European Hegemony


 African Empires

 Asia Colonies

 British Empire





  Spanish empire

The first impact the Europeans had on the world outside Europe was in the Crusades (see the Crusade page). Was this a kind of prologue to what followed?

 From the end of the 15th century it was Europeans who came to dominate the whole planet. Curiously, at first it was not a result of their technological advantage, as until about 1423 the Chinese Empire had a superior fleet of ocean going ships. The Chinese could have explored the world, but did not (or if they did, have left no credible records). Why this came about can be argued endlessly by historians. (China was a centralised state and briefly had an emperor interested in exploration, followed on his death by an isolationist emperor who ended the exploration of his predecessor.) Europeans tended to be private operators, with no central control, and the different nations were in competition. Europeans had a demand for tropical products whereas the Chinese considered that foreigners had nothing worth buying.)
(See Speculations in History) for the fringe view by Menzies that the Chinese did explore the world - a theory not so far supported by evidence.)

For the world as a whole the impact of the Europeans was rather like the effect of the Vikings on Britain, Ireland and western Europe in general - experiencing an unstoppable force of nature.

The Vikings themselves had shown a habit of travelling and trading over long distances. They had spread out from their homeland in Scandinavia as far as Constantinople and the Caspian Sea in the east and Greenland and Labrador in the west; and north Africa to the south. But there were few long term effects of their activities. Their colonies in America died out or were absorbed into the native population. In Russia the kingdoms they founded became the later Russian empire.

The next Europeans to explore the world by sea were the Portuguese. Until they did they were a peripheral people living on poor soil at the far edge of the Christian world. Their main contacts were with Spain, and with other sea-going peoples: especially the English with whom their relations went back to the 14th century.

It was the Portuguese who explored down the coast of Africa but also across the Atlantic and up to Iceland and Greenland. Their motivation was probably a mixture of religious enthusiasm (including the search for Prester John), desire for trade especially in spices (food enhancers and preservatives) to cut out the Ottoman middlemen and pure curiosity. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) led the early stages of the exploration from his position as Grand Master of the Order of Christ.

Motivation Was it drugs?
It has been suggested (by David Quammen - see the Indonesia article) that the desire for spices, especially Nutmeg, was of the nature of a craving for a drug, as the lavish use of nutmeg (reported in medieval accounts) had mild hallucinogenic effects. Its origin was discovered to be in the Molucca Islands of Indonesia. Huge profits could be made by shipping it directly from there to Europe. Before the age of exploration and expansion it travelled from merchant to merchant, using small ships and camel trains, each party gaining a profit. Thus direct trade gave all that profit to the merchants owning the long distance ships - at length in Amsterdam under the Dutch Empire.

The European empires also were hugely profitable when shipping other tropical products, such as sugar - not exactly a drug, but commercially addictive just the same - and Tobacco. The British were to trade opium to China.

See this article on the opium trade.

If only the Casa da India (where the only copy of the maps and exploration accounts were kept) had not been destroyed in the great Lisbon Earthquake (1755) we could be more confident about the extent of Portuguese explorations which probably did reach to Australia as well as the lands we are aware of.

Portuguese explorations resulted in trade in the Indian Ocean, with East Africa, India, and the Indonesian islands. In most of these areas there were early trading settlements. In West Africa they founded Lagos, colonies in what is now Angola; on the east side they attacked and occupied settlements at Beira in Mozambique and the Swahili Coast - affecting Kilwa and Mombasa (destroying the traditional gold trade from Zimbabwe to the Indian Ocean) and also the whole Swahili empire.

To some extent Spain made use of Portuguese explorations. Portugal and Spain were threatening to go to war over the domination of the countries they had discovered. They appealed to the Pope who arranged the Treaty of Tordesillas that split the whole planet between them. Thus, although Portugal probably knew of Australia, most of it was in the Spanish zone.

Spain conquered most of southern America (and the Philippines that happened to be within their Tordesillas zone). Unlike the Portuguese they were less interested in trade than in pure plunder of gold. In the process they destroyed all the indigenous civilisations they came across. They were no doubt motivated by the feeling of intense superiority that had sustained the "reconquest" of Spain from the Muslims. Is it poetic justice that they destroyed their own economy in the process?

Spanish occupation of Portugal accelerated the decline of the Portuguese empire as it became vulnerable and allowed the northern European powers, England, the Netherlands and France to take over much of it.

In Indonesia most of the Portuguese trading posts were taken over by the Dutch (leaving only East Timor). In the Americas they retained Brazil. In India their trading post at Goa (and some other very small posts at Diu and Damao) remained but gradually became surrounded by British territory. Ceylon went first to the Dutch then to the British. The Portuguese role as the main face of Europe in the world passed to Spain, and then to the English and French.

In India and North America there was a struggle between Britain and France. By the end of the 18th century - the Seven Years War (1756-63) - British hegemony of the parts of the world accessible by sea was the outcome of that struggle. The result was the worldwide British Empire that dominated the 19th century, and decayed in the 20th. But the French also had an extensive empire both in Indo-China and in Africa so that often British and French colonies had common frontiers.

American hegemony
By the end of the 20th century the European influence in the world had declined but had been replaced by the United States, which maintained armed forces in every continent and had no challenge from the former Great Powers. This seems unlikely to last much longer in the 21st century, as the American economy declines relatively, and becomes vulnerable to its weaknesses of dependence on imported energy and consumer goods, and to the rise of China and India to the relative positions they enjoyed in the first millennium, but lost in the second half of the second millennium. This century may well see the end of the Western hegemony. Will it be replaced by a new Chinese dominance? Or instead by global cooperation to tackle the serious global problems that are the real threat to human hegemony - Climate Change, Resource shortage, and others? No single global power, acting on its own, can affect these common problems.

We may be living through the kind of change described by Ibn Khaldun who says that when a society gets its basic services performed by people from outside, these will end up controlling it. His classic example was the way the Abbasid Khalifate came to rely on Turkish soldiers. Eventually the Commander of the army came to control the Khalif, who after Haroun al Rashid became a cypher or figurehead. The same happened in Rome when the army was filled with Germans. The British army increasingly recruits soldiers from the former colonies, such as Fiji.

Oil and other energy sources are more important than the former addiction for sugar and spices. But the power has shifted to the owners of these substances.

Modern drug trades - heroin and cocaine - are not controlled by states but by criminal organisations. However, some states are in fact dependent on the money spent by these organisations. Bolivia, Colombia and Peru are the most obvious. But they do not give rise to empires. (We should remember that some of the eminent trading companies of Hong Kong got their start from opium smuggling into China by apparently respectable Scotsmen.)

Interesting reading

There is a witty article in this book about the craving for mildly hallucinogenic nutmeg that drove the Europeans to seek out its source: the Age of Discovery was a Drug craving.

David Quammen

The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder

Die zwei Hörner des Rhinozeros. Kuriose und andere Geschichten vom Verhältnis des Menschen zur Natur

Replenishing the earth - the Settler Revolution

BBC story
E J Hobsbawm - Age of Capital

The Age of Capital, 1848-75

Die Bluetezeit des Kapitals. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Jahre 1848 - 1875

Fareed Zakaria - The Post-American World

The Post-American World: And The Rise Of The Rest

The future of empire

United States
Some of the people in the United States government during the second Bush presidency (2001-2009) apparently desired an American Empire (See Project for a New American Century). They relied on the huge financial power of the United States, and the military force this pays for. However, there are good reasons to believe that this power cannot control an empire of the kind they dream of. The financial power was originally based on the productive capacity of American industry in the period after 1945. Since the rise of the Chinese economy after the death of Mao Zedong the manufacturing has mostly migrated to China. The United States, far from being a source of capital for investment, is now a borrower and pays for its imports by selling bonds to the Japanese and Chinese. Even such a rich country cannot rely on financial muscle for ever. Some oil producers are changing to euros as the medium for selling oil.

Its military power is the result of technology, especially the electronically guided weapons and surveillance systems. But do these weapons allow the control of other states against the wishes of the people? The experience of the war in Vietnam and of occupying Iraq shows that they don't. The older empires depended on the acquiescence of the people who were ruled. Now in the 21st century weapons of resistance are cheap and easily available. Kalashnikovs and Home-made bombs (IEDs - Improvised Explosive Devices) cannot be countered by all the electronic weaponry. Just as Nuclear Weapons proved pointless and unusable, electronic weaponry cannot be used to create and hold an empire. The European empires vanished when they were no longer profitable, and when the people no longer acquiesced. Holding them would have been ruinously expensive. To their credit the British ruling group had grasped this by the 1950s and left, for the most part willingly.

Vladimir Putin inherited a weakened Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was in fact a multi-national Empire controlling many states in Europe and Asia. His military force clearly didn't match that of the United States. But his financial force may be superior. He controls some of the largest stores of oil and gas, and supplies much of Europe with gas for winter heating and generating electricity. The former Soviet colonies in eastern Europe are even more reliant on Russian energy. It is clear that he is trying to use this power, first to gain financial power from being the quasi-monopolist supplier, and then political power to control what kind of governments the customers have. Clearly he prefers dictatorships like his own.

How serious is the prospect of a Russian energy empire? It is hard to tell. Most members of the European Union are taking active steps to diversify their suppliers by buying gas from north Africa, Nigeria and other suppliers. They are talking about building more nuclear power stations. In the medium term future solar power from the Mediterranean area may become a serious competitor, along with geothermal and hydro from Iceland. However, the states of what the Russians call the "near abroad" - those former members of the Soviet Union not in the European Union - may be more vulnerable to Russian influence.

Russia is attempting to dominate the Arctic Ocean, which is suspected to cover large stores of oil and gas.

As the Age of Oil and fossil fuels comes to an end it is hard to forecast how power will be deployed. Already China is actively trying to acquire oil supplies in Sudan and Central Asia. This is happening even though China has never in the past been interested in overseas possessions - but never before has been dependent on overseas products. There are said to be tens of thousands of Chinese in Angola, a major oil country and mineral producer. China has signed an agreement with the government in Congo-Kinshasa to take over the whole country, making it in effect the colonial power. Possibly, for a while the owners of oil will become immensely powerful over their customers, as Putin clearly hopes Russia will be. It seems unlikely that there will be a repeat of the Iraq war when a customer tried to control directly the supplies.

If the post Climate change world is one where inter-continental transport has become more expensive and rarer perhaps the exercise of military and financial power in other parts of the world will become simply impossible - but doubtless the military will be the last users of oil.

Here is an exchange from a discussion forum:
Question: Is there any country that isn't financially dependent on other countries?

If not, then does this mean that all countries have lost their freedom of action?


In the 19th century Britain was dominant in most areas of the world. The British government could make decisions and the others had to adapt to them. That is no longer the case. In fact the British government seems to have decided always to do whatever the US government wishes. That's dependence.

For much of the 20th century the US was in the position of dominance. But since the rise of China and the transfer of American industry there, the US has lost that position. China's financial dominance of the US economy has consequences. One of those is that the US president can't meet the Dalai Lama if it annoys China - which it does. I am sure this trend will increase.

Consider: in 1956 the British, French and Israelis plotted together to take the Suez Canal from Egypt with a contrived war. They met with unexpected Egyptian resistence. But what actually brought that war to an end was a simple decision in Washington. Eisenhower threatened to pull the plug on the British pound. Anthony Eden the British prime minister thought he was in charge of the British Empire (even though India had gone). He was shown he was mistaken. That was when the British realised the empire was over.

The United States will have these moments too. If China really seriously disapproves of some action the US government is planning, financial pressure will make sure it doesn't happen.

For example, at the end of January 2010 the Chinese government announced its opposition to a sale by the United States of weapons systems to Taiwan. China threatened to end some cooperation agreements if the US did not back down. We shall see what happens next.

In January 2012 China’s military commented unfavorably on US plans to increase military force in the Asia-Pacific area.

Some Americans appear to have fantasies about worldwide power of Islam. Surely, this is a fantasy. Power follows money, not religion.

The end of hegemony?
See this article. The end of hegemony means lower incomes for all westerners.

Last revised 24/07/12


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