Why Europe conquered the world

By Jonathan Power

February 21st 2017

Eleven hundred years ago Europe was a backwater. There were no grand cities, apart from Cordoba in Spain which was Muslim. The Middle East was much further ahead, still absorbing the intellectual delights and challenges of Greek science, medicine and architecture which Europeans were largely ignorant of. In southern China agriculture advanced and trade in tea, porcelain and silk flourished.

By 1914 it was a totally different world. The Europeans ruled 84% of the globe and they had colonies everywhere. How was it that Europe and its offspring, the United States, became the dominant dynamic force in the world, and still are today in most things?

If I walk round my university town and stop the first ten students I meet and ask them why this was so they would probably say because of the Industrial Revolution. But in 1800 when the Industrial Revolution was only just beginning Europeans already ruled 35% of the world and had armed ships on every ocean and colonies on every continent.

If they didn’t say that, they might say it was the way the Europeans spread their fatal diseases, smallpox and measles, to which they had gained a good deal of immunity, and this enabled them to lay low native peoples. But in fact all the major Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations had this same advantage. In Africa it was local diseases that attacked the Europeans more than vice versa.

Maybe one of the ten students would say it was because the Europeans were ahead in the development of gunpowder technology. After all the military revolution preceded the Industrial Revolution. But I doubt that, even though on the right track, this one student could explain why.

Gunpowder was invented in China and by the sixteenth century the Ottomans were making high quality artillery. But they could not keep up with the pace of European technological development. Europe had military competition and thus innovation baked into it.

Europe, unlike the Ottoman Empire or China, was a very un-unified kind of place. Since the fall of Charlemagne there was no one strong enough to hold Europe together. Moreover, the popes preferred divide and rule and did not want a single strong European leader to diminish their power.

In Europe dozens of small states and principalities, often each vying to be top dog, were stimulated to nurse their competitive instincts. This pushed research and the gunpowder technology forward at a much faster pace than anywhere else in the world.

In contrast, China was a massive hegemon; Japan and the Ottoman Empire sizeable ones. A hegemon inevitably comes to believe that since it is politically dominant far and wide it doesn’t have work so hard at maintaining superior arms. But when it came to gunpowder technology and its adaption to warships the smaller European powers, each seeking to outscore each other, could often call the shots against Asia’s hegemons.

Philip Hoffman, professor at the California Institute of Technology, argues in his new book, “Why Did Europe Conquer The World?” that Europe’s pace of innovation was driven by a peculiar form of military competition which he calls a “tournament”- the sort of competition that under the right conditions, can drive contestants to exert enormous effort in the hope of earning a prize.

This is what happened in Europe, but not elsewhere.

European rulers raised taxes and lavished resources on armies, navies, gunpowder technology and pushed forward research. 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.

The wars that led to Europe’s and particularly Britain’s domination of the world made possible (although there were important other factors too) the Industrial Revolution, not vice versa. Victory in battle had given Britain a large share of Europe’s intercontinental trade.

That created jobs in British cities. That raised wages and agricultural demand. High wages stimulated the invention of labour-saving machines, such as spinning machines and steam energy. Then there were the huge deposits of coal. Hence the industrial revolution.

Some historians add into the mix the immense profits from the Caribbean and North American slave trade which provided much of the capital needed to build machines and factories. Others would add the long European tradition of the separation of church and state. Hoffman himself stresses the importance of Britain’s uniform legal and fiscal system and Parliament’s control of the purse.

Well, as they say, that’s history.

Now we have a new struggle for dominance. If only it could be done without another round of gunpowder technology and within the legal framework of the Charter of the United Nations.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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