The rise of Western Europe after 1500 is due largely to growth in countries with access to the Atlantic Ocean and with substantial trade with the New World, Africa, and Asia via the Atlantic. This trade and the associated colonialism affected Europe not only directly, but also indirectly by inducing institutional change. Where "initial" political institutions (those established before 1500) placed significant checks on the monarchy, the growth of Atlantic trade strengthened merchant groups by constraining the power of the monarchy, and helped merchants obtain changes in institutions to protect property rights. These changes were central to subsequent economic growth.
That is from "The Rise of Europe: Atlantic Trade, Institutional Change, and Economic Growth," by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson, American Economic Review, June 2005; here is a longer and earlier version of the paper.