Europe's dreams of the wealth of Asia and its merchant's hopes of tapping that wealth at its source had motivated Europeans for centuries during the later Middle Ages.  From the time of the Crusades, Europeans had probed the possible routes:  unsuccessfully for the Indian Ocean route, temporarily for the Silk Road at the time of the Mongol ascendancy, and -- at last-- successfully for the high seas routes.  Portuguese vessels in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and Spanish vessels in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and the regular commerce they maintained, were the realities that emerged from the medieval dreams.1
For the annual James Ford Bell lecture in 1995, William D. Phillips chose to focus on the role of merchants in European expansion. He saw European expansion as the ceaseless effort to get east, to wealth. Was it for the purposes of keeping his lecture brief and memorable that he described the actions of many different people, from different countries, and across many centuries, as if they were all competing for one prize? Phillips' approach highlights the problem of speaking about motives and causes.  There are distortions in immediate re-tellings of events, to say nothing of those narratives constructed well after the fact.  And even if motives can be rightly understood, and communicated, understanding which motive, or which event, served as significant cause of change is equally difficult.  Phillips handles the problem deftly, lightly, committing himself to one story while acknowledging that there are other important views.  My own approach will not be as focused, but it will also touch on the question of motives --and include merchants.

Europe before the 15th century was part of a world that had distinct frontiers.  China dominated the East, the Ottomans the Middle East. The Russian and Baltic empires, source of grain, wax and hides, were sparsely settled.  Africa had competing kingdoms who raided each other and traded slaves, spices and gold across the interior; Europe had the sprawling Hapsburg-Valois conflict as yet unresolved.   Empires and states were built up and faded away, but one did not assume global dominance over all the rest.  Most of these empires or kingdoms resembled each other in structure, having recognizable estates:  warrior-nobility, peasants, and priests.  Between the estates, and within the estates, hierarchical structures prevailed. Hierarchy served most societies well: in the absence of engines, workers and slaves were needed for jobs requiring manual labor, even though technology, in the shape of windmills and watermills, horse collars, ploughs and spinning wheels  were widely used before the thirteenth century.  Economic surpluses, if any, were created by trade, or shepherding, or agriculture, and were absorbed by the nobility and priests.

The world in 1650 looked very different to European eyes. For one thing, the globe had been circumnavigated by Magellan in 1522.  Then, European states had divided up the Americas between them and established trade with all the other parts of the world, fighting for pre-eminence as they did so. Spain imported massive amounts of bullion and sent it out again after luxuries of the East. Further, the social and economic hierarchical structure of Europe was rapidly becoming different than the structures in other empires; Spain, France, England and Holland had nurtured and developed a merchant class and created policies governing the important relationship between the state and trade.  Systems of credit were refined and broadened by Amsterdam merchants and English bankers.  Dutch capital was gathered from all levels of society and invested in new technology.  Science, such as it was, expanded beyond political and ceremonial uses (such as legitimating rulers through celestial portents) to navigation, trade and industry.

Many of the authors in this semester's readings see an earlier and later European expansion.  The earlier expansion is sometimes divided into two parts: from 1460 to roughly 1550, and from 1550 to about  1650.  The later expansion is generally said to run  from about 1650 to 1800. These dates correspond to the ascendancy of Portugal and Spain, and then of Holland, France and England. Some debate surrounds the selection of these time periods.  Did European expansion not have its roots in earlier events? William D. Phillips, quoted above, thought that as long as Europeans were in Europe, they had been leaving Europe for elsewhere.  Is the start of Portuguese exploration in Africa properly the beginning of European expansion? Did anyone, including Europeans, think the Europeans were dominant in 1650?  European dominance was not established in the perception of the rest of the world until at least 150 years later. However, the changes in Europe leading to later dominance were well along by 1650.  Although it may not have been evident to the rest of the world, the balance of power had tipped, and Europeans would be the first global empire builders.  They would assume political, economic and technological dominance over the East, South and West.

What accounts for European world dominance?  What unique things were done by Europeans, and what motives for expansion may have arisen from their cultural practices and beliefs, or been created by their specific political needs and situations?  What material resources did they have and were those resources different than those of other areas? Why didn't other areas make the same changes, and share the same impulses? The authors included in this semester's readings proposed different causes for change in Europe.  The differences in their accounts were not only generated by disagreements about the interpretation of data such as peasant rents, town growth and interest rates, but also about what data -- import-export balance, national debt, velocity of money, tax levels, birth rate, embargo policies, political alliances -- ought to be of significance to a particular issue. Furthermore, these authors, writing for different purposes, did not intend, or undertake, to account for the same causes or issues within the broader subject of European expansion.  Some, like Jonathan Israel, in his article The Phasis (sic?) of the Dutch Straatvaart, 1590-1713, are concerned with a specific problem.  (In Israel's case, he wanted to correct Fernand Braudel and explain the changing structure and volume of  Dutch shipping.) Others addressed broader questions at more length, such as J. R. Hale, who traced the development of martial conditions and practices across the continent, and J. H. Elliott, who described the range of European response to the discovery of America.  G.V. Scammel gave the salient political features of what he called the First Imperial Age, and Immanuel Wallerstein in The Modern World-System the political and economic structure of a center-periphery world-system supporting capitalism.   I am interested in the question primarily addressed by Joseph Levenson in European Expansion and the Counter-Example of Asia, 1300-1600, by some authors in Michal Adas's Technology and the European Oveseas Enterprise, and also by Wallerstein in The Modern World-System. Why did Europe alone begin to expand outward, and why did Europeans not encounter competition from any other part of the world?

I propose to approach the question of European expansion  -- in fact, of accounting for change -- in the following way:  first, new problems and new responses may be generated by things external to a culture -- war, disease, discovery of gold-- which impinge, or encroach upon it. Human choice does not cause these changes; it only responds.  Then, there may be internal change, a disruption of established patterns of practice -- Protestantism, nationalism, Orientalism -- that simultaneously captures and creates new and strengthened motivations for actions.  External stimuli are not the sole cause, or not sufficient cause, for cultural change.  New beliefs and new aspirations, or in other words, group volition, is the cause of change.  Finally, there may be small and quantitative changes, either externally or internally, that accumulate to become, in effect, large qualitative changes.  This last category is a way of accounting for the individual choices that were not written about, or discussed, in contemporary accounts, but were made in response to larger cultural movements or specific historical situations, and themselves caused significant change. If enough merchants import silk, the prices drop; if enough landlords choose to take rent rather than crops, then significant capital accumulates to invest in large new projects; if enough nobles enclose their land, then large numbers of landless peasants need to find new means of subsistence.   These three categories capture change as the result of "no choice" (external), "group choice" (internal) and "individual choice" (cumulative and incremental).

Unfortunately, proposing to explore external, internal and cumulative change across a continent, and for a time span that is, at the smallest, two centuries, doesn't narrow the inquiry very much.  However, using these three "choice" groupings, I will propose those aspects of change in Europe that were unique to Europe, were sufficient to cause social change, and were significant  in helping Europe assume ascendancy. To be considered as explanatory of later European dominance, the event in question must be unique, sufficient to cause change, and significant.

Some external factors to be considered are the effects of  the climate:  the general warming of Europe, and the success or failure of crops in any given year.  Disease is also worth mentioning:  the worst of the Black Plague was fading, but pestilent disease was still a communal threat. The decreased number of workers had to bear higher prices and could make different and new demands with regard to wages.  Recurrent war and the circulation of money via mercenary purchases might also be called an external factor, in that battlefields are seldom chosen as battlefields by their inhabitants. Also of possible significance is  the size and placement of individual countries:  Holland at the center of Europe, Portugal at the edge, island England set away from land conflicts.  (Large countries take more civil management, and undefended countries absorb excess in armaments and soldiers.) Simple proximity to people so significantly different in language and culture may have also been of importance. Finally, the discovery of gold and silver in the Americas is fortuitous in the sense that there need not have been a Potosi, or an Aztec or an Inca empire weak enough to be plundered by the conquistadors.  These six factors -- climate, disease, proximity to strangers, war and the circulation of money, windfall bullion, and geographic placement -- can be identified as external, as not being the result of choice.  Having also gathered internal and cumulative incremental factors, we will then weigh their relative merits as explanatory causes.

Internal changes in Europe certainly include the evolution of new gradations of elitism.  Elites tolerated the expression of new aspirations by new and rising groups. There arose a larger and more wealthy merchant and "smaller-plot" landowning class.  Concentrated money-lending tools and opportunities for just these groups were developed in Holland.  Joint-stock companies allowed for risk and reward to be broadly shared. There were new outlets for accumulated capital in industry and trade.  Why were merchants encouraged in Europe?  Royal elites in Europe linked their interests to trade, as they did not in other countries.  Kings, defending the honor of their family claims, undertook newer and more expensive forms of war, they needed and wanted sufficient taxes. Nationalism is another possible cause of European ascendancy. A final "group choice" movement of possible significance is the rise of Protestant thought and belief.  Max Weber posited that under the influence of Protestantism, efficiency and productivity became ends in themselves. The rise of Protestantism is also, of course, a crucial change in that it helped break the dominance of the Catholic Church and encouraged widespread war.  Five additional factor, then should be considered:  the new and fluid merchant and yeoman classes; the new money-management tools; the rise of nationalism; the rise of Protestant beliefs; the effects of Protestantism on productivity and efficiency.

The third category is cumulative incremental change.  Among these factors might be the expansion of the population after the Black Death.  As the population grew, so, too, grew the need for grain in Portugal and the Italian city-states. The exhausting of timber resources across Europe may also have forced them outwards and North for bulk deliveries of timber.  Two other incremental changes are certainly of significance:  the increasing use of slaves to manage the new lands in America, and the capital accumulation due to changes in rent and land-management practices. On this latter subject, Wallerstein notes that feudal structures did not disappear everywhere.  For Eastern Europe, which had large open land areas, weak central towns, and lower concentrations of people, re-"enserfment" was a more effective way to produce goods for a market.  But indeed, the elites were producing goods for a outside market, and not for themselves and their dependents.

The adoption of technology may also be placed in the "incremental" category, although it seems to me that shipping technology, in particular, cuts across all three categories:  it is historical happenstance, choice and social practice all at once.  It may be happenstance that Abdallah rigged his lateen sail so awkwardly as to be almost a square, and happenstance that he discovered it worked well in some seas, but the possibility of adopting new rigging is an individual choice, and then further time must pass until the accumulated benefits of making new technology work well are embodied and established group cultural practice. Europeans, especially the Portuguese, wanted to find the goods of other lands, and so needed to find their way out and back.   However, sailing a route using new maps and new navigation tools takes time to be established as practice.  Then, better deep water ships and charts and instruments makes more exploration and shipping possible. It is a curious point that the Dutch flute, so efficient and useful, remained Dutch, and was not easily replicated by other groups.  Apparently the "know-how" and speed of the shipyards could not be established by people who had not been previously trained in such an environment. 2
Countries who could, chose to use the liberty of the ocean rather than bear the cost of an expensive land-trade routes and so found changes in the speed of trade, in trading partners, and in the beneficiaries of that trade.  Four factors, the, might be grouped under the category of cumulative change: population rise; food and fuel shortages, capital accumulation and technology usage.

With at least 15 possible causes for European ascendancy, the effort must be to narrow the field once again. Can any of the factors within these three categories be dismissed or discounted as not unique, not sufficient or not significant?  In effect, we have already suggested that the events mentioned are sufficient to cause some change.  Now the question is, are they sufficient to cause significant change, change of the sort that leads to world domination? And what does the counter-example of Asia show? Finally, might one of these categories -- internal, external or incremental change -- be more significant than the others?  Choosing whether human volition or human haplessness is of most significance is, I think, a matter of faith, or of cynicism, rather than a matter of logic. Explanations at this level tend to reflect the beliefs of their authors as much as they do facts.

Of the external factors mentioned, which are of major significance?  Global warming is global, and therefore not unique to Europe.  Since agriculture was still important everywhere, everyone had to cope with the effects of a string of good and a string of bad years.  Did China suffer any special loss of population during famine years? In this vein, what was the effect of the Black Plague on China? I would suggest that the Black Plague created new spaces for social re-organization, and so led to social re-organization in Europe. But that hypothesis would be challenged if a similar loss of life occurred in China, with no accompanying change of social order. (I do know that the Ming Empire arose just about the time of the Black Plague, but since none of the authors in this group touched on this particular question, this is an avenue for further research.)

Second, if we posit close placement next to cultural rivals as important, then the European steady curiosity about "the other" may be significant. Were the Chinese curious about others?  Surely.  Did they welcome encounters with outsiders?  Not as readily as Westerners appear to have done. Europeans had, at first, admired all that was Eastern, and like Guillaume Postel, used Eastern examples to highlight Western failures.  By the end of the sixteenth century, however, there was something like contempt growing.  A passage from Gulliver's Travels illustrates this point rather nicely.

All this I was forced to define and describe by putting of Cases, and making Suppositions.  After which, like one whose Imagination was struck with something never seen or heard of before, he would lift his Eyes with Amazement and Indignation.  Power, Government, War, Law, Punishment, and a Thousand other Things had no Terms, wherein that Language could express them; which made the Difficulty almost insuperable to give my Master any Conception of what I meant:  But being of an excellent Understanding, much improved by Contemplation and Converse, he at last arrived at a competent Knowledge of what human Nature in our Parts of the World is capable to perform; and desired I would give him some particular Account of that Land, which we call Europe, especially, of my own Country." 3
Gulliver's inability to describe his home country's practices in a fashion that will make sense to a mild and virtuous Houyhnm (talking horse) is nasty and funny as only Swift can be.  Gulliver is contemptible for trying to explain social structures to a glorified horse; and the horse cannot understand why humans should indulge in so many senseless vices. The conceit of meeting "the other"  is re-enacted in each of Gulliver's voyages.  He meets a Lilliputian, or a Brobdignagian, or a Laputan, and explains (as best he can) why humans behave as they do.  The purpose of the "other" in Swift is moral satire, but the encountering of others was taking shape as a plot line in European reality as well as fiction.

What of windfall profits? Bullion's total effect seems to have been to retard Spanish industrial growth and  possibly to raise prices. The issue of bullion raises a question to which I do not have an answer. What was the effect of the influx of bullion in Asia?  Was it diffuse enough so as to have no cumulative effect? Unbidden war, another source of hidden profit, seems not to have been a concern in Asia, or at least in China. Soldiers, in general, did not carry the state's pay out, and other soldiers, in general, did not import coin into China in any significant way.

Finally, there is one other "external" factor, geographical placement.  Geography that leads to the other two categories, group choice and cumulative choice. Portugal's ocean front near Africa may be important, but I would propose that the incremental need of grain, the desire for sugar, and the state support of expeditions were more significant.  The counter-example in China is telling.  Zheng Ho, a general and eunuch under the first Ming Emperor, led sixty-years of sailing, collecting tribute and surveying the lands around China.  The missions had the technology and expertise to reach as far as Hormuz, but finding nothing they valued, or needed, they had nothing to return for.  As these missions were expensive, and led by foreign eunuchs, they were forbidden by later Ming Emperors.  The idea is not original to me (and I cannot recall who said it!), but a large empire is especially good at killing innovation because talented and interested persons whose plans and ideas are rejected have no recourse and no other source of funding.  Certainly this was the case with the eunuch Wang Qi, who later desired to emulate Zheng Ho and could not because the War Board had destroyed the detailed records of Zheng's voyages.  To return to the geographical point above, the placement of China was not as important as the unification and prebendalization  of China.

Of the factors that were listed above, I would favor the Black Plague as important, because it made a way, I think, to a significant re-ordering of European society. This re-ordering might have happened on its own, but happened far more swiftly because of the loss of existing structures.  I cannot prove such a hypothesis, because it is a counter-factual supposition.  It would be interesting, as I mentioned above, to note the effects of the plague on China, and ask why it did not cause such changes, if indeed it did not.  Second in significance is the question of proximity.  Speaking very broadly, cultures that are exposed to other cultures without being overwhelmed by them, tend to adjust to change quickly, becoming adaptable to the unexpected.  Mongol conquest notwithstanding, China, I would suggest, simply did not have the steady kind of exposure to "the other" that Europe did.  Japan, in even sharper contrast, closed itself off.  However, in an amazing "about-face" by the end of European expansion, Japan had become the most open of the Asian nations to outside influences.

Considering next those things that Europeans chose and embraced, the formation of an entrepreneurial and merchant class with access to many sources of funding seems crucial, as does the concomitant alignment of state and trade.  On this subject Levenson remarks,

European knowledge of how to gather large sums of capital and to manage such things as the great joint stock of the East India Company of England was tremendously important.  Control of bookkeeping and of financial operations of all kinds, by a single man in one room, for an organization whose finances and books and affairs were spread over half the globe, was a European invention, something never before tried. 4

In China, at least this systematic tracking was not attempted, and not seen as necessary, in part because state funds were supplied in a more steady fashion.  The government usually ran salt and iron monopolies staffed by trained civil servants or eunuchs.  A fluid merchant class did not exist, and it was apparently in no one's interest for such a group to exist. Furthermore, Chinese governments did not tax on import-export trade, but rather took a token level of tribute from foreign traders, and taxed locals on inventory rather than productivity.  As a side note, Levenson says that Chinese landowners did not involve themselves in the marketplace, and thus (I suppose) agricultural surplus remained unavailable to industry.

In Europe, by contrast, merchants lent capital to states so that states could  buy civil servants and soldiers.  The best borrowers could fight for more land, and could collect more taxes.  The trick, of course, was to pay less for the soldiers and civil servants than was gathered back in taxes. Dutch shipping technology and money management tools made it possible to add greatly to the number of ultimate lenders and ultimate buyers in this arena.  States gained greatly in power, but they also submitted themselves to the power and productivity of their subjects in ways they had never done so before.

One final "group-choice" matter of significance is the Protestant Reformation, which broke up old loyalties and landscapes in Europe. Most importantly, it hallowed the notion of work and productivity, which is now so much a Western institution that is it difficult to grasp how little efficiency and productivity has ever been a goal of any other empire at any other time. Did China have anything like a religious revival, or establish a reverence for efficiency?  China did undergo a massive religious and political revival, but a good deal later, in the nineteenth century (The Taiping Rebellion). On the whole, and to a significant degree, Confucian principles were revered. In such a system, fulfilling one's place in a hierarchy mattered a great deal more than demonstrating one's ability.  During the period in question, when Europeans were creating "inhuman" hierarchies, rationalizing of some shipping and some production processes, China, and all of Asia, was not.

Each of these group choices seem significant and unique. While short-term business contracts existed everywhere, and for every purpose, the joint-stock company was new.  Leveraging wealth out of different sectors of the economy -- out of trade and agriculture and into industry -- via risk sharing ventures, is truly revolutionary. Smaller-sized states becoming dependent on their subjects for financing is also an important reversal.  No state can entirely squash the impulse of a supporting class or interest-group, and if a class or interest-group is sufficiently bothered, it can leave, or rebel.  Touching on dissent, and on individualism, in China, for cultural reasons, leaving one's place was not a comfortable option. One's identity was linked to a village, a set of family graves, a place in the Confucian hierarchy.   I am not sure to what degree Europeans separated personal identity from group identity, and when, but that is the subject ranging far beyond the scope of this  paper.

Finally, significant cumulative changes in Europe include the rise in population after the Plague, the accumulation of capital through trade, the need of some areas for bulk goods in daily living and technological improvements in "guns and sails."  I'm not sure how to verify this statement, but I have never forgotten a remark that my Chinese history professor made: "China stopped being able to feed its population around 1750."  At the time, I was struck by thought of two hundred and thirty years of hunger and misery for Chinese peasants.  Also, I had supposed (if indeed I had thought anything about it) that overcrowding was a modern Chinese phenomenon.  If Prof. Lee is correct, however, then China in the early phases of European expansion was not overcrowded, could indeed feed itself, and was not seeking bulk goods outside of its borders. As we know from the voyages of Zheng Ho, China did not lack ideas or abilities to implement sailing technologies; it simply lacked the impetus.  China likewise did not invest heavily in guns, although the reasons (to me) are less clear.  China did have many internal conflicts, and did repel invaders.  I would argue that separately these incremental changes might not have been sufficient and significant in creating a dominant Europe. If I had to isolate one more powerful cause, it might be the rise in population accompanied by the rise in available capital. Need and the ability to seek for solutions with funds is probably more significant than need alone, or availability of technology alone.

Having considered these three categories of volition and sources of social change separately, let me now bring together all of the significant factors for European dominance.  Within external factors, I had selected the Black Plague as significant, because it rapidly and definitely made a space for to a significant re-ordering of European society. Also of importance was the question of proximity, of exposure to and curiosity about other cultures.  Asians who traded around the Indian Ocean did have such exposure, but the real powerhouse, China, did not.  Among "group volition" choices were also some powerfully distinguishing features.  The joint-stock company, with its ability to leverage wealth out of different sectors of the economy seemed truly new.  Equally important was the reversal of client-patron positions in government.  European states, while tending toward absolutism, became, paradoxically, far more bound to the interests and well-being of their clients, than less efficient empires ever were.  Also, as difficult as it is to define or account for, European individualism is also of importance.  Finally, I suggested that only one or two incremental changes might not have been sufficient and significant in creating a dominant Europe, but that the rise in a hungry population accompanied by the rise in available capital made for a culture outwardly bound on conquest, and not mired in self-consuming misery.  Unlike the writer I enjoyed most, Wallerstein, I have not created a unified model that accounts for change, or predicts change.  Whether or not these truly were the significant factors in European domination I cannot say without more experience in weighing sufficiency and significance. This model of analysis does, at least, allow for the historian's biases to be considered side-by-side. I hope to continue testing it with other questions about social change.


1.  William D. Phillips, The Medieval Origins of European Expansion,  The James Ford Bell Lectures, no. 33. (The Associates of the James Ford Bell Library: University of Michigan, 1996). 26. (back)

2. Contemporary examples abound. The film Searching for Roger highlighted the comically-awful plight of laid-off steel workers in Flint Michigan who could not adjust to the pace of working at McDonald's.(back)

3. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 2nd ed, Ed. Robert A Greenberg. (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1970) 211. (back)

4. Ed. Joseph R. Levenson,  European Expansion and the Counter-Example of Asia, 1300-1600. Robert R. Reynolds, Europe Emerges:  Transition toward an Industrial World-wide Society, 600-1750.  (Madison:  The University of Wisconsin Press, 1961) 414-19.  The Global History Series, Gen. Ed. Leften Stavrianos.  (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.:  Prentice Hall, 1967). 136.  (back)