Your one-stop shop for everything related to the Peace of Westphalia

“The Peace of Westphalia also had its dark side” is the title of a press release from a 2018 conference in Germany. The argument is summed up by a Dutch historian in this way: “While the successful diplomatic negotiations in Osnabrück and Münster brought to the people of Europe the peace that they had long waited for, the newly pacified states turned their attention to the outside world, expanded their empire, and founded new colonies.”

There are at least two things wrong with this. The first is that the Peace of Westphalia did not bring peace to Europe: Spain and France continued at war until 1659, Spain and Portugal until 1668, Venice and the Ottoman Empire until 1669. This is not even to consider the Cossack revolt that broke out against Poland in 1648, before the peace was signed in Westphalia; it would lead to massive destruction in Poland — “the deluge” — and a long war involving Sweden, Russia, Denmark, and Brandenburg. In short, the period after 1648 was nothing like a peaceful one on the Continent during which European powers could expand overseas.

The second problem with the thesis that the Peace of Westphalia enabled European colonization is that the great European overseas conquests occurred before 1648. Most of them occurred before 1540. Spain’s empire in the Americas was founded on the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortés in 1521 and the Incas by Pizzaro from 1532-1536. Portugal’s Indian Ocean empire was created by the Duke of Albuquerque prior to his death in 1515, by which time he had conquered Goa, Hormuz, and Malacca, and had established diplomatic relations with China and Ceylon. The Portuguese had begun settling in Brazil by 1530.

It is true that there was a great expansion of colonization in the 17th century by the Dutch, English, and other nations, but these were often at the expense of existing colonial powers. The Dutch conquered the East Indies and Ceylon from Portugal, and ruled Brazil for a time. There was also new colonization, notably in North America by England, France, Sweden, and the Dutch Republic — but the settlements were chiefly founded prior to 1648 (Jamestown 1607, Plymouth 1621, Quebec by the French in 1608, New York by the Dutch 1624, Wilmington by the Swedes in 1638). None of these required European peace; while England was not at war during most of this period, the Dutch Republic and Sweden were central players in the Thirty Years’ War itself.

The colonial expansion that occurred in the period immediately following 1648, much of which was in the Caribbean, was not fostered by European peace. England and the Dutch Republic fought three wars in this period (1652-1654, 1665-1667, and 1672-1674), partly over colonial possessions and trade. It is not until the late 19th century that one finds major European expansion overseas accompanied by relative peace on the Continent. The “scramble for Africa” was arguably made possible more by quinine and steamships than the lack of European wars; but, whichever took priority, it seems a stretch to credit the Peace of Westphalia for the European Concert two centuries later. I don’t doubt that the Peace of Westphalia was a crucial step toward the Concert of Europe, but one cannot skip over two hundred years of diplomacy and say that Westphalia created the long peace that existed in the 19th century.

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