By JONATHAN POWER
Eleven hundred years ago Europe was a backwater. There were no grand cities, apart from Cordoba in Spain which was Muslim. Muslim Spain was the epicenter of learning in Western Europe. 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 around 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 to 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 gunpowder technology forward at a much faster pace than anywhere else in the world. Also the way the mountains and rivers lie in Europe in effect divided Europe up into competitive kingdoms and principalities.
In contrast, China was a massive hegemon; Japan and the Ottoman Empire were sizeable. A hegemon inevitably comes to believe that since it is politically dominant far and wide it doesn’t have to work so hard at maintaining superior arms. When it came to gunpowder technology and its adaption to warships the smaller European powers, each seeking to outscore the other could often call the shots against Asia’s hegemons.
For his part, Philip Hoffman, professor at the California Institute of Technology, argued in his 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, and 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 labor-saving machines, such as spinning machines and steam energy. Then there were the huge deposits of coal. Hence the Industrial Revolution.
Some historians rightly 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. (Read the marvelous piece of historical research by Eric Williams, newly re-issued by Penguin books, “Capitalism and Slavery”.) 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- Will it be the US, Russia, Europe, China, or India? If only it could be done without another round of gunpowder technology and within the legal framework of the Charter of the United Nations.