Disputing how Europe conquered the world

Disputing how Europe conquered the world

By Jonathan Power

March 19, 2019

By 1914 Europeans ruled 84% of the globe. How did they do it? Eleven hundred years ago Europe was a backwater. There were no grand cities, apart from Muslim Cordoba in Spain, and the remnants of Rome and Athens.

The Middle East, India and China were further ahead. It was the Arabs who kept alive the teachings of the Ancient Greeks’ knowledge of science, medicine, architecture and philosophy.

We now have two schools of thought. Two years ago came Professor Philip Hoffman of Caltech University with his book “Why Did Europe Conquer The World?” He argued that Europe’s pace of innovation was driven by a peculiar form of military competition which he called a “tournament” – the sort of competition that under the right conditions can drive contestants to exert enormous efforts in the hope of earning a prize.

Europe, unlike the Ottoman
Empire and China, was a very un-unified kind of place. Since the fall of
Charlemagne in 814 there was no one strong enough to hold Europe together. Dozens
of small states and principalities, often vying to be top dog, were stimulated
to nurse their competitive instincts, and in doing so and fighting they refined
their military capabilities more than any of other world’s peoples.

European rulers raised taxes and lavished resources on armies, navies and gunpowder technology. Moreover, unlike in Asia, private entrepreneurs faced few legal, financial or political obstacles to launching expeditions of conquest and exploration.

This is why the British East India Company could conquer much of India.

In contrast, China was a
massive hegemon; Japan and the Ottoman empires sizeable ones; India partly one.
A hegemon inevitably comes to believe that since it’s political dominant it
doesn’t have to work so hard at maintaining superior arms.

So when it came to gunpowder
technology and its adaption to warships the European powers, each seeking to
outscore the other, could often call the shots against Asia’s hegemons.

The wars that led to Europe’s
and particularly Britain’s domination of the world made possible the Industrial
Revolution, not vice versa as is
commonly thought.

Now comes along a book with a different take on all this – “Empires of the Weak” by J. C. Sharman, professor of International Relations at Cambridge University. He doesn’t appear to have read Hoffman’s book, but it reads as if he was refuting it.

In Latin America the Conquistadores, who did set out to conquer, won because of alliances with smallish local kingdoms and the spreading of European diseases. They did not win because of superior military technology. Pizaro who conquered the Incas had an army of only 170. Pizaro did indeed have guns which the Incas didn’t but they were just a few canons and basic muskets. Fighting was mainly hand to hand.

In Africa, the imperialists limited themselves to border posts where they bought slaves from local chiefs. Incursions into the interior when they happened later were pioneered with small groups of soldiers, also fighting hand to hand.

Sharman argues that, apart from the Americas, Europeans did not gain military superiority during the period of European expansion from the fifteenth century to the late eighteenth century.

He posits that European success in this era is explained by deference, and even subordination, to strong Asian and African politics, the import of deadly European diseases in the Americas and maritime superiority earned by default because these local land-orientated polities were largely indifferent to war and trade at sea. A Chinese admiral once led a look-and-see trip to Africa but then ignored it.

What does he mean by “deference”? He points out that the Europeans were not sending overseas the big armies they used in Europe. Small bands of adventurers, expeditionary forces and private chartered companies who relied on the cultivation of local allies, led the expansion. They had to “go along to get along”.

What Europe did could not compare with the spreading of the Asian Empires – the Ottomans in the Near East, the Mughals in South Asia and the Ming and Manchu Qing in China.

At the time when Europe began its imperialism, the Chinese and Mughal empires were more economically developed than Europe.

“In the main”, writes Sharman, “Europeans were realistic that they stood little chance of mastering foes who could put far superior forces in the field against them, and so Europeans deferred to the authority of the Asian empires”.

Only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution did Europe begin around 1760 to outclass and defeat the Asian and Ottoman empires.

Competition with each other moved Europe to conquer Africa, apart from Christian Ethiopia.

Sharman’s book now puts a real debate on the academic mat. We spectators can enjoy this intellectual joust.

It’s not easy to tell who is right.

3 Responses to "Disputing how Europe conquered the world"

  1. fjahanpour   March 19, 2019 at 3:59 pm

    Interesting views with a great deal of food for thought. I think that another way of looking at the reasons for the rise and fall of civilisations is to look at the moral and spiritual (call it intellectual if you like) motivations for progress. At a time when Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian civilisations lacked any spiritual values, there came Zoroaster with his then new concept of monotheism and a universal battle between good and evil, represented by Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. That vision provided the motive for the rise of the Achaemenian Empire that conquered the earlier moribund empires. When Zoroastrianism became dominated by Zoroastrian clerics, the Magis, and was weakened as the result of constant wars between the Sasanians and the Byzantines, it paved the way for the rise of a new people, Muslim Arabs, with a new moral and ethical philosophy. In the West, the decline of the Roman Empire from democracy to dictatorship and relying on brute force paved the way for the new message of Jesus with its emphasis on “man does not live by bread alone” and emphasising spirituality. The early Islam was vibrant, egalitarian and mystical, but when the Shari’a and theological disputes dominated politics, the message of a revived Christianity and new ideas of individualism and democracy fired the Europeans to surpass and dominate Islamic countries. I am not suggesting that this is the main reason for the rise and fall of empires, but it seems to me that the two theories put forward by Hoffman and Sharman seem to ignore the mental and spiritual motives behind the rise and fall of empires.

    • JO   March 19, 2019 at 4:49 pm

      Dear Farhang – I could not agree more. With the Western science’s – and social science modelled upon it – emphasis on the empirical facts and their exact measurement – it lost a hugely important dimension: the one(s) you point out. American studies of international affairs are particularly poor on this and students who study these textbooks repeat the mistake. And you end up somehow believing that there is nothing else than geo-political, strategic and military dimensions of problems – the most intellectually poor approach to global affairs that I can think of. Perhaps this is one more reason the West is declining and militarising beyond any reason and analytical theory? – Jan Oberg

  2. Alfred vierling   March 19, 2019 at 11:46 am

    It was maybe Arab linguistics keeping trail of classic grek philosophers, mainly in Bizantium but for sake of accuritesse one shld add that these compilers were not mohammadans!


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