Brave, wonderful Europeans?

Sometimes one writes something that looks really crass, but isn’t quite as crass as it seems.

I’ve just looked at my last blog, about great transitions in world history. In it I speculate that we are currently living in the greatest transition since the emergence of farming, 10,000 years ago. I said that future historians might look back and see the beginnings of this transition occurring in the 15th century, when the Europeans began exploring and colonizing the rest of the world.

Those brave, wonderful Europeans…?

Please, I beg you, do not interpret this as saying that the world was trudging along in the same old way for millennia, and then those brave, wonderful Europeans came along and moved the world onto a different plain of existence.

I meant nothing of the sort, if by that you think I’m saying how wonderful we Europeans (or Westerners) are, compared with everyone else on the planet.

What I did indeed mean to say is that the European Age of Discovery sparked off the Great Transition which the human race is experiencing at the moment. But this does not mean to say that there is anything uniquely superior in European civilization.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The European explorers based their achievements on technological advances made long before in China (printing, compass, gunpowder), India (mathematical insights) and the Middle East (lateen sails, navigation techniques). The Great Transition that these explorers began was, taken in its broader context, the work of many civilizations. 

Also, just because it was Europeans who started this transition, does not mean that it will be Europeans, or indeed Westerners, who bring it to full fruition or who are the ultimate beneficiaries of it.

Those who start it don’t necessarily finish it

This can easily be seen in the fact that it was the Portuguese who kicked the exploration phase off, but within a century or so it was the Dutch, French and British who were leading the way in overseas expansion, and grabbing the most benefits from it.

In the same way, it may have been Europe and the West which sparked the Great Transition, but it could well be China and India which lead the way into space (or to the bottom of the sea, or into hyperspace, or wherever it is that the human race is headed).

Let’s not pretend we understand what was going on

Nevertheless, the place and time where this Great Transition started, was 15th century Europe. This was due to all sorts of historical factors, which we really don’t fully understand yet. It has indeed been argued that it was Europe’s cultural inferiority, not its superiority, which made them desire the products of the more advanced regions of the world, and to sally forth to get them.

Having done so, however, they set in train a series of developments over which they had little control, but which, step by step, led them to create a worldwide economy and a totally different economic base from anything which had gone before.

Finally, the European eruption into the wider world was an unmitigated disaster for other races, especially for the Native Americans, who succumbed in their millions to European viruses; for enslaved African, who were shipped thousands of miles to replace those same exterminated Native Americans; for Australian aborigines, and – not quite on the same scale – for Pacific Islanders.

In another blog I will elaborate a bit on what I mean when I talk about this “Great Transition”.


By Peter Britton