Tuesday, September 25, 2012

History of the World Since 1300: Lecture 2

I've been learning interesting things in my course on the History of the World Since 1300.  Since this blog is about ideas, and since recapping the lectures will be useful to my own learning process, I'll be giving a quick summary of each lecture here.  Lecture 2 started with a description of The Black Death.

The Black Death

After a 12th Century  of growth and relative stability, the Black Death of the 13th Century changed all that.  Carried by rats and fleas transported along the global trade routes, the plagues killed millions - mostly in the very important trading centres with dense populations.  Thought to have started in China, where the population plummeted from 120M to 80M, the Black Death left huge power vacuums in its wake, and several empires filled the holes. 

The Muslim Empires

Three Muslim empires emerged: the Mughal in India, the Safavid in Iran and Iraq, and the Ottoman Empire in the middle East.  Tamerlane, a descendant of the Mongols and now a Muslim, started the Mughal empire consolidated by Babur by entering into alliances with the local principalities.  Muslims had also integrated the Swahili Coast of East Africa into global networks, and were starting to trade African slaves.  

But the most important and largest was the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453.   Refugees who fled to Venice and other Italian states helped spark the Renaissance in the West.  

Islam was also the dominant religion on the Swahili Coast of East Africa.  African gold injected liquidity into the world economy and African slaves were found as far away as China.


Meanwhile, in China, the vacuum was filled by the Mings who ousted the Mongols from Beijing in 1368.  The Mings rebuilt the army and a huge administrative elite formed of people who had passed rigorous exams.  

To finance their army, the Mings sought for new revenue sources.  Their most famous warrior and explorer was Zheng He, a captured Muslim boy who was castrated and joined the powerful eunuchs of the court.    Zheng He led seven voyages of exploration between 1405 and 1433.  Zheng He's powerful naval ships, including stupendous 400' warships and 100' supply ships that dwarfed other ships of the time, would enter ports in flotillas of 300.  Instead of bombarding the ports, he would exchange gifts and enter into complex negotiations about the prices of commodities.  The Mings did not seek to overturn the existing rulers; their interest was in developing subordinate relationships with these states who would return revenues to China.

A student in one of the class forums posted a picture from the Dubai Airport showing a model of Zheng He's ship compared to Columbus'.  Other students doing research have pointed out that most of Zheng He's ships were undoubtedly smaller and used for commerce like Columbus', and were more stable for navigation.  For someone like me who had never heard of Zheng He, this picture was very powerful.

After the death of the Ming emperor, two factions fought for control: the Eunuch administrative elite who argued for continued exploration, and the Confucian scholars who argued for retreat into deeper Chineseness.  The scholars won and so ended Chinese explorations to the outer world.  In fact, any vessel of over two masts were outlawed as of 1500.


At this time, Europe is fragmented.  Even the Holy Roman Empire is a pastiche of smaller, antagonistic principalities.  As Professor Adelman put it, "this disequilibrium bred militarism, aggressive political cultures and expansionism." As the Ottoman presence in the middle East blocked European access to Asian markets, Europeans looked west and we see the motivation for the great Atlantic crossings and explorations.

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