Why Did Europe Conquer the World? An interview with historian Philip T. Hoffman

Historians in the News
tags: war

Philip T. Hoffman is the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and professor of history at the California Institute of Technology. His books include Growth in a Traditional Society (Princeton), Surviving Large Losses, and Priceless Markets. His latest book is Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

Why do major powers arise?

Historians, social scientists, and biologists have all sought to answer this question, so far without success. China may now be the earth’s biggest economy, but between 1492 and 1914, the Europeans conquered 84 percent of the globe. The puzzle is why did they rise to the top, when for centuries the Chinese, Japanese, Ottomans, and South Asians were far more advanced?

Why did it matter?

It mattered fundamentally because it determined who had colonies, who ran the slave trade, and who grew rich or remained mired in poverty.

Jared Diamond suggests that European domination is explained by industrialization and disease – why do you disagree?

Although diseases such as smallpox devastated Native Americans, they alone cannot explain the conquest of the Americas. And disease has nothing to do with the colonization of India, where the natives had the same immunity to disease as the Europeans. Industrialization also fails as an explanation. The Europeans had already taken control of over 35 percent of the globe before they began to industrialize.

So what did contribute to Europe’s success?

The lead Europeans took in developing the technology of guns and armed ships was critical because it let them take over the world. But their lead was not the result of more war in Europe than other parts of the world. All the other major civilizations in Asia used this gunpowder technology too, and many of them—the Ottoman Empire and eighteenth-century India—fought with guns just as much as the Europeans did.

Why did the Europeans develop this lead? 

Their lead derived from the political and economic incentives that political leaders faced in Europe—incentives that drove them not just to make war, but to spend huge sums on it. Yes, they built palaces, but even Versailles cost King Louis XIV less than 2 percent of his tax revenue. The rest went to fighting wars. The European kings had been raised since childhood to pursue glory on the battlefield, yet they bore none of the costs involved—not even the risk of losing their thrones after a defeat. Leaders elsewhere—whether they were kings, emperors, or prime ministers—faced radically different incentives, and while they might sometimes fight as often, they spent much less on warfare, and that, it turns out, meant they could not push the gunpowder technology as far as the Europeans.

How did you come to these conclusions?

It came from using a simple economic model of political costs and technological change to find out at what point the guns, ships, tactics, and fortifications that made up the gunpowder technology would be improved. Western Europe was the only place where the political conditions fitted consistently from the moment guns first appeared. That was not the case anywhere else in Eurasia. The huge China Empire, for instance, was often the dominant power in East Asia, which meant that fewer rivals would challenge it and force it to spend heavily. Europe had no such enduring hegemonic power.

Why were the politics so different in Europe than in, say, China?

For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe endured the sort of anarchy that prevails in Afghanistan and Somalia today, without anything we would call a state. That (and not something else, such as distinctive physical geography) kept a hegemonic power from arising in Europe, and it was the reason Europe was fragmented into hostile nations that spent heavily on war.

Could things have turned out differently?

If, for example, the Mongols had never invaded China, then China too might have remained divided into hostile powers. If Charlemagne’s medieval empire had remained intact for another generation, then a dominant power might have arisen in Europe. The tables could have been turned and we might instead be asking why China conquered the world in 1914.

What was the economic impact of the European conquests?

The shipping of millions of slaves to the New World, caused much of the poverty in Africa today.  Colonial policies created enormous inequality in Latin America and cost South and Central America and the Caribbean decades of economic growth.

Were there any benefits to these conquests?

They did raise wages in Britain. Some would argue that the higher wages and the cotton produced by the slaves triggered the Industrial Revolution. But high wages were less important than critical knowledge, such as how to make metal gears, and free labor in India or Egypt could have grown the needed cotton. Overall, the conquests made the average European worse off.

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