In 1750, China, India and the Middle East led the world in technology, power and sophistication, as they had for most of history. In 1775 India and China controlled 66% of the world’s economy. Less than a century later the British ruled India and China accounted for only 5%. By 1900 all the Americas spoke European languages, and Britain, a formerly insignificant island, ruled a quarter of the world. How was that possible?
The crucible of ‘western civilization’, my classics professor once told me, was not the Greek victories over Persia but the Roman conquest of Gaul. Civilization arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia, spread to Greece, and from there Italy. When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean, their contribution was a thin layer over millennia of development. Western Europe, however, was not so civilized – so Roman laws, language, architecture and government provided cultural bedrock. At the cost of thousands of Gallic lives, Caesar’s conquest brought Western Europe into civilization’s fold.
Western Europe adopted the Roman model wholesale with limited contribution from the invading Germanic tribes. From then on Western Europe largely bore one legal and cultural heritage with a single script, all preserved by the Catholic Church and rediscovered in the Renaissance. Islam may have accomplished such unity in the Middle East but, like China and Eastern Europe, the region was beset by invasions from Central Asia. Arab civilization arguably never recovered from the Mongols’ sack of Baghdad.
Jared Diamond attributes Europe’s rise to guns, germs and steel. That is, being in the right place at the right time. Europe had the environment and the resources for state-building and, through ancient trade routes, was connected to other civilizations, their ideas, resources and diseases. More isolated parts of the world lacking the crops, animals or geographic conditions, did not develop so. The Roman script and a common religion helped spread ideas while, unlike imperial China, fragmented political boundaries fostered competition and innovation.
Yuval Harari credits ‘values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature’ – crucially capitalism and western science. While the ideologies of the Ottomans, Ming China and Mughal India promoted continuity and stability, those of England, France and Spain favoured ambition and greed.
Before 1492, the world’s civilizations were sure they knew the world. Christianity, Islam, Confucianism or Buddhism provided answers to all the world’s mysteries with little room for the unknown. The Medieval worldview was strict and stagnant. Then, Colombus discovered the New World. A generation later, Amerigo Vespucci suggested the discovery was not Asia, as Colombus believed, but a new continent altogether.
Vespucci’s realisation taught Europeans a valuable lesson; admission of ignorance. For the first time, cartographers now printed maps with blank spaces – an open invitation for the intrepid. While the more advanced empires of India and China dismissed these discoveries and remained convinced they were the respective centres of the universe, states like Spain and Portugal embarked on an Age of Discovery. Hunger for knowledge, as much as land and wealth, drove the explorers of that age.
Capitalism was significant, for economies based on credit, not gold, can multiply wealth. Journeys across the world, colonies and railroads would not have been possible without investment banking, loans, interest and shares. Nor would the transatlantic slave trade.
A feedback loop resulted: science brings better technology, technology brings conquest, conquest brings wealth, wealth invests in science and so on. By extracting wealth from the rest of the world, European empires only increased their power. The more they developed, the more the technology gap, and their hubris, grew.
The factors involved in springing that feedback loop are too variant to attribute to simple determinism – geography, environment, economics, accident and circumstance all played their part.
Sources: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind