European Expansion and the Consequences of Empire

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European Expansion and the Consequences of Empire

Okay, today we’re going to talk about European Expansion and Imperialism. In particular, we’re going to ask what motivated outward expansion, and what things made it possible. But just as importantly, we’re going to look at the impact of expansion and the new Empires on European social, political, and cultural life and identity.

But before we get to these things, I’d first like to consider the significance of this topic for modern Western identity. Different interpretations or ways of looking at history, I suggested, have important consequences for social and political power and identity in today’s world.
Now, nowhere are the politics of history more apparent than in recent debates over how the history of European expansion in the sixteenth century should be presented. For a long time, at least into the 1960s, the discoveries of Columbus and others and the conquest of the “New World” had been celebrated as one of the great episodes in Western history. For much of Western history it was seen as a sign of Western dynamism, cultural superiority, and even Western values of individualism and progress. It was also viewed a triumph of Western technology. Finally, this new expansion was considered crucial to economic and political modernization back home in Europe — a motor, of sorts, driving Europe toward a better society.
Now, this older model of interpretation is not necessarily wrong. And for the West at least, the impact of expansion was in many ways positive — it did contain many elements that one might label “progressive.” But it did tend to marginalize the more destructive impact of expansion, especially on the indigenous population. According to this narrative, that was bound to happen when a dynamic, assertive civilization met a passive, primitive. And while that in itself is a value-laden statement, older versions of western expansion tended not to pass moral judgment.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, more and more scholars began advocating a different narrative of European expansion. They argued that the older version perpetuated feelings of Western superiority over other cultures, while downplaying the destruction that it wrought on indigenous peoples. More than that, some thought that the old, less critical version implicitly justified 20th-century Western imperialism — this was, after all, the time of the Vietnam war, which some people thought was an imperialist war. These scholars and sometimes social activists as well thus wanted to see more emphasis placed on the negative consequences of the expansion, and not just its human cost. That might also pose a challenge to modern imperialism. But more than that, a more critical narrative of sixteenth century European expansion and imperialism might contribute to a redefinition of Western identity. It might make Westerners more self-critical of their history, and, by extension, their role in the world today. It might also make them more sensitive to other cultures, particularly in the Third World.
Now, because you’ve all become critical and skeptical historical thinkers, you can the advocates of a new narrative of imperial expansion had a political agenda. While many serious scholars looking to set the record straight, many are quite conscious of the fact that they are using as a tool in a broader social and political debate. But so, too, are the defenders of a more traditional interpretation.
The debate over how to treat the history of European expansion came to a head in 1992, which was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s rule. People argued specifically, and sometimes very angrily, about how school children and college students, should learn about this topic. The debate was, like the one over Black Athena, part of the so-called “culture wars” that some people say are today more important than battles over government spending and other such things. Because at stake is how we think about ourself and even act in the world.
Now, I don’t want to get into this any further, but I think that the way we approach this topic especially does have important consequences for people’s identity and politics today. And that, as much as the basic “facts” that surround it, is why we should continue to engage critically with it today. But all politics of history aside, however, think that the topic of European expansion gives us an opportunity to observe how identities are created, especially in terms of “Others.”
II. The Motives and Means of Expansion

Okay, lets get to the Motives and Means of Expansion, the “facts of history.” Specifically, we should ask why it was Europe and not some other civilization that embarked on a long and successful period of expansion. And as you might expect by now, there are multiple, interconnected causes for this.

The most often cited motivation for expansion was economic. With the growing prosperity of Europe by the late 15th century, there was a greater demand for imported products. Above all, Europeans wanted spices from East Asia. The problem was that just as demand was increasing, the Ottoman Turks had taken control of the major trade roots to Asia. By acting as middlemen and taking a cut, Turks and other Arabs traders increased the final price of all imported products to Europe. So, people began thinking about finding new trade routes over the seas to cut out this middle-man and reduce prices.
In addition, Europe’s population had by the end of the 15th century begun to recover from the disasters of the 14th century. But with population growth, land once again became particularly scarce, and some people, especially the second or third sons of nobles and landowners, thought they might find land elsewhere — perhaps abroad.
The centralizing monarchs I keep mentioning also saw the benefits in exploration and expansion. Not only would that generate more trade, which they could then tax, it would also increase the power, status, and wealth of the king and his kingdom.
Third, despite the rise of secularism, Europeans remained deeply religious. Many still saw it as their mission to spread Christianity in the world, especially as their confidence began to be restored with the economic and political stability of the late 15th century. You might say that there was a lingering Crusader mentality among many Europeans. In 1492, the Spanish, for example, had finally pushed the Muslims out of Spain. Feeling triumphant, they wanted to continue to spread Christianity. The Catholic Church, moreover, saw an opportunity to gain new converts to Christianity. Indeed, once they realized that a whole new world was out there just waiting to be converted, the Church embarked on a mission to universalize Christianity — this was much more ambitious than other attempts at conversion.
Finally, the rising spirit of individualism also spurred exploration and expansion. The Renaissance concept of virtú, I think, may have motivated many an explorer to take the plunge. In many ways, embarking on a voyage to an unknown place and unknown future was the ultimate expression of virtú. Only the ambitious, opportunistic, and brave man could succeed. And while heading out into the unknown was dangerous and fraught with risk, but it also opened enormous possibilities for shaping one’s own destiny. Christopher Columbus, who was born in Genoa in 1466 at the height of the Italian Renaissance, in many ways reflected this individualistic spirit that motivated many of the first explorers. Moreover, in a world still shaped by rigid social hierarchies, a career in the new world offered chances for social mobility. The average sailors who went on the first voyages to the New World and lived to tell about, for example, often became rich men.
Finally, for the feudal class — remember, “those who fought” — the New World offered an outlet for their warrior ethos. And even if they didn’t spend a lot of time fighting once they had set up shop in the New World, the form of rule that they established over the indigenous population and later African slaves resembled the older feudal, manorial system. So, European expansion abroad provided a social outlet for this displaced class.

Now, you can have all the motivations in the world, but if you don’t have the means, you’re not going to get very far. But by the end of the 15th century, several European states increasingly did have the means to undertake expansion. Above all, technological innovations, especially in ships, sailing, and navigation made the overseas explorations possible. Compasses, new maps, and navigation techniques meant that sailors didn’t always have to keep land in sight. New sail technology allowed ships to keep moving in any direction no matter which way the wind was blowing. And new, larger ships could hold more cargo, making it profitable to embark on long voyages.

The Europeans had begun to develop better weapons than other civilizations. All that fighting they had been doing with each other over the past couple centuries had led to the development of better weapons. In particular, the Europeans learned to harness the power of gunpowder in cannons and musket. Cannons and guns, along with steal swords, made the Europeans militarily far superior to indigenous populations in most other parts of the world. It wasn’t even close, and they were easily able to subjugate whatever populations they encountered. (US vs. Iraq: Iraqi soldier in broken English).
Finally, as I alluded to before, European monarchs were willing to finance exploration and later colonization. Exploration and setting up a colonies wasn’t cheap, and people like Christopher Columbus needed money, lots of it, to do it. And they found it at the royal courts of these increasingly powerful European monarchs, who were willing to supply them with what they needed. But they also had strong monarchs would supported them. Because they knew that it would eventually help them. The ruler of Portugal, Prince Henry, was so gung ho about exploration that he’s been given the name Prince Henry the Navigator. He set up navigation schools and supported explorers with money and ships. Finally, the Church, always looking for new converts, also lent explorers and colonizers a helping hand.
So together, a whole series of interconnected social, economic, political and cultural motivations, along with the technological and financial means to realize them, enabled Europe to embark on a long history of exploration and expansion that wouldn’t really end until the beginning of the 20th century.

III. Establishing an Empire

Now, I’m not going to say a lot about the actual explorations themselves or the explorers — most of you probably know a little bit about them anyway. Suffice it to say that the Portuguese and the Spanish led the way, not least of all because they had always been sea-fairing societies.

Portuguese explorers such as Vasco de Gama sought a new trade route to the Indian Ocean around Africa. And in 1498, he succeeded in circumnavigating the Horn of Africa and establishing a Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean. And when he was challenged there by an Arab navy, he and his ships quickly did them in with their cannons. By establishing a trade route around North Africa, moreover, the Portuguese helped put the Genoese and the Venetians out of business, another important, if often overlooked reason for the end of the Renaissance.
But it’s Christopher Columbus’s discoveries that were much more important. As I said, Columbus was born in Genoa. But he also spent some time working in Portugal, where he may have been influenced by the new culture of exploration. He then managed to work his way into the Spanish court, where he got Queen Isabella and Kind Ferdinand to support his mission to the Indies.
And, as we know, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and discovered the Hispaniola and other islands of what we now call the West Indies. Now, I know it’s a wonderful myth, but he didn’t think the world was flat — in fact, few people did by the end of the 15th century. He knew all along that he was heading toward the East Indies (Indonesia), but he bumped into America along the way. And to his death he remained convinced that he had actually reached the East Indies.

Now, in subsequent voyages Columbus and other did set up some plantations in the West Indies and the northern coast of South. But it was largely in the two decades after Columbus’s death in 1509 that the Spanish Empire in the New World was created. After having learned of the potential wealth of the New World, a new group of Spanish adventurers called Conquistadores set out for the new world with the intention of conquering a vast Empire for Spain, the Church, and not least of all themselves.

Two of the most famous are Hernando Cortés, who quickly defeated the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro, who just as easily, if in part through subterfuge, subjugated the Inca Empire in Peru. He kidnapped the Incan king, demanded a ransom of gold, and when they got it, killed the king anyway. The Incan army fell into disarray and thus easy prey for Spanish soldiers. We don’t need to harp on the details, but suffice it to say that the initial military victories and subjugations were accompanied by massive and brutal slaughter of the indigenous population. I think you’ll get the picture after reading Las Casas.

IV. Consequences

So, by 1540 Portugal and especially Spain had acquired a massive new Empire that encompassed the West Indies, most of Mexico, and most of South America — or at least it’s most profitable coastal regions.
What, then, were the consequences of this new empire and the new European imperialism? Well, for the indigenous population, it was an absolute disaster. In fact, few other human tragedies in history compare, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to what happened to the indigenous people. First and foremost, within about a century after the Spanish first arrived, the indigenous population had declined by some 80-90%, from perhaps as many as 20 million to 2 million. The vast majority died from diseases brought by the Europeans to which the natives had no immunity. Tens of thousands, however, did die at the hands of the invaders. Altogether, it may have been the most catastrophic population decline in history, even worse than Europe’s Great Plague.
In addition, those that remained were forced into servitude. They lost all political and economic independence, and were brutally ruled by the invaders. And they were often coerced into rejecting their own religion and converting to Christianity. They were also not allowed to practice their own culture. The result was that they were stripped of their identity and forced to assume a new one and a new social and economic role that had been imposed on them. Although vestiges of it remained, the Spanish effective destroyed the indigenous culture and way of life.

The conquest of the New World also had an effect on Africa. The rapid depopulation led to a labor shortage. The Spanish and Portuguese thus began importing hundreds of African slaves, creating in the New World a slave society. The New Atlantic Slave trade also transformed Africa. Not only were hundreds of thousands of Africans uprooted and had their lives destroyed, but local African elites and kings collaborated with the Europeans. They used the slave trade to establish strengthen their own political systems and repress their own populations.

For Europe, however, the New World meant a massive influx of goods and money — especially silver. This would jump start what is known as the commercial revolution of the 16th and especially the 17th centuries, which I’ll be talking about in a few weeks. A truly global trading system began to take shape. For those of you who are interested in “globalization” — it’s not a phenomenon that started in the 20th century, but has its roots here. The increase in trade and commerce also feuled the continued growth of an urban middle class continued.

Finally, the new wealth strengthened still more the centralizing monarchies, giving them addition sources of revenue. For nearly 150 years after Columbus’ discovery, Spain was the dominant European power, not least of all because of the wealth coming in from her colonies. But at the same time, colonial rivalries emerged between European states that changed the nature power politics for centuries to come. The New World became one of the central battlegrounds of Great European states.

But just as important, the consequences for European cultural identity were just as important. On the one hand, the conquest of a New Empire and the enormous wealth that flowed from it gave Europeans a new sense of confidence and a feeling of cultural superiority. In the new hierarchy of peoples, they stood at the top. And while it was their duty to “civilize” the people of the New World, it was also their right to rule over them.

Now, Europeans had always felt superior over other cultures — remember Song of Roland and The Crusades? But now they had the means to control those cultures as never before. And that only further reinforced their superiority complex, which would shape the next four centuries of European imperialism.

Now, while expansion and Empire may have given Europeans a sense of superiority, it also created a number of problems. Above all, how to rule the Empire and people’s in it. At first, the individual conquistadores were granted by the state land and the right to rule over the indigenous populations. The central governments in the home countries didn’t have much authority over them.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, however, the central governments, especially in Spain, began to assert their control over the colonies. For example, in 1547 Charles V, the same one who had invaded Italy, called the Council of the Indies to discuss how to better rule the colonies — one of the results was a greater role of the state. This was part of the continuing process of centralization itself — it was now being extended to the colonies. And in some ways this brought some relief to the indigenous population, which had suffered immensely under the unrestrained power of the first colonizers.

In addition, Europeans were also trying to figure out how to treat the indigenous population. At first, they didn’t even know whether or not to believe the natives had souls or not — it wasn’t clear that they could be converted. But in 1537, the Pope answered this question by saying yes, they did in fact have souls, and could be converted.
the rise of a new economic system in Europe during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This new economic system was marked first and foremost by an enormous increase in trade and commerce. This new trade and commerce, which together constituted a so-called “Commerical Revolution,” was much more widespread than the trade that we’ve seen in middle ages and during the Renaissance. While that trade may have reshaped life in towns and cities, its impact still remained limited to them. The commerical revolution, on the other hand, would fundamentally alter European life across the board, putting, you might say, the final nail in the coffin of the medieval economy. At the same time, it would create a new, economically influential merchant class. And it would strengthen enormously the power of centralized states. Finally, this commercial revolution can be seen as paving the way for “capitalism”.
Now, capitalism as we think of it did not arrive in Europe until sometime in the eighteenth century. And as your textbook also points out, people didn’t actually start using the word capitalism until the nineteenth century. The period we’re looking at is thus best described as a period of transition from the medieval economy to a more modern one. Nevertheless, during this period we see the emergence of profit incentives, private economic interests, investments, supply and demand and wage labor as the motors if the economy. That is, many of the things that we normally associate with a free market, capitalist economy.
Now, the point I’d like to make today is that this was the result of both private initiatives on the part of entrepreneurs and the policies of an interventionist state.

I. Preconditions for the Commerical Revolution

Okay, like just about any major new historical development, the commerical revolution didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Important “structural” changes in the economy and society made it possible.
What were some of these?

First, the expansion of trade and commerce that had been going on since the Renaissance continued unabated. So, while trade and commerce picked up steam after 1550, it was in some ways a continuation of a longer historical trend. Now, much of this increase had to do with the new foreign trade that resulted from European expansion. But this external trade with the New World and the Indies helped create a new commodoties market inside of Europe. There was a lot more buying and selling of goods like spices, tea, tobacco, sugar, and other such things in European towns that in turn generated more economic activities and opportunities, especially for the growing class of merchants inside of Europe.

Second, Europe’s population had almost doubled between 1460 and 1620 from around 45 million to 80 million. With more people, demand for just about everything went up. And when demand goes up, so, of course, do prices. This rise in prices was also helped by an influx of gold and silver from the New World, although population growth was more important. Economic historians usually speak of a “price revolution” or “great inflation” in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that didn’t really end until 1650.
But how does this contribute to a rise in commerical activity? Well, if you know that your money is going to be worth less in just a few years, you might have a greater incentive to invest it in hopes of getting a better return. And you might even consider borrowing more money to invest as well. Inflation is not always a bad thing — it leads people to spend their money instead of saving it, thereby creating economic demand, activity and growth. It can add a “kick” to a stagnant economy. Think of Japan’s Economy.
The increase in population and the rise in prices also affected the patterns of land use. As I said when I talked about European Expansion, there was in the sixteenth century a growing land shortage, forcing some son’s of landowners to look abroad. Land was thus becoming more expensive. Now, landlords, which had since the High Middle Ages been renting out land to peasants, wanted to get their land back. They wanted to get in on this new market economy by reentering the agricultural market — the price of bread was also rising, so there was a lot of money to be made. So they began a process known as Enclosure. First, they took away heritable leases. Second, they began to raise the rents on the land so high that the peasants couldn’t afford it. And third, they wouldn’t allow peasants to use for free what were known as common lands — lands still owned but not worked by the landlord.
The effect of this process of Enclosure was first to force the peasants to become wage workers for the landowners. Second, agricultural production became much more efficient — instead of a family of peasants working a small plot of land, large tracts of land could be cultivated at once. And to do that, you didn’t need as many workers. The result of all of this was that many peasants were pushed out of agriculture altogether. But that made them available to do other things like manufacture textiles. In effect, Enclosure helped produce a new class of poor, low-wage workers that could be employed doing other things. More than that, it really finished off what was left of the medieval manorial economy.

II. Commercial Capitalism: Entrepreneurs and Private Interest

So, an already growing internal commodoties market, external trade, rising prices, and the growing availability of cheap labor create the conditions for what is known as the “commerical revolution”, which was essentially a widespread expansion of commerce, trade, and manufacturing. And leading this economic expansion was a growing class of merchants and entrepreneuers. Now, Merchants were already in the best position to take advantage of these new structural changes in the economy. By doing so, they made what might be considered — and now I’m returning to my thesis — the private contribution to the development of a new economy.
So what did they do exactly? Well, one thing they did was circumvent the old guilds. Remember the guilds, those medieval economic organizations that controlled things like prices, wages, and production in towns and cities? Not free-market institutions, to say the least. Well, in the sixteenth century merchants slowly developed something known as the “Putting Out” system. What is this? Well, instead of buying finished products from guilds, merchants began to hire workers to make things that they would then sell. And many of the workers they would hire were those same dispossessed peasants who had lost their land and livelihood because of Enclosure. What they’d do is provide workers with raw materials, pay them either wages or a price for a certain number of finished products, and then sell those products in the market.
This slowly undercut the guilds, as merchants had 1) better access to markets for both raw and finished materials and 2) could pay unskilled workers abysmally low wages. (Remember how important skill was to those medieval artisans?) In time, merchants thus came to dominate both the manufacturing and selling of goods, and were not beholden to traditional price, quality, or labor controls of the guilds. Altogether, the “Putting Out” system was vastly more efficient. As a result, it helped create a much larger market for manufactured goods in Europe.
Now, the expansion of trade and manufacturing also led to new financial innovations. First, banking continued to expand. Now, banks had already sprung up in Renaissance Italy. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they became more internationalized. Banking houses like the Medici would set up branches in the booming trading cities of Northern Europe. And at these branches people could cash checks — a new innovation that made exchanging large sums of money easier. Not only would banks lend money at an interest rate, but they would also allow customers to set up accounts and pay them interest back. So, more people start putting their money into banks instead of under the mattress. Banks, in turn, can then lend out even more money. All of this leads to more investments and capital in circulation — more money could be plowed back into the economy.
Another important innovation was the so-called joint-stock company. Joint-Stock companies allowed individual investors to buy into an economic venture or a company. Now they started off as ways to finance trade expeditions to the Far East or the New World. But in time, they became more elaborate and finance larger, more permanent business ventures. What these joint-stock companies essentially did was to spread risk around. If an expedition or some other commercial venture failed, the individual investor wouldn’t lose his shirt. He could also get out whenever he wanted by selling his shares — that is, investments became transferrable. That made him all the more willing to invest in an enormous venture that may have been very risky, but also potentially promised a huge pay off.
One of the earliest and most famous of these joint-stock companies was the East-India Company which was founded around 1600. In addition to importing goods from the the East Indies, this company also became an agent of British imperialism. Another one you might be familiar with was the Massachussettes Bay Company, which was put together in 1629 by Puritan stock-holders — you know, the Pilgrims. Thus along with others like the Virginia Company, joint-stock companies, driven by a new class of merchants who were seeking to take advantage of new economic opportunities, played a crucial role in British colonization of North America.
But again, what’s perhaps important about these joint-stock companies is that in them we see the origins of a much more effective way of organizing and distributing capital and thus promoting economic growth.
Finally, these merchants and entrprenuers also contributed to the formation of a new culture or mentality. These people placed a new premium on economic endeavor, on making money for its own sake. This was not just about making money to live. Instead, making money became a way of life, indeed an end in itself. Profits and economic success thus came to define the new merchant identity, especially in England and the Netherlands. But perhaps most importantly, this new value system and identity — which, as we’ve seen, fit well with Calvinism — helped create a sustainable dynamic of economic growth — it keeps going and going.

III. Mercantilism: The State and Public Interest

Now, returning to my thesis — these merchants, driven by private economic interests and private capital, were only one half of the story of the commercial capitalism. Just as important was the role played by states. First of all, states turned out to be, as they are today, some of the best consumers. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that consumed everything from ships and guns to luxury goods. Government spending was thus an important stimulus to commerce and trade.
But perhaps more important than that, States, especially those with strong, centralized systems of government, were very interested in fostering these new economic trends themselves. What they wanted to do was to harness the energy of the new commerical economy in order to strengthen their own financial and, ultimately, political and military position. Thus even though they were aware that a new, influential merchant class was being created, kings and their ministers still thought it in their best interest to help this new economic dynamism and commercial activity along still more. They were, you might say, thinking like economic nationalists.
So, how do they do this? Well, first of all they recognized the need to provide law and order, both domestically and internationally, to create stable conditions for this new economic activity. For example, they’d build navies to protect shipping. And they’d create police forces to protect domestic commerce. US NAVY
In addition, the state increasingly developed and enforced new laws to regulate trade and trade disputes. In fact, more and more the legal systems in England, France, and elsewhere became focused primarily on providing laws to regulate the new commercial activity that was developing in the 17th century. States also began investing more and more in roads, seaports, and other areas of the infrustructure in an attempt to facilitate both domestic and international trade.
But perhaps most importantly, monarchical states sought to maintain and always increase a favorable balance of trade. This is the idea that lies at the heart of the economic theory known as mercantilism, which was espoused above all by the French royal minister to King Louis 14th, Jean Baptiste Colbert. Colbert and other mercantilist thinkers believed that their was an absolute amount of wealth in the world. And the goal of the State was to ensure that its country would get the biggest share that wealth. And the way to do that was to accumulate more gold and silver than any other country by running a favorable balance of trade.
And the way to do this was through tariff and import policies aimed 1) at keeping foreign products out of the domestic market and 2) increasing imports. In addition, states could grant certain companies monopolies on trade. For example, the English crown granted the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea. And in1651, it passed what is known as Navigation Act which essentially mandated that only English shippers could carry goods anywhere they wanted, but that they had to do so in English ships. This effectively gave English shippers a monopoly over all trade coming in and out of England.
Now, the overall goal of mercantilism was to protect domestic commercial life and industries and increase the wealth of the nation. In a way, it was like a guild regulation, but at the national level.
But you might wonder, “That doesn’t sound much like capitalism. Capitalism is predicated on the belief that economic activity creates wealth, not on the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth. And capitalism is about free trade, not tarrifs or granting monopolies.” And if you wondered that, you’d be right. Mercantilism was not capitalism, and it certainly wasn’t free. But by encouraging economic growth, even if it was done through highly regulatory, interventionist policies, states that pursued mercantilist policies helped create the conditions for capitalism to take root later. The merchant class, for example, could flourish under a mercantlist system. Thus when the state began to adopt more “free” trade policies, merchants were well positioned to take advantage of them. [East Asian Economies – South Korea, Maylasia, Singapore, and China]

Now, the system set up by Colbert did turn out to be somewhat inflexible, and eventually proved obsolete — they actually made domestic industry stagnate. But the mercantilism of an English thinker named Thomas Mun (1571-1641) proved a bit more flexible and might help explain, at least in part, the greater success of the English economy in the long run. Mun argued that you could import more than you exported, so long as you turned those imports — especially raw materials — into finished products. That would allow you to sell them at a much higher price. In addition, Mun argued that demand was something that could be created through advertising. He thought — and this is perhaps his greatest contribution — that people had a consumer mentality — it was almost a “natural” trait. And it was this consumer mentality, which he said defined English society, that would become the primary engine for dynamic, sustainable economic growth.


Okay, so in conclusion, the commercial revolution of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represented a fundamental break from the much smaller-scale, more status-quo economy of the middle ages. In the process, it created a new dynamic of sustainable, economic growth, — led by an economically dynamic new entrepreneurial class of merchants — that would slowly lead toward a capitalism. But it was not just the private interests of this entrepreneurial class that was responsible for the commerical revolution. We also need to take into account the crucial role of the State.

Now, the upshot of this commercial revolution was the creation of a new economic system that largely overlapped with rising national states. This economic system generated vastly more wealth, especially in Northern and North Western Europe, which from then on became the most dynamic centers of Western Civilization. More than that, through this economic upsurge, Europe’s advantage over other cultures in the world increased still more. The economic foundation for Europe’s global dominance for the next three centuries was thus put into place.

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