In the 19th century, American settlers moved West grabbing frontier lands. The term Manifest Destiny was coined, which claimed special virtues for American people. It was imperative that they fulfill this essential duty. The United States used muscle power to deprive the indigenous people of their land. Once the natives were conquered, this theory was applied to rest of the world and soon Puerto Rico, Cuba and Philippines came under American control, apparently to rescue them from Spanish tyranny. The Native Americans lost their land, traditions, and religion. They watched helplessly as a flood of settlers flocked to their land.
This asuric behavior had its origin from the crusades in the 11th century. During that time, there was a major movement of European population driven by religious fervor. They figured out how to move long distances, take control, and displace existing population. This process took a break as the continent experienced Black Death. Till the Middle Ages, Europe became an insignificant entity on the world stage with nothing of value to offer to the world. Then they embarked on a series of voyages of discovery and came upon plundering as a nation-building option.
The 20th episode of Tides of History goes into detail about this period. Much before the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, Castille, Aragon, and Portugal started expanding to other areas kickstarting the process of invasion and settlement. After Aragon conquered the Island of Majorca, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the king distributed the land among the nobles who accompanied him. Then came the settlers — Catalans, Italians, Navarrese — who took possession of the property obtained during the conquest. There was a similar movement of people all over into Hungary, Romania, Sicily, Greece.
Following the conquest of Southern Spain by Castille, the Moors slowly disappeared. They were forced or enslaved and those who stayed were converted to Christianity. They replaced rebellious leaders with leaders over whom they had control. They were familiar with the process for populating newly conquered frontier lands and enticing settlers to those new lands. This was an established process by the time Vasco da Gama set sail to India. Remember, he did not come for spices alone. He was also looking for Prester John to liberate Jerusalem.
One person responsible for making Florence a wealthy place was Cosimo de’ Medici who took over the family bank in 1430s. The Medici bank innovated in bookkeeping, debit-and-credit-accounting and by managing the fortunes of the wealthy, became wealthy themselves. Commercial development brought prosperity. Money and goods flowed into Italy from all around the world and Italy was rich. One of the factors that caused the Renaissance to happen in Italy was this wealth and patronage of wealthy people like the Medici. That was not it though. There was another important factor: the discovery of the past. The Tides of History podcast episode on the Renaissance takes a deeper look.
As the cities became wealthy, there was investment in art, education and architecture. The urbanized Italians, who had morphed into a society of ideas, had lots of questions on such topics and they found their answer in ancient Rome. It provided them guidance on education, linguistics and art, political ideology. There was a yearning for the past and it was a time of rebirth and the old was respectable because it was tried and tested before.
The Italians understood that there was a glorious past and then a fall. Roman concepts had stayed for more than half a millennia and was durable and reverence for the Roman past spread everywhere. This rediscovery caused a cultural revolution and from Italy, it diffused into a wider Europe and freed Europe from its dark past into what they called Enlightenment. (But what they did was to enslave rest of the world and so European progress has to be seen with a huge sack of salt)
A new book on Leonardo da Vinci expands on the idea of the influence of the Roman past. Cosimo de’ Medici was schooled in Greek and Roman literature and was a collector of ancient manuscripts. Brunelleschi, an architect,. traveled to Rome and studied the classical ruins. They measured domes, studied great buildings and read the works of ancient Romans like Vitruvius. Leonardo studied Vitruvius and was fascinated by his detailed study of human proportions. This interest in the ancient past revived the writings of Pliny the Elder who praised artists who depicted nature accurately. The domes, realistic depiction of space, perspective, depiction of human forms — all were influenced by Rome.
Why did Renaissance happen in Italy and not elsewhere. It was not just wealth and the rediscovery of classics that caused the Renaissance to happen. There was a rediscovery of the ancient classics in the 9th century and later again in the 12th. But what made the 14th century rediscovery different was the depth and scale to which people went into the classics. Central and Northern Italy was urban. While there were only five cities with a population more than 40,000 north of the Alps, there were two with 100,000 in Tuscany alone There were many cities surrounded by the countryside. In the 9th and 12th centuries, only a tiny population was literate. Compared to that literacy rates in 14th century Italy was high. That produced a society of ideas instead of a small group of intellectual elite.
PS: Lessons from the Renaissance for India
The above picture shows a world map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 CE. If you look towards the left of the map, you will see a narrow strip where the Americas are located. This is an important development because this map was created in just two decades after Christopher Columbus reached the New World and previous maps did not contain this land. This discovery of the Americas had a major impact on global trade and the Columbian Exchange changed the balance of global forces across the world.
Few years after Columbus failed in his mission to find the Indies, Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar coast. To impress the Zamorin, he took out the gifts he had bought and the people from the court who had come to examine them burst into laughter. These trinkets, they explained, were not the gifts suitable for a rich king. Even the poor merchants from Mecca or India gave better gifts. Did the Captain-Major have any gold, they asked. According to the accounts, Gama’s face fell.
This episode symbolizes the trade equation between the East and West during the 15th century. Asia produced spices, silk, porcelain and tea which the Europeans badly wanted, but there was nothing Europe produced that the Asians needed. Asia needed gold and silver and Europe did not have sufficient quantity of it.
But with the discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards ended up with a mother-lode of wealth. The image on the side shows a 1553 CE map of the city of Potosí in Bolivia. This was one of the sites of a major silver mine which the Spaniards reached after they had done looting the native coffers. Between 1560 and 1685 CE, Spanish America sent between 25,000 to 35, 000 tons of silver to Spain and in the century following that the amount doubled. In fact around 85% of the world’s silver supplies came from the Americas. This was extracted from 30 such mines.To compare it to modern times, it was like Saudi Arabia discovering oil.
Once they had access to the wealth, the first thing that changed was the shipbuilding industry as ships became cheaper and easier to build. Using Brazilwood, the Europeans built a large number of ships which were capable of transporting both goods and people on a large scale. These ships helped in further conquests, trade and colonization.
This brings to the second point regarding how the Columbian exchange affected the balance of global forces across the world. To mine the silver and gold, large manpower was required. But there were not many natives left to mine for these precious metals. Europeans brought with them epidemics like smallpox, measles and typhoid. Around 14 such epidemics helped in wiping out the native population from 120 million to 20 million within a century of Columbus setting foot in the region.
To replace the natives, Africans were imported into Brazil, the Caribbean and the East Coast of United States. These Africans were involuntarily brought in slave ships where they were packed like sardines. Many died of diseases along the way. Colonies were established all over the New World and the slaves died due to the miserable working conditions in these colonies. Due to the Columbian exchange, the native population of the New World was decimated, the African population was displaced and there was a population explosion in Europe.
The Columbian Exchange also helped in altering the flora and fauna in the world. While cotton, indigo, bananas and sugar reached the New World, tomato, maize, potato and cocoa reached Europe and then the rest of the world. Horses, cattle, sheep and pigs also spread in the colonies. Sugar emerged as one of the most valuable exports from the Americas. Though sugarcane cultivation originated in India, the Americas became a major exporter of the product. Also, the tomato reached Europe for the first time; till then the Italians cooked without tomato.
Now with the silver from the mines and the goods produced by the slave population, Europeans had products which they could sell in the global trading system. With access to cheap source of food and precious metals, Europeans entered the global trading system which was dominated by the silks from China and spices from India and changed the trade imbalance. Columbian exchange gave Europe sufficient wealth and goods to become a dominant trading system. It affected the lives of people — the natives, the conquerors and the Africans — in a profound way. It also affected the foods that people ate and the animals that they used for food and warfare.
(This was one of my assignments in a history course I am doing now)
- Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition). Third ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010