A NULL HYPOTHESIS
J. M. Blaut
Europe did not rise until modern times. To be precise, Europe in 1500 AD was not more developed than several other civilizations; was not more progressive than these other civilizations; and had no inner developmental potential -- mental, social, or environmental -- that these other civilizations lacked. I have advanced and defended this (so to speak) null hypothesis in several publications, and I will sum up the argument here, very briefly, as a discussion piece for our conference.*
If one denies that Europe had actual or potential advantages over other civilizations before 1500, one must of course produce an alternative theory for the rise of Europe after 1500. My general theory includes three propositions:
(1) In 1500, a number of mercantile or protocapitalist centers, mostly maritime-oriented, in all three Eastern Hemisphere continents, had rough parity in all of the traits that we consider to have been crucial in the process of economic and technological development.
(2) The reason why (part of) Europe began to rise after 1492 (or 1500) was the immense wealth obtained from America, first in the form of precious metals, later in the form of agricultural commodities produced by coerced labor of slaves and peasants. The wealth that was extracted from America was a "windfall" (as Walter Prescott Webb described it in _The Great Frontier_) that was wholly unprecedented in history: the acquisition by Europeans of most of the world's gold and silver resources and of a territory six times the size of Europe itself.
(3) The wealth from colonialism came to Europe, and not to other protocapitalist regions, for two reasons, neither of which implies any superiority or priority of Europe over the other regions. First: America was vastly more accessible to Western Europe than to all non-European centers. And second: the regions within America that were potentially the most valuable to Europeans were quickly and easily conquered (because of America's historically recent settlement by humans and its isolation from Old World populations), and Europeans therefore quickly acquired the power needed to guarantee their monopoly over the hemisphere's wealth.
My argument that the rise of Europe resulted from colonialism, not from internal forces or factors unique to pre-modern Europe, is made in two quite different ways. One of these is a critique of each of the reasons that historians commonly put forward at present to assert and explain Europe's superiority or priority over other civilizations in ancient and medieval times. (A convenient checklist of these reasons is provided in Appendix I.) The other is a rethinking of the historical geography of the world between 1492 and, roughly, 1700. This latter consists of, first, a survey of the characteristics of late-medieval civilizations across the Eastern Hemisphere, showing (as I maintain) that levels and rates of development were relatively even among these civilizations; second, a demonstration that factors of accessibility made it very unlikely that non-Europeans would reach and exploit the New World before the Europeans did so; and third, a re-telling of the process by which Europe rose during the 16th and 17th centuries, incorporating colonial accumulation as the basic external cause of this process. In the following paragraphs I will summarize the three arguments. Since this is a short paper, I can only lay out the arguments as a set of bare propositions. The reader may consult my other writings for the reasoning, evidence, and citations required to support these propositions./1 (No citations will be given here.)
We need to segregate out from the overall process of cultural evolution those facets of culture (mental, social, and ecological) that are closely related to economic and technological development. Many arguments for the superiority or priority of Europe in ancient and medieval times are grounded in the belief that these facets of culture were "blocked" in non-European regions by other facets, such as religion, values, and some aspects of social structure. I (and many others) reject this view, along with the view that Europeans were peculiarly "rational." Pre-1500 Europe certainly was unique in many ways --- but not in ways that would indicate an actual or potential rise above other civilizations with other religions, other value systems, and the like.
I maintain that, in 1492, European, Asian, and African civilizations were broadly comparable in terms of the qualities of the natural environment and the facets of culture that are crucial for development. Tropical regions were not inferior in environmental qualities to midlatitude regions, nor were those parts of arid regions in which productive irrigated agriculture was practiced inferior to regions with rainfall sufficient for cropping./2 Over vast landscapes in all three continents, the prevailing ecological-economic-technological mode of production was family farming (peasant agriculture) within a landlord- peasant class society. European variants of this system were neither unique nor more advanced than other variants: European forms of serfdom and other types of coerced peasantry, forms of estates or manors, landownership principles, commercialization, and technology, had counter- parts in various other regions of landlord-peasant society, and the European forms did not possess any trait or quality that would suggest superiority or priority over the other societies and regions./3 Rural people in Europe had social institutions and attitudes, relating to demographic behavior, family, and the like, that were not uniquely progressive.
Forms of urbanization, in terms of spatial structure, scale, economy, technology, and society, were relatively comparable in developed regions of Europe, Africa, and Asia in 1492. This was true most of all in port cities, large and small, which tended to be dominated by something like protocapitalism in terms of the class structure, the economy, and more. In all continents, most such places (cities and hinterlands), which I call mercantile-maritime centers, were undergoing some development during the later Middle Ages. Innovations in technology, business practices, and the like, tended to diffuse rapidly in a criss-cross pattern among these mercantile-maritime centers, large and small. Many of them, in the later medieval centuries, were expanding their radii of trade and at the same time engaging in various sorts of exploration. European mercantile-maritime centers were not uniquely advanced in any of the traits underlying long-distance oceanic trade and explorations: traits of mentality, technology, economy, and the rest.
Mercantile-maritime centers dotted the coasts of Western and Southern Europe, North and East Africa, and Southwest, South, Southeast, and East Asia. If non-European centers had, themselves, obtained the great windfall in the the Americas, they would (probably) have initiated a process roughly like the one undertaken by Europeans: many of them had the entire set of social, economic, technological, and indeed psychological qualities that would have allowed them to do so, and the urge for overseas profit was probably equally strong among merchants and other elites in all of these regions, large and small. Nor were the Europeans unusually aggressive, acquisitive, avaricious, piratical, etc.
The European centers had one advantage only: location or, broadly, accessibility. They were vastly closer to America and, more concretely, to the parts of America where gold and silver were widely used. For instance, the distance from China to Acapulco was about three times the distance from the Canary Islands to the West Indies (Columbus's route), and the Atlantic wind circulation was much more favorable for mariners than was the Pacific circulation. This wind system was already known from travel between Iberia and the Azores and Canaries: one sailed westward in the low-latitude Trade Winds and, returning, turned into the midlatitude Westerlies which carried one back toward Europe. (Hence the idea of reaching Japan by sailing westward seemed eminently reasonable.) In a word: given the common technology, common motivation, and the rest in the protocapitalist network in the 15th century, it is most unlikely that communities on the coasts of the Indian Ocean or the Pacific would have reached the Western Hemisphere at the time the Europeans did so. The Conquest itself was largely a result of the devastating epidemics of Old World diseases that decimated the Native American populations. Therefore Europeans very quickly got hold of immense quantities of gold and silver. (From 1500 to 1800 85% of the world's silver and 70% of its gold came from America.) Europeans acquired abundant fertile land, as a result mainly of depopulation, and by the end of the 16th century Europeans had already begun to reap great profits from plantations. (In 1600 the value of Brazilian sugar was double the value of all of England's exports to all of the world.) The Europeans, one might say, got rich quick.
The third of my general propositions argues that Europe's enrichment from colonial activities, initially in the Americas, provides an adequate explanation for the early rise of Europe relative to other Old World civilizations and for the "transition" to preindustrial capitalism. The rise of Europe from 1500 to 1800 was mainly fueled by a process external to Europe itself: by colonialism. Great progress occurred in Europe during the latter part of this period, and the immediate causes are mostly to be found within Europe itself. But the underlying cause was colonialism: the constant flow of wealth that was yielded by formal and informal colonialism, the life- opportunities created by colonialism, the new ways of thinking and new inventions that were stimulated by colonialism, along with the receipt by diffusion of ideas and techniques from other continents; all of this, in my view, is the basic underlying dynamic of the rise of Europe and the political rise of preindustrial capitalism in Europe. I believe also that the later industrial revolution can be explained as primarily an effect of the constantly inflowing profits from overseas and secondarily the evolving internal changes within Europe itself, but I have not published on this matter as yet.
Most present-day historians, I am certain, are opposed to Eurocentrism. Many are engaged in the task of disproving the old Eurocentric arguments (see Appendix I) about the superiority of pre-modern Europe. But most historians seem to believe that, at the end of the day, when all the fallacies have been rooted out and discarded, *something* will be left: some one incontestable argument that proves the superiority or priority of pre-modern Europe over non- Europe, or some essential historical force for change toward modernity that was present in Europe and nowhere else, or was more effective in Europe than elsewhere. I suggest that *nothing* will be left: that is my null hypothesis.
1. J. M. Blaut, "Where Was Capitalism Born?" Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 8,2(1976):1-11; ibid., "Diffusionism: A Uniformitarian Critique," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77(1987):30-47; J. Blaut, principal author, and A. G. Frank, S. Amin, R. Dodgshon, R. Palan, and P. Taylor, Fourteen Ninety-Two: The Debate About Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and History, Trenton: Africa World Press, 1992; J. Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, New York: Guilford Press, 1993; ibid., "Environmentalism and Eurocentrism," forthcoming 1999 in The Geographical Review; ibid., The Colonizer's Model of the World, Volume 2, New York: Guilford Press, forthcoming late 1999 or 2000.
2. For the arguments, see in The Colonizer's Model of the World, the sections entitled "Nasty Tropical Africa," "Arid, Despotic Asia," and "Temperate Europe." Also see "Environmentalism and Eurocentrism."
3. In The Colonizer's Model of the World see pp. 108-119 ("Technology") and 152-165 ("Medieval Landscapes"). Also see "Where Was Capitalism born?"
Twenty-Eight Arguments for the Superiority of Europeans in History (A Checklist)
1. The climate of Europe, or northwest Europe, is uniquely favorable for
agriculture. Or: Europe, along with China, possesses a climate that is more
favorable for agriculture than are the climates of all other regions, especially
the humid tropics.
2. The climate of Europe is better for human comfort and productivity than are the climates of all other regions.
3. The soils of Europe are uniquely fertile.
4. Europe suffers less from natural disasters than do all the other regions.
5. The landforms of Europe differentiate the continent into separate ecological cores and this explains in large part the fact that Europe has many moderate-sized states instead of an empire.
6. The indented coastline of Europe partly explains the linguistic, ethnic, and political differentiation of Europe.
7. The forest vegetation of Europe historically contributed to the development of individualistic people and small families, hence led Europe toward private property and capitalism and helped uniquely to avoid overpopulation and Malthusian disasters.
8. Europe was, historically, less disease-ridden than all other places.
9. Europeans, historically, were better nourished than other people.
10. Europeans were uniquely inventive.
11. Europeans were uniquely rational in the practice of sexual self-restraint and so avoided overpopulation and Malthusian disasters.
12. Europeans were uniquely innovative and progressive.
13. Europeans were uniquely capable of creative and scientific thought.
14. Europeans held uniquely democratic, ethical values.
15. The development of classes and/or class struggle was most fully developed in Europe.
16. The Christian religion, as doctrine, led to unique European development.
17. The Christian church, as institution, led to unique European development.
18. The European family was uniquely suited to development. (Also see nos. 8, 11, 25.)
19. Europeans uniquely, in ancient and/or medieval times, developed the concept and institution of private property.
20. Europeans uniquely, in ancient and/or medieval times, developed the institution of the market.
21. Urbanization, in Europe, was more favorable for development than was the case elsewhere; European cities were more progressive and more free than cities elsewhere.
22. The state, in Europe, developed toward modern politics more rapidly and effectively than elsewhere. (Also see nos. 23, 24.)
23. The empire as a political form hobbled development in non-European regions.
24. Oriental despotism hobbled social and technological development in non- European regions. (Also see nos. 23, 26.)
25. Europe was uniquely capable of avoiding Malthusian disasters for many reasons. (Also see nos. 11, 18.)
26. The practice of, and dependence on, irrigation slowed or stopped development in hydraulic or irrigating societies. (Also see no. 24.)
27. The development of feudalism in Europe uniquely favored the rise of democracy and private property. (Also see nos. 14, 19.)
28. Europeans were uniquely venturesome, uniquely given to exploration/expansion.
Note: All but three of these arguments (nos. 4, 6, and 16) are advanced by David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York: Norton, 1998). *Prepared for reading at CONFERENCE ON THE ORIGINS OF THE MODERN WORLD: COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES FROM THE EDGE OF THE MILLENIUM, University of California at Davis October 15-17, 1999.