The Rise of Europe or the Age of Imperialism?

Written by
Categories: Modern, Not an expert

At some point in the 19th century, eight states controlled the vast majority of the earth’s surface and population (over the course of the century they lost ground in Central and South America but gained it in Asia, Africa, and North America). The eight consisted of four kingdoms and republics in the former Western Roman Empire (France, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom), two kingdoms which saw themselves as successors to the East Roman Empire (Russia and the Ottoman empire), one genocidal settler republic (USA), and the Middle Kingdom (Qinq China).

Academics in the USA spend a lot of time and paper marvelling about this fact and trying to explain why it occurred. They don’t talk a lot about the decolonization of Central and South America in the 19th century because what happened afterwards does not suit the triumphant story they want to tell.

At a random year in the 16th and 17th century, six dynasties controlled most of the population of the world and a large fraction of its territory: Ming/Qing in the Middle Kingdom, Mughal in South Asia and Afghanistan, Safavid in Iran, Ottoman, Rurik/Romanov in Russia, and Hapsburg in Europe and the New World.

Of the six, the first-rank powers were China, the Mughals, and the Ottomans, and the other three did their best to live in between while committing a little piracy here and delivering silver to the big boys there. Only one of the six was based in the former Western Roman Empire.

You can tell the story of the past 500 years in terms of the Rise of Atlantic Europe (and its genocidal settler states). But you can also tell it as an age of imperialism. And if you are ever, ever tempted to tell stories about how Your People were Special and Destined for Greatness from the Beginning, whether those stories are about Catholic marriage laws or made-up GDP statistics or “Freeedooom!!!” ask yourself if you would tell the same story in Delhi, Istanbul, or Beijing in 1600.

3 thoughts on “The Rise of Europe or the Age of Imperialism?

  1. russell1200 says:

    I think of the Spanish-Portuguese loss of their colonies in the same light as the British loss of the American Colonies. Or don’t you think that the former Spanish Colonies are part of the Western Culture?

    They obviously did it with their superior oceanic capabilities with a secondary assist from ship board firepower helping to reduce the manpower advantage. When they ran into stone age people in temperate areas that their lifestyle was adaptable to, and their weren’t any nasty pathogens to keep them in check, they supplanted the natives. Not always with genocidal intent, but certainly that was an important part of it once their colonial populations got large enough.

    The Ottoman’s did expand using their naval capabilities and firepower as well, and were a colonial superpower for a long time.

    I’ll try to find the author later, he died young, so his ground breaking research is not as well known as it might be otherwise, but it has been postulated that the birth of the modern Western State comes from the incredible amount of logistical work needed to operate their navies. Given that the multi-deck fighting ship was the aircraft carrier of its day, and they had a lot of them, there had been nothing like them before, and the bureaucracies that were built up were unique.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, that is a classic problem, people erase Russia and Latin America from “the west” except when its convenient. And the 19th century was triumphant for Russian, French, and British imperialism but not so much for Spanish, Ottoman, or Portugese.

      A lot of the people who like to talk about “the west” declare that when Mexico or Brazil becomes independent or Russia has a revolution they stop being part of “the west” but when the 13 colonies become independent they remain part. They never try to explain why this is so, because they like to equivocate between “the west as NATO plus Australia and New Zealand” and “the west as the cultural ancestors of the USA minus the Haudenosaunee, the Mexicans, and all those slaves,” and “the west as the cultural descendants of classical Greece, except for the actual Greeks, the Moslem world- actually, lets just say GreeceRomeFranceEnglandYooesay and assume anyone we didn’t mention is out.” “The west” is a fundamentally dishonest and incoherent concept out of political speechmaking.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      I wish I could find the article that argues when Castilians or Cornwallers or Bretons landed in the Americas with their guns, germs, and steel, they usually suffered more dead than the locals because they were so bloody-mindedly ignorant of how to live in the new environment. But when a few hundred settlers died, the colonists could just ship in a few hundred more from the slums and villages, whereas losing a few hundred people is a catastrophe for a society of a few thousand on a little island. But that is not the vision some people want to see, they want to imagine a Frank Frazetta painting of Cortez Cutting a Bloody Swath.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.