Saturday, May 12, 2012

Europe: Shaping the World We Know Today

Some Americans I have talked to seem upset, or tired, or both of the focus of history in our schools on White civilization, while those of the Native Americans, Africans, and Asians seems woefully neglected. Certainly, I believe that all nations, tribes, and peoples have interesting and important histories that must be preserved and accurately accounted for, but the simple truth is that Europeans (and now Americans) have done more to shape the world we live in today than any other society or civilization. We live in the world created by Europeans, for better or worse. It would be a terrible tragedy to overlook the contributions the Chinese and Turkish empires have made to civilization, and the Europeans borrowed heavily from these cultures before beginning to explore for themselves. Nevertheless, it is the Europeans that have given the rest of the world modernity. And it is for this reason that it is necessary that we understand their impact on the rest of the world, as well as considering what the world might look like without Europeans and their empires.

It has become quite common to denounce European colonization as an evil practice that involved the extermination or expulsion of natives from their land, as well as draining vast amounts of resources from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. There were, of course, excesses and failures on the part of Europeans to restrain themselves; to live in harmony with their fellow human beings and to spur industry throughout their empires as well as back home. There were Europeans who were racists, and, after Darwin they seemed to find the intellectual proof that they were superior to other societies different from themselves. They felt their way of life was better than the so-called 'barbarians' on other continents. At times they were blatantly hypocritical, painting pictures of Britannia bestowing the torch of civilization to the 'uncivilized', while massacring the natives in Africa or Australia. It is now common to think that, on balance, European empires were bad things. In fact, a relative of mine once said that Europeans have an uncanny knack for causing trouble.

That is, of course, true; it's what made Europeans rise to the top of the global pecking order. Competition among nations in Europe led to innovation and the implementation of new ways of doing things. After initially borrowing financial and military innovations from the Chinese and Muslim powers Europeans began exploring for themselves. Today Christianity is practiced by roughly 1/3 of the world's population, capitalism has become, with certain variations, the dominant structure of economies, and democracy is generally considered to be the best political structure for society. Perhaps the best defense of Europeans can be found by asking the question: what if they hadn't become powerful?

Around 1500 A.D. the great empires of the world were beginning to stagnate and become wary of change. China even went so far as to ban any ship with more than two masts. There were only a few centralized powers in Africa, none expansive enough to vie for world domination. The Ottoman Empire was nearing the height of its power, but some obvious flaws became apparent after the battle of Lepanto in 1571. Other Muslim powers such as the Mughals in India were increasingly conservitive although they possessed an advanced state. In the Americas the Aztecs and Incas were enjoying a period of prosperity before Cortez and Pizzaro. It is likely that had Europe not experienced an intellectual revival during the Rennesance then the Americas would come to be dominated by the Aztecs and Incas. Europe would remain in constant conflict with itself and the Ottoman Empire while the Chinese and Mughals would have been torn apart either by internal conflict or outside threats. Africa would remain largely tribal with perhaps a few larger kingdoms.

The picture, then is a dark one the. Aztecs and Incas for all their military prowess and achievements in astronomy commited horrors agains smaller tribes that at times exceed any commited by the Europeans in that region. Sometimes as many many as ten thousand men, women, and children could be offered as sacrifice in a given period of time. They were under the influence of a pagan religion whose gods constantly demanded human blood for appeasement. In fact this is generally the motive for these two cultures need to expand. Imagine a society who brings home thousands of captives either for slavery or sacrifice. Then imagine this culture ruling much of the Americas. In Africa tribal villages would remain backwards and under the constant threat that a larger rival might descend on them and kill or capture them as slaves to be sold to the Ottomans. As far as Europe is concerned it would have remained divided, marginalized, and easy prey for a power house like the Ottoman Empire, or find itself overrun by Mongols and other nomatic hordes. As for the Ottomans, while they were certanly advanced, powerful, and cultured they to certainly had their weaknesses. Ottoman sailing ships were unable to sail accross oceans and fell easy prey to the larger heavier Venetian galleons at Lepanto. They also had no motive to explore and expand across vast oceans thus they would probably not have risen to anything more then a constant threat to the Europeans. In China there was a growing mistrust of merchants and a conservitive detacation to confusion teachings. The inforstructure of Ming China was allowed to decay and the army lacked inovation. "Similarly, the banning of overseas trade and fishing took away another potental stimulus to sustain economic expansion" (Kennedy, 8). Therefore, China would eventually have fallen back into a dark age and been easy prey for Mongol raiders and Japanese pirates.

Instead Europeans began to unite into kingdoms such as France, Spain, and England with rulers who could control local power bases. Unlike the Ottoman and Chinese Empires these kingdoms had every motive to expand innovate and adapt, but unlike China or the Ottoman Empires there was not one nation that could rise to dominate all of Europe; any one nations bid for dominance would be checked by the other nations forming an alliance to oppose them. It was percisely this competition among powers and a desire to get rich that lead France to follow Spain and Portugal in the grab for overseas colones, and the Dutch to follow France and the English to follow them all. What ended up happening was massive migration by Europeans to their overseas possesesion, and, in the case of England, settlers were encouraged and enticed by land grants and easy money to move abrod. This emmigration out of Europe spread European ideals and ways of thinking; their cultures and institutions from Canada to Argentina and from Liberia to Japan. With the settlers, soldiers, and missionaries came Christianity, democracy, freedom (or at least the ideal of it), and capitalism. Without them the world would be a much darker, nastier, and brutish place to live in.

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