It was in the Castelo de São Jorge, high in the hills above the windswept harbour of Lisbon, that the newly crowned Portuguese King Manuel put Vasco da Gama in command of four small ships with a big mission. All four vessels could quite easily have fitted inside Zheng He’s treasure ship. Their combined crews were just 170 men. But their mission – ‘to make discoveries and go in search of spices’ – had the potential to tilt the whole world westwards.

The spices in question were the cinnamon, cloves, mace and nutmeg which Europeans could not grow for themselves but which they craved to enhance the taste of their food. For centuries the spice route had run from the Indian Ocean up the Red Sea, or overland through Arabia and Anatolia. By the middle of the fifteenth century its lucrative final leg leading into Europe was tightly controlled by the Turks and the Venetians. The Portuguese realized that if they could find an alternative route, down the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, then this business could be theirs. Another Portuguese mariner, Bartolomeu Dias, had rounded the Cape in 1488, but had been forced by his crew to turn back. Nine years later, it was up to da Gama to go all the way.

King Manuel’s orders tell us something crucially important about the way Western civilization expanded overseas. As we shall see, the West had more than one advantage over the Rest. But the one that really started the ball rolling was surely the fierce competition that drove the Age of Exploration. For Europeans, sailing round Africa was not about exacting symbolic tribute for some high and mighty potentate back home. It was about getting ahead of their rivals, both economically and politically. If da Gama succeeded, then Lisbon trumped Venice. Maritime exploration, in short, was fifteenth-century Europe’s space race. Or, rather, its spice race.

Da Gama set sail on 8 July 1497. When he and his fellow Portuguese sailors rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa four months later, they did not ask themselves what exotic animals they should bring back for their King. They wanted to know if they had finally succeeded where others had failed – in finding a new spice route. They wanted trade, not tribute.

In February 1498, fully eighty-two years after Zheng He had landed there, da Gama arrived at Malindi. The Chinese had left little behind aside from some porcelain and DNA – that of twenty Chinese sailors who are said to have been shipwrecked near the island of Pate, to have swum ashore and stayed, marrying African wives and introducing the locals to Chinese styles of basket-weaving and silk production.23 The Portuguese, by contrast, immediately saw Malindi’s potential as a trading post. Da Gama was especially excited to encounter Indian merchants there and it was almost certainly with assistance from one of them that he was able to catch the monsoon winds to Calicut.

This eagerness to trade was far from being the only difference between the Portuguese and the Chinese. There was a streak of ruthlessness – indeed, of downright brutality – about the men from Lisbon that Zheng He only rarely evinced. When the King of Calicut looked askance at the goods the Portuguese had brought with them from Lisbon, da Gama seized sixteen fishermen as hostages. On his second voyage to India, at the head of fifteen ships, he bombarded Calicut and horribly mutilated the crews of captured vessels. On another occasion, he is said to have locked up the passengers aboard a ship bound for Mecca and set it ablaze.

The Portuguese engaged in exemplary violence because they knew that their opening of a new spice route round the Cape would meet resistance. They evidently believed in getting their retaliation in first. As Afonso de Albuquerque, the second Governor of Portuguese India, proudly reported to his royal master in 1513: ‘At the rumour of our coming the [native] ships all vanished and even the birds ceased to skim over the water.’ Against some foes, to be sure, cannons and cutlasses were ineffective. Half of the men on da Gama’s first expedition did not survive the voyage, not least because their captain attempted to sail back to Africa against the monsoon wind. Only two of the original four ships made it back to Lisbon. Da Gama himself died of malaria during a third trip to India in 1524; his remains were returned to Europe and are now housed in a fine tomb in the monastery of St Jerome in Lisbon. But other Portuguese explorers sailed on, past India, all the way to China. Once, the Chinese had been able to regard the distant barbarians of Europe with indifference, if not contempt. But now the spice race had brought the barbarians to the gates of the Middle Kingdom itself. And it must be remembered that, though the Portuguese had precious few goods the Chinese wanted, they did bring silver, for which Ming China had an immense demand as coins took the place of paper money and labour service as the principal means of payment.

In 1557 the Portuguese reached Macau, a peninsula on the Pearl River delta. Among the first things they did was to erect a gate – the Porta do Cerco – bearing the inscription: ‘Dread our greatness and respect our virtue.’ By 1586 Macau was an important enough trading outpost to be recognized by the Portuguese Crown as a city: Cidade de Nome de Deus (City of the Name of God). It was the first of many such European commercial enclaves in China. Luís da Camões, author of The Lusiads, the epic poem of Portuguese maritime expansion, lived in Macau for a time, after being exiled from Lisbon for assault. How was it, he marvelled, that a kingdom as small as Portugal – with a population less than 1 per cent of China’s – could aspire to dominate the trade of Asia’s vastly more populous empires? And yet on his countrymen sailed, establishing an amazing network of trading posts that stretched like a global necklace from Lisbon, round the coast of Africa, Arabia and India, through the Straits of Malacca, to the spice islands themselves and then on still further, beyond even Macau. ‘Were there more worlds still to discover,’ as da Camões wrote of his countrymen, ‘they would find them too!’24

The benefits of overseas expansion were not lost on Portugal’s European rivals. Along with Portugal, Spain had been first off the mark, seizing the initiative in the New World (see Chapter 3) and also establishing an Asian outpost in the Philippines, whence the Spaniards were able to ship immense quantities of Mexican silver to China.25 For decades after the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had split the world between them, the two Iberian powers could regard their imperial achievements with sublime self-confidence. But the Spaniards’ rebellious and commercially adept Dutch subjects came to appreciate the potential of the new spice route; indeed, by the mid-1600s they had overtaken the Portuguese in terms of both number of ships and tonnage sailing round the Cape. The French also entered the lists.

And what of the English, whose territorial ambitions had once extended no further than France and whose one novel economic idea in the Middle Ages had been selling wool to the Flemish? How could they possibly sit on the sidelines with news coming in that their arch-foes the Spaniards and French were making their fortunes overseas? Sure enough, it was not long before the English joined in the race for overseas commerce. In 1496 John Cabot made his first attempt to cross the Atlantic from Bristol. In 1553 Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor set off from Deptford to seek a ‘North-east Passage’ to India. Willoughby froze to death in the attempt, but Chancellor managed to get to Archangel and then made his way overland to the court of Ivan the Terrible in Moscow. On his return to London, Chancellor lost no time in setting up the Muscovy Company (its full name was ‘The Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places unknown’) to develop trade with Russia. Similar projects proliferated with enthusiastic royal support, not only across the Atlantic but also along the spice route. By the middle of the seventeenth century England’s trade was flourishing from Belfast to Boston, from Bengal to the Bahamas.

The world was being carved up in a frenzy of cut-throat competition. But the question still remains: why did the Europeans seem to have so much more commercial fervour than the Chinese? Why was Vasco da Gama so clearly hungry for money – hungry enough to kill for it?

You can find the answer by looking at maps of medieval Europe, which show literally hundreds of competing states, ranging from the kingdoms of the western seaboard to the many city-states that lay between the Baltic and the Adriatic, from Lübeck to Venice. There were roughly a thousand polities in fourteenth-century Europe; and still around 500 more or less independent units 200 years later. Why was this? The simplest answer is geography. China had three great rivers, the Yellow, the Yangzi and the Pearl, all flowing from west to east.26 Europe had multiple rivers flowing in multiple directions, not to mention a host of mountain ranges like the Alps and the Pyrenees, to say nothing of the dense forests and marshes of Germany and Poland. It may just have been easier for marauding Mongols to access China; Europe was less readily penetrable by a horde on horseback – and therefore had less need of unity. We cannot be sure exactly why the Central Asian threat receded from Europe after Timur. Perhaps Russian defences just got better. Perhaps the Mongol horses preferred steppe grass.

True, as we have seen, conflict could be devastating in Europe – think only of the mayhem caused by the Thirty Years’ War in mid-seventeenth-century Germany. Woe betide those who lived at the frontiers between the dozen or so bigger European states, which were at war on average more than two-thirds of the time between 1550 and 1650. In all the years from 1500 to 1799, Spain was at war with foreign enemies 81 per cent of the time, England 53 per cent and France 52 per cent. But this constant fighting had three unintended benefits. First, it encouraged innovation in military technology. On land, fortifications had to grow stronger as cannon grew more powerful and manoeuvrable. The fate of the ruined ‘robber baron’s’ castle on the Tannenberg above Seeheim in southern Germany served as a warning: in 1399 it became the first European fortification to be destroyed using explosives.

At sea, meanwhile, ships stayed small for good reasons. Compared with the Mediterranean galley, the design of which had scarcely changed since Roman times, the late fifteenth-century Portuguese caravel, with its square-rig sails and two masts, struck an ideal balance between speed and firepower. It was much easier to turn and much harder to hit than one of Zheng He’s giant junks. In 1501 the French device of putting rows of cannon in special bays along both sides of a ship turned European ‘men of war’ into floating fortresses.27 If it could somehow have come to a naval encounter between Zheng He and Vasco da Gama, it is possible that the Portuguese would have sent the lumbering Chinese hulks to the bottom, just as they made short work of the smaller but nimbler Arab dhows in the Indian Ocean – though at Tamao in 1521 a Ming fleet did sink a Portuguese caravel.

The second benefit of Europe’s almost unremitting warfare was that the rival states grew progressively better at raising the revenue to pay for their campaigns. Measured in terms of grams of silver per head, the rulers of England and France were able to collect far more in taxation than their Chinese counterpart throughout the period from 1520 to 1630.28 Beginning in thirteenth-century Italy, Europeans also began to experiment with unprecedented methods of government borrowing, planting the seeds of modern bond markets. Public debt was an institution wholly unknown in Ming China and only introduced under European influence in the late nineteenth century. Another fiscal innovation of world-changing significance was the Dutch idea of granting monopoly trading rights to joint-stock companies in return for a share of their profits and an understanding that the companies would act as naval subcontractors against rival powers. The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, and its eponymous English imitator were the first true capitalist corporations, with their equity capital divided into tradable shares paying cash dividends at the discretion of their directors. Nothing resembling these astoundingly dynamic institutions emerged in the Orient. And, though they increased royal revenue, they also diminished royal prerogatives by creating new and enduring stakeholders in the early-modern state: bankers, bond-holders and company directors.

Above all, generations of internecine conflict ensured that no one European monarch ever grew strong enough to be able to prohibit overseas exploration. Even when the Turks advanced into Eastern Europe, as they did repeatedly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was no pan-European emperor to order the Portuguese to suspend their maritime explorations and focus on the enemy to the east.29 On the contrary, the European monarchs all encouraged commerce, conquest and colonization as part of their competition with one another.

Religious war was the bane of European life for more than a century after the Lutheran Reformation swept through Germany (see Chapter 2). But the bloody battles between Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as the periodic and localized persecution of Jews, also had beneficial side-effects. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Castile and Aragon as religious heretics. Initially, many of them sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but a Jewish community was established in Venice after 1509. In 1566, with the revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule and the establishment of the United Provinces as a Protestant republic, Amsterdam became another haven of tolerance. When the Protestant Huguenots were expelled from France in 1685, they were able to resettle in England, Holland and Switzerland.30 And, of course, religious fervour provided another incentive to expand overseas. The Portuguese Prince Henrique the Navigator encouraged his sailors to explore the African coast partly in the hope that they might find the mythical kingdom of the lost Christian saint Prester John, and that he might then lend Europe a hand against the Turks. In addition to insisting on exemption from Indian customs duties, Vasco da Gama brazenly demanded that the King of Calicut expel all Muslims from his realm and waged a campaign of targeted piracy against Muslim shipping bound for Mecca.

In short, the political fragmentation that characterized Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also propelled Europeans to seek opportunities – economic, geopolitical and religious – in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule – except that, paradoxically, it was by being divided themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world. In Europe small was beautiful because it meant competition – and competition not just between states, but also within states.

Officially, Henry V was king of England, Wales and indeed France, to which he laid claim. But on the ground in rural England real power was in the hands of the great nobility, the descendants of the men who had imposed Magna Carta on King John, as well as thousands of gentry landowners and innumerable corporate bodies, clerical and lay. The Church was not under royal control until the reign of Henry VIII. Towns were often self-governing. And, crucially, the most important commercial centre in the country was almost completely autonomous. Europe was not only made up of states; it was also made up of estates: aristocrats, clergymen and townsfolk.

The City of London Corporation can trace its origin and structure back as far as the twelfth century. Remarkably, in other words, the Lord Mayor, the sheriffs, the aldermen, Common Council, liverymen and freemen have all been around for more than 800 years. The Corporation is one of the earliest examples of an autonomous commercial institution – in some ways the forerunner of the corporations we know today, in other ways the forerunner of democracy itself.

As early as the 1130s, Henry I granted Londoners the right to choose as their own sheriff and justice ‘whom they will of themselves’, and to administer their judicial and financial affairs without interference from the Crown or other authorities.31 In 1191, while Richard I was crusading in the Holy Land, the right to elect a mayor was also granted, a right confirmed by King John in 1215.32 As a result, the City was never in awe of the Crown. With the support of the City’s freemen, Mayor Thomas fitz Thomas supported Simon de Montfort’s revolt against Henry III in 1263–5. In 1319 it was the turn of Edward II to confront the City as the mercers (cloth dealers) sought to reduce the privileges of foreign merchants. When the Crown resisted, the ‘London mob’ supported Roger Mortimer’s deposition of the King. In the reign of Edward III, the tide turned against the City; Italian and Hanseatic merchants established themselves in London, not least by providing the Crown with loans on generous terms, a practice which continued during Richard II’s minority.33 But the Londoners continued to challenge royal authority, showing little enthusiasm for the Crown’s cause during either the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) or the challenge to Richard’s rule by the Lords Appellant. In 1392 the King revoked London’s privileges and liberties, but five years later a generous ‘gift’ of £10,000 – negotiated by Mayor Whittington – secured their restoration. Loans and gifts to the Crown became the key to urban autonomy. The wealthier the City became, the more such leverage it had. Whittington lent Henry IV at least £24,000 and his son Henry V around £7,500.34

Not only did the City compete with the Crown for power. There was competition even within the City. The livery companies can all trace their origins back to the medieval period: the weavers to 1130, the bakers to 1155, the fishmongers to 1272, the goldsmiths, merchant taylors and skinners to 1327, the drapers to 1364, the mercers to 1384 and the grocers to 1428. These guilds or ‘misteries’ exerted considerable power over their particular sectors of the economy, but they had political power too. Edward III acknowledged this when he declared himself to be ‘a brother’ of the Linen-Armourers’ (later Merchant Taylors’) Guild. By 1607 the Merchant Taylors could count as past and present honorary members seven kings and a queen, seventeen princes and dukes, nine countesses, duchesses and baronesses, over 200 earls, lords and other gentlemen and an archbishop. The ‘great twelve’ companies – in order of precedence: mercers, grocers, drapers, fishmongers, goldsmiths, skinners, merchant taylors, haberdashers, salters, ironmongers, vintners and clothworkers – are a reminder of the power that London’s craftsmen and merchants were once able to wield, even if their role today is largely ceremonial. In their competitive heyday they were as likely to fight as to dine with one another.35

Among other things, this multi-level competition, between states and within states – even within cities – helps to explain the rapid spread and advancing technology of the mechanical clock in Europe. Already in the 1330s Richard of Wallingford had installed a remarkably sophisticated mechanical clock in the wall of the south transept of St Albans Abbey, which showed the motion of the moon, of the tides and of certain celestial bodies. With their distinctive hourly bells (hence the name: clock, clokke, Glocke, cloche), the mechanical clock and the spring-driven clock that supplanted it in the fifteenth century were not only more accurate than Chinese waterclocks. They were also intended to be disseminated, rather than monopolized by the Emperor’s astronomers. Thus, if one town’s cathedral installed a fine new dial in its tower, its nearest rival soon felt obliged to follow suit. If Protestant watchmakers were unwelcome in France after 1685, the Swiss gladly took them in. And, as with military technology, competition bred improvement as craftsmen tinkered to make small but cumulative improvements to the accuracy and elegance of the product. By the time the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci brought European clocks to China in the late sixteenth century, they were so much superior to their Oriental counterparts that they were greeted with dismay.36 In 1602, at the request of the Wanli Emperor, Ricci produced a beautiful rice-paper map of the world, which depicted China at the centre of the earth. He must have known, however, that in terms of technology China was now drifting to the global periphery.

Because of the greater precision it permitted in measurement and in the co-ordination of action, the rise of the clock and later the portable watch went (it might be said) hand in hand with the rise of Europe and of the spread of Western civilization. With every individual timepiece, a little bit more time ran out for the age of Oriental pre-eminence.

By comparison with the patchwork quilt of Europe, East Asia was – in political terms, at least – a vast monochrome blanket. The Middle Kingdom’s principal competitors were the predatory Mongols to the north and the piratical Japanese to the east. Since the time of Qin Shihuangdi – often referred to as the ‘First Emperor’ of China (221–210 BC) – the threat from the north had been the bigger one – the one that necessitated the spectacular investment in imperial defence we know today as the Great Wall. Nothing remotely like it was constructed in Europe from the time of Hadrian to the time of Erich Honecker. Comparable in scale was the network of canals and ditches that irrigated China’s arable land, which the Marxist Sinologist Karl Wittfogel saw as the most important products of a ‘hydraulic-bureaucratic’ Oriental despotism.

The Forbidden City in Beijing is another monument to monolithic Chinese power. To get a sense of its immense size and distinctive ethos, the visitor should walk through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which contains the Dragon Throne itself, then to the Hall of Central Harmony, the emperor’s private room, and then to the Hall of Preserving Harmony, the site of the final stage of the imperial civil service examination (see below). Harmony (image), it seems clear, was inextricably bound up with the idea of undivided imperial authority.37

Like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City simply had no counterpart in the fifteenth-century West, least of all in London, where power was subdivided between the Crown, the Lords Temporal and Spiritual and the Commons, as well as the Corporation of the City of London and the livery companies. Each had their palaces and halls, but they were all very small by Oriental standards. In the same way, while medieval European kingdoms were run by a combination of hereditary landowners and clergymen, selected (and often ruthlessly discarded) on the basis of royal favour, China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy, recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history. Those who aspired to a career in the imperial service had to submit to three stages of gruelling tests conducted in specially built exam centres, like the one that can still be seen in Nanjing today – a huge walled compound containing thousands of tiny cells little larger than the lavatory on a train:

These tiny brick compartments [a European traveller wrote] were about 1.1 metres deep, 1 metre wide and 1.7 metres high. They possessed two stone ledges, one servicing as a table, the other as a seat. During the two days an examination lasted the candidates were observed by soldiers stationed in the lookout tower … The only movement allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies, or removing human waste. When a candidate became tired, he could lay out his bedding and take a cramped rest. But a bright light in the neighbouring cell would probably compel him to take up his brush again … some candidates went completely insane under the pressure.38

No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination. But with its strong emphasis on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 characters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution.39 It was fiercely competitive, no doubt, but it was not the kind of competition that promotes innovation, much less the appetite for change. The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclusion of the masses from their activities. The contrast could scarcely be greater with the competing vernaculars of Europe – Italian, French and Castilian as well as Portuguese and English – usable for elite literature but readily accessible to a wider public with relatively simple and easily scalable education.40

As Confucius himself said: ‘A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace.’ But there was too much that was commonplace in the way Ming China worked, and too little that was new.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!