Saturday, September 29, 2012

History of the World Since 1300: Lecture 3 & 4

Clashing Worlds

In the 15th C, the Americas were well developed, with some of the largest cities in the world and well-defined culture, but they had been insulated from developments in Afro-Eurasia - technologies like large sailing ships or the wheel, the use of domesticated animals, and the Afro-Eurasian culture of warfare.  They had not been part of the AfroEurasian global networks as described in Lecture 1 and Lecture 2.  As the lecture title Clashing Worlds indicates, Lecture 3 focused on what this clash meant for both the 'old' and the 'new' world.

The 'Ottoman Blockade' of the traditional paths to the East impelled the Europeans to find a new way. The discovery of the equatorial currents, trade winds and the technology of tacking enabled Europeans to venture ever further.  Columbus himself was old-fashioned, disdaining to use modern sailing technologies, and he never adjusted his world view to acknowledge that he hadn't discovered the East.  However, he ushered in an era of enormous change in the world.  After the initial landfall on Hispaniola, the Spaniards were quickly drawn inland in search of more gold and silver: El Dorado.

Although some tribes held on for 400 years (notably the Sioux in the Western US), the indigenous populations were mostly defeated quickly by the Spaniards and other Europeans.  They were vanquished mostly by disease:  in 1521, when 600 Spaniards along with their 100,000 native allies entered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, over 40% of the population was already dead from disease.  Spaniards described wading through putrefying corpses in the streets.

The Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange describes the interaction between Europe and the Americas.  It was a highly asymmetric exchange in favour of Europe.

The most important - and devastating - thing the Americas 'got' was an onslaught of European microbes, the most dangerous being smallpox, measles and typhus.  14 separate epidemics ravaged the Americas in the period, taking the native population from somewhere between 100 and 120M, to 20M.  The Europeans also brought crops like cotton, rice, indigo, bananas and sugar.  Sugar would have the most impact; this export crop was a driver of the slave trade.  The Americas  also gained domesticated animals like horses, sheep and pigs.

Apart from syphilis, Europeans benefits vastly from what they obtained in the Americas.  Some crops like tomatoes, maize, cocoa and potatoes were helpful.  But let's face it, the big win was precious metals.  Before 1500, the Europeans were poor sisters to China, having little to trade that the Chinese valued.  Europeans suffered a huge deficit in the balance of payments because of their eagerness to acquire the silk, porcelain and spices that China offered.  By 1600, that trade imbalance had reversed, with China* in deficit because of Europe's gold and silver.

Silver and Slaves

Between 1493 and 1800, 85% of the world's silver and 70% of the world's gold came from the Americas.  Spanish doubloons became the global currency.  The precious metals were originally mined by indigenous Indians.  The Incas had a system of forced labour for the state, the Mita, which the Spaniards adapted as a form of labour servitude verging on slavery.  But soon the dearth of local labour, due to disease, necessitated imported labour.  This came from Africa.

Of the 6.5M people who came to the Americas between 1492 and 1776, 5.5M came from Africa, with 40% going to Brazil, 30% to the Caribbean, and less than 10% to North America.   Adelman terms this the Africanization of America.  It was not until the abolition of slavery in the 1830's and the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that European immigrants started to outnumber African involuntary immigrants.  African chieftains were active participants in the trade, using the revenue to buy weapons for warfare against their neighbours.

The Baroque Period

I think of the Baroque as a style of art.  Adelman contends that this style, which emphasized movement and a sense of imbalance, was a reflection of the changing world.  Intermarriage resulted in people of mixed breed - Mestizos, Creoles, Metis - and the merging of indigenous cultural and religious practices with those of Europe was creating entirely new forms.

In short, the 'discovery' of the Americas transformed the world from a multi-centred global trading system dominated by Arab merchants to a world system centre on Europe.

*The course has spent a lot of time on China up to now.  The integration of the Americas and its riches into Europe leaves China on the periphery of history during this period.  The major discovery of America happens in a period when China has withdrawn into itself at the behest of the Confucian scholars who argued that Chinese culture was being adulterated by their explorations and trade.  While European maps by 1507 are incorporating the Americas, although the dimensions of America were greatly distorted), Chinese maps persist with wheel maps, showing China at the centre of everything, with people's of lesser and lesser civilization in concentric circles around China.  Very symbolic.
Adelman promises the next lecture will turn to further discussion of what's been going on in China during this time.

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