Posts Tagged ‘Age of Discovery’

Did China bungle its age of discovery?

April 21, 2014


More than 50 years before Columbus, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (aks Cheng Ho) voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, and down the coast of east Africa.  Some historians think he may have reached the Cape of Good Hope.  But he had no successors.   His voyages were merely a stunt, for the sake of prestige, like the U.S. moon landings.

Some historians have speculated that if the rulers of the Ming dynasty had followed up, there might have been a Chinese age of exploration and discovery, to rival the great European explorers.  Zheng He’s fleet was larger, both in numbers and in the size of the individual ships, than anything the European explorers sent out.

I’m not so sure.  As James C. Scott wrote in The Art of Not Being Governed, Chinese rulers historically have sought to control large numbers of people, not large areas of territory.  I have read a smattering of Chinese philosophy in translation, and it is all about a ruler who is wise and just can increase his wealth and power by encouraging people to migrate to his realm.

In the light of history, this might not have been a bad choice..   The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread all over the world, and they have millions of descendents in North and South America and other parts of the world, but this no longer adds to the power of the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese nations.

Today China, which did not seek to rule an overseas empire, is much more powerful than any of these countries.  That is not to deny that China is an empire.  Just ask the Uighurs (in what used to be called Chinese Turkestan) or the Tibetans.   It is that China is a more unified and enduring empire.

China never needed a merchant fleet or overseas outposts to participate in the world economy.   Since the days of the Roman Empire, merchants traveled the Silk Road across central Asia to buy Chinese silk, porcelains and other manufactured products.

Spain and Portugal sent out explorers to find routes to China and India so that their merchants could bypass the Muslim countries in between.   The Spanish conquistadors were greedy for gold and silver because it was scarce.  China and India had favorable balances of trade for centuries and a large fraction of the world’s precious metals ended up in those countries.   The Spanish regularly sent out treasure galleons from Mexico to the Philippines to trade with China.


The doctrine of discovery

November 6, 2013
European map of the world, 1507

European map of the world, 1507

Did Europeans discover America?  Or had the New World already been discovered by the people who lived here?  I posted a map the other day of “actual European discoveries,” which consisted mainly of scattered uninhabited islands.  But a friend of mine argued:

When I say to someone I discovered this neat little restaurant, I really don’t think that no one else knew about it.

My answer is that we don’t think our discovery of a restaurant previously unknown to us entitles us to help ourselves to the food without paying for it.

But the “doctrine of discovery” proclaimed by the 16th century Papacy, European monarch discovers a land without Christian or European inhabitants, the discoverer has a right to take possession of it in the monarch’s name.  The “doctrine of discovery” is part of U.S. law to this day, and provides the legal justification for not recognizing Indian nations as having sovereign rights.

Some 500 years ago, most people of European ancestry lived in Europe, just as most people of African ancestry lived in Africa and most people of Chinese ancestry lived in China.  But now people of European ancestry are either the majority or the upper class in all of North and South America, Australia and northern Asia (Siberia).

Now this is part of the history of migrations of peoples, and is perhaps no different (on a larger scale) than the Angles and Saxons moving into England and pushing back the Celts, and being conquered in their turn by the Norman French.  Or the Arabs coming out of the Arabian peninsula in the 7th and 8th centuries C.E. and spreading into the Fertile Crescent and North Africa.  Or the Germanic tribes overrunning the Roman Empire.

The great Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach said this is the way of the world.

In [Fehrenbach’s] Lone Star, Texas history is told as a series of encounters between different tribes—Spanish, Mexican, Comanche, Anglo—each so alien to the other that they might as well have come from different planets. … …

To Fehrenbach … the extermination of the Comanches … [is] just another example of the way human cultures have treated each other for millennia.  Before their own destruction, the Comanches nearly destroyed the Apaches, pushing them out of the buffalo grounds and into Mexican and Anglo lands.  Before that, the Apaches had nearly depopulated the villages of the Pueblo Indians and other tribes throughout the Southwest.

via The Texas Observer.

I’m not clear about what I think about all this.  I don’t feel guilty about being the descendent of European settlers who moved into lands that originally belonged to someone else, nor do I think I’m morally superior to my ancestors.  They didn’t come to the New World with the intention of oppressing people.  They were poor oppressed people themselves.  I honor their memory.  It is due to their struggles that I am able to spend a comfortable old age in reading, conversation and writing.

At the same time, I think American citizens are obligated to respect what’s left of  the land rights and treaty rights of the Indian nations.  And if a nation today were doing what the United States did in the 19th century Indian Wars, or the Spanish conquistadors did in Mexico and Peru, I would condemn them, just as I condemn ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Israeli displacement of the Palestinian Arabs and the Chinese colonization of Tibet.

T.R. Fehrenbach would say I lack moral clarity and intellectual consistency.  He would be right.

The least I can do is try to be aware of the facts of history as they are, and to shun comforting illusions.


This is a historical map that shows…

November 4, 2013


This is a map of uninhabited islands and other places that European explorers discovered.   Everything else they found had already been “discovered” by the people who were there.

Click on Actual European Discoveries for a version of this map that enables you to click on specific areas and enlarge them.  Hat tip to Tobias Buckell.