Chapter 11: Conquest and the New ?· Chapter 11: Conquest and the New World "The discovery of America,…
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Professor Gregory Clark Econ 110A, Winter 2003 European Economic History
Chapter 11: Conquest and the New World
"The discovery of America, and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest events recorded in the history of mankind." (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776)
Introduction We see above that it is very difficult to link the take-off of the European economy after 1700 to either institutional constraints, or to an industrious revolution. Searching for a cause of the European miracle some scholars have concluded that the conquest by Europeans of much of the rest of the world in the years 1492-1914 was the crucial ingredient. Those who hold this view include most famously Immanuel Wallerstein who argues that we have to divide the world into two areas after 1500. The Core which constituted north west Europe, and later the northern parts of north America dominated by settlement from western Europe, and the Periphery, which contained everything else. Contact between the core and the periphery after 1500 enriched the core but immiserized the rest of the world. For the core gained vital raw materials to speed its industrialization, and found expanded markets for its industrial products, while the periphery was reduced to a dependent status, supplying raw materials and labor for Europe in return for European manufactures. Even what was called free trade between the two parts of the world was not really free, because one party gained from this trade while the other lost. How Europeans came to Dominate the Rest of the World We saw in chapter 4 above that in the middle ages there was slow but steady technological development in Europe. Three particular developments of the late middle ages - guns, navigation, and shipping - created a foundation for a spectacular expansion of the areas European control from the late 15th century onward. But the superiority of the Europeans in naval power was just an
indicator of the relative advance of technology in Europe compared to the rest of the world that occurred after 1400. Until 1500 Christian Europe was a beleaguered region. In the East the Mongols had come close to sweeping across Europe in the middle ages. In 1300 the Mongol Empire included both Moscow and Kiev, and the Mongols were not expelled from Moscow till 1480. And in 1454 Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the Turks. Thereafter the Turks pressed onto the European mainland, absorbing Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro, and Albania by 1470.1 Turkish expansion in the Balkans continued indeed for several centuries after this. But these beleaguered areas of Europe were the least technologically advanced areas of the continent. In contrast the more technologically advanced West launched a series of daring voyages of exploration and conquest beginning in the thirteenth century. The impetus for the early voyages of exploration was largely commercial. The major imports of Europe from the East were spices from India and South East Asia and silk goods from China. These goods had to be imported overland to reach the Mediterranean through territory controlled by other, non Christian, powers. The Venetians thus had to obtain spices from Arab merchants who transported them across the Indian Ocean. Thus there was great potential profit from developing another trade route with the East. The initial focus of the voyages of discovery was not colonization, but was to develop a sea route around the south of Africa to the East. The early leaders in navigation and exploration were the Northern Italians. As early as 1291 a Genoese expedition of oared galleys sailed down the west coast of Africa in an attempt to reach India by sea. This expedition was lost without a trace. But the Italians were displaced as the principal explorers in the fifteenth century by the Portuguese, in large part because of the energy of one person, Prince Henry of Portugal ("the Navigator"). Henry (1393-1460) was a younger son of the King of Portugal, who devoted his life to the project of reaching India by sailing around Africa.2 He supported a group of astronomers, navigators,
1 In the process a number of the local inhabitants converted to Islam, thus creating the Muslim populations in Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania, and setting the stage for some of the current ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. 2No-one, of course, knew if this was possible.
geographers, and cartographers to study the navigational problems of this project at his castle on the promontory of Sagres at the southern extremity of Portugal. From 1418 on he sent out almost annual expeditions to chart the west African coast. His captains colonized the Madeira Islands, and the Azores (see figure 8.1). They also established trade with various west African chiefs. By the time of Henry's death, however, his slow and careful approach to exploration had taken his ships only as far as Sierra Leon, still 4,000 miles from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. From 1460 to 1481 there was slow further progress towards the Cape, though meanwhile a lucrative trade in ivory, gold and slaves developed with west Africa. King John II, who came to the Portuguese throne in 1481 accelerated the pace of exploration. John sent out two expeditions in 1487. Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, but was forced to turn back soon thereafter. Pedro de Covilhao went through the Mediterranean and overland to the Red Sea. He then sailed along the western edge of the Indian Ocean from Mozambique to Malibar in India. Finally in 1497 Vasco da Gama set off with four ships to attempt to reach India. Despite disease, mutiny, storms, and conflict with Arab merchants and the Indians he managed to return with two of his four ships (but only one third of the original crew) loaded with spices. The profits from the spices paid the cost of the voyage many times over, and the prospect of such great profits gave a great impetus to further Portuguese expeditions. Within twelve years the Portuguese had forced Arab shipping out of the Indian Ocean and established fortified trading posts all along the route from Portugal to India. By 1513 a Portuguese ship reached Canton in China, and by the mid sixteenth century they had opened diplomatic and trading relations with Japan. Circa 1483, before the Portuguese had established the route to India around the Cape of Good Hope, Cristoforo Colombo, a Genoese who had sailed for the Portuguese, asked the Portuguese monarchy to finance a voyage to the East by going west across the Atlantic. King John's advisors, however, recommended rejection of the plan as infeasible. They did not do so, as popular legend maintains, because medieval people thought that the earth was flat. Most educated people believed by then that the world was round, so the scheme would not have struck the Portuguese as entirely crazy. But Columbus's confidence in the feasibility of the idea was based on two crucially incorrect calculations.
FIGURE 1: EUROPEAN EXPANSION, 1400-1600
The first was that Columbus estimated the earth to have a circumference only about three quarters of the true circumference. He thought that at the equator 1 = 45 nautical miles, whereas the true number is close to 60 nautical miles.3 So Columbus thought the circumference of the earth was only 19,500 miles compared to a true figure of 26,000 miles. Interestingly the ancient Greeks had better estimates of the true size of the earth than Columbus. Thus Eratosthenes of Cyrene (circa 280 BC-200 BC) calculated the circumference of the earth by noting first that on the day of the summer solstice the sun was exactly overhead at noon in Aswan in southern Egypt, which is close to the Tropic of Cancer (the rays of the sun reached the bottom of wells in the city). On the same day at noon on the summer solstice at an obelisk in the city of Alexandria, which is approximately due north of Aswan, the sun is observed to be 7.5 degrees from overhead, using the shadow for a measurement. Assuming the sun is a long way from the earth so that its rays are parallel at all locations, this implies that from Aswan to Alexandria is 1/48 of the circumference of the earth (see figure 2). Since the distance between these two places is 532 miles, the circumference of the earth must be 25,500 miles.4 Columbuss second piece of incorrect reasoning was his assumption, based on obscure arguments from the classical Greek period, that the known land mass of the world in Europe and Asia spanned two thirds of the circumference of the earth. Thus the ocean he had to sail over would be only one third of the circumference of the earth. As a result of these two mistakes Columbus thought that the distance from the Azores to the Spice Islands was little more than the length of the Mediterranean (2,500 miles), compared to the correct figure of nearly 14,000
3 A nautical mile is 6,080 feet, compared to 5,280 feet for a land mile. 4 Aristotle (384 BC 322 BC) calculated a size which was close to the actual figure, and Ptolemy thought 1 = 50 nautical miles.
FIGURE 2: ESTIMATING THE CIRCUMFERENCE OF THE EARTH
Rays of Sun
miles. King John's advisors had a better idea of the true size of the globe and thus, correctly, advised rejection of the plan. Columbus did have some arguments in his favor, however. The first was that carved sticks and plants unknown in Europe and Africa had been observed to wash up on the beaches in the Azores, the Portuguese islan