easier to accomplish.
Although Great Britain lost most of its North American colonies as a result of the American Revolution, other acquisitions (most notably in India) soon made it the greatest colonial power in the world. The French, stripped of one colonial empire in the colonial wars of the 18th cent., established another in the 19th cent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.