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by ProfDave, ©2022

Landing of Columbus” by John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), public domain

(May 3, 2022) — Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the New World!  This week you read about “the creation of a world market.”  Talk about spending your day at the Smithsonian in the gift shop!  But I’m not sure I can do better.  This is a World civilization course, and something enormous – globally speaking – happened at the end of the 15th century.  Up to this time, we have been tracing Western Civilization, Islamic Civilization, Chinese Civilization, and others.  From this point on, World civilization becomes at least conceivable. 

Essentially, Western Civilization took over the globe.  The story of the Columbian Exchange is comprehensively told in Charles C. Mann, 1493.  Microbes, insects, earthworms, crops and agricultural methods produced a whole new global ecology and economy.  Peruvian potatoes fed and then starved Irish masses.  Spanish silver mines in Peru supplied the currency needs of Imperial China and Amazon seedlings created the rubber industry of Southeast Asia.

All was brought about by Western initiative in a few decades.  I want to focus on two great mysteries at the beginning of our modern world.  First: where did this explosive outreach of Atlantic Europe come from?  Why the West and not China, or Islam, or anyone else?  China was larger, more unified, more technologically advanced – earlier.  Islam had advanced, too; why did it stop with Spain and Indonesia?  What drove the Europeans to do what no other people had taken seriously?  Secondly, why the amazing collapse of indigenous societies in America, Africa, and much of Asia?  Why did great empires seemingly melt away before a few hundred soldiers of fortune, far from their home bases?  These are questions that beg for answers.  Are there any?

Where did this explosive outreach of Atlantic Europe come from?  Typical explanations fall into three categories: technical advances, organizational advances, and the will to go.  First, there were a dozen technical developments in the art of shipbuilding and navigation that made the expansion of Europe possible.  Mostly, they were not original to Europe, or to the Atlantic states of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and Britain.  They arrived there in the 15th century in time to be used on the Atlantic Ocean.

For instance, the stern-post rudder (as opposed to the ancient and medieval outboard tiller) and the lateen (triangular) sail allowed ships to sail across the wind and nearly against it.  Captains could now sail where they wanted to go, rather than just where the wind blew.  Oars were no longer necessary.  This allowed for higher sides, more cargo, and more efficient ratios of men to merchandise.  Ordinary merchant ships could venture onto the open seas – and mount enough cannon to defend themselves.

At the same time, compass, quadrant, astrolabe came into use, so that captains could have some idea of where they were going, where they had been, and how to get back – even if they were out of sight of land.  Longitude (East and West) was still a problem until accurate chronometers were developed, and there was still a lot of dead reckoning involved, but they could shoot the stars and calculate their position by tables and charts that were being published.  Coastal chart making and use developed skills that would serve when they ventured into unknown waters and coasts.  Unlike the Vikings, they could record where they had been for future reference.

These advances helped European adventurers to get there.  In specific instances, technology gave them the advantage over indigenous peoples upon arrival.  Arab navies of the Indian Ocean were no match for the heavier guns and higher sides of Portuguese merchantmen.  Aztec and Inca stone-age infantry were no match for the steel and horses of the conquistadors.  Gunpowder and muskets overawed and fascinated Africans.  Oceanic travel was itself magical to many peoples.

Organizational advances fall into two categories: political and economic.  Vast despotic empires existed elsewhere and at other times, but it has been suggested that there was something unique in the concentration of power in European monarchies like Spain, France, and Britain.  We have seen how the Ming had the power to launch expeditions that dwarfed Columbus and company.  But the whim of the monarch ended the endeavor without follow-up.  Western regimes pursued colonial policy over generations.  What was the difference?  Capability or policy?  I’m not sure.

The case for economic factors is stronger –  and related to the political.  Great international banking houses and financial systems had been developed to serve the expense of the modern monarchical states and their wars.  Surplus funds were available for investment in new sources of revenue.  Capitalism, it has been argued, goes back to the 12th century, but reached new degrees of flexibility at this time.  Trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean voyages were highly risky.  Ships were frequently lost or captured by pirates, but if “your ship came in” success brought fabulous wealth.  Early modern capitalism – particularly in Holland, but England and Germany, too – brought together financing.  Zheng-he had to keep all his fortune in his flagship’s cabin because there were no banks in China.

The above factors made Western expansion possible, perhaps, but what a society can do is not necessarily what it does do.  Why?  The will to go just might be the critical factor.  Here again we see a strange – or else, not so strange – mixture of motivations: religion, profit, and glory.

Religion?  Yes!  It was no accident that the exploration movement began in Iberia – Spain and Portugal – nor that “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  A seven-hundred-year crusade to reverse the Islamic conquest of Spain and Portugal came to an end with the fall of Grenada in 1492.  Modern Christians find it hard to understand the militant, if not blood-thirsty, hostility towards Islam, mixed with missionary zeal, that infected the whole Iberian endeavor.  Columbus considered his most important goal to be the spread of Christianity.  Prince Henry the Navigator, of Portugal, sought to find and relieve the Christian prince, Prestor John, beleaguered somewhere in Africa – or was it central Asia – by Muslims.  Missionary friars – Dominican, Franciscan, and later Jesuit – accompanied practically every ship.  In bringing Christianity to the rest of the world, Europeans believed they were doing them the greatest of all possible good.  Too easily, among Iberians at least, the conversion of the natives passed over to the slaying of the infidel, but the missionary motive was real.  To be fair, the monks and friars did all they could to prevent the abuse of indigenous peoples and to protect them from the “Christian” sword.

A more traditional case can be made for the profit motive, and truly, it all comes together.  Low volume, high value, long distance trade with China and Indonesia had been going on for a thousand years or more.  Luxury goods, especially silk and spices, had come over the silk road and through the Persian Gulf since Roman times.  Venice now controlled the western end of the route.  In the 15th century silk was being produced in Europe and some inferior spices were coming from North Africa.  The new prosperity of Europe increased demand for these products, while war and the fall of Constantinople disrupted supply routes from Asia.    Was there any way to get around the Arab and Venetian middlemen?  This rivalry was the other motive of Prince Henry in sponsoring a competition of explorers southward along the coast of Africa.  That began about 1450.  Ancient Greek maps showed an unknown landmass below Africa between Atlantic and Indian Ocean, but at least there was a chance of finding better spices in that direction.  As it turned out, the ancients were wrong – as Diaz and Da Gama proved – there was a way to sail to India.

Is it not interesting that Columbus was from Genoa, the Italian rival of Venice?  And that he was sponsored by the court of Spain in the very year of its unification?  His scheme was to sail directly West to China and the Spice Islands.  Contrary to public opinion, most sailors knew that the world was round.  You can see it for yourself when a ship comes up over the horizon.  The Greeks had known it.  But there was a question of how big it was.  Columbus underestimated it – and overestimated the size of Asia.  So when he landed in the Caribbean, he thought he was there, but was mystified by the lack of cities.  The next half century was spent trying to find a way through the barrier that we call America to the products of the East.  In the meantime, no matter how much bullion went to Spain, they couldn’t seem to pay their bills.  It all seemed to go to the bankers in Holland and Germany.

The other end of economic motivation, of course, is the manifest greed – or land hunger – of the individuals and investors involved.  Did the Spanish eat gold as the Indians suspected?  Sailors in general and those involved in exploration in particular were surplus males – debtors, convicts and younger sons – whose economic and social connections at home were loose at best.  They sought opportunity and respectability abroad.  The line between merchant, pirate, and naval officer was very thin, and recruits were often dragged in from bars and prisons.  Empire offered a peasant the opportunity to become his own master, and an able entrepreneur the opportunity to become – perhaps – a great lord.  There were, indeed, fortunes to be gained – and in other places the advertisement well exceeded the reality.

Glory?  Well of course.  The last paragraph applies.  Empire became an arena for national competition and individual careers.  The late medieval Christian worldview saw the natural world as a book of God to be read for wisdom.  Exploration and discovery were good and perhaps even godly things.  The Renaissance encouraged the individual genius: the virtuoso artist, writer and explorer.  The printing press popularized their exploits, although, much like today’s internet, a lot of the information circulated was exaggerated.  Fame and fortune awaited the fearless and fortunate!

Secondly, why the amazing collapse of indigenous societies in America, Africa, and parts of Asia?  What was sub-Saharan Africa like before Prince Henry?  Egypt and North Africa are part of the Mediterranean and Islamic stories.  So were the string of African-Arab Swahili ports down the east African coast.  There are consistent oral histories of iron-age peoples in the Rift valley and South Africa, but no organized states.   Our knowledge about indigenous religions is limited.  Several societies worshiped a major creator god, with a variety of lesser nature gods who might be sons of the great god.  A belief in the presence in the atmosphere of the spirits of the dead was also common.

Axum, or Ethiopia, seems to have been a Christian part of the Arabian and South Asian trading world since the fourth century – the probable source of the Prestor John myth.  The Seventh century brought Arab armies into Axum, up the Nile River, and across North Africa.  Ethiopia moved inland and became isolated.  By the 15th century it was locked in perennial conflict with Muslim coastal states. 

The most advanced West African kingdoms – or at least the most known – seem to have been in the interior, rather than on the coast.  Mali, Songhai, the Hausa States and Kanem-Bornu came to occupy the savannah, or grasslands.  These, too, were penetrated by Islam.  Their trade included gold, ivory, other tropical products, and slaves.  Slavery existed from ancient times in Africa, chiefly as status symbols derived from war captives.  The chief international slave market was the middle east.  Europe derived most of its slaves from the Caucasus region, Slavic captives sold by the Turks (is that why Slavs are called Slavs or slaves are called slaves?).  Only in the 16th century were these replaced by Africans trafficked by the Portuguese.

In the 15th century, then, anything more than local political organization was in the interior of Africa, mostly on the grasslands facing the Sahara.  The Portuguese established a string of trading posts, or “factories” down the west coast of Africa without encountering these states, then seized ports from the Arabs and built forts up the east coast to attempt control of trade with the interior – particularly the gold trade with Great Zimbabwe. 

How about America before Columbus?  Three great civilizations existed in 15th century America: the Maya, the Aztec, and the Inca.  We used to think that North America was only sparsely settled by primitive hunter-gatherers in small tribal groups.  However, archaeologists have discovered ruins of relatively large agricultural cities in the Mississippi valley.  What happened to them?  The native peoples encountered by European settlers mixed Neolithic agriculture with part-time hunting and gathering.  The six “civilized” nations of the Iroquois formed a relatively sophisticated federation.  It served as a model for the Articles of Confederation of the United States, but very little other large-scale political organization was found.

Mayan civilization had existed for perhaps a thousand years in the Yucatan peninsula as a cluster of city states.  Of these, Tikal may have reached a population of 100,000.  They cultivated corn, yams, and cacao (chocolate).  Scholars are just beginning to decipher the hieroglyphs and calendars of these people, a mixture of phonetic and ideographic (cartoon?) that offered many ways to “spell” the same words.  The picture that emerges is a despotic and religious society, built around central pyramids and sacred ball courts.  Playing ball had religious significance: one team wound up being sacrificed to the gods.  They kept elaborate astronomical records and designed a lunar calendar with a “long count” cycle ending 2012!  [The world did not end in 2012] As a civilization, however, many of the Mayan cities collapsed in the 9th century.  Newer centers around Chichen Itza in the northern part of the peninsula survived, to be absorbed by a migration of Toltecs in the 10th century, but these, too, fell into decline.  By 1500 all the cities had been abandoned to the jungle and only small principalities remained.

The Aztecs, or Mexica (maysheeka), arrived in central Mexico in the 12th century.  They were less sophisticated culturally, but better warriors than their neighbors.  They are compared to the Spartans.  By the early 15th century they dominated most of Mexico from their city state of Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco.  Theirs was an authoritarian but not a centralized state, a collection of tributaries dominated by their patron sun god Huitzilopochtli.  In particular, he demanded human sacrifice – still beating human hearts.  Like the Maya, playing ball was very important.  The Aztec worldview was remarkably fatalistic.  There were two worlds, material and divine.  There was an elaborate priesthood and schools to train people for the day of judgment.  Creation was rent with a struggle between good and evil forces, leading to the destruction of four worlds, or suns, prior to this one.  The fifth sun was also destined for destruction.  Materially, the Aztecs used soft metals, like silver and gold, but not iron or bronze.  They also had a hieroglyphic system of writing and a calendar.  When European steel met Aztec stone, their invincibility failed, and their tributaries turned on them.  Fatalism and superstition may have played a role.

There had been a succession of civilizations in the central Andes (modern Peru and Ecuador) since 2500 BC.  The latest and greatest of these was the Inca, who under Pachakuti came out of the mountains in the 1440’s to conquer and unite the region from Ecuador to central Chile.  It was a centralized state built on forced labor with amazing mathematical precision.  Stone cities were built and 25,000 miles of roads – though there were no wheeled vehicles and Llamas were the only pack animals known.  State agriculture raised corn and potatoes on mountain terraces.  There does not seem to have been any writing system, but records were kept by knotting strings.  The Inca maintained an army of 200,000 and a fine communication system of runners, but European arrival coincided with a disastrous succession crisis.  They were exhausted from civil war.  Weapons of stone and bone were ineffective against steel, and the horse was much faster than the runner.

The story of India before Clive is somewhat different.  There, as in Africa, the Portuguese (succeeded by Dutch, French, and British) took over a network of ports and trade concessions from the Arabs.  The process, however, took place over 250 years. 

The Mughal Empire of India was perhaps the greatest Muslim empire of all, and certainly the highpoint of traditional Indian culture.  It has been called a gunpowder empire, because it rested on conquest and military technology – perhaps – and war and gunpowder led to its fall.  It was founded by Babur, a Muslim descendent of both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, who inherited a fragment of the former’s empire in the mountains north of the Ganges.  By all accounts, he was a man of great vigor and magnetic personality.  Driven out by first the Uzbeks, then the Safavids, he seized Kabul in 1504 and led his followers into India in 1517 as a warrior for hire equipped with both cavalry and modern artillery.  Against all odds, he captured Delhi in 1526 and conquered most of northern India before his death in 1530.

Babur’s son was brilliant, but lazy, and spent most of his life in exile in Persia, but his grandson, Akbar (1556-1605) extended the Mughal realm to most of India, except the south, with a skillful blend of diplomacy, propaganda, and heavy artillery.  Despite being a Muslim, he ruled as a god-like Emperor over semi-autonomous principalities.   He was tolerant of the Hindu majority, applying shari’a law to the Muslims and Hindu law to the Hindus.  Higher offices, however, were mostly held by his fellow Muslim tribesmen.  Mughal prosperity was based on the land and internal trade.  Foreign and oceanic trade was left in the hands of the Arabs, later to fall to the Portuguese and finally the British.

Shah Jahan (1627-58) is remembered in the West primarily for building the Taj Mahal, perhaps the most beautiful building in the world.  But thirty years of constant warfare and lavish projects, coupled with the neglect of the economy drained the Empire.  Reminds me of Louis XVI. 

Aurangzeb (1658-1707) followed up with controversial efforts at moral and social reform.  As a devout Muslim, he attempted to suppress gambling, alcohol, prostitution, and certain Hindu customs, such as sati – burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyres.  His anti-Hindu policies sparked something of a Hindu revival.

After Aurangzeb, the Mughal Empire began to fall apart, as much from internal turmoil as from outward pressure.  It suffered from centrifugal forces of rebellion and local autonomy, an empty treasury, and incompetent rulers.  There was a short war with England in 1686.  The Persians sacked Delhi in 1739.  The French seized Madras 1746.  Foreigners became involved in interior trade and conflicts.  In the battle of Plassy, 1757, a small detachment of British troops and 3,000 Sepoy allies met and defeated an imperial army of 30,000.  A few years later, the British East India Company seized the emperor and ruled India in his name.  In 1858, Victoria was crowned Empress of India. 

The British Raj, as it was called for the Rajas and Maharajas (princes) through whom it operated, brought change to India – both positive and negative.  At first, it seemed only to replace the Islamic Mughal elites with Christian British ones.  It brought western social reform and education, internal peace, and modern infrastructure.  But there was a high cost to the arrangement.

So, why the amazing collapse of indigenous societies in the non-western world?  First, the West encountered peripheral disorganization (as in Africa, North America, Maya and to some extent India), unstable despotic regimes with active or potential insurgencies (as in Aztec, Inca, and Mughal India), and/or opportunities to succeed to existing commercial niches (as in East Africa, India, and China).

Sunshine, Stark and others have remarked upon the scientific and technological advantages that the Christian worldview gave to the West.  Both China and Islam had developed gunpowder and naval technology, but both had turned inward before the 15th century.  They seem to have looked backward to classical times rather than forward.  The West expected to gain by exploring the natural world beyond their horizons.  The East did not.  Pessimism about the material world dominated Hindu, Buddhist and Aztec societies.  Perhaps.  At least we could say that the nature polytheism of America and Africa – like that of the Roman Empire and medieval Germanii – offered little real answer to militant Christianity.

We used to think that European muskets were the destruction of indigenous cultures, but it has been pointed out that, in the new world, smaller invaders went before: influenza, small pox, measles, plague, and more.   It seems that many European diseases came into the human population from domestic animals unknown in America.  Over thousands of years Europeans, Africans, and Asians developed immunity that Americans did not have.  It took just a few explorers, missionaries, or visiting fishermen and an invisible wave of death spread across the continent.  French nuns travelled among the Huron Indians, baptizing one village after another into Catholicism, only to bury them a few weeks later.  Plymouth Plantation was built on an abandoned Indian village – all dead except Squanto.  War and cruelty and Western ignorance certainly slew thousands, but disease slew tens of thousands before the white man ever got there.

Think About It

  1.  What do you think are the top three reasons for the global triumph of the West at the beginning of modern times?
  • After a century of Western expansion, in what ways was the world better off than before?
  • Was there such a thing as a world civilization in 1700?  What was it like?

Works Consulted

Collier, John.  Indians of the Americas.  New York: New American Library, 1948.

Duiker, William L. and Spielvogel, Jackson J.  World History, 6th edn.  Boston: Wadsworth,


Kupperman, Karen Ordahl.  Indians and English.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2000.

Mann, Charles C.  1493; Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  New Yotk: Alfred A.

Knopf, 2011.

Sherman, Dennis and Salisbury, Joyce.  The West in the World, 3rd edn.  Boston:

            McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Spickard, Paul R. and Cragg, Kevin M.  A Global History of Christians.  Grand Rapids: Baker

Academic, 1994.

Stark, Rodney.  The Victory of Reason.  New York: Random House, 2005.

Sunshine, Glenn S.  Why You Think the Way You Do.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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