The Turning Point in Asia: Early Modern European and Asian Empires (1500-1800)

“The discovery of America, and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest events recorded in the history of [human] kind”

—Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (Marks 5)

As shown earlier, Europe was, at the start of the early modern era, still an insignificant backwater on the unenviable periphery of the lucrative Asian trade. After 1492, however, Europe found itself at the geographical center of the world, increasingly able to use its unrivaled sea power to exploit the riches of both the Americas and Asia. In this section, we’ll learn about a paradox. The powerful empires in Asia were surely economically dominant throughout the early modern era, but, at the same time, they were gradually declining in ways that were initially hidden from view. Meanwhile, upstart empires from The West started the 19th century poised to dominate the world.

India and China were the most important Asian empires in the early modern era, and they shared many similarities. Both ruling dynasties claimed a distant relation to Genghis Khan and the collapsed Mongol empire. In each empire, hereditary emperors ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious states. As the result of conquest, ethnic minorities ruled both the Qing dynasty in China and the Mughal Empire in India. The ruling Mughals were Muslims, of Turkic descent, influenced by Persian culture, who ruled over a Hindu majority in India. And the Qing were Manchu rather than the majority ethnic Han Chinese. As a result, rulers from both empires worried about revolts and defense of the homeland from outside.

The governments of early modern India and China traditionally focused their attention on the enormous wealth gained from their inland agricultural empires rather than the emerging trade taking place on their shorelines. They depended on peasants and the expansion of territory inland. And they had lots of both. Both empires relied heavily, for their wealth and stability, on taxes derived from agriculture. They both benefitted from thriving manufacturing sectors—Indian cotton and indigo, and Chinese silk and porcelain. But rulers paid little attention to and had minimal control over the new and rising merchant classes as the global economy brought more trade and wealth from the oceans. And for both, their lack of imperial sea power contributed eventually to their downfall. When European ships armed with the latest cannons sailed into the Indian Ocean in the 16th century they found it unguarded.

These Asian empires failed to attend to the rising sea trade because they already enjoyed great economic and political success. Things were going quite well for them. So, Chinese and Indian empires paid little attention to the annoying European ships that began showing up at their shores in small numbers in the 16th century. China was the dominant economic power and commanded a trade surplus with the rest of the world. Chinese agriculture was more efficient than European methods because the Chinese excelled in irrigation technology. China had superior transportation projects; they made excellent use of canals on a scale much larger than in Europe. For example, China’s Grand Canal connected cities along a 1000-mile north-to-south route, facilitating domestic trade and travel. Despite many requests from European sovereigns over the years, emperors saw little need to alter their successful economic system or engage in trade with the Europeans. As late as 1793, after repeated inquiries, the Chinese emperor Ch’ien-lung (Qianlong) famously rejected King George of England’s request for trade: “As your ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and we have no use for your country’s manufactures . . . There [is] therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce” (Frank 273). But, China’s lack of interest in sea trade in particular allowed Europeans to take advantage of an easy source of wealth. It’s how Europeans put their foot in the door.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we can see how the Europeans could make inroads into the powerful empires of early modern Asia. The largest empire in South Asia, like China, neglected the thriving trade occurring at her shores. The capital of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) was at Delhi, far north and inland from the seashores where the Europeans made their first contacts, set up trading posts, and eventually constructed defensive walls. Amazingly, the Mughal Empire, grand as it was, had no navy. As a result, Europeans merchants quickly and easily dominated trade in the Indian Ocean making huge profits by shuttling products between South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.

Mughal India began its slow decline in the 18th century. The empire gradually lost political authority and economic wealth by granting large landowners on the periphery of its empire the power to collect taxes and rule local populations. The Mughal rulers also struggled to put down revolts from within from various ethnic and regional groups and they never quite conquered all of what is today India. Throughout the early modern era, India dominated the world cotton textile market. But their cotton growers could not compete against slave labor in the Americas. And the ban on Indian cotton in Western Europe further weakened the cotton trade. Finally, Great Britain took over the great cotton-manufacturing region of Bengal in the late 18th century and ruined it with high taxation (We’ll learn much more about how this happened in the next section). Although it had been unthinkable a century earlier, by 1816, India, the center of the cotton textile trade for centuries, became a net importer of textiles (Frank 314).

European dominance in other products, such as silver plundered from the Americas, greatly contributed to the slow-burn decline of Asian empires, especially China. In 1581, the Chinese had fixed their currency to silver because paper money proved too unstable. The government decided that all citizens had to pay taxes in silver (“Silver”). This policy provided stability but created another problem: China had little silver of its own. So the Chinese had to trade for it. This had far-reaching consequences because Spain had discovered huge amounts of precious metals in Peru and Mexico in this same era. As a result, world silver stock increased from 35,000 tons in 1500 to 168,000 tons in 1800 (Frank 144). Amazingly, however, due to trade, three-quarters of all the silver from the Americas eventually ended up in China, where it piled up in government coffers (Marks 80). Silver was relatively cheap in the Americas and in Europe because there was so much of it. But, in Asia, where they had little of their own supply, silver was valued much higher, and so Europeans could buy products in China at an extremely cheap rate. In this way, Europe used plundered silver from the Americas to buy their way into the most important global market, on the most favorable terms.

As Asian empires slowly declined in wealth and power in the early modern era, European countries competed, strengthened, and expanded. Technological advances led the way. The advent of cannons and firearms quickened the centralization of state governments in Europe. Improved iron-working technology created cheaper iron cannons. Although China used wood-fired metallurgical technology that was superior to that of Europe in the early modern era, China lacked coal and iron deposits close enough to industrial centers to take advantage of the technology (Frank 202). Only large governments could afford to invest in large cannons, while personal firearms, such as muskets, made it possible to maintain a peasant army. Competition among gunpowder kingdoms in Europe—France, The Ottoman Empire, Spain, and Holland—led to wars. The winners grew larger and more powerful with standing armies, navies, heavy taxation, national banks, and national debt. Representative assemblies also arose, giving voice to rising merchant classes that demanded the state adopt a foreign policy geared toward trade—such as blocking imports of Asian textiles. Shipbuilding steadily improved. The early modern ship, the caravel, could travel fast and against the wind. In 1545, European navies mounted cannons on the broadsides of their ships for the first time (Getz 27). Europe soon dominated the seas. The naval gap between Europe and the rest of Asia increasingly widened during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the East, European empires, often through private or semi-private companies, dominated trade. We’ll see a clear example of this European ascension when we study British imperialism in India in the next section.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton