World History – Rise of the West

According to many Western thinkers the “rise of the West” occurring in the last 500 years is attributed to internal, typically environmentally related factors that exclude or dismiss features relating to interaction and exchange among disparate societies at different levels of cultural development. The traditional narrative of global history offered by Max Weber proclaims the inevitable rise of Western Europe was made possible through an innate rationality unique to Western people. Karl Marx focuses his attention on industrialism and colonialism which lead to the emergence of capitalism, forming a class struggle and the separation of the private and public realms. Immanuel Wallerstien lectures on of a world economic system with Western Europe at the core of this system. Other bodies of popular discourse in world history declare the West’s success to have come at the expense of other societies through military exploits, economic accumulation and colonial expansion. While the descriptions above represent vast generalizations and oversimplifications of complex theories, the underlying assumptions of these theories create an “iron logic of immanence” that hinder Western imagination through of all of its historical, political and cultural self-renderings. The “rise of the West” is commonly given in self-contained Eurocentric terms that underscore the rational, virtuous and exceptional nature of Western Europeans, ultimately creating a moral success story rather than an honest rendering of history. Myths of superiority pertaining to European agency, environment, biology and culture should be discarded. When recording and studying global history, the entire world must be considered through interdisciplinary lenses taking into account contributions from different societies to explain complex and dynamic processes rather than characterizing it to some pristine reasoning. The aim of this paper is not to undervalue European internal contributions to their definitive rise in becoming a global super power. It is to examine the internal innovations as well as the diffusion and adaptation of external ideas, institutions and resources that were imperative in shaping Western European economic, political and social sectors. The collaboration and interaction among societies in the pre-modern world were influential in shaping the development of the modern world. Through early processes of globalization tangible interconnections were forged between distant regions which lead to interchange and interdependency.

The cultural evolution of any society is dependent upon its relation with other societies. The self-construction of identity and agency within Europe was a social construct formed through global affairs which affected the way they thought and behaved. Europe’s creativity is a testament to its multicultural inheritance and wider geographical linkages with other societies; this runs contradictory to the widespread narrative that describes Europe as a self-contained civilization. The Eurocentric historical account of modernity from Western thinkers follows a familiar pattern placing emphasis on key events in European history. Ancient Greece begot Rome; Rome was transformed into Christian Europe which led to the Renaissance followed by the Enlightenment which caused the Scientific and Agricultural Revolutions and eventual emergence of political democracy coupled with the Industrial Revolution giving birth to the United States which embodied the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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The fact that Western Europeans essentially created social science disciplines of history, geography and political science, focused on in First World institutions, is mirrored in the numerous interpretations which place Western Europe at the centre of the development of the modern world. The notion that the West is self-built as an edifice of difference to which all others are exhorted to aspire is embodied in this quote from former United States president George Bush: “Our traditions of science, religion, philosophy and art have taught us what it means to be human, so if you want to be human become like us, if you choose not, then we have the right to destroy you for the sake of our broader universal truth.” The legacy of this mode of thought can be traced back 2000 years to the Roman Emperor Theodorus who stated “that he who is not Christian is Pagan, heathen and unenlightened”. It is interesting to note the staggering similarities between Christianity and the Islamic faith. Despite being cast as the “evil threat” both believe in one and the same God, both draw on Judaeo-Hellenic traditions and both trace the origins back to Abraham. In addition to this, Christianity’s most important gospels, specifically the narrative of Jesus, resonate more with Asian tradition of Buddhism and Hinduism than that of Roman, Greek or Jewish. There are other material cultural interfusions throughout ancient times such as the names of various imported products: camphor, sulphur, beryl which demonstrates Indian linguistic influences.

The recognition of Christianity’s deep Asian influences were disallowed, however, under monolithic order of doctrine and practice following the burning of the Alexandrian library in 400 c.e. This essentially symbolized that there was no salvation outside of Christ, meaning no salvation outside of the Roman Empire. Asia was deemed “the mystical other” and as Europe entered the Dark Ages centuries later this myth became truth, faith became linked to empire and then a parochial history became romanticized as history As many anti-Eurocentric scholars would contend, if one stands outside of Western empire than one stands outside history. With these proclamations though, Western Europeans now had an identity and agency which would unite them all under the umbrella of Christendom. It is this identity which created the current global situation of deep division along racial, ethnic, religious lines. The majority of revisionist world history depreciates this ideological construct as it is closely tied to the ideas of European uniqueness and exceptionalism intending to justify Western domination. It is this self-generated Western European identity that is the central principle in many narratives of world history. It is a necessary, though not sufficient variable in explaining the rise of the West. The purpose of this clarification is not to ostracize Western agency but rather stress that without the adaptation and appropriation of Eastern and American goods, species and technologies the breakthroughs that developed in Early Modern Europe would not have ensued. The rightful recognition of different regions, segments and processes as vital players in shaping the world is a fundamental requirement in understanding global history. Despite escalating globalization and widely accepted studies outlining East-West intellectual, socio-economic and cultural exchange, Eastern contributions have yet to earn a place in Western contemporary history. Pre-modern civilizations have shown a history of continual and mutual influence over one another through many centuries characterized by a flourishing network of long-distance trade routes linking Eurasia, Africa and later the Americas. These trade routes not only facilitated the transportation and exchange of commodities, they also served as avenues of technological and biological diffusions. These diffusions profoundly influenced development, specifically in Western Europe, resulting in population growth and increased agricultural, industrial and economic production.

A milestone in global history and a turning point for Western Europe was the “Columbian Exchange” in 1492 when Western explorers conquered the ocean. The objective of the mission was to establish more efficient connections with commodities greatly desired in Western Europe. It was the anti-Islam aspect of European identity that led to the Crusades in medieval times which facilitated more widespread trade between the East-West. The most sought after commodities included Chinese silk, Indian spices and African gold. The 15th century nautical methods employed by Europeans during these voyages of discovery were borrowed from the Arabs. The lateen sail as well as the triple mast system which enabled explorers to battle strong winds and travel at faster speeds were assimilated from Islamic navigational techniques. Islamic principles of trigonometry and geometry qualified the calculation of linear distance traveled, while Islamic astronomy was used to create more accurate navigational charts. Islamic innovations in mathematics were imperative in establishing precise locations in daytime hours in addition to calculating longitude and latitude. These skills were honed, altered and improved upon during Vasco de Gama’s voyage traversing Cape of Good Hope in the Indian Ocean, setting a precedent for Spanish exploration of the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus’s famous ship the caravel was constructed using a caravel-planking system derived from the Mediterranean which made use of a strong inner frame. The square hull, sternpost rudder and water tight compartments were all adopted from Eastern shipbuilding practices. It was a combination of assimilated ideas and materials coupled with European curiosity and luck which lead to the transoceanic exchange.

The paternal instinct embedded through centuries of European identity reinforcement is what legitimized the repression, assimilation and exploitation of the American Indians. The advantages of steel and horses in addition to supernatural and biological elements rendered the American Indians hopeless in the fight against their European conquistadors. Epidemic diseases, to which Europeans had grown immune, ravaged the majority of the population while the rest were poached of their resiliency following food shortages, labour shortages and culture destruction. While the Old World made several positive contributions to the New World, the appropriated non-European resources will be examined here. The introduction of many important foods, most notably maize, beans and potatoes were of great importance for increasing food production in Western Europe. These new crops were especially vital given their ability to thrive in different climates and soil conditions. In the Americas the Western Europeans also gained an immense frontier along with a plethora of people, natural resources and precious metals which would prove crucial in their rise to dominance. In addition to the slave trade developing from Africa, they also received productive labour from American Indians in the extraction of bullion. During the Early Modern period, 85 percent of the world’s silver and 70 percent of the world’s gold came from the Americas which enhanced the Western European trade with Asia. This biological and ecological exchange that took place following Spanish establishment of colonies in New World is a substantial illustration of the globalization process. This is one of many incremental gains through the accumulation of knowledge and goods which lead to the preeminent rise of the West. It is important to consider all roots, causes and influences that ascribe widespread change rather than falling into the belief of classical Eurocentric myths. The claim that Europeans exhibited uniquely inventive spirits and exceptional curiosity which lead to the development of capitalism, democracy and everything that defines modernity based on their innately superior intellectual capacity would be irresponsible, yet some scholars ascribe to that theory. Following the “Columbian Exchange” a series of revolutions occurred in Western Europe which were all interrelated and dependent upon one another while also being affected by both internal and external forces.

Many economic historians emphasize the rise of capitalism as the primary factor in Western Europe’s ascension to global dominance, attempting to trace it to a certain city or nation occurring sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries. Popular belief stresses importance on Italian cities in pioneering the financial revolution. Hobson claims that the roots of capitalism, however, are linked to the Islamic Middle East and North Africa dating as far back as the third or fourth century. He claims that Muhammad himself had been a commenda (trader) who married a rich Qurayshi woman who had grown rich from the Caravan trade as well as banking. He also notes how affiliations between the Islam and capitalism can be found in the Qur’an and outlines how merchants of the Muslim empire conform perfectly to what Weber would deem “rational capitalist activity.” Italian cities held a strategic post in Early Modern times representing the connecting point between Christendom and the rest of the global economy. It was through this vital linkage along with experience during the Crusades that Hobson claims the Italians were able to diffuse financial concepts such as bill of exchange, credit institutions, insurance and banking. Regardless of origin, Italy was of central importance to the financial development of Western Europe, improving on or recreating financial processes that would lead to the future development of industrial capitalism. It should be noted that without the surplus of gold and silver recovered from the Americas, Western Europe would not have been able to balance their trade deficit with Asia which would have led to economic collapse before they could emerge as a world leader. The agricultural revolution, which some world historians’ note as the necessary component to the rise of West through the progression of the feudalist system to a capitalist one, would also not have been possible without the assimilation, adaptation and introduction of external ideas and materials. Newly introduced American crops like the potato that could sustain superior productivity through a variety of seasons and offer high caloric yields stimulated population growth while also increasing production by utilizing unused labour power in typical off-seasons. In addition to an increase in food supply and production, the Europeans benefitted from implementing superior Chinese agriculture techniques. Tools like the heavy mold-board plow, iron cutter, horse collar and horse shoe which they modified to function in the heavy soils of Northern Europe are examples of Eastern technologies which were globally transmitted. An important military innovation was the adaptation of “volley-fire” from Asia, which maintained a continuous round of fire when using slow-loading muskets.

Other significant military diffusions which aided in the imperialistic aspirations of Western Europe include gun powder, the gun and the cannon. While gun powder was developed originally by the Chinese to be used in firecrackers, it was the Europeans who implemented it in warfare. The two most important revolutions occurring in Western Europe are inherently associated with one another, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. The evolution in the field of science throughout ancient and modern history is astounding. It is widely accepted that early Islamic civilizations revived classical Greek heritage, while extending the range and strengthening the foundation of the principles on which modern science was constructed. Europe then absorbed and bettered the refurbished Greek sciences further building on the secondary innovations by Muslim scientists. Significant scientific discoveries conveying from China to Europe include alchemy, magnetism, observational astronomy, cosmology and mechanical measurement of time which all played crucial roles in the Newtonian Revolution. The first printing press, widely recognized as originating in Europe, benefitted from an appropriation and subsequent improvement of the Chinese model. The first movable-type printing technologies were found in China while the first metal version was created in 15th century Korea. The spread of useful knowledge and initiation of political reform would have never been possible without the advent of the printing press; critically vital to this is invention is the papermaking process which roots are found in second century China. The 11th century Sung Era in China produced many invaluable industrial innovations that were introduced and adapted in Britain.

The production and manufacture of cast iron and steel tools, along with advancements in the textile industry were emulated several centuries later in Western Europe. Breakthroughs in the smelting process as well as the substitution of coke for charcoal are also worth noting. Windmill and watermill technology combined with coal powered factories fueled the factory system in Western Europe which benefitted from near-surface coal deposits around the country. To fully understand the rise and fall of nations within the global economy one must consider the world as a single entity. A deep-rooted issue in world history is attempting to apply uniform, structural theories to dynamic, unpredictable progressions. It is careless to explain the rise of Western Europe as an immaculate event of perfectly timed historical coincidences. The current position of Western hegemony was shaped by transitional, cyclical processes realized through the diffusion and collaboration of several internal and external concepts and factors. The globalism of the world has been in motion its conception and until a history is written and understood free of any regional, social or cultural bias, that fact will be never be accepted.

Bentley, Jerry. “Cross-cultural Interaction and Production in World History”

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