The economics of colonialism part one

Modern colonialism began during what’s also known as the Age of Discovery. Beginning in the 15th century, Portugal began looking for new trade routes and searching for civilizations outside of Europe. In 1415, Portuguese explorers conquered Ceuta, a coastal town in North Africa, kicking off an empire that would last until 1999.

As we mentioned a decade ago initially gunpowder which would play such a large role in the development of colonialism appear to have introduced it in northwestern India by the Mongols during the second half of the thirteenth century.

In Europe, the emergence of guns is said to have led to massive changes in state and society. The so-called gunpowder revolution supposedly destroyed feudalism and brought about the emergence of the centralized state.

By the late fifteenth century, gunpowder artillery had become a strong factor behind centralization of the state systems created in Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal, the designation of gunpowder empires.

The gunpowder technology, we know, was ideal for wielding power in faraway places where Europeans were scarce; it was usually the best way to make up for lack of numbers. Transporting vast amounts of Europeans soldiers to, say, Latin America or Asia, was out of the question: costs and mortality rates were too high.¹ 

The gunpowder technology (which substituted physical and human capital for the military workforce) was the answer, even if it did have limits. With it, handfuls of Portuguese in armed ships could extort money from South Asian merchants and hold off besieging armies behind the walls of European-style fortifications. In Latin America, small numbers of Europeans could seize the rulers of the Aztec and Inca Empires and take their place at the top. And in both South Asia and Latin America, the technology permitted Europeans to attract native allies and to extort resources by the threat of violence, without ever having many colonists or any army of occupation. But there is still the fact that a conqueror such as Cortés had no military experience when he embarked for the New World.² How did he and the other early conquerors get their hands on enough of the gunpowder technology  (and learn enough about how to use it) to tip the military balance in their favor?

It was not because Cortés’s men were all soldiers with long experience in European warfare. Although little is known about most of the 2,100 or so Europeans who participated in the conquest of Mexico, we do have details about the occupations of 153. Of them, 28 percent had occupations that could loosely be called military (soldiers, sailors, pilots, gunners, and gunsmiths). Perhaps another 10 percent were nobles and thus familiar with arms and horses. But that would still leave a vast majority who were in no sense veterans of European wars. The same was true of Pizarro’s men, of whom “only a very small minority … had any professional European military experience.”³

The crux of the matter, though, was that both Cortés and Pizarro had some seasoned troops on their side, and while few of their men may have fought in Europe, many had done so in the new world. The Portuguese in Southeast Asia had a similar advantage: Da Gama, Cabral, and Albuquerque were accompanied by men who had fought Muslims in North Africa. As in Europe, the veterans could train and command the novices, and the experience battling together in the new world would teach them the discipline they repeatedly demonstrated on the battlefield.⁴ 

It would have been a great surprise if that had not been the case, at least in Spain. By the end of the fifteenth century, civil war, the campaign to conquer the Muslim Emirate of Granada, and conflict with the French in Italy had given Spain a large number of battle-hardened troops and officers. The Spanish monarchy encouraged its subjects to keep handguns and cutting weapons and to use them as members of militias or peacekeeping brotherhoods. Laws did certainly control gun ownership, but the restrictions did not stamp out the possession of weapons or offset the policies that urged subjects to possess handguns and cutting weapons.⁵ 

Nor was Spain unusual. Service in early modern armies was familiar enough that even if Pizarro had been picking western Europeans at random, he would have had better than a 99 percent chance of getting at least one war-tested veteran among his 167 men.⁶ And most Europeans would have been familiar with the gunpowder technology, even if they had never served in the military, for gun control legislation in western Europe had too many loopholes to keep weapons out of private hands. Gun ownership was common near Nürnberg in the sixteenth-century, and by the seventeenth, French peasants possessed muskets, and city dwellers were firing them off during festivals. Firearms were widespread in seventeenth-century England too, and part of a man’s expected contribution to local peacekeeping. Efforts to curtail ownership in England aroused such resistance that a right to possess arms was written into the 1689 Bill of Rights.⁷ Finally, guns were not expensive: in early seventeenth-century Paris or London, two or three weeks work would buy even a poor, unskilled day laborer a matchlock musket.⁸ 

So even if the early conquerors were private adventurers, they still had the gunpowder technology in their arsenals. And we know it was immensely useful to them. Why else would Cortés have built the thirteen brigantines and had them lugged in pieces some fifty miles across rough terrain for the attack on Tenochtitlan? Why else would the Portuguese immediately build a fortress after capturing Malacca? Their actions speak louder than anything they could have written. 

Not that the early conquerors were all private adventurers. The Portuguese in Asia was not: they were engaged in what swiftly became a government effort, particularly after the Portuguese crown focused its strategy on fortresses and state-sponsored trade. The Portuguese in Asia, therefore, possessed the state-of-the-art ships, naval ordnance, fortifications, and navigational knowledge that their monarchy had helped develop, in part because of its involvement in the European tournament, particularly its rivalry with the kings of Castile.⁹ 

Over time, states reigned in the private efforts, but that did not happen overnight and for a good reason. Within Europe itself, monarchs had long relied on individual entrepreneurs to wage war, and the practice persisted well into the seventeenth century, not just for provisions or war finance, but for mobilizing armies and actual fighting. Privateering let monarchs do the same at sea. Both allowed rulers to take advantage of Europe’s massive market for military goods and services, and it is an abundant supply of mercenaries, arms makers, and military contractors ¹⁰ A prince could profit from their expertise. By paying contractors, privateers, and mercenary officers with plunder, he could harness their self-interest and perhaps avoid some of the administrative costs of a brutal jump in taxes. Relying on them, quite simply, would be no different from what a modern company does when it outsources the preparation of its payroll instead of doing it in house. And such outsourcing was all straightforward in early modern Europe, where the lines between private and public were blurred. 

Conflicts over possession and proofs of possession appear to represent another widely recurring rubric for interpolating relations in the early modern world. Thus colonial powers justified their conquests by asserting that they had a legal and religious obligation to take over the land and culture of indigenous peoples. As we see in this overview, the practices spanned Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas, and warring polities relied on similar expectations about the possibilities for using, justifying, and fending off violence.

Private conquest extended the practice to other continents. The conquerors raised money from backers and promised shares to the participants, from the foot soldiers to the merchants or officials who outfitted the expedition.¹¹ By the seventeenth century, the private ventures were being organized as the world’s first joint-stock companies, which gave them even greater access to funding by allowing shares in the profits to be bought and sold on exchanges. The companies pursued trade in Asia and the Caribbean and other parts of the world, but the trade was usually accompanied by military force, either to grab footholds, squeeze out competitors, win a commercial monopoly or protect against other Europeans in what became an intercontinental battle between states and mercantile interests. 

The companies had the right to conduct military operations, and the biggest ones, the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company, became necessary arms of their governments’ foreign policy. The Dutch Company targeted Portuguese strongholds and shipping built a fortified capital in what is now Jakarta and assisted in coordinated Dutch attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese in Asia and Latin America. As for the British Company, it fought the French in Asia and eventually conquered India.¹² With the help of these private companies, western Europe was exporting warfare with gunpowder technology overseas. 

Because all these military operations were private undertakings, one might wonder whether the rulers mattered at all. Was their spending on war essential for world conquest, or was it merely a sideshow? To take the extreme situation, suppose that western Europe’s rulers had never paid a penny for war.  Wouldn’t private entrepreneurs still have been driven to conquer by the profit motive alone? Wouldn’t the conquistadores’ lust for gold have sufficed to topple the Aztec and Inca Empires?¹³

It would not have been enough, far from it. Without the rulers’ spending, western Europeans would have never done enough to improve the gunpowder technology. The ruler's expended enormous sums on the military, and that spending fueled all the innovation that proved essential for conquest and for preying upon shipping abroad. Private entrepreneurs could then use better technology to conquer; they were familiar with it. They even put the latest advances to use, as, for example, the Portuguese and Dutch did with their warships and fortifications. But if spending by these private entrepreneurs had been the only driver of learning by doing, then western Europe would never have developed a lead in advancing the gunpowder technology, for the entrepreneurs’ budgets were minuscule compared to the rulers’.¹⁴ And without that technological lead, Europeans would not have conquered the world.

In Europe, then, innovations spawned by the tournament between rulers could pass into private hands with relative ease, and private wealth and interests could be tapped to pursue conquest abroad. And private ventures of conquest or privateering were encouraged. In Britain, for instance, merchants and investors in foreign adventures would profit from a widespread belief that international trade benefited the country and required a stronger navy; they would become a powerful lobby in favor of even more resources for the navy.¹⁵ In China, Japan, and the  Ottoman Empire (so we shall see), things were not that easy. Obstacles hampered the private use of the gunpowder technology, and barriers stood in the way of entrepreneurs who wanted to use force abroad, mainly when it was on a large scale.

 

Why European Rulers Relied on Private Entrepreneurs and What the Consequences Were

So why then were western European entrepreneurs encouraged to go abroad and conquer, while their counterparts elsewhere in Eurasia ran into stumbling blocks when they tried to do the same? Why was it so easy in western Europe? And why was it harder (though certainly not impossible) in the rest of Eurasia? The answers, by and large, were the result of political history, which made European rulers more likely to rely on private military initiatives. That reliance had enormous consequences, for by yoking private profit to conquest abroad, it gave Europeans a powerful incentive to take over the world and even more reason to improve the gunpowder technology. 

In western Europe, there was a long tradition of harnessing private initiatives to make war and a long tradition too of harnessing individual efforts to conquer territory abroad. In the Middle Ages, lords mercenaries, while knights set out to the frontiers of Europe and beyond to win estates or defeat the enemies of the faith. 

The practice was understandable in a world where contending lords did not yet rule over states with economic systems and permanent taxation and therefore lacked the means to establish standing armies. It helped lords and rulers organize military undertakings against enemies, and it reinforced the martial values prized by European elites. It, therefore, complemented the process of cultural evolution that parochial altruism had triggered. 

Reliance on private initiatives and rewards persisted into the early modern period. Besides launching private ventures of trade and colonization, it also spawned tax farming and military innovations. True, rulers in other parts of Eurasia relied on private initiatives too, the Ottoman Empire, for instance, had tax farmers, and mercenaries were prevalent in India, but outside of western Europe, the individual efforts were limited. Often the reason was that rulers there had established financial systems much earlier than in western Europe and could, therefore, hire officials instead of engaging in what we might today call the “outsourcing” of government and the military to mercenaries and private contractors. In short, they ruled states that were simply more developed than in western Europe. The result was that the rest of Eurasia lacked the same history of substantial personal rewards that drew entrepreneurs to the military sector or conquest abroad at the dawn of the age of exploration. 

Why, though, did kings and princes in western Europe continue to turn to private contractors after they set up their tax systems? Finding out why is essential because, without all the entrepreneurs, western Europeans might never have set out to conquer or trade, no matter how far they had pushed the gunpowder technology. 

In part, rulers persisted in using private contractors because they had proved successful in the recent past and continued to do so. During the Hundred Years War, English soldiers, furloughed during periods of truce were hired in Italy, where in the 1360s, they introduced the longbow and novel tactics with the lance into the warfare among city-states that already had financial systems. The mercenaries were professionals, even though Machiavelli later railed against them.¹⁶ Using them also allowed rulers to take advantage of the abundant supply of military entrepreneurs that had been spawned by western Europe’s wars and its long history of political underdevelopment. The entrepreneurs would take on the risks and quickly provide troops, supplies, and, most important of all, credit in an era when even states with permanent taxes could have trouble borrowing, which was essential for funding the explosion of expenses that came with the onset of war.¹⁷ 

One danger, of course, was that a significant military contractor would disobey. Such a threat drove the Holy Roman emperor to assassinate his chief entrepreneur during the Thirty Years War, the military commander Wallenstein, and eventually, rulers reduced the importance of the army entrepreneurs, as they centralized fiscal systems, constructed bureaucracies, and gained the ability to borrow, to maintain standing armies, and to better monitor subordinates. Although the entrepreneurs did not wholly disappear, increasingly, they were replaced by royal officials and commissioned officers. 

Even so, personal financial rewards continued to play a role as a powerful incentive for military and civilian personnel, for the border between the private and the state remained fuzzy in the early modern world. In France, Michel Le Tellier and his son Louvois, who presided over the war department under Louis XIV, amassed a  mammoth fortune as they helped their king build a more effective and much bigger army.¹⁸ An even better example comes from the British navy, the dominant seagoing force in the eighteenth century, which made systematic use of personal financial incentives.¹⁹ In a sense, the monarchs in Britain and France were changing their contracts with the suppliers and soldiers who furnished military goods and services. Since they now had bureaucrats who could monitor behavior at a lower cost, it paid to integrate the suppliers and soldiers into their armies and navies. But their new contracts still spurred them on with personal rewards.²⁰ 

One of the consequences of the continued reliance on personal financial rewards (even for government officials) was that it helped create clusters of complementary skills that increased western Europe’s growing lead in the gunpowder technology. The skills, which ranged from navigation and ship design to cannon founding, were available throughout the continent, for as we have seen, short travel distances and porous borders could not halt the flow of military goods and services, even if it meant supplying an enemy king in the middle of a war. The skills added to western Europe’s technological lead, but they would be hard to replicate outside western Europe because it would mean transferring the whole set of complementary proficiencies and all the connections between the experts involved. It would be a bit like trying to re-create, say, Silicon Valley somewhere else. That was one more reason western improvements to the gunpowder technology could not be copied overnight in the rest of Eurasia. 

Personal rewards were essential for building up this set of skills, along with the rest of the money spent on military goods and services. John Harrison, whose invention of the marine chronometer made it possible to measure longitude accurately at sea, was motivated by a government prize that had been established in the aftermath of a 1707 naval disaster brought on by navigational errors.²¹ For Jean  Maritz, the Swiss cannon founder who perfected the technique of boring cannons for the French, the remuneration meant that he died with the fortune not of a successful artisan, but of a wealthy merchant or noble, one that put him in the top 1  percent of the wealth distribution in the French province where he made his home.²² 

Personal rewards had another vital consequence as well, for they gave western Europeans all the more reason to go abroad and conquer. That was true in particular of the discovery of silver in the Americas. There were, of course, other motives at work. The Portuguese, as we have seen, wanted to continue the struggle against the Muslims; the medieval admonition to conquer abroad still swayed behavior; and as for Columbus, he could draw inspiration from an intellectual tradition that depicted the lands he was sailing for as the wealthiest part of the globe.²³ But windfalls from faraway places, particularly early on, did a considerable amount to stimulate interest in foreign expeditions. When the treasures sent back by Cortés reached Spain in 1520, they “created a sensation” and incited other Spaniards to search the Americas for wealth. Pizarro’s ransom had a similar impact. The riches delighted Spain’s rulers, and the discovery of silver in Mexico and Peru in the middle of the sixteenth century pleased them even more, for the avalanche of bullion that the mines yielded (thanks to the new process of extracting silver with mercury) could fund their wars.²⁴ Without these initial strokes of good luck, voyages of conquest might well have subsided, or so the record of earlier human exploration suggests.²⁵ 

Windfalls continued to impress Europeans for centuries. When in 1744 Captain George Anson brought thirty-two wagons full of silver back to London from a  Spanish galleon he had captured in the Pacific, he was paraded through the streets as a national hero, and eventually promoted to First Lord of the Admiralty, even though 90 percent of his original crew had perished during the harrowing four-year voyage.²⁶ And it was not just silver or gold that spurred the Europeans on. It was also the lucrative opportunities to trade in the luxuries and consumer goods that western Europeans craved, from spices and silk to cotton, sugar, and tea, opportunities that the expeditions abroad created. 

Spain’s and Portugal’s profits in Asia and the Americas encouraged other European states to support rival ventures of trade, private conquest, and privateering, with the individual efforts culminating in the Dutch and British East India Companies. 

The two trading companies were necessary arms of their governments’ foreign policies and could raise huge sums in Europe’s burgeoning capital markets.²⁷ The employees of both companies traded on their own as well and their profits were an added motive behind Britain’s creation of a territorial empire in India. Having the Company fight the French, in what was the South Asian Indian theater of the Seven Years War did fit the goals of British foreign policy and also protected the Company’s earnings. Having it take over Bengal, however, was another matter, which provoked debate back in London. Yet before the dispute was resolved in the late 1760s in favor of a territorial empire, the Company’s men in India had already taken the first step by using their army (and British naval forces sent to fight the French) against the ruler of Bengal. They aimed to protect both the Company’s business and its private profits from his attacks. They then employed their military forces to take over Bengal, and eventually another territory too, with the support of the British government.²⁸ 

The private ventures and incentives made eminent sense for conquest and exploration, and for preying on trade in faraway places. Travel and communication were too slow for even the most powerful states to monitor what was happening halfway around the world. Relying on private incentives was often the best way to get such things done. Even the Portuguese Empire (which exercised more state control from the very beginning than did Spain) made room for considerable amounts of private trade.²⁹ An even better way to harness private incentives was to make distant conquest or preying on trade into a corporate venture, with private investors and captains who would be richly rewarded with a share of the profits when they succeeded. The conquistadores turned to that sort of organization, as did (on a much grander scale) the Dutch and English East India Companies.³⁰   

Obstacles to Private Ventures in the Rest of Eurasia Western European rulers did regulate the private ventures and limit entry. A would-be Spanish conquistador, for example, needed a royal charter. But the obstacles to private undertakings were generally much smaller in western Europe than in the rest of Eurasia, where formidable hurdles stood in the way of entrepreneurs eager to undertake voyages of conquest abroad. The reason why the barriers loomed more substantial in the rest of Eurasia can usually be found in political history. However, religion and the delusions that western Europeans had about the rest of the world also played a role. 

Merchants in China, for instance, were at times barred from conducting overseas trade during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In Tokugawa Japan, there was a crackdown on would-be pirates and a ban on building large ships, and foreign trade was choked almost to death. By 1640, “all but a few Japanese had been prohibited on pain of death from going abroad.”³¹ These prohibitions (even when they were enforced) could not completely stop overseas trade or travel: Chinese merchants, after all, could be found throughout Southeast Asia, and most of the “Japanese” pirates who raided China’s coast were in fact Chinese. But the prohibitions did make the undertakings much harder for the Chinese and Japanese entrepreneurs. And while western European governments would often intercede on behalf of their merchants abroad, Chinese emperors rarely took that step, particularly if it involved support for permanent settlements overseas or the sort of mercantilist measures favored by European rulers.³² 

One additional hurdle confronted would-be explorers outside of western Europe: they had a harder time getting access to gunpowder technology. In western Europe, as we know, gun ownership was widespread, and conquistadores had no problem buying firearms and recruiting men familiar with their use. That was not necessarily so in the rest of Eurasia. China and the Ottoman Empire restricted private gun ownership and trade in firearms, and Tokugawa Japan banned the export of weapons.³³ If these prohibitions were effective, they would have discouraged the Japanese, Chinese, and Ottomans from despoiling foreign traders or trying to set up colonies by force. 

Admittedly, laws of this sort were not always on the books, and even when they were, they had loopholes, as in Europe, or they were not perfectly enforced: witness, for instance, all the Chinese pirates, such as Koxinga’s father. Still, when they were in place, the laws (and perhaps the norms that lay behind them) did seem to have some bite. Even in the Ming Dynasty, when the rules seemed to have been relaxed, observers such as Matteo Ricci were struck that civilians in Chinese cities did not bear arms in public or keep them at home. The contrast with Europe, in fact, stood out in Ricci’s mind: “As among us it appears a beautiful thing to see an armed man, so among them, it appears bad,” Ricci observed with admiration since, in his view, the lack of arms spared the Chinese the injuries and deaths that were common in Europe.³⁴ 

Why did China, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire enact all the prohibitions? The bans on travel and trade in imperial China and Tokugawa Japan were adopted by relatively stable rulers who aimed to reinforce their domestic security and to control foreign policy. The incentives to preserve their system then lasted long enough for it to become the foundation of their successors’ dealings with the outside world, an example of how political history can change incentives. In China, for instance, the restrictions on trade date back to the first Ming emperor, who barred most maritime traffic in 1372 to keep his subjects from challenging his rule by allying with people outside China. His ban then became a “cornerstone”  of Ming maritime policy, and while the restrictions were lifted in 1567, they were reimposed later in the dynasty and in the Qing Dynasty too.³⁵ In Japan, Toyotomi  Hideyoshi, one of the country’s unifiers, initiated the restrictions on trade in the late sixteenth century, and they were reinforced in the seventeenth century by the first Tokugawa shoguns. The aim was to strengthen the sovereignty of Japan’s rulers and their mastery of foreign affairs. The policy also had the advantage of keeping military lords from gaining too much wealth and power from international trade.³⁶ As for the prohibitions against gun ownership and trade in firearms in China, the Ottoman Empire, and Tokugawa Japan, they likely had similar origins.³⁷ 

European princes would have balked at enacting similar measures, for several reasons. Restricting gun ownership would upset the nobility, and banning armed  private expeditions would mean spurning western Europe’s abundant supply of  military entrepreneurs, among them its many privateers.³⁸ And although outlawing  trade might impose losses in a massive state such as China (with horses, a strategic right that the Chinese got from the nomads, being a particular example), the cost  of foregone trade would be even higher in the smaller states of western Europe. 

Finally, the long tradition of conquest abroad in western Europe had created a compelling vested interest in foreign expeditions, particularly in states with thriving port cities and influential merchants, such as Britain and the Netherlands. To be sure, the mercantilist legislation these insiders favored did impose all sorts of restrictions and tariffs on foreign trade. But it was not an outright ban on trade. 

One additional advantage that western European traders and conquerors had (at least relative to their counterparts in the Ottoman Empire) was that Islamic law simply made it difficult to establish anything like the Dutch East India Company,  the world’s first joint-stock company with an independent legal existence and an indefinite life span. An undertaking of that scale was too big and too risky for short-lived partnerships, the only legitimate vehicle readily available to Ottoman merchants and entrepreneurs. The hangup here derived (so Timur Kuran has argued) from Islamic commercial law. Its limitations were certainly not planned. In part, they were the accidental result of what happened to be spelled out in the Koran and was thus difficult to change. The limitations posed a little problem initially when most commerce involved short-term ventures among merchants. The trouble was that Ottoman merchants could not easily cope with the sort of long-distance expeditions of trade and raiding undertaken by the Dutch, which required vast amounts of fixed capital in the form of docks, storehouses, and fortresses. Islamic partnerships had to be dissolved and liquidated whenever a partner died; unlike a corporation, they had no independent existence of the parties involved. Liquidation was relatively easy for a brief medieval caravan, but it was impractical when the capital was invested for years and raised from scores of investors, and when it might mean selling off assets such as a fortress thousands of miles away. As a result, Ottoman business ventures had to be small and short-lived, and they could not mobilize large amounts of fixed capital.³⁹ Those restrictions ruled out the private venture expeditions undertaken by the Dutch East India Company or by the British  East India Company during its conquest of India. 

None of these obstacles to trade, travel, or the use of guns was perfect. Private efforts to conquer or prey upon trade were still possible elsewhere in Eurasia. But potential entrepreneurs still confronted barriers that were much higher than in western Europe. And then there was one final advantage that western Europeans had, which made it easier to motivate a Columbus, da Gama, Cortés, Magellan, or Pizarro. It was, paradoxically, western Europe’s economic inferiority complex at the dawn of the early modern period. Western Europeans were, in fact, convinced that other parts of the world were wealthier, particularly Asia or the southern latitudes that were Columbus’s goal.⁴⁰ What they learned only confirmed their opinions. Although Columbus brought little tangible wealth back, da Gama returned with encouraging news, even if some of it was based on misconceptions. Cortés’s gold and Pizarro’s ransom gave even more reason to explore and conquer. And by the middle of the sixteenth century, the discovery of silver mines in America stoked the envy of all of Spain’s rivals. 

Other Eurasians would not have suffered from the same delusions as the western Europeans. They produced or traded in the silks, spices, and other luxury goods that Europeans lusted after. They thus had less reason to believe that different parts of the known world were wealthier. More important, their own experience of long-distance travel would only confirm that belief. Between 1405 and 1433, for example, the Ming emperors dispatched seven huge fleets under the commander Zheng He to awe rulers from Southeast Asia to Africa and collected tribute from them. The expeditions brought some exotic goods such as ostriches and giraffes back to China. Still, no windfall of treasure, nothing like Cortés’s gold or Pizzaro’s ransom, much less the silver from American mines, and even the exotic goods failed to impress the emperors. The fleets, in fact, had to be subsidized, and that was one reason why they were finally halted. Why, after all, spend money on the fleets, when the real military problem was with nomads to the north?⁴¹ 

One might think that the Chinese were simply sailing in the wrong direction and that they should have tried to cross the Pacific. But sailing from Asia to Latin America would have been challenging because it was radically different from the well-known monsoon trading routes followed by Zheng He. The Spanish did not master the eastward voyage across the Pacific until 1564; even then, mortality rates were at least 30 percent per trip and sometimes as high as 75 percent. Furthermore, the Chinese had none of the accidental windfalls that encouraged exploration and conquest in western Europe, and attempting a Pacific crossing would be unlikely to produce one.⁴²

Counterfactual Scenarios: Would Things Have Been Different without the Mongols?   In short, while rulers in western Europe relied on entrepreneurs in war and conquest, similar private undertakings were by and large discouraged in other parts of Eurasia. If, say, the Ottoman sultan did not seek territory abroad, his subjects would have trouble doing it for him, for there would be too many obstacles in their way. The same would be right for China and Japan. There also, conquest (apart from an extraordinary exception like Koxinga) would have to be a government enterprise. 

A ruler might decide to enlarge his realm, as the Qianlong emperor did when he wiped out the nomads and added territory to China’s west, but otherwise, there would be no conquest abroad. Interested private parties would have a hard time even lobbying for conquest because of all the hurdles blocking their path. Western Europeans faced no such barriers, and they were encouraged by rulers who were battling religious enemies or one another in the western European tournament, particularly when it spilled out into Asia, the Americas, and distant waters. 

That contrast was another difference between western Europe and the rest of Eurasia, another factor that helps explain why Europeans conquered the world. Like the exogenous conditions in the tournament model, it, too, was a product of history and political history in particular. Political History, as we know, directed each part of Eurasia toward different political geographies and different fiscal systems. It worked via political learning in the short run and by cultural evolution and changing incentives for elites in the long run, and over time its effects could not be reversed. It is the ultimate reason why the western Europeans built up a huge lead in developing the gunpowder technology by 1800, a lead that would only widen (so we shall see) as Europe industrialized. It is therefore why they were the particular Eurasians who conquered the world. 

Yet despite what seemed like an insurmountable lead and an irreversible process, there were certain pivotal moments when other outcomes were possible when a different political choice could plausibly have fashioned a drastically different world. Historians have constructed a number of these plausible counterfactual scenarios.⁴³ Imagine, for instance, that the Ottoman emperors had opted not to rely on the janissaries. The janissaries indeed allowed the Ottoman emperors to form a loyal and disciplined military force. Still, the emperors could instead have decided to negotiate with elites from the outset. In the long run, they would have gotten more tax revenue. Their reliance on cavalry and galleys would still have kept them from being at the forefront of the gunpowder technology. Still, they might have done a better job of holding their own against the Europeans in the eighteenth century. 

There are plausible counterfactuals for India as well. If Nadir Shah had stayed in India in 1739, as contemporaries expected, then he would have created a powerful state in northern India that would have frightened off the East India Company, or so Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Geoffrey Parker, and Philip Tetlock have argued. At the very least, his state would have severely delayed the British conquest of India, and since India furnished troops that Britain deployed throughout the world in the nineteenth century, Nadir might well have stunted the whole British Empire.⁴⁴ One problem with the argument is that Nadir would have had to take over a Mughal fiscal system that had already begun to escape from central government control. Staying in India would have also broken with Nadir’s habit of plundering his conquests and then returning home. 

Similarly, if the Mughal Empire had collapsed earlier, then Mysore and the other powers that arose from its ruins might have had the time to develop fiscal systems that could levy taxes at a low political cost. With the tax revenue, they might then have stopped the East India Company. After all, even without an effective fiscal system, Mysore still came close to defeating the East India Company, and it might, in fact, have won had it used territorial concessions to keep the British from forming an alliance with one of the other rising Indian powers. A British loss to Mysore might, in turn, have convinced the Company to abandon the fight and to limit itself to much less territory in India.⁴⁵ 

Different outcomes were possible elsewhere too. What would have happened, for instance, if Rome had not collapsed or if Charlemagne’s empire had persisted long enough for its rulers to reshape the incentives of elites? Although a world without the fall of Rome may strain credulity, it is easy to conceive of plausible ways Charlemagne’s realm might have survived. It might have had time enough to take root, for instance, if Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, had not disrupted carefully laid succession plans that had been designed to keep the empire intact, all in order to make room for a child by his second wife. Changing the succession plans ignited a civil war that pitted Louis against his older sons and their allies, and the civil war reduced the incentive for regional elites to support the central government. But if Louis had not disturbed his inheritance plans, Charlemagne’s empire might have remained intact for several generations. That might have been long enough to loosen the ties regional elites had to local society and help make them loyal to the central government.⁴⁶ The emperors might then have succeeded in keeping the popes under their thumb, and over time they might have reversed the centrifugal forces of western Europe’s cultural evolution since the fall of Rome. 

Western Europe would then have been durably unified, as China was under the  Qin and Han Dynasties. The western emperor, though, would have become a European hegemon, like the Chinese emperors. Over time, he would have also had to contend with nomads from the east and fight galley warfare on the Mediterranean. 

His successors would not have taken the lead in advancing the gunpowder technology, and Europe would not have conquered the world. 

But the most intriguing counterfactual concerns China. In most of the plausible scenarios that have been concocted for China, it remains a large, unified state. It may industrialize early or invade Europe, and so catch up with or surpass the West, although the prospects for doing so usually dim after 1500 and virtually disappear after 1800. But in most of these scenarios, China is not fragmented politically.⁴⁷

Such an assumption is not unreasonable, because early unification did incline the Chinese Empire toward remaining intact. Yet it would likely rule out China’s conquering the world if we believe the tournament model. A united China would, after all, still be a hegemon, and a hegemon would have less reason to spend heavily on the military or to develop the technology that was ideally suited for the conquest of distant places, the gunpowder technology. Furthermore, a hegemon would engage in less of the political learning that would create an effective fiscal system. So a unified China would likely not take over the world. And it might not have been rich either, because it would have lost out on the positive economic effects of political fragmentation. Kenneth Pomeranz recognizes this implication of political unity: it would mean less military pressure and so less of a reason to colonize or develop a fiscal system.⁴⁸  

An enduring Chinese Empire was not always a near sure thing, though, for there were times when China could plausibly have remained divided. Perhaps the most convincing scenario involves imagining what would have happened if China had not been taken over by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Considering the course of history without a Mongol conquest seems much more realistic than imagining (as several authors have) what would have happened if voyages like Zheng He’s had continued.⁴⁹ That counterfactual seems implausible, for it ignores the incentives facing the Ming Dynasty, which was threatened by nomads and therefore had little reason to waste money on further nautical expeditions. 

But a world without a Mongol conquest was a real possibility. Forging an empire like the Mongols’ demanded a rare charismatic leader like Ghengis Khan, and even after the Mongol Empire coalesced, it was unstable. It could easily have disintegrated before China had been conquered. In the early thirteenth century, before the Mongols took over, East Asia was split into three hostile powers locked into a military equilibrium: the western Xia and Jin to the north, and the southern Song to the south and along the coast. If the Mongols had not shattered this equilibrium (and no other nomadic mega-empire had taken their place), then China might well have remained divided, and the southern Song would have continued to prosper. Since fighting with the Western Xia and Jin would not have stopped,  the southern Song would have persisted in developing their commercial taxes and their navy, which had helped them survive a Jin invasion and would have protected both inland waterways and their coastal capital.⁵⁰ Over time, one could easily imagine merchant elites in prosperous southern Song cities lobbying (like their mercantile counterparts in western Europe) for a powerful oceangoing navy to protect their burgeoning overseas trade. Gunpowder had been put to military use in China since the tenth century, with the southern Song and Jin wielding it against one another in their wars and along the way developing gunpowder bombs and what was likely the first fire lance, an ancestor of the modern gun. Without a Mongol conquest, the southern Song and their opponents would have continued to push the gunpowder technology forward, probably even further than the southern Song did in fighting the Mongols.⁵¹ True, the first guns appeared just after the Mongols took over, but after that, the Mongols were the hegemon in East Asia, which reduced their incentive to innovate. By contrast, continued war between the Southern Song and their opponents would have involved no hegemon, so if we believe the tournament model, it would likely have done more to advance the gunpowder technology.

What would the outcome have been? Militarily, the southern Song state would have been significant by European standards, and it would not have been free of threats from nomads. Hence the southern Song could not have specialized in the gunpowder technology: like the Ottomans and the Russians, they would have had to divide their resources between the gunpowder technology and the older means of dealing with nomads. But they would not have been a hegemon and with their substantial commercial tax revenues, they could have spent more on the technology and so pushed it further than the Ming or the Qing ever did, all the more so since the Ming and Qing emperors themselves were often (though certainly not always) hegemons too. And since it would have been much more comfortable for southern Song merchants to establish maritime trading centers abroad, the southern Song (like the Russians) would have had less trouble buying the latest version of the technology from western Europeans, should they ever find themselves lagging. 

The result would likely have been a much stronger state by 1800, one that might have held off the Europeans and the Japanese in the nineteenth century, or at least negotiated with them on more equal terms. And it could have provided much more security internally. Would China have also industrialized faster? One might think that seaborne trade would have encouraged industrialization, but there was too little of it to have much of an effect in a state as significant as the southern Song. And China would still lack England’s cheap coal, or so historians who focus on energy costs would argue.

Suppose that the southern Song had gained an amount of additional trade equal to total British intercontinental commerce in 1800 and that their population was only 75 million. (The population would likely have been much larger than that, but a low population magnifies the effect of trade.) Even in this optimistic scenario, wages would have risen by only 1 percent, according to the model tying wages to trade and other variables that Robert Allen estimated using European evidence. That is far less than the estimated effect for Britain during the Industrial Revolution.⁵²

While European history books axiomatically assume that it was the British who first used coal to produce iron ore, this, in fact, began in eleventh-century Sung China under similar conditions of deforestation. And the famous Martin-Siemens' steel process of 1863 was pre-empted by the Chinese 'co-fusion' a process that was developed in the fifth century CE. Given China's substantial lead in iron and steel production, it was not surprising that British producers (including the famous Benjamin Huntsman of Sheffield) undertook detailed studies of Chinese production methods in order to develop their own steel manufacturing techniques. It is true that the European invention of the Bessemer Converter (1852) was significantly derived from the breakthroughs made by the American, William Kelly, in 1845. But what is not usually pointed out is that Kelly himself had brought over four Chinese steel experts to Kentucky from whom he learned the principles of steel production.

The another great pillar of the British industrial revolution was the development of cotton manufacturing. But while British inventors such as John Lombe are usually singled out for praise, this misses the point that some of their inventions had been pioneered in China many centuries earlier. For example, Lombe's silk machines became the model for the Derby cotton machines. But while Lombe's 'invention' is recognized as a copy of the Italian machines, what is not usually admitted is that they, in turn, were a direct copy of the earlier Chinese inventions that had been assimilated in the thirteenth century. Notable too is that in textiles, the Chinese had long developed machines which differed in only one detail to that of James Hargreaves' famous 'spinning jenny' and John Kay's equally famous 'flying shuttle'. All in all, therefore, it is debatable as to whether there would ever have been a British industrial revolution had it not been for the much earlier pioneering Chinese breakthroughs, the knowledge of which (if not the actual technologies) were transmitted to Britain through a host of Oriental global channels.

Yet one could imagine a different path to industrialization, one based on a textile industry like that found in the early United States. It would not require cheap coal, although China did have coal deposits, because coal’s importance for industrialization has been exaggerated. Although some of them (in Kaifeng, for instance) would lie outside the southern Song state, the coal could have been shipped to the coastal manufacturing centers. ⁵³ In this scenario, the ongoing warfare would have already drawn manufacturing into fortified cities along the coast, raising urban wages and creating concentrations of production that would help spread new technology. In the long run, industrialization would follow if R. Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal is correct.⁵⁴ Coal could be shipped to the cities, or water power could substitute for coal as a source of energy, as in the early American textile industry.

Kenneth Pomeranz considers the possibility of shipping coal. There would be places, such as the flat Yangtze Delta, where water power might not provide much energy. If they were industrialized, they could rely on imported coal. ⁵⁵ As for the textile machines, they might be imported from England by merchants eager to sell in the large domestic market. Although textile manufacturing might need protection to prosper, Chinese merchants could get it from their stronger state, and in the meantime, the agglomeration economies along the coast could spur industrialization of other sectors of the economy. Such a Southern Song China might not have been the first to industrialize. Still, it would likely have joined Japan, the United States, and continental Europe in having an industrial revolution, not in the twentieth century but it would likely have joined Japan, the United States, and continental Europe in having an industrial revolution not in the twentieth century, but in the 1800s. The result might, of course, have been different still. Without the Mongols, the plague might not have reached western Europe. Britain would then have had no new draperies and perhaps even no Industrial Revolution either.⁵⁶ 

But in the end the historical phenomenon of colonization was one hat stretches around the globe and across time. Modern state global colonialism, or imperialism, began in the 15th century with the "Age of Discovery", led by Portuguese, and then by the Spanish exploration of the Americas, the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, India and East Asia. The Portuguese and Spanish empires were the first global empires because they were the first to stretch across different continents, covering vast territories around the globe. In 1492, notable Genoese (Italian)[1][2] explorer Christopher Columbus and his Castilian (Spanish) crew discovered the Americas for the Crown of Castile. The phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was first used for the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. During the late 16th and 17th centuries, England, France and the Dutch Republic also established their own overseas empires, in direct competition with each other.

After World War I, however expansion of Europe’s colonial holdings halted, and by 1938 the European colonial empire had actually shrunk by 1 percent. The case against colonialism gathered strength after World War II. Western Europe’s military power had collapsed, its political leaders were concentrating on economic recovery and domestic social spending, and opposition to empire (bolstered by the Cold War) waxed louder, both at home and in the colonies themselves. By the late 1970s, the European empires had virtually disappeared. 

And a its empires vanished, western Europe also fell further and further behind the leaders in the race to advance military technology. Two military superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, dominated the world after World War II, facings off against one another in another armed peace, the Cold War. Unable to match these two behemoths, most of the western European powers did just what the tournament model would predict and sat out the arms race that the Cold War generated.

 

For the extensive footnotes, you can contact me at ericvandenbroeck1969@gmail.com

 

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