Early Modern Empires (1500-1800)


: Before we learn about the unlikely and apparently rapid rise of The West during the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s important to understand the powerful empires of the early modern world between 1500 and 1800. Some readers may be surprised to learn about the wealth, thriving global trade, and dominant manufacturing production in Asia that held sway until at least the end of the 18th century. Throughout much of this era, Europe was, in contrast to Asia, an unimpressive backwater of small countries and kingdoms. But Europe’s “discovery” of the Americas and an ocean route to Asia, just before the year 1500, changed all that. The West gradually worked its way into the global economy and planted the seeds for its imperial rise and eventual dominance over most of the modern world.

After 1500, world regions—such as West Africa, East Asia, and South America—fused together into one global trade system. For the first time in history, each region of the world now interacted with the others. For example, enslaved African labor was used in South American plantations to sell cheap sugar to Europe. Silver from Mexico bought loans for Spain, and that same silver ended up in China to buy silk or porcelain for Europeans. And so on. A new global system emerged, forged of uneven relationships, in which a small part of the world, Europe, successfully exploited the world’s human and natural resources to its advantage. This was Globalization 1.0. Historians disagree on exactly when European empires began to “rise” and Asian empires began to “fall.” But most see it happening gradually over centuries of the early modern era.

Just Before the Turning Point: 15th Century World Empires

In the shadow of the 21st century wealth and influence of The West, we often forget that in the 15th century, powerful non-European empires thrived. In the Americas, for example, the Aztecs ruled over a vast and diverse population of over 25 million people and controlled an area of 200,000 square miles (Getz 63). The Inca in South America controlled an empire that stretched 2500 miles. The empire of Mali controlled much of West Africa. Across the deserts of North Africa, caravans of up to 25,000 camels traded enslaved Africans and gold for Indian textiles (Marks 55). No European nation at the time surpassed these empires’ wealth and territory.

In the 15th century, empires outside Europe—in China, Mexico, and the Middle East—were also far more urbanized than Europe. Ninety-nine percent of humans throughout the world lived in rural areas, so urban living was unusual. But dense cities were a clear indication of an empire’s power, wealth, technology, industry and potential for trade. And Europe lagged behind. Both Istanbul and Beijing, for example, had populations of around 700,000 in 1500, whereas only 125,000 lived in Paris (Frank 12). Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Empire in central Mexico, had a population of over 250,000 people, while fewer than 100,000 lived in London (Marks 74). China had the most impressive cities of all—nine out of the ten largest cities in the world were found there (26). In 1492, few would have looked at the cities of the world and believed that Europe would come to dominate global trade centuries later.

Europe was not even dominant on its own doorstep. The Ottoman Empire continued to expand its imperial rule in the early modern era, at Europe’s expense. The vast and diverse empire controlled much of southeastern Europe, almost all of the Middle East, and the strategically important nation of Egypt (gateway to the main trade route from Europe to the Indian Ocean). The Ottoman Sultan succeeded in uniting much of the ethnically diverse Islamic world behind him by claiming the religious authority of the caliph, which designated him an heir to the prophet Mohammed. The Ottomans used the latest in military technology, enormous cannons, to decisively defeat the Europeans at the battle of Constantinople in 1453. This enormous loss of the last Christian stronghold at the doorstep of the Middle East would later lead Europeans to seek a sea route to Asia to open up the profitable spice trade.

Without question, China was the most dominant country in the world in the 15th century. A dramatic example of China’s prowess at the time can be seen in the amazing voyages of the Chinese admiral Zeng He, between 1405 and 1433. His Muslim faith and prestigious position in government reminds us of the ethnic and religious diversity of the vast Chinese empire. He led fleets of Chinese boats across the Indian Ocean to trade in India, Southeast Asia, Arabia, and East Africa. These were, by far, the largest fleets in the history of the world and would not be surpassed in size and number for many centuries.

Between 1404 and 1407 alone, the Chinese built 1,681 ships requiring wood from as far away as 1000 miles. The largest ship was 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, bigger than a football field (Marks 48-49). (In Europe, by contrast, the intimidating Spanish Armada, the largest navy in the world in 1588—almost two centuries later—included only 132 much smaller ships (Frank 197)). The Chinese seemed poised to control the trade and treasure of the entire Indian Ocean. At the time, only Zeng He’s ships had the sailing technology to sail around southern Africa towards West Africa and on to Europe. Alas for China, the emperor in favor of these expensive, exploratory, and impressive voyages died in 1435. The new emperor turned China’s resources and policies inward to focus on the Mongols invading from the north and to manage the rest of his vast agrarian land empire. So no more Chinese fleets sailed the Indian Ocean. How might the history of the world differed if these voyages had continued on to Europe and even the Americas?

Less dramatically, but more importantly, Asia was the center of global trade in the early modern era, prompting Europeans to expend considerable time and energy to find a route to Asia. Europeans wanted to trade for Chinese silk and porcelain, Indian cotton textiles and indigo, and the spices of Southeast Asia (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper). Asian silk, cotton, and porcelain were the highest quality mass-produced items in the world. Spices, for example, were only grown in the islands of Southeast Asia, and some were helpful for preserving meat in a world without refrigeration, while others were luxurious delicacies. These were the “must have” consumer products in Europe, much like smart phones, computers, and cars today. All of these products had to travel to Europe via difficult and long land routes across the Middle East or southern Asia. This made the items extremely expensive in Europe, especially since the Europeans had nothing to trade that the Asians wanted.

Even though 15th century China was much more powerful than Europe, the average European had much in common with his or her Asian counterpart. Europe, South Asia, and China accounted for about 70 percent of the world’s population (Marks 25). People in these three regions lived similarly rural lives and had about the same material existence. All had life expectancies of between thirty and forty years of age (30). In Europe, South Asia, and China, peasants gave up much of their crop yield to landlords and their respective governments. All three regions took part in a global trade that spread thousands of miles across Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia, and East Asia. Also, the entirety of Eurasia was still recovering from plagues that had swept through the continent over the last century and depopulated cities and regions. And all three regions had access to new military technology such as gunpowder and cannons.

Although 15th century Asian empires had the clear lead in trade, manufacturing, productivity, market size, and overall wealth, Europeans at the time planted the seeds for their ascendency with incremental but highly significant innovations in military and sailing technology. In Europe, new military technologies eventually tipped the balance of power in favor of larger and expanding states that could afford to develop the latest war inventions and maintain standing armies. Europeans improved on Mongol cannons by making them with strong cast iron. The small kingdoms and nations of Europe were in almost constant war with each other. This pugilism became a long-term advantage of sorts because the bloody competition between many states pressured Europeans to improve on their military technology.

China, on the other hand, was one large empire with one government that did not feel the constant pressure to improve military technology. Thus, trade in the Indian Ocean was peaceful; merchant ships sailed unarmed across thousands of miles. Conversely, Europeans were so accustomed to combat: that when they first sailed into the Indian Ocean, the broadsides of their ships were armed with cannons. Europeans came ready for battle.

Similarly, while most Asian empires focused on their vast, rich inland empires and neglected their navies, Europeans began to excel in sailing and navigational technology. By the 15th century, the compass, the full-rigged ship, and the quadrant allowed Europeans to sail across the open ocean. As a result, in the 1400s, the Portuguese kept pressing south down the coast of Africa with small but armed caravels. And, by the late 15th century, it seemed just a matter of time before a bold European would throw his fate to the winds and set off into the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton