I have always been a bit of a history buff. Not a professional mind you but a student. When I was a young man I had been accepted into the Master of History program at a relatively prestigious northeastern university but for personal reasons I was unable to attend. I had a wife and child by that time and needed to make a living. I didn’t give it a second thought though I kept my interest.
Back in the day, the 50s that is, I attended a fine New York city high school. And of course we all got basic world history classes.
So there we were, us 50s kids, children of the Cold War, learning about the Conquistadors and the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca. It seemed a bit surreal – Cortez with a handful of men conquers the Aztecs, kills Montezuma and sacks Tenochtitlan. Surreal, considering that the Aztecs had thousands of men in arms and a mighty capitol city built on an island.
So the scrawny fifteen year old teen raises a hand and asks the question.
“Why didn’t the Aztecs win? Didn’t the Aztecs have a navy? Why weren’t a couple of hundred Aztecs with superior technology standing before the gates of Granada demanding surrender?
Teacher looks at young white boy (we were all white then) and quotes social Darwinism.
“Europeans were superior; that’s why.” Or words to that affect.
Proof of this was plain for all to see. By the middle of the nineteenth century, some 350 years later Europeans dominated the globe. The sun never set on the Empire, all of Africa was colonized (save Ethiopia and that would come later) Central and South America was solidly Catholic and spoke Spanish or Portuguese, North America was the child of Great Britain, solidly Protestant, speaking English as was Australia and New Zealand. The French held out in Quebec. The Raj ruled in India.
Only China and Japan resisted domination by the West by becoming totally closed societies.
Today the world over the great European languages are spoken, it’s music played, it’s opera sung, it’s literature read. While a billion people may speak Chinese, relatively few outside of China bother to learn it while educated Chinese master English or French.
Now don’t get me wrong – not for a moment do I believe that the Europeans were “superior” in the Darwinist sense. What was it however, what factors contributed to European world domination of the globe?
This is a difficult question to answer. What were the cultural imperatives which drove Columbus to sail to the Americas rather than an envoy of Montezuma showing up at the court of Isabella or ten thousand Zulus landing in Sicily?
These are the questions I have pondered lately for it is on this 500 years of European domination that the concept of white privilege and the inferiority of others rests. On these 500 years the edifice of social Darwinism and white privilege are built.
A number of historians have laid the relatively easy conquest of the Americas at the foot of disease. Certainly by 1600 a great majority of indigenous peoples had succumbed to diseases unknown prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Disease however does not explain the absence of an Aztec fleet or a higher level of technology.
Additionally, there were no horses in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish. This too however does not explain why the Europeans came to the Americas and the indigenous peoples did not show up in Europe.
So what was it about Europe?
My ponderings lead me to several main topics – Geography and the rise of European nation states, technology (particularly in warfare) the birth of capitalism and Christianity.
The fall of Rome in the West in the mid-700s left Europe fragmented, isolating groups of peoples in distinct areas behind several substantial geographic boundaries. Britain was an Island. The Pyrenees separated Spain and Portugal from France. Italy was separated from what would become Germany by the Alps while great rivers, the Rhine and Danube marked the boundaries of other regions. Behind these geographic markers the common people forgot Latin. New languages developed from the Latin root and by 1500 European languages were distinctly regional.
By 1500 England, Spain, France, Portugal had been united by their respective monarchs. Even Germany, fragmented after centuries of feudal strife and the emperors’ struggle with the Papacy, saw its fortunes seem to revive with the rise of the Hapsburg Dynasty that controlled the imperial throne at this time.
Along with the rise of the European nation state came nationalism as rulers encouraged their subjects to think of themselves as English, French or Spanish, each of whom began to think of themselves superior to the “other.” If the Spanish thought of themselves as better than the British, what would they think of Aztecs?
The rise and use of technological innovation in warfare brought the use of gun powder, muskets and artillery to the 16th century battlefields of Europe. The 15th century had seen the Hundred Years War followed by the War of the Roses. In France the wars of unification went on and in Spain the Muslims were expelled and the country united with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. Europeans had lots of experience at war. Cortez had artillery with him at Tenochtitlan.
These new European armies, creations of the monarchs of distinctly new nation states, were expensive. After all, the soldiers in these armies were mercenaries expecting to be paid in peace or war. Equipping these new armies and navies was expensive. Which leads us to money, finances and economics.
National wealth had become much more important. Gold became much more important. Trading routes became much more important. And making or taking money from enemies was a way for a person not of noble birth to make his fortune. Conquistadores were in it for the money.
Enter religion – Catholics and Protestants.
The Spanish and Portuguese Catholic monarchs and churchmen decided that souls needed to be saved even while enslaving these non-Europeans and stealing their wealth. Friars came to Latin America to convert the heathen ignorant souls. Those who governed brought with them the rigid class structure and social attitudes of Imperial Spain and Portugal. One can see these class and social attitudes in Latin America to this very day.
In North America on the other hand those who first landed were fleeing the church of England or the crown. They brought with them their Calvinist ethics, particularly the doctrine of pre-destination, which stated that God already knows who is “saved” and who is not. Therefor it was reasoned that the chosen “elect of God” would be blessed and successful here on earth.
This doctrine made hard workers of Protestants – success and wealth might be an indication of being one of the “elect.” Additionally, class structure was nowhere near as rigid as in Latin America and success in the north resulted in class mobility.
And so those Protestants who came to North America thought success an indication from God that they were one of the elect and were pre-destined to be saved. They were ruthless in their drive for wealth and power in the new world. The native American tribes were swept off the land without as much as a by your leave. No one cared if their souls were saved – they were obviously not the elect of God.
There is a reason why the Protestant North is so much richer than the Catholic South. Social and class mobility.
Thus began the dominion of Europeans over most of the rest of the world for five centuries before the Europeans almost destroyed themselves in two world wars.
Why did the Aztecs not look at the ocean and dream of sailing to the other side? Why were they not technologically further along in 1500? Did they have any real science or only their religion to explain their world?
I don’t know. But the cultural imperatives of the nation state, technology, the lust for wealth and the saving of souls are the reasons the Europeans so easily won.
And it was this 500 year European dominion over most of the world that convinced white people they were better than others.