From 15th Century Backwater to Global Empire

Don Jackson Nov 11, 2015

Why Did Europe Conquer the World?
Philip T. Hoffman
Princeton University Press, 2015

Why did Europe conquer the world? It is a powerful question asked by economist and historian Philip T. Hoffman in his recent book of the same name. It is even more significant when one considers that as recently as the year 1500, it seemed so unlikely. And yet, the effects of European conquest cannot be understated. According to Hoffman, by 1914, Europe controlled 84 percent of the globe — an area home to the vast majority of humanity. Europe’s conquest of the world, Hoffman argues, ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution and the wholesale devastation of cultures and communities. 

Hoffman is an economist at heart — looking at the present day, he references “plausible econometric evidence” linking European conquest to contemporary poverty in Africa and Latin America. But beyond the economic figures is a human cost that is still being paid. The European killing, displacement and subjugation of peoples worldwide over hundreds of years has irrevocably ripped social fabrics and traumatized generations. 

In the 10th century, China, Japan, the Muslim Middle East and South Asia were all more advanced than Europe. Any of these powers could have risen to dominate the world. So why Europe?

Hoffman is not the first to labor over this question. In The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1987), Yale historian Paul Kennedy proposed that Europe gained ascendancy because of the combination of military advances gained from inter-European rivalries and the technological innovation and economic growth that resulted from competitive markets. Scholar Jared Diamond, meanwhile, argued in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) that Europe was able to dominate because of environmental factors that precipitated technological advantage and immunity from certain endemic diseases. 

Hoffman has a different take on the success of European conquest. His reasons are gunpowder technology, “tournament conditions” between European powers and most important, political history.

Gunpowder technology encompasses a lot more than its name suggests. Sure, it refers to the weapons — firearms, artillery, ships armed with guns and fortifications that could resist bombardment. But it also includes the tactics and methods of organization designed to get the most out of the weapons as well as the training that transforms ordinary men into soldiers, forging them into “an imposing fighting force willing to operate with speed and discipline even when under fire.”

With the term “tournament,” Hoffman is describing, in essence, a competition. He argues that the collective prizes of wealth, territorial expansion, defense of the Christian faith and the glory of victory created a win-at-all-costs mentality. It meant that Europe’s fragmented powers were constantly fighting each other, which led them to spend heavily on war while pushing to improve gunpowder technology, even if it harmed their economies.

Ultimately, Hoffman credits political history as the major cause of Europe’s conquest of much of the rest of the world. For centuries, Europe’s monarchic leaders saw the waging of war as their principal duty. Winning the tournament meant excellence — but it was not until the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period that losing posed any significant political risk. 

As far as political history goes, the privatization of war was also uniquely European. European leaders gave gunpowder technology to private entrepreneurs, who then used it to establish settlements and colonies as well as to prey on and pirate foreign trade. As overseas conquest became more and more profitable, individuals and companies were further incentivized to conquer and colonize. 

The political history of other potential world conquerors, meanwhile, was different. The Ottomans’ practice of Islamic law prevented them from forming private companies; as a result, they were limited in the amount of private capital they could put into their ventures and the economic growth they could attain. China, meanwhile, had developed gunpowder a full 400 years before Europe had access to it, but united earlier and found other means of warding off threats — archers on horseback, the Great Wall — to be preferable to the development of gunpowder technology. 

While Hoffman’s thesis does hold together, one has to wonder if the question of “why” has been sufficiently answered. Were superior technology, tournament conditions and a unique political history enough to justify the suffering Europe unleashed on the world in the name of conquest? It’s clear that it wasn’t inevitable. China, for example, traded with Africa and India for more than 1,000 years, a period during which China was more technologically advanced. And despite that, not once did China attempt to conquer or colonize its trading partners. Perhaps historian John Henrik Clarke, who asserted that Europe wanted what others had but had nothing to trade and saw conquest as the only option, was right. Hoffman echoes this idea of “Western Europe’s economic inferiority complex,” writing, “Europeans were … convinced that other parts of the world were wealthier — particularly Asia or the southern latitudes that were Columbus’ goal.”

Fortunately, history offers many lessons for those who have suffered under the heel of conquest and oppression. Indeed, most Western European states have also been on the receiving end of it. The conquered groups, if they survive, will be changed, but with struggle, no oppression lasts forever. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire said it best in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “The process of recovery from the group trauma that takes place from conquest is a slow one, but one which eventually leads to growth and strength.”

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