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10-08-2015, 16:06


To many Western observers at the time, the ease of the European conquest provided a clear affirmation of the innate superiority of Western civilization to its counterparts elsewhere in the world. Historians in Europe and the United States began to view world history essentially as the story of the inexorable rise of the West, from the glories of ancient Greece to the emergence of modern Europe after the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The extension of Western influence to Africa and Asia, a process that began with the arrival of European fleets in the Indian Ocean in the early sixteenth century, was thus a reflection of Western cultural superiority and represented a necessary step in bringing civilization to the peoples of that area. The truth, however, was quite different, for Western global hegemony was a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the age of Christopher Columbus, Europe was only an isolated appendage of a much larger world system of states stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The center of gravity in this trade network was not in Europe or even in the Mediterranean Sea but much farther to the east, in the Persian Gulf and in Central Asia. The most sophisticated and technologically advanced region in the world was not Europe but China, whose proud history could be traced back several thousand years to the rise of the first Chinese state in the Yellow River valley. As for the transcontinental trade network that linked Europe with the nations of the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific basin, it had not been created by Portuguese and Spanish navigators but, as we have seen, had already developed under the Arab empire, with its capital in Baghdad. Later the Mongols took control of the land trade routes during their conquest of much of the Eurasian continent in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. During the long centuries of Arabic and Mongolian hegemony, the caravan routes and sea lanes stretching across the Eurasian continent and the Indian Ocean between China, Africa, and Europe carried not only commercial goods but also ideas and inventions such as the compass, printing, Arabic numerals, and gunpowder. Inventions such as these, many of them originating in China or India, would later play a major role in the emergence of Europe as a major player on the world’s stage. Only in the sixteenth century, with the onset of the Age of Exploration, did Europe become important in the process. For the next three centuries, the ships of several European nations crossed the seas in quest of the spices, silks, precious metals, and porcelains of the Orient. In a few cases, Europeans engaged in military conquest as a means of seeking their objective. The islands of the Indonesian archipelago were gradually brought under Dutch colonial rule, and the British inexorably extended their political hegemony over the South Asian subcontinent. Spain, Portugal, and later other nations of western Europe divided up the New World into separate colonial territories. For the most part, however, European nations were satisfied to trade with their Asian and African counterparts from coastal enclaves that they had established along the trade routes that threaded across the seas from the ports along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea to their far-off destinations.