Let's Go to India
No, let's just say we're going to India.
In the 14th century BCE, Europe began to emerge from centuries of stultifying feudalism. The social change that eventually became the European cultural come-back known as The Renaissance® was brought about by a social force that many of today's reform-minded progressives disdain: capitalism. Feudalism's hold on Europe was broken largely by the genesis of a new social stratum: a middle class. More precisely, a merchant class — or what Marx called the bourgeoisié — emerged and began to assert itself politically.
Europe probably would have ambled vacantly into modernity had it not been beset with an economic crisis. Specifically, the Black Death wiped out half its population. The death toll was so severe that the churches ran out of space in their graveyards; many plague victims' remains made it onto consecrated ground when monks began constructing chapels out of human bones. While this would eventually contribute to tourism revenue, the contemporary merchant class discovered that you couldn't be a market capitalist without a market.
The established trade routes between China and Europe may have brought them the plague along with silk, noodles and a newfound appreciation for how unnecessarily complex humans can make a writing system — the need to memorize inexplicable word spellings no longer seemed like the enormous waste of educational effort it still is.
The obvious course of action would have been the expansion of the existing trade with China that had become an established feature of the medieval European economy. As we all know by now, the Chinese nixed that plan by ceasing all contact with the outside world, including people with money — never do that to people with money.
I've already gone on at length about the great learning, wisdom and industry of the Chinese, so doesn't that fall flat with that historic blunder? No, it just shows that if you're going to leave any room to praise humans, you have to maintain low standards.
Plan B: India
With China out of the picture, the Europeans set their sights on India. India was a land of great wealth.
India had been conquered centuries earlier by Muslim armies that had crossed central Asia on camels — pack animals are still a common method of transportation in Afghanistan. This invasion, while unwelcome, did establish India as a world famous producer of cotton fabrics — a trade that has continued through to present day. Although the region had been producing cotton, the Arabs introduced new technologies that revolutionized their efforts: the spinning wheel and slave labor.
Comfortable cotton clothing apparently wasn't much
recompense for slavery, and the Hindus still don't like the Muslims
much. Well, at all. Actually, it's worth mentioning that nuclear war
was recently suggested as a possibility.
All right, have we learned that the aftermath of slavery is not worth the cotton?
With new trade routes multiplying, the wealth of the South Asian Sultanates grew rapidly. Word got around that there was a lot of good stuff in the Indian peninsula. The area had spices, gold, silk and hardworking people — all for the taking! So various invasions occurred. Each invader ransacked the country and hauled off lots of good stuff. Then, the area recovered, and became prosperous again.
Prosperous again!? It was like you couldn't ransack this country too many times! India a country with some real hot commodities, and the hungry merchants of Europe wanted to sell those commodities in their markets. The concept of "buy them from the source" was a little unclear in Europe, so "establish trade routes" meant "conquer the natives, take their stuff, and bring it back home to sell."
The best way to get a lot of stuff from India to Europe was by sea. Unfortunately, sailing East required circumnavigating an inconvenient land mass known as Africa. Although Vasco da Gama finally succeeded in this route, it took enormous effort. A man named Christopher Columbus attempted to get to India by sailing West, and circling around the Earth.
It's a popular misconception that 15th Century Europe was populated by morons who thought the world was flat. Actually, they knew it was round and they knew it was fucking huge. They were idiots because they thought that in all those thousands of miles, there weren't any inconveniently placed land masses. So Columbus sailed West to avoid one Continent, Africa, and ended up failing to make it to India because he was blocked by two continents, North and South America.
De Gama and Columbus are well-known historical figures, but not only did their triumphs come decades after trade with India became a big deal, but their voyages didn't really solve the problems of finding better trade routes to India.
Among the practical routes was an overland haul between Europe and the Persian Gulf, then to India by sea.
Say, isn't Kuwait on the Persian Gulf?
Why, yes, it is!
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