Monday, September 27, 2021

Three Defeats Which Shaped the Imperialist West

The first clash (in the post-Roman era) between the East and the West happened from 711 to 718 AD. The West was defeated—the Umayyad Caliphate conquered a major part of Eastern Europe (they ruled Southwestern Europe for nearly 800 years, till 1492). The second clash happened in the time of the crusades, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The West was defeated—the Crusaders lost Asia Minor, North Africa, and most of the Middle East, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The third clash happened in 1453. The West was defeated—the last outpost of the Byzantine Empire, the city of Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans.

Ironically, the consequence of these three defeats was that the West was pushed into a wholly new direction, one that would transform it into an imperialist power.

From the time of the Roman Empire, the West had aimed to create a land route which would place its traders in direct contact with the Indian producers of spices and the Chinese producers of silk. They were paying a massive premium to the middlemen who brought these products from India and China. A lot of foreign exchange could be saved through a direct connection between Western traders and Asian producers. The failure of the crusades and the fall of the Byzantine Empire meant that the West could not enter the Middle East and take a land route to India and China. The only way by which the West could reach India and China was by sea. 

The first European nation to launch a major sea expedition was Portugal, and the second was Spain. In the fifteenth century, these two nations were Europe’s most diverse societies—with a large number of Jews, Arabs, and Africans living alongside the Christians. The Islamic powers had ruled Portugal for more than 500 years, and Spain for about 800 years. They had turned Portugal and Spain into Europe’s trading centers. A significant part of the products from Africa, India, and China would arrive in Portugal and Spain before being shipped to other parts of Europe. 

During the period of Islamic rule, the Portuguese and the Spanish had mastered several eastern innovations, including compass, astrolabe, lateen sail, and gunpowder. They used these innovations to create navigational systems, large ships, and guns and canons. Around 1410, Prince Henry of Portugal (better known as Prince Henry the Navigator) brought together a team of Arabs, Africans, Jews, and European Christians to devise the technological systems for improving Portugal’s maritime capacity. The famous cartographer Jehuda Cresques (who was a converso, better known as Cresques the Jew) was part of Prince Henry’s team. 

In 1415, the Portuguese made their first overseas conquest—the port of Ceuta which lies on the North African coast across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian Peninsula. They used Ceuta as a trading post for transporting goods from Africa to Europe. In 1488, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope (the voyage of Bartolomeu Dias). In 1498, they found the sea route to India (the voyage of Vasco da Gama). When large European plantations came up in the Americas, the Portuguese became their slave suppliers. They transported about five million people forcibly taken from Africa to the Americas. The Portuguese founded the world’s longest running empire—the last outpost of their Empire, Portuguese Macau, was handed over to the Chinese in 1999.  

When Columbus sailed in 1492 to find a sea route to India, he was using the knowledge developed by the Portuguese. He went in the wrong direction and ended up discovering the Americas. To the indigenous people that he encountered in the Americas, he gave the name indios (“Indians”). This wrong name is still being used.

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