Let’s continue the backstory of the Industrial Revolution where we left off. We saw that European traders briefly enjoyed direct access to eastern luxuries during the reign of the Mongols, then had it cruelly snatched away.
In this installment we’ll trace the rise of colonialism, which started as a mission to regain that access.
In the colonial era, Europeans became masters of the world’s oceans, and thereby the controllers of international trade. Eurasia and America also became linked for the first time, which would be a huge spur to European development. (Though not so great for America’s native civilizations.)
If the land route to Asia was inconvenient, why not go by sea? This line of reasoning was put into action as early as 1291, by two Genoese brothers, Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi. The Vivaldis sailed out of the Straits of Gibraltar with two ships, and were never heard from again.
To circumnavigate Africa and reach the Indian Ocean, a much more systematic effort would be required. This would come from the Portuguese, and would take most of the 1400s.
Portugal in 1415 was an up-and-coming young kingdom. They had just conquered Ceuta, a North African port on the south shore of the Strait of Gibraltar. There they learnt about the riches in gold and slaves available across the Sahara, in west Africa. They embarked on a program of exploration, at the instigation and under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator.
Year by year, Portuguese explorers inched further along the African coast, mapping landmarks and learning the winds. Their persistence and long-term vision is impressive. After they reached the lucrative domains on the Gulf of Guinea in the 1440s, there was little immediate commercial motive to explore further. As was standard at the time, the Portuguese crown sold off the monopoly on the ‘Guinea trade’ to the highest bidder. To keep the ball rolling, the monopoly was made conditional on exploring a certain length of coastline every year. This ‘slow and steady’ approach proved highly successful: in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias reached the continent’s southern tip, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa entirely and into the Indian Ocean. Despite failing to do much trading in any conventional sense, da Gama brought home a fortune in spices, inaugurating the era of interoceanic commerce.
The Portuguese effort couldn’t have been successful without persistence, but it was also founded on novel ship-building technology. The Vivaldi brothers sailed in galleys, a ship predating the Roman empire, perfect for the calm waters of the Mediterranean, but totally unsuited to the rough seas of the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese hybridised the ship-building traditions of the Atlantic and Baltic seas, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, to create wholly new types of ship which were stable enough to brave the open ocean, large enough to carry provisions for months-long voyages, and flexible in varied wind conditions. This new naval technology laid the foundations for European dominance of the sea.
Christopher Columbus came to the Portuguese in 1485 with a plan to reach Asia by a leisurely 4000-km journey west. Portugal’s royal cartographers judged correctly that his numbers were way off, and sent him packing.
Next he went to the neighbouring kingdom of Castile (soon to become Spain). The experts there were also dubious, but the king and queen decided to take a punt anyway, and put up funding for his westward expedition.
Of course Columbus never got anywhere near Asia. But his mistake was amply compensated. Where the Portuguese found an ocean for the taking, the Spanish found a continent.
The Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires evolved along distinctly different lines, because things were very different to the west than to the east.
The Portuguese went looking for trade, and they found it in abundance. The Portuguese broke into the commercial heart of Eurasia. The Indian Ocean hosted a thriving exchange between China, southeast Asia, India, Persia, and the Arab world. The Portuguese, with their superior ships (in particular, their superior ships’ cannons), were perfectly placed to insert themselves in the middle. They were equally willing to obtain eastern luxuries by trade or by plunder. In the beginning, since nobody showed the least interest in European exports, they did rather more of the latter. They gradually found alternatives, like participating in the regional ‘carry trade’: picking up goods in, say, India, selling them in China, and using the profit it to buy luxuries to send to Europe (at an enormous markup).
Meanwhile, in their half of the world, the Spanish found no significant trade to exploit, certainly not the riches of Asia they were hoping for. Instead they found a vast continent, rich in fertile land and precious metals. And crucially, though the continent was already occupied, the occupants were vulnerable to European conquest.
The advantage of Europeans over the civilizations of America was encapsulated by the title of Jared Diamond’s book, ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel.’ Of these, the germs were most decisive.
There’s no way to know for sure what the death toll was due to European contact, but the most conservative estimate is that ‘just’ 50% of the population was wiped out by disease, and a more realistic figure is 70-95%. By the time the Spaniard Hernán Cortés reached the capital of the Aztec empire in 1519, it was already reeling from an epidemic, spread from the coast. A great empire fell to a tiny combined force of ragged Spanish conquistadores and their Tlaxcalan allies. The process was repeated a couple of years later with the Incan empire in the Andes. By the mid-16th century, the Spanish crown controlled vast tracts of American territory.
For the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, territorial gains were much more modest. Against Eurasian immune systems and steel arms, they could only capture a few weakly-defended ports, on the fringes of larger powers. These conquests anchored the tendrils of a maritime empire, but not a land-based one.
The pattern was set. American colonialism continued to take the form of direct political control, or of European settlement on lands from which the original inhabitants had been forcibly displaced. In the east, the Europeans only enjoyed unchallenged superiority at sea. On land, they couldn’t hope to directly challenge the great empires of China, India, or the Near East. This status quo held up until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
In the next post, I’ll cover homegrown developments in Europe, including the Scientific Revolution.