A rising tide lifts all the boats,” said President John F. Kennedy. Never was this truer than between 1500 and 1800, when for three centuries Eastern and Western social development both floated upward (Figure 9.1). By 1700 both were pushing the hard ceiling around forty-three points; by 1750 both had passed it.

Kennedy spoke his famous line in Heber Springs, Arkansas, in a speech to celebrate a new dam. The project struck his critics as the worst kind of pork barrel spending: sure, they observed, the proverbial rising tide lifts all the boats, but it lifts some faster than others. That, too, was never truer than between 1500 and 1800. Eastern social development rose by a quarter, but the West’s rose twice as fast. In 1773 (or, allowing a reasonable margin of error, somewhere between 1750 and 1800) Western development overtook the East’s, ending the twelve-hundred-year Eastern age.

Historians argue passionately over why the global tide rose so much after 1500 and why the Western boat proved particularly buoyant. In this chapter I suggest that the two questions are linked and that once we set them into their proper context, of the long-term saga of social development, the answers are no longer so mysterious.


Figure 9.1. Some boats float better than others: in the eighteenth century the rising tide of social development pushed East and West through the ceiling that had always constrained organic economies, but pushed the West harder, further, and faster. In 1773, according to the index, the West regained the lead.


It took a while to get over Tomé Pires. Not until 1557 did Chinese officials start turning a blind eye to the Portuguese traders who were settling at Macao (Figure 9.2), and although by 1570 other Portuguese traders had set up shop as far around the coasts of Asia as Nagasaki in Japan, their numbers remained pitifully small. To most Westerners, the lands of the Orient remained merely magical names; to most Easterners, Portugal was not even that.

The main impact these European adventurers did have on ordinary Easterners’ lives in the sixteenth century was through the extraordinary plants—corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts—they brought from the New World. These grew where nothing else would, survived wretched weather, and fattened farmers and their animals wonderfully. Across the sixteenth century millions of acres of them were planted, from Ireland to the Yellow River.


Figure 9.2. A crowded world: the East in an age of rising tides, 1500–1700

They came, perhaps, in the nick of time. The sixteenth century was a golden age for Eastern and Western culture. In the 1590s (admittedly a particularly good decade) Londoners could watch new dramas such as Shakespeare’s Henry V, Julius Caesar, andHamlet or read inexpensive religious tracts such as John Foxe’s gory Book of Martyrs, churned out in their thousands by the new printing presses and crammed with woodcuts of true believers at the stake. At the other end of Eurasia, Beijingers could catch Tang Xianzu’s twenty-hour-long Peony Pavilion, which remains China’s most-watched traditional opera, or read The Journey to the West (the hundred-chapter tale of Monkey, Pig, and a Shrek-like ogre named Friar Sand, who followed a seventh-century monk to India to find Buddhist sutras, along the way rescuing him from countless cliff-hangers).

But behind the glittering façade all was not well. The Black Death had killed a third or more of the people in the Western and Eastern cores and for about a century after 1350 recurring outbreaks kept population low. Between 1450 and 1600, however, the number of hungry mouths in each region roughly doubled. “Population has grown so much that it is entirely without parallel in history,” one Chinese scholar recorded in 1608. In faraway France observers agreed; people were breeding “like mice in a barn,” as a proverb put it.

Fear has ever been an engine of social development. More children meant more subdivided fields or more heirs left out in the cold, and always meant more trouble. Farmers weeded and manured more often, dammed streams, and dug wells, or wove and tried to sell more garments. Some settled on marginal land, squeezing a meager living from hillsides, stones, and sand that their parents would never have bothered with. Others abandoned the densely settled cores for wild, underpopulated frontiers. Yet even when they planted the New World wonder crops, there never seemed to be enough to go around.

The fifteenth century, when labor had been scarce and land abundant, increasingly became just a fuzzy memory: happy days, beef and ale, pork and wine. Back then, said the prefect of a county near Nanjing in 1609, everything had been better: “Every familywas self-sufficient with a house to live in, land to cultivate, hills from which to cut firewood, gardens in which to grow vegetables.” Now, though, “nine out of ten are impoverished … Avarice is without limit, flesh injures bone … Alas!” A German traveler around 1550 was blunter: “In the past they ate differently at the peasant’s house. Then, there was meat and food in profusion.” Today, though, “everything is truly changed … the food of the most comfortably off peasants is almost worse than that of day laborers and valets in the old days.”

In the English fairy tale of Dick Whittington (which, like many such stories, goes back to the sixteenth century), a poor boy and his cat drift from the countryside to London and make good, but in the real world many of the hungry millions that fled to cities merely jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Figure 9.3 shows how urban real wages (that is, consumers’ ability to buy basic goods, corrected to account for inflation) changed after 1350. The graph rests on years of painstaking detective work by economic historians, deciphering crumbling records, recorded in a regular Babel of tongues and measured in an even greater confusion of units. Not until the fourteenth century do European archives begin providing data good enough to calculate incomes this precisely, while in China we have to wait until after 1700. But despite the gaps in the data and the mass of crisscrossing lines, the Western trend, at least, is clear. Basically, wages roughly doubled everywhere we have evidence in the century after the Black Death, then, as population recovered, mostly fell back to pre–Black Death levels. The Florentines who hauled blocks and raised the soaring dome of Brunelleschi’s cathedral in the 1420s feasted on meat, cheese, and olives; those who dragged Michelangelo’s David into place in 1504 made do with bread. A century later their great-grandchildren were happy to get even that.


Figure 9.3. For richer, for poorer: the real wages of unskilled urban workers in six Western cities plus Beijing, 1350–1800. Every city and every industry had its own story, but almost everywhere we can measure it, after roughly doubling between 1350 and 1450 workers’ purchasing power fell back to pre-1350 levels by 1550 or 1600. For reasons that will become clear later in the chapter, after 1600 cities in Europe’s northwest increasingly pulled away from the rest. (Data begin at Paris and Valencia only around 1450 and at Beijing around 1750, and—not surprisingly—there is a gap in the figures from Constantinople around 1453, when the Ottomans sacked the city.) Data from Allen 2006, Figure 2.

By then hunger stalked Eurasia from end to end. A disappointing harvest, an ill-advised decision, or just bad luck could drive poor families to scavenging (in China for chaff and bean pods, tree bark and weeds, in Europe for cabbage stumps, weeds, and grass). A run of disasters could push thousands onto the roads in search of food and the weakest into starvation. It is probably no coincidence that in the original versions of Europe’s oldest folktales (like Dick Whittington), peasant storytellers dreamed not of golden eggs and magic beanstalks but of actual eggs and beans. All they asked from fairy godmothers was a full stomach.

In both East and West the middling sorts steadily hardened their hearts against tramps and beggars, herding them into poorhouses and prisons, shipping them to frontiers, or selling them into slavery. Callous this certainly was, but those who were slightly better off apparently felt they had troubles enough of their own without worrying about others. As one gentleman observed in the Yangzi Delta in 1545, when times were tough “the stricken [that is, poorest] were excused from paying taxes,” but “the prosperous were so pressed that they also became impoverished.” Downward social mobility stared the children of once-respectable folk in the face.

The sons of the gentry found new ways to compete for wealth and power in this harder world, horrifying conservatives with their scorn for tradition. “Rare styles of clothing and hats are gradually being worn,” a Chinese official noted with alarm; “and there are even those who become merchants!” Worse still, one of his colleagues wrote, even formerly respectable families

are mad for wealth and eminence … Taking delight in filing accusations, they use their power to press their cases so hard that you can’t distinguish between the crooked and the straight. Favoring lavishness and fine style, they drag their white silk garments as they roam about such that you can’t tell who is honored and who base.

In China the civil service became a particular flashpoint. The ranks of the gentry swelled but numbers of administrative positions did not, and as the thorny gates of learning narrowed, the rich found ways to make wealth matter more than scholarship. One county official complained that “poor scholars who hoped to get a place [at the examinations] were dismissed by the officials as though they were famine refugees.”

Even for kings, at the very top of the pile, these were tense times. In theory, rising population was good for rulers—more people to tax, more soldiers to enlist—but in practice things were not so simple. Pressed into a corner, hungry peasants might rebel rather than pay taxes, and fractious, feuding nobles often agreed with them. (Failed Chinese civil service candidates developed a particular habit of resurfacing as rebels.)

The problem was as old as kingship itself, and most sixteenth-century kings chose old solutions: centralization and expansion. Japan was perhaps the extreme case. Here political authority had collapsed altogether in the fifteenth century, with villages, Buddhist temples, and even individual city blocks setting up their own governments and hiring toughs to protect them or rob their neighbors.* In the sixteenth century population growth set off ferocious competition for resources, and from lots of little lords there gradually emerged a few big ones. The first Portuguese guns reached Japan in 1543 (a generation ahead of the Portuguese themselves) and by the 1560s Japanese craftsmen were making outstanding muskets of their own, just in time to help already-big lords who could afford to arm their followers get bigger still. In 1582 a single chief, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, made himself shogun over virtually the whole archipelago.

Hideyoshi talked his quarrelsome countrymen into handing over their weapons, promising to melt them down into nails and bolts for the world’s biggest statue of the Buddha, twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty. This would “benefit the people not only in this life but in the life hereafter,” he explained. (A Christian missionary was unimpressed; Hideyoshi was “crafty and cunning beyond belief,” he reported, “depriving the people of their arms under pretext of devotion to Religion.”)

Whatever Hideyoshi’s spiritual intent may have been, disarming the people was certainly a huge step toward centralizing the state, greatly easing the task of counting heads, measuring land, and assigning tax and military obligations. By 1587, according to a letter he sent to his wife, Hideyoshi saw expansion as the solution to all his problems and decided to conquer China. Five years later his army—perhaps a quarter-million strong, armed with the latest muskets—landed in Korea and swept all before it.

He faced a Chinese Empire deeply divided over the merits of expansion. Some of the Ming emperors, like Hideyoshi in Japan, pushed to overhaul their empire’s rickety finances and expand. They ordered up new censuses, tried to work out who owed taxes on what, and converted complicated labor dues and grain contributions into simple silver payments. Civil servants, however, overwhelmingly shunned all this sound and fury. Centuries of tradition, they pointed out, showed that ideal rulers sat quietly (and inexpensively) at the center, leading by moral example. They did not wage war and certainly did not squeeze money out of the landed gentry, the very families that the bureaucrats themselves came from. Censuses and tax registers, Hideyoshi’s pride and joy, could safely be ignored. So what if one prefecture in the Yangzi Valley reported exactly the same number of residents in 1492 as it had done eighty years earlier? The dynasty, scholars insisted, would last ten thousand years whether it counted the people or not.

Activist emperors floundered in a bureaucratic quagmire. Sometimes the results were comical, as when Emperor Zhengde insisted on leading an army against the Mongols in 1517 only for the official in charge of the Great Wall to refuse to open the gates to let him through because emperors belonged in Beijing. Sometimes things were less amusing, as when Zhengde had his senior administrators whipped for stubbornness, killing several in the process.

Few emperors had Zhengde’s energy, and rather than take on the bureaucratic and landed interests, most let the tax rolls decay. Short of money, they stopped paying the army (in 1569 the vice-minister for war confessed that he could find only a quarter of the troops on his books). Bribing the Mongols was cheaper than fighting them.

Emperors also stopped paying the navy, even though it was supposed to be suppressing the enormous black market that had sprung up since Hongwu had banned private maritime trade back in the fourteenth century. Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese smugglers ran lucrative operations up and down the coast, buying the latest muskets, turning piratical, and easily outgunning the underfunded coastguards who intercepted them. Not that the coastguards really tried; kickbacks from smugglers were among their major perks.

China’s coast increasingly resembled something out of TV cop shows such as The Wire, with dirty money blurring distinctions among violent criminals, local worthies, and shady politicians. One upright but naïve governor learned this the hard way when he actually followed the rules, executing a gang of smugglers even though one of them was a judge’s uncle. Strings were pulled. The governor was fired and committed suicide when the emperor issued a warrant for his arrest.

The government effectively lost control of the coast in the 1550s. Smugglers turned into pirate kings, controlling twenty cities and even threatening to loot the royal tombs at Nanjing. In the end it took a whole team of officials, politically savvy as well as incorruptible, to defeat them. With a covert force (known as “Qi’s Army” after Qi Jiguang, the most famous of these untouchables) of three thousand musketeers, the reformers fought a shadow war, sometimes with official backing, sometimes not, funded by a prefect of Yangzhou who channeled money to them under the table by squeezing back taxes out of the local elite. Qi’s Army showed that when the will was there the empire could still crush challengers, and its success inspired a (brief) era of reform. Transferred to the north, Qi revolutionized the Great Wall’s defenses, building stone towers,* filling them with trained musketeers, and mounting cannons on carts like the wagon forts that Hungarians had used against the Ottomans a century before.

In the 1570s Grand Secretary Zhang Zhuzheng, arguably the ablest administrator in Chinese history, updated the tax code, collected arrears, and modernized the army. He promoted bright young men such as Qi and personally oversaw the young emperor Wanli’s education. The treasury refilled and the army revived, but when Zhang died in 1582 the bureaucrats struck back. Zhang was posthumously disgraced and his acolytes fired. The worthy Qi died alone and penniless, abandoned even by his wife.

Emperor Wanli, frustrated at every turn now that his great minister was gone, lost all patience and in 1589 went on strike. Withdrawing into a world of indulgence, he squandered a fortune on clothes and got so fat that he needed help standing up. For twenty-five years he refused to attend imperial audiences, leaving ministers and ambassadors kowtowing to an empty throne. Nothing got done. No officials were hired or promoted. By 1612 half the posts in the empire were vacant and the law courts had backlogs years long.

No wonder Hideyoshi expected an easy victory in 1592. But whether because Hideyoshi made mistakes, because of Korean naval innovations, or because the Chinese army (especially the artillery Qi had established) performed surprisingly well, the Japanese attack bogged down. Some historians think Hideyoshi would still have conquered China had he not died in 1598, but as it was, Hideyoshi’s generals immediately rethought expansion. Abandoning Korea, they rushed home to get on with the serious business of fighting one another, and Wanli and his bureaucrats went back to their own serious business of doing not very much at all.

After 1600, the great powers of the Eastern core tacitly agreed that the bureaucrats were right: centralization and expansion were not the answers to their problems. The steppe frontier remained a challenge for China, and European pirates/traders still posed problems in Southeast Asia, but Japan faced so few threats that—alone in the history of the world—it actually stopped using firearms altogether and its skilled gunsmiths went back to making swords (not, alas, plowshares). In the West, however, no one had that luxury.


In a way, the Western and Eastern cores looked rather similar in the sixteenth century. In each, a great empire dominated the traditional center (Ming China in the Yellow and Yangzi river valleys in the East, Ottoman Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean in the West) while smaller commercially active states flourished around its edges (in Japan and Southeast Asia in the East, in western Europe in the West). But there the similarities ended. In contrast to the squabbles in Ming China, neither the Ottoman sultans nor their bureaucrats ever doubted that expansion was the answer to their problems. Constantinople had been reduced to fifty thousand people after the Ottoman sack in 1453 but rebounded as it once more became the capital of a great empire. Four hundred thousand urbanites lived there by 1600, and—like Rome so many centuries before—they needed the fruits of the whole Mediterranean to feed themselves. And like ancient Rome’s senators, Turkey’s sultans resolved that conquest was the best way to guarantee all these dinners.

The sultans carried on a complex dance, keeping one foot in the Western core and one in the steppes. This was the secret of their success. In 1527 Sultan Suleiman reckoned that his army boasted 75,000 cavalry, mostly aristocratic archers of traditional nomad type, and 28,000 Janissaries, Christian slaves trained as musketeers and backed by artillery. To keep the horsemen happy, sultans parceled out conquered lands as fiefs; to keep the Janissaries content—that is, paid in full and on time—they drew up land surveys that would have impressed Hideyoshi, managing cash flows to the last coin.

All this took good management, and a steadily expanding bureaucracy drew in the empire’s best and brightest while the sultans adroitly played competing interest groups against one another. In the fifteenth century they often favored the Janissaries, centralizing government and patronizing cosmopolitan culture; in the sixteenth they leaned toward the aristocracy, devolving power and encouraging Islam. Even more important than these nimble accommodations, though, was plunder, which fueled everything. The Ottomans needed war, and usually won.

Their toughest tests came on their eastern front. For years they had confronted a low-grade insurgency in Anatolia (Figure 9.4), where Red-Head* Shiite militants denounced them as corrupt Sunni despots, but this ulcer turned septic when the Persian shah declared himself the descendant of ‘Ali in 1501. The Shiite challenge gave focus to the hungry, dispossessed, and downtrodden of the empire, whose violent rage shocked even hard-bitten soldiers: “They destroyed everything—men, women, and children,” one sergeant recorded of the rebels. “They even destroyed cats and chickens.” The Turkish sultan pressured his religious scholars into declaring the Shiites heretical, and jihads barely let up across the sixteenth century.


Figure 9.4. The Western empires: the Habsburg, Holy Roman, Ottoman, and Russian empires around 1550

Superior firearms gave the Ottomans the edge, and though they never completely defeated Persia they were able to fight it to a standstill and then swing southwest to take the biggest prize of all, Egypt, in 1517. For the first time since the Arab conquests nearly nine centuries earlier, hungry Constantinopolitans now had guaranteed access to the Nile breadbasket.

But like every expansionist power since the Assyrians, the Ottomans found that winning one war just set off another. To reinstate the Egypt-Constantinople grain trade they had to build a fleet to protect their ships, but their victories over the Mediterranean’s ferocious pirates (Muslim as well as Christian) only drew the fleet farther west. By the 1560s Turkey controlled the whole North African coast and was fighting western European navies. Turkish armies also pushed deep into Europe, overwhelming the fierce Hungarians in 1526 and killing their king and much of their aristocracy.

In 1529 Sultan Suleiman was camped outside Vienna. He was unable to take the city, but the siege filled Christians with terror that the Ottomans would soon swallow all Europe. “It makes me shudder to think what the results [of a major war] must be,” an ambassador to Constantinople wrote home.

On their side is the vast wealth of their empire, unimpaired resources, experience and practice in arms, a veteran soldiery, an uninterrupted series of victories … On ours are found an empty treasury, luxurious habits, exhausted resources, broken spirits … and, worst of all, the enemy are accustomed to victory, we, to defeat. Can we doubt what the result must be?

But some Europeans did doubt, particularly Charles V. He was patriarch of the Habsburg family, one of several superrich clans that had been contending to dominate central Europe since the Black Death. Thanks to astute marriages and the almost preternaturally good timing of their in-laws’ deaths, Habsburgs squeezed themselves onto thrones from the Danube to the Atlantic, and in 1516 the whole inheritance—Austria, chunks of Germany and what is now the Czech Republic, southern Italy, Spain, and modern Belgium and Holland—fell into Charles’s lap. His many crowns gave him access to Europe’s best soldiers, richest cities, and leading financiers, and in 1518 the princes of Germany elected him Holy Roman Emperor too. This particular crown, an odd relic of Europe’s messy Middle Ages, was a mixed blessing; as Voltaire famously remarked in the 1750s, the Holy Roman Empire “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Herding its squabbling princes normally cost more than the throne was worth, but all the same, whoever sat on the imperial throne was, in principle, Charlemagne’s heir—no small matter when rallying Europe against the Turk.

Many observers foresaw only two alternatives for western Europe: conquest by Islam or subjugation by the Habsburgs, the only people strong enough to stop the Turks. Charles’s chancellor summed it up in a letter to the emperor in 1519: “God has been very merciful to you. He has raised you above all the kings and princes of Christendom to a power such as no sovereign has enjoyed since your ancestor Charlemagne. He has set you on the way toward a world monarchy, toward the uniting of Christendom under a single shepherd.”

Had either the ambassador or the chancellor been right, western Europe would have started looking more like the rest of world’s core areas, dominated by a great land empire. But the idea of being shepherded so alarmed Christendom’s kings and princes that some launched preemptive wars against Charles to head it off. France even concluded a treaty with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs, and a joint Franco-Turkish fleet bombarded the French Riviera (then under Charles’s control) in 1542—all of which, of course, forced Charles to try even harder to shepherd Christendom.

Charles and his son Philip II spent most of their long reigns* fighting other Christians, not Muslims, but rather than turning western Europe into a land empire, their struggle pulled Europe apart, deepening old divisions and creating new ones. When the German monk Martin Luther nailed ninety-five protests about Christian practices to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on Halloween, 1517, for instance, he was doing nothing extraordinary; this was a traditional way of publicizing theological debates (and compared to many critics of the Church since the Black Death, Luther was positively moderate). But the charged atmosphere turned his religious protest into a political and social earthquake that his contemporaries regularly likened to Turkey’s Shiite-Sunni split.

Luther had hoped Charles would support him, but Charles believed that shepherding Christendom required one church, undivided. “A single monk must err if he stands against the opinion of all Christendom,” he told Luther. “I am determined to set my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, my life, my soul upon it.” And so he did; but with all Europe up in arms for or against the Habsburgs, denying the differences within Christendom proved disastrous. Sometimes for reasons of principle, sometimes for narrow advantage, and sometimes out of sheer confusion, millions of Christians renounced the Roman Church. Protestants and Catholics killed one another; Protestants killed other Protestants; and interpretations of protest multiplied. Some Protestants proclaimed the Second Coming, free love, or communism. Many came to bloody, fiery ends. And all, whether their protests were violent or sublime, made the Habsburgs’ job harder—and more expensive.

People who believe their enemies to be agents of the Antichrist rarely want to compromise, so small conflicts turned into large ones, large ones refused to end, and costs spiraled upward. In the end, the bottom line for the Habsburgs was the bottom line itself: they simply could not afford to unite western Europe.

Charles, broken by his struggles, retired from his various thrones in 1555–56 and divided them between a cousin, who got Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, and Philip, who got Spain and the other western lands. This was a smart move: by making Habsburg dominion synonymous with Spanish dominion, Philip could streamline administration and focus on the real issue, money.

For forty years Philip labored like Hercules to reform Habsburg finances. He was an odd man, putting in astonishing hours in his custom-built offices outside Madrid but always too busy to find time to actually visit his possessions. But although he counted and taxed his subjects as enthusiastically as Hideyoshi, increased revenues, and soundly defeated France and Turkey, the final victory that would unite western Europe never came any closer. The harder his taxmen squeezed, the more problems mounted. Philip’s subjects—breeding like mice in a barn, caught between starvation and the state, and seeing their contributions spent on quarrels in faraway countries with peoples of whom they knew nothing—increasingly fought back.

In the 1560s Philip even managed to push God and Mammon into the same camp. The normally stolid Dutch burghers, persecuted by the Habsburgs for their Protestantism and burdened by heavier taxes, went on an altar-smashing, church-desecrating rampage. Losing the wealthy Netherlands to a nest of Calvinists was unthinkable, so Philip sent in the army, only for the Dutch to raise one of their own. Philip kept winning battles but could not win the war. The Dutch would not consent to pay new taxes to the Habsburgs, but when their faith was at stake they would spend any amount of money and lay down any number of lives to defend it. By the 1580s the war was costing Philip more than the entire empire’s income, and unable to afford victory or defeat, he borrowed more heavily from Italian financiers. When he reached the point that he could pay neither his troops nor his creditors, he declared bankruptcy; then did it again, and again. His unpaid armies ran riot, robbing for their keep, and his credit rating collapsed. Spain was not decisively defeated until 1639 (at sea) and 1643 (on land), but when Philip died in 1598 the empire was already ruined, its debt fifteen times its annual revenue.

Two centuries would pass before a western European land empire again looked likely, and by then other western Europeans had set off an industrial revolution that was transforming the world. If the Habsburgs or Turks had united Europe in the sixteenth century, perhaps that industrial revolution would not have happened; perhaps in Charles and Philip, who failed to unite western Europe, or the Ottoman Suleiman, who failed to conquer western Europe, we have finally found the bungling idiots who changed the course of history.

Once again, though, this is too much blame for any one man. The European ambassador who had worried so much about a Turkish takeover had noted that “The only obstacle is Persia, whose position on his rear forces the [Turkish] invader to take precautions”; it was simply beyond the Turks’ powers to defeat Persia, the Shiites, and the Europeans. Similarly, Charles and Philip failed to become Christendom’s shepherds, not because they lost some decisive battle (in fact, they almost always won until the 1580s) or lacked some decisive resource (in fact, they had far more than their fair share of luck, talent, and credit), but because defeating the Turks, schismatic Christians, and the other states of western Europe was beyond their organization and wealth. And if the Habsburgs, with all their advantages, could not unite western Europe, then no one could. Western Europe was bound to remain distinct from the band of empires that stretched from Turkey to China.


Despite the variety of these experiences of empire, social development kept rising in both cores, and in the decades after Hideyoshi and Philip died in 1598 there was every sign that the paradox of development was kicking in again. As so often in the past, the weather contributed to the growing crisis. Cool since 1300, it now turned colder still. Some climatologists blame this on a volcanic eruption in Peru in 1600; others, on weaker sunspot activity. But most agree that the years 1645–1715 were bitterly cold across much of the Old World. From London to Guangdong, diarists and officials complained about snow, ice, and cool summers.

Cold city folk and land-hungry cultivators worked together to make the seventeenth century a disaster for the defenseless, whether that meant forests, wetlands, wildlife, or colonized peoples. Conscience sometimes pricked governments into legislating to defend all these victims, but the colonists pushing the frontiers of the cores outward rarely took much notice. In China so-called shack people invaded mountains and forests, devastating fragile ecologies with sweet potatoes and corn. They drove indigenous groups such as the Miao to the brink of starvation, but when the Miao rebelled, the Chinese state sent in armies to crush them. The Ainu of northern Japan, the Irish in England’s oldest colony, and the natives of eastern North America could all tell the same dismal story.

Colonists came because the cores were depleting their own resources. “There will be some trifling income from every foot or inch of earth,” one Chinese official insisted, and at both ends of Eurasia governments worked with developers to turn scrub and wetland into pasture and arable land. Another Chinese official laid out the rationale in the 1620s:

Stop the minor profit of the occupants of reedlands and grasslands! … some lazy people, without consideration for the long-term future, go after the minor profits of reeds and reject the great treasure of cultivation of crops. Not only do they not pursue land reclamation themselves, but they also hate others for doing so … the marketplaces are more desolate every day, the government revenues fall short of the regular quota. How can we allow this under these circumstances!

Dutch and English entrepreneurs attacked wetlands with equal gusto. Giant state-sponsored drainage programs released vast amounts of fertile soil, but the people who already lived there resisted in court and on the streets. Their (mostly anonymous) protest songs are heart-wrenching:

Behold the great design, which [drainers] do now undermine,

Will make our bodies pine, a prey to crows and vermin;

For they do mean all fens [wetlands] to drain and waters overmaster;

All must be dry and we must die, ’cause Essex calves want pasture.

The feathered fowls have wings to fly to other nations,

But we have no such things to help our transportations;

We must give place (O grievous case!) to horned beasts and cattle

Except that we can all agree to drive them out by battle.

Invasive humans, bringing equally invasive plants and animals, displaced native species or hunted them to extinction, plowing up habitats and clear-cutting forests. One scholar complained in the 1660s that four-fifths of Japan’s mountains had been deforested. Only 10 percent of England and Scotland was still wooded around 1550, and by the 1750s more than half those trees were gone too. Ireland, by contrast, was still 12 percent forest in 1600, but colonists eliminated five out of six of those trees by 1700.

Around the big cities the price of wood rose sharply and people turned to alternatives. Near Edo, Japanese salt and sugar makers, potters, and eventually homeowners started burning coal, and those Europeans who could do so substituted peat and coal for charcoal. Just like Kaifengers five hundred years before, Londoners embraced fossil fuels as they were priced out of the market for wood. Most English households outside the capital could still find firewood, but by 1550 the average Londoner was already burning nearly a quarter of a ton of coal each year. By 1610 that had tripled, and by 1650 more than half of Britain’s fuel energy came from coal. “London was enveloped in such a cloud of sea-coal,” a resident complained in 1659, that “if there be a resemblance of hell on earth, it is in this volcano in a foggy day.”

Sadly, he was mistaken, because other Eurasians were making much worse hells for themselves. Climate change was only the first horseman of the apocalypse to break free; the rising pressure on resources also set off state failure as regimes came apart under the stresses. When monarchs cut costs, they alienated their civil servants and soldiers; when they squeezed more out of taxpayers, they alienated their merchants and farmers. Violent protests by the poor had been a fact of life since states were invented, but they now intensified as dispossessed gentry, bankrupt traders, unpaid troops, and failed officials all joined them.

As times got tougher, Western rulers tried to raise the costs of revolt by insisting more firmly that they represented God’s will made flesh. Ottoman sultans courted religious scholars more aggressively and western European intellectuals developed theories of “absolutism.” Kings’ authority, they claimed, came from God’s grace alone, and neither parliaments, nor churchmen, nor the will of the people could curtail it. According to the French catchphrase, it was “un roi, une foi, un loi”: one king, one faith, one law. Challenging any part of this package deal meant challenging everything good and pure.

But plenty of disgruntled subjects were ready to do just that. In 1622 Osman II, who as Turkey’s sultan and caliph was both Muhammad’s successor and God’s representative on earth, tried to curtail his increasingly expensive Janissaries; they responded by dragging him from his palace, strangling him, and mutilating his divine body. Osman’s brother tried to salvage the situation by allying himself with hard-line clerics, even banning coffee and instituting the death penalty for smoking to please them, but in the 1640s the sultans’ legitimacy failed completely. In 1648 the Janissaries, now allied with the clerics, executed Sultan Ibrahim the Crazy (perhaps none too soon; he fully deserved his nickname) and fifty years of civil wars began.

The 1640s were a royal nightmare almost everywhere. Anti-absolutist rebellions paralyzed France, and in England Parliament went to war with its pushy king and cut off his head. That let the genie out of the bottle; if a godlike king could be tried and executed, what was not possible? For perhaps the first time since ancient Athens, democratic ideas bubbled up. “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he,” asserted one colonel in the parliamentary army; “every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”

This was strong stuff for the seventeenth century, but splinter groups of English radicals were even wilder. The Levellers, as one faction called itself, rejected all social distinctions. “None comes into the world with a saddle upon his back,” they pointed out, “neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” And if hierarchy was unnatural, surely so too was property. Within a year of the king’s execution a group calling themselves True Levellers had split off and set up ten communes. Another splinter group, the Ranters, labeled God “that mighty Leveller” and preached permanent revolution—“Overturn, overturn, overturn … Have all things in common, or else the plague of God will rot and consume all that you have.”

Leveling was an idea whose time had come. Take, for instance, a 1644 report on Levellers who

sharpened their hoes into swords, and took to themselves the title of “Leveling Kings,” declaring that they were leveling the distinction between masters and serfs, titled and mean, rich and poor. The tenants seized hold of their masters’ best clothes … they would order the masters to kneel and pour the wine for them. They would slap them across the cheeks and say: “We are all of us equally men. What right had you to call us serfs?”

These leveling warlords, however, were not Englishmen; they were in fact rampaging around China’s east coast. In East and West alike, the radical challenges to established hierarchy discussed earlier—such as Wang Yangming’s to Zhu Xi thought in 1490s China and Martin Luther’s to Catholicism in 1510s Europe—combined with state failure to produce new ideas about the equality of man. As we will see, though, these ideas had very different fates in the eighteenth century.

In China, the Ming dynasty was paralyzed by bankruptcy and factionalism, and when famine—a third horseman of the apocalypse—broke loose in 1628, the emperors seemed to have lost the mandate of heaven. Rebels increasingly felt that no act was too extreme. The country dissolved into warlordism in the 1630s; in 1644 Beijing fell. The last Ming emperor hanged himself from a lonely tree behind the palace. “I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven,” he painted on his robe. “Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die. Removing my imperial cap and with my hair disheveled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!”

He was wasting his last words. The warlords no more had the money to pay their swollen armies than did Europe’s kings, Turkey’s sultans, or the Ming emperor himself, so they turned their men loose to extract payment from civilians. Armies have plundered the innocent since war began, and probably worked out all the possible variations on savagery quite early on, merely repeating them in resounding counterpoint through subsequent ages of horror. But all over Eurasia, angry, greedy, and frightened soldiers seem to have plumbed new depths of cruelty in the harsh seventeenth century. Torture, mass executions, and gang rapes fill our sources. When Beijing fell civilians

were subjected to cruel beatings to extract any silver they might have. Some were tortured with finger or limb presses more than three or four times. And some implicated others, so that thousands of commoner households were affected … people began to lose interest in living.

If anything, the violence unleashed by state failure was even worse in the West. Europe’s religious wars reached a terrible climax in Germany between 1618 and 1648. From every corner of Christendom came enormous armies; paid irregularly, if at all, they lived off the land, extorting whatever they could. The surviving sources are full of outrages and brutalities. The little town of Beelitz, which had the misfortune to be in the path of the Holy Roman Emperor’s army in 1637, is as good (or bad) an example as any. A customs officer wrote that after rounding up locals,

the robbers and murderers took a piece of wood and stuck it down the poor wretches’ throats, stirred it and poured in water, adding sand or even human feces, and pitifully tortured the people for money, as transpired with a citizen of Beelitz called David Örtel, who died of it soon after.

Another band of soldiers hung a Beelitzer over a fire and roasted him until he led them to his savings; only for yet another band, hearing that their comrades had scorched money out of him, to carry him back to the fire and hold his face in it “for so long that he died of it and his skin even came off like that of a slaughtered goose.”

Historians long assumed that stories like these were religious propaganda, too awful to be true, but recent research suggests otherwise. More than 2 million died violently (numbers not matched until the twentieth-century world wars) and maybe ten times as many from the famines and disease—the third and fourth horsemen—that came in the wake of the armies. Both China and central Europe saw population fall by perhaps one-third, like a man-made Black Death.

The plague itself, back in fierce new forms, played its own part. Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized Journal of the Plague Year, put together fifty years after the facts, vividly described the rumors, panic, and suffering that swept London in 1665, and Chinese doctors’ reports are almost as graphic. “Sometimes everyone has swollen neck glands and sometimes everyone’s face and head swell up,” one recorded in the Yangzi Delta in 1642; or “sometimes everyone suffers from diarrhea and intermittent fever. Or it might be cramps, or pustules, or a rash, or itching scabs, or boils.”

Four of the five horsemen of the apocalypse were riding in force, yet as Figure 9.1 shows, there was no seventeenth-century collapse. Social development kept moving up, passing forty-three points, the level where Roman and Song scores had both peaked, in the East in 1710 (give or take twenty-five years, depending on the index’s accuracy) and in the West in 1723 (again, thereabouts). By 1800 both East and West were approaching fifty points. Why, we have to ask, did development buck the historical trend?


Nerchinsk, August 22, 1689. Siberia’s short summers can be strangely beautiful. Every year as the ground thaws, dark shoots of grass carpet the gentle hills with green, splashed with red, yellow, and blue wildflowers and butterflies. But this summer was different: along the banks of the Shilka River (Figure 9.5) a tent town sprang up and hundreds of Chinese negotiators, using Christian missionaries to present their terms in Latin, sat down with grizzled Russians to work out a mutual frontier.*

The Russians were far from home. As recently as 1500 Moscow had been just one principality among many in Europe’s wild east, struggling to find space between Mongols raiding from the steppes and knights pushing outward from Poland, Germany, and Lithuania. Its thuggish, illiterate princes called themselves tsars (that is, caesars), signaling Byzantine and even Roman pretensions, yet they often seemed unsure whether they wanted to be European-style kings or Mongol-style khans. Not until the days of Ivan the Terrible—sadistic even by the disturbing standards of Russian rulers—in the 1550s did Moscow count for much, but Ivan quickly made up for lost time. Musket-toting adventurers crossed the Ural Mountains and in 1598 defeated the local Mongol khan, opening the way to Siberia.


Figure 9.5. The end of the steppes: the empires strike back. By 1750 Russia and China had shut down the steppe highway.

Best known now as the frozen setting of Solzhenitsyn’s tales from the gulag, Siberia then struck Russians as a place to get rich. Fur fever gripped them: having long ago hunted their own marten, sable, and ermine into extinction, Europeans would now pay well for their coats. Within forty years Russian fur men, racing across the tundra to feed this lucrative market, stood on the shores of the Pacific. They had strung a thin line of stockades across the edge of Siberia’s frozen forests, and from these they ventured out to trap mink or extort skins from the local Stone Age hunters; and though these empty wastes were hardly an empire by the standards of Suleiman or Hideyoshi, taxes on fur saved more than one tsar from disaster.

Russian trappers and Chinese troopers soon clashed along the Amur River, but by the 1680s both sides were ready to talk. Each feared that the other, like so many misguided monarchs before them, would invite in the Mongols as allies and unleash the fifth horseman, steppe migration; and so they came to Nerchinsk.

Their agreement in that Siberian summer formalized one of the great shifts in world history. For two thousand years the steppes had been an East-West highway largely beyond the control of the great agrarian empires. Migrants, microbes, ideas, and inventions had rushed along it, tying together East and West in linked rhythms of development and collapse. Under rare circumstances, and at great cost, conquering kings such as Darius of Persia, the Han emperor Wudi, or the Tang emperor Taizong had imposed their will on the steppes, but these were exceptions. The rule was that agrarian empires paid whatever the nomads asked and hoped for the best.

Guns changed all that. Nomads regularly used firearms (the oldest known gun, from 1288, was found in nomad country in Manchuria*) and it was probably Mongols who brought guns from China to the West. But as guns got better (shooting farther and faster) and empires got more organized, generals who could afford to recruit tens of thousands of infantry, arm them with muskets and cannons, and train them to fire volley after volley started defeating nomad cavalry. Around 1500, mounted archers from the steppes still regularly beat infantry from agricultural kingdoms. By 1600, they sometimes did so. But by 1700 it was almost unheard of.

The Russians took the lead. In the 1550s Ivan the Terrible’s artillery had swept weak Mongol khanates out of the Volga Basin, and across the next hundred years Russians, Turks, and Poles steadily enclosed the dry Ukrainian steppes with garrisons, ditches, and palisades. Villagers armed with muskets first channeled the nomads’ movements and finally cut them off altogether, and at Nerchinsk, Russia and China agreed that no one—not refugees, traders, deserters, and above all not migrating nomads—would move along the steppes without their permission. All would now be subjects of agrarian empires.

The Inner Asians’ last hurrah, in 1644, reveals how much had changed. China’s Ming dynasty collapsed that year when a warlord took Beijing, and as civil war spiraled out of control, a former Ming general decided that inviting the Manchus—seminomads from Manchuria—to cross the Great Wall and reestablish order would be the lesser of numerous evils. Chinese leaders had a long tradition of bringing Inner Asians into the empire’s civil wars, generally with disastrous results. But unlike earlier invaders, the Manchus came not as nomadic cavalry but with an army virtually indistinguishable from China’s, based on massed infantry using muskets and cannons copied from the Portuguese.

The Manchus took Beijing unopposed, announced themselves to be a new Qing dynasty, and then spent almost forty years fighting to consolidate their power. These struggles also differed from the aftermaths of earlier steppe invasions. Rather than opening the floodgates for more nomads to come in from the cold, the long struggle just forged a Qing army capable of pushing back into Inner Asia. In 1697 the Qing destroyed a great nomad force deep in Mongolia and in 1720 extended Chinese power for the first time into mountainous Tibet. In the 1750s the Qing imposed a final solution on the nomad problem, dragging their guns, powder, and shot to the borders of modern Kyrgyzstan, where they smashed the last resistance.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the agrarian empires—above all, Romanov Russia and Qing China—effectively killed one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Because of this, the pressure of social development against the hard ceiling did not trigger waves of steppe migration the way it had done in the second and twelfth centuries; and because of that, it seems, even the combined weight of state failure, famine, disease, and climate change was not enough to drive the cores into collapse. The steppe highway had been closed, and with it closed an entire chapter of Old World history.

For nomads this was an unmitigated disaster. Those who survived the wars were increasingly hemmed in. Free movement, the foundation of their way of life, came to depend on the whims of distant emperors, and from the eighteenth century onward the once-proud steppe warriors were increasingly reduced to hired hands, thugs such as the Cossacks, deployed to keep unruly peasants in line.

For the empires, though, closing the steppe highway was a triumph. Inner Asia, so long a source of danger, became a new frontier. As nomad raids declined, a million or two Russians and five or ten million Chinese drifted from the crowded cores to new lands along the edges of the steppe frontier. Once there, those tough enough to make it carved up the landscape for farming, mining, and logging, sending raw materials and taxes back to the empires’ heartlands. Closing the steppe highway did not just avert collapse; it also began a steppe bonanza, cracking the hard ceiling that had for millennia limited social development to the low forties on the index.


As the Russians and Chinese were closing the old steppe highway, western Europeans were opening a new oceanic highway that would change history even more dramatically.

For a century after western Europeans first crossed the Atlantic and entered the Indian Ocean, their maritime empires did not seem so very unusual. Venetians had been enriching themselves by tapping Indian Ocean trade since the thirteenth century; by sailing around Africa’s southern tip rather than haggling their way across the Turkish Empire, Portuguese sailors simply did the same thing more cheaply and quickly. In the Americas the Spaniards had entered a wholly New World, but what they did there was really quite like what the Russians would later do in Siberia.

Both Spaniards and Russians outsourced everything possible. Ivan the Terrible gave the Stroganov family a monopoly on everything east of the Urals in return for a cut of the takings; Spain’s kings gave more or less anyone who asked the right to keep whatever they could find in the Americas so long as the Habsburgs got 20 percent. In both Siberia and America tiny bands of desperadoes fanned out, scattering stockades built at their own expense across mind-boggling expanses of unmapped territory and constantly writing home for more money and more European women.

Where fur fever drove Russians, bullion fever drove Spaniards. Cortés set Spain on this path by sacking Tenochtitlán in 1521, and Francisco Pizarro speeded them further along it. In 1533 he kidnapped the Inca king Atahualpa and as ransom ordered his subjects to stuff a room twenty-two feet long, seventeen feet across, and nine feet high with treasure. Pizarro melted the accumulated artistic triumphs of Andean civilization into ingots—13,420 pounds of gold and 26,000 pounds of silver—and then strangled Atahualpa anyway.

The relatively easy pickings ran out by 1535, but dreams of El Dorado, the Golden King of a realm where treasure lay all around, kept the cutthroats coming. “Every day they did nothing else but think about gold and silver and the riches of the Indies of Peru,” one chronicler lamented. “They were like a man in desperation, crazy, mad, out of their minds with greed for gold and silver.”

The madness found a new outlet in 1555, when improved techniques for extracting silver suddenly made New World mining highly profitable. Output was prodigious: some fifty thousand tons of American silver reached Europe between 1540 and 1700, two-thirds of it from Potosí, a mountain in what is now Bolivia that turned out to be virtually solid ore. By the 1580s Europe’s stock of silver had doubled and the Habsburg take had grown tenfold—even though, as a Spanish visitor to Potosí claimed in 1638, “Every peso coin minted in Potosí has cost the life of ten Indians.” In another parallel with Russia, the Habsburgs came to look on their conquest of the wild periphery chiefly as a way to finance wars to build a land empire in Europe. “Potosí lives in order to serve the imposing aspirations of Spain,” one visitor wrote. “It serves to chastise the Turk, humble the Moor, make Flanders tremble, and terrify England.”


Figure 9.6. The oceanic empires, 1500–1750. The arrows show the major “triangular trades” of slaves, sugar, rum, food, and manufactured goods around the Atlantic.

The Habsburgs used most of their New World silver to pay their debts to Italian financiers, from whose hands much of the bullion made its way to China, where the booming economy needed all the silver coins it could get. “The king of China could build a palace with the silver bars from Peru which have been carried to his country,” one trader thought. Yet although the Habsburg Empire exported silver and the Ming Empire imported it, they otherwise had much in common, worrying more about enlarging their own slice of the economic pie than about enlarging the pie itself. Both empires restricted overseas trade to a chosen few who held easy-to-tax state-backed monopolies.

In theory, Spain allowed just one great galleon full of silver to cross the Atlantic each year, and (again, in theory) regulated trade in other goods just as strictly. In practice, the outcome was like that along China’s troubled coasts: those excluded from official sweetheart deals created a huge black market. These “interlopers,” like China’s smuggling pirates, undersold official dealers by ignoring taxes and shooting anyone who argued.

The French, who bore the brunt of the Habsburgs’ European wars in the 1520s–30s, were first into the fray. The earliest recorded pirate attack was in 1536; by the 1550s they were common. “Along the whole coast of [Haiti] there is not a single village that has not been looted by the French,” one official complained in 1555. In the 1560s English smugglers also started selling duty-free slaves or landing and robbing mule trains of silver, as opportunities presented themselves. The pickings were good, and within twenty years western Europe’s wildest and most desperate men (and a few women) were flocking to join them.

Spain, like China, reacted slowly and halfheartedly. Both empires usually found that ignoring pirates was cheaper than fighting them, and only in the 1560s did Spain, like China, really push back. A decades-long global war on piracy broke out, fought with cutlass and cannon from China to Cuba (and by the Ottomans in the Mediterranean too). In 1575 Spanish and Chinese ships even collaborated against pirates off the Philippines.

By then the Ming and Ottomans had more or less won their pirate wars, but Spain was struggling with the altogether more serious threat of privateering—state-sponsored piracy. Privateers were captains whose rulers gave them licenses and sometimes even ships to plunder the Spaniards, and their nerve knew no limits. In the 1550s the ferocious French privateer Peg-Leg Le Clerc sacked Cuba’s main towns and in 1575 England’s John Oxenham sailed into the Caribbean, beached his ship near Panama, and dragged two of its cannons across the isthmus. When he reached the Pacific side he cut down trees, built a new ship, took on a crew of runaway slaves, and for a couple of weeks terrorized Peru’s defenseless coast.

Oxenham ended up dangling from a rope in Lima, but four years later his old shipmate Francis Drake—equal parts liar, thief, and visionary; in short, the consummate pirate—was back with the even wilder plan of sailing around the bottom of South America and plundering Peru properly. Only one of his six ships made it around Cape Horn, but it was so heavily armed that it instantly established English naval supremacy in the Pacific. Drake proceeded to capture the biggest haul of silver and gold (over twenty-five tons) ever taken from a Spanish vessel, and then, realizing that he could not go back the way he had come, calmly circumnavigated the globe with his loot. Piracy paid: Drake’s backers realized a 4,700 percent return on their investment, and using just three-quarters of her share Queen Elizabeth cleared England’s entire foreign debt.

Emboldened by success, Spain’s rivals sent their own would-be conquistadors to the New World. That went less well. In an extraordinary triumph of hope over experience, France planted a colony at Quebec in 1541 in the expectation of finding gold and spices. Quebec being rather short of both, the colony failed. Nor did the next French effort prosper: copying the Spaniards even more closely, colonists settled almost next door to a Spanish fort in Florida and were promptly massacred.

The first English ventures were equally unrealistic. After terrorizing Peru in 1579 Francis Drake sailed up America’s west coast and landed in California (perhaps at the picturesque inlet near San Francisco now known as Drake’s Bay). There he informed the locals who met him on the beach that their homeland was now called Nova Albion—New England—and belonged to Queen Elizabeth; whereupon he set off again, never to return.

In 1585 Drake’s great rival Walter Raleigh (or Walter Raw Lie, as rivals liked to call him) founded his own colony, Roanoke, in what is now North Carolina. Raleigh was more realistic than Drake and did at least land actual settlers, but his plan to use Roanoke as a pirate lair for raiding Spanish shipping was disastrous. Roanoke was poorly placed, and when Drake sailed past the next year its starving colonists hitched a ride home with him. One of Raleigh’s lieutenants dropped a second party at Roanoke (he was supposed to take them to a better site on Chesapeake Bay, but got lost). No one knows what happened to them; when their governor returned in 1590 he found everyone gone and just a single word—Croatan, their name for Roanoke—carved on a tree.

Life was cheap on this new frontier, and the lives of Native Americans especially so. Spaniards liked to joke that their imperial overlords in Madrid were so inefficient that “if death came from Spain, we would all live forever,” but Native Americans probably did not find that very funny. For them death did come from Spain. Shielded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, they had evolved no defenses against Old World germs, and within a few generations of Columbus’s landfall their numbers fell by at least three-quarters. This was the “Columbian Exchange” mentioned in Chapter 6: Europeans got a new continent and Native Americans got smallpox. Although European colonists sometimes visited horrifying cruelty on the people they encountered, death came to natives mostly unseen, as microbes on the breath or in body fluids. It also raced far ahead of the Europeans themselves, transmitted from colonists to natives and then spread inland every time an infected native met one who was still healthy. Consequently, when white men did show their faces, they rarely had much trouble dispossessing the shrunken native populations.

Wherever the land was good, colonists created what the historian and geographer Al Crosby calls “Neo-Europes”—transplanted versions of their homelands, complete with familiar crops, weeds, and animals. And where colonists did not want the land—as in New Mexico, which contained nothing, a Spanish viceroy claimed, but “naked people, false bits of coral, and four pebbles”—their ecological imperialism (another of Crosby’s fine phrases) transformed it anyway. From Argentina to Texas, cattle, pigs, and sheep ran off, went wild, bred herds millions strong, and took over the plains.

Better still, colonists created improved Europes, where instead of squeezing rent out of surly peasants they could reduce the surviving natives to bondage or—if natives were unavailable—ship in African slaves (the first are attested in 1510; by 1650 they outnumbered Europeans in Spanish America). “Even if you are poor you are better off here than in Spain,” one settler wrote home from Mexico, “because here you are always in charge and do not have to work personally, and you are always on horseback.”

By building improved Europes the colonists began yet another revolution in the meaning of geography. In the sixteenth century, when traditional-minded European imperialists had treated the New World primarily as a source of plunder to finance the struggle for a land empire in Europe, the oceans separating America from the Old World had been nothing but an annoyance. In the seventeenth century, though, geographical separation began to seem like a plus. Colonists could exploit the ecological differences between the New World and the Old to produce commodities that either did not exist in Europe or performed better in the Americas than at home, then sell them back to European markets. Instead of being a barrier, the Atlantic was beginning to look like a highway allowing traders to integrate different worlds.

In 1608 French settlers returned to Quebec, this time as fur traders, not treasure hunters. They flourished. English settlers at Jamestown almost starved until they discovered in 1612 that tobacco thrived in Virginia. The leaf was not as fine as what the Spaniards grew in the Caribbean, but it was cheap, and soon fortunes were being made. In 1613 Dutch fur traders settled on Manhattan, then bought the whole island. In the 1620s religious refugees who had fled England for Massachusetts got in on the act too, sending timber for ships’ masts back home. By the 1650s they were sending cattle and dried fish to the Caribbean, where sugar—white gold—was setting off a whole new frenzy. Settlers and slaves dribbled, then flooded, westward across the Atlantic, and exotic commodities and taxes washed back eastward.

Up to a point, settlers on new frontiers had always done something like this. Ancient Greeks sent wheat home from the western Mediterranean; Chinese settlers in the Yangzi Valley shipped rice up the Grand Canal; and colonists along the edge of the steppe were now dispatching timber, fur, and minerals to Moscow and Beijing. But the sheer variety of ecological niches around the Atlantic and the ocean’s size—big but still manageable, given the sophistication of modern shipping—allowed western Europeans to create something new: an interdependent, intercontinental economy, linked via overlapping triangular networks of trade (Figure 9.6).

Rather than just carrying merchandise from A to B, traders could take western European manufactured goods (textiles, guns, and so on) to west Africa and exchange them, at a profit, for slaves. Then they could ship the slaves to the Caribbean and exchange them (again at a profit) for sugar. Finally they could bring the sugar back to Europe, selling it there for more profits, before buying a new consignment of finished goods and setting off to Africa again. Alternatively, Europeans who settled in North America could take rum to Africa and swap it for slaves; then carry the slaves to the Caribbean and exchange them for molasses; then bring the molasses back to North America to make into more rum. Others carried food from North America to the Caribbean (where sugar-producing land was too valuable to waste on growing food for slaves), bought sugar there and carried it to western Europe, finally returning with finished goods for North America.

The advantages of backwardness also contributed. Spain, sixteenth-century Europe’s great imperial power, had the most fully developed absolutist monarchy, which generally treated its merchants like cash machines that paid out on demand when threatened and its colonies as sources of plunder. If the Habsburgs had succeeded in forcing their European rivals into a land empire, the Atlantic economy would surely have continued in this vein well into the seventeenth century. Instead, though, merchants from Europe’s relatively backward northwestern fringe, where kings were weaker, took matters in a new direction.

Foremost among them were the Dutch. In the fourteenth century the Netherlands had been a waterlogged periphery divided among tiny city-states. In theory the Dutch owed fealty to the Habsburgs, but in practice those busy, distant rulers found that imposing their will on the far northwest was more trouble than it was worth, and left government to the local urban worthies. To survive at all, Dutch cities had to innovate. Lacking wood, they developed peat as an energy source; lacking food, they fished the North Sea and traded their catches for grain around the Baltic Sea; and lacking interfering kings and noblemen, wealthy burghers kept their cities business-friendly. Sound money and sounder policy attracted more money, until by the late sixteenth century the formerly backward Netherlands was Europe’s banking hub. Able to borrow at low rates, the Dutch could finance the grinding, endless war of attrition that slowly broke Spanish power.

England moved steadily in the Dutch direction. Before the Black Death, England was already a real kingdom, but its booming wool trade made its merchants more influential than those anywhere outside the Netherlands. Traders took the lead in the seventeenth century in opposing, fighting, and finally beheading their relatively weak ruler, then pushing the government toward building big, state-of-the-art fleets. When a coup d’état/bloodless invasion put a Dutch prince on England’s throne in 1688, merchants were among the main beneficiaries.

Spain’s grip weakened after 1600 and Dutch and English merchants aggressively pushed into the Atlantic. As Figure 9.3 shows, in 1350 ordinary people’s wages had been slightly higher on Europe’s Anglo-Dutch northwestern fringe than in the richer but more crowded cities of Italy. After 1600, though, the gap yawned wider and wider. Elsewhere the relentless pressure of hungry mouths drove wages back to pre–Black Death levels, but in the northwest wages came close to returning to where they had been in the golden age of the fifteenth century.

This was not a result of simply extracting wealth from the Americas, as Spain had done, and shipping it to Europe. While experts debate how much of the northwest’s new wealth came directly from colonization and trade, even the highest estimates put it below 15 percent (and the lowest at just 5 percent). What was revolutionary about the Atlantic economy was that it changed how people worked.

I have suggested several times in this book that the motors of history are fear, sloth, and greed. Terror tends to trump laziness, and so when population grew after 1450, people leaped into action all over Eurasia out of anxiety about losing status, going hungry, or even starving. But after 1600, greed also began trumping sloth as the Atlantic economy’s ecological variety, cheap transport, and open markets brought a world of little luxuries within reach of northwest Europe’s everyday folk. By the eighteenth century a man with a little extra cash in his pocket could do more than just buy another loaf of bread; he could get imports such as tea, coffee, tobacco, and sugar, or homemade marvels such as clay pipes, umbrellas, and newspapers. And the same Atlantic economy that generated this bounty also generated people ready to give such a man the cash he needed, because traders would buy every hat, gun, or blanket they could get to ship to Africa or America, and manufacturers would therefore pay people to make them. Some farmers put their families to spinning and weaving; others joined workshops. Some gave up farming altogether; others found that feeding these hungry workers provided steady-enough markets to justify enclosing, draining, and manuring land more intensively and buying more livestock.

The details varied, but northwest Europeans increasingly sold their labor and worked longer hours. And the more they did so, the more sugar, tea, and newspapers they could buy—which meant more slaves dragged across the Atlantic, more acres cleared for plantations, and more factories and shops opened. Sales rose, economies of scale were achieved, and prices fell, opening this world of goods to even more Europeans.

For good or ill, by 1750 the world’s first consumer culture had taken shape around the shores of the North Atlantic and was changing millions of lives. Men who would not dare show their faces in a coffee shop unless they sported leather shoes and a pocketwatch—let alone tell their wives that they could not put sugar in the tea when visitors called—were less inclined to take dozens of holy days as holidays or observe the old tradition of “Saint Monday,” using that day to sleep off Sunday’s hangover. Time was money when there was so much to buy; no more, the novelist Thomas Hardy lamented, did “one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivide the day.”


Two-handed clocks were in fact the least of the demands this new age was making. Westerners wanted to know about seed drills and triangular plows, vacuums and boilers, and clocks that not only had two hands but would keep time even when carried to the far side of the world, allowing sea captains to calculate longitude. For two thousand years—in fact, since the last time Western social development had pressed against the hard ceiling in the low forties on the index—the wise old voices of the ancients had provided guidance for most of life’s burning questions. But now it was becoming clear that the classics could not tell people the things they needed to know.

The title of Francis Bacon’s 1620 book Novum Organum (“New Method”) said it all. Organum was the label philosophers used for Aristotle’s six books on logic; Bacon set out to replace them. “The honour and reverence due to the ancients remains untouched and undiminished,” Bacon insisted; his goal, he said, was to “appear merely as a guide to point out the road.” Yet once we started down his road, Bacon noted, we would find there was “but one course left … to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations.”

But what would provide such foundations? Simple, said Bacon (and growing numbers of his peers): observation. Philosophers should get their noses out of books and look instead at the things all around them—stars and insects, cannons and oars, falling apples and wobbling chandeliers. And they should talk to blacksmiths, clockmakers, and mechanics, people who knew how things worked.

When they did so, thought Bacon, Galileo, the French philosopher René Descartes, and legions of lesser-known scholars, they could hardly avoid coming to the same conclusion: that contrary to what most of the ancients said, nature was not a living, breathing organism, with desires and intentions. It was actually mechanical. In fact, it was very like a clock. God was a clockmaker, switching on the interlocking gears that made nature run and then stepping back. And if that was so, then humans should be able to disentangle nature’s workings as easily as those of any other mechanism. After all, Descartes mused, “it is not less natural for a clock, made of the requisite number of wheels, to indicate the hours, than for a tree which has sprung from this or that seed, to produce a particular fruit.”

This clockwork model of nature—plus some fiendishly clever experimenting and reasoning—had extraordinary payoffs. Secrets hidden since the dawn of time were abruptly, startlingly, revealed. Air, it turned out, was a substance, not an absence; the heart pumped blood around the body, like a water bellows; and, most bewilderingly, Earth was not the center of the universe.

All these discoveries, contradicting the ancients and even scripture, produced firestorms of criticism. Galileo’s reward for watching the skies was to be dragged before a papal court in 1633 and browbeaten into retracting what he knew to be true. Yet all that the bullying really accomplished was to accelerate the new thinking’s migration from the old Mediterranean core to the northwest, where social development was rising fastest, the shortcomings of ancient thinking seemed clearest, and anxieties about challenging authority were weakest.

Northerners began turning the Renaissance on its head, rejecting antiquity instead of seeking answers in it, and in the 1690s, as social development nudged within a hair’s breadth of its peak under the Roman Empire, learned gentlemen in Paris formally debated whether the Moderns were now surpassing the Ancients. By then the answer was obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica had appeared in 1687, using the new tool of calculus that Newton himself developed to express his mechanical model of the heavens mathematically.* It was as incomprehensible (even to educated readers) as Einstein’s general theory of relativity would be when he published it in 1905, but all the same, everyone agreed (as they would about relativity) that it marked a new age.

Hyperbole seemed inadequate for such monuments of mind. When called upon to immortalize Newton, England’s leading poet, Alexander Pope, exclaimed,

Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,

God said
Let Newton be! And all was Light.

In reality, the shift from night to day was a little less abrupt. Newton’s Principia came out just five years after England’s last witch-hanging and five years before the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts began. Newton himself, as became clear when thousands of his personal papers were auctioned off in 1936, was as enthusiastic about alchemy as about gravity, remaining convinced to the end that he would turn lead into gold. Nor was he the only seventeenth-century scientist to hold views that today seem distinctly odd. But gradually Westerners were disenchanting the world, dispersing its spirits and devils with mathematics. Numbers became the measure of reality.

According to Galileo,

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze … It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.

And what was true of nature, some scientists speculated, might be true of society too. Up to a point, government officials—especially financiers—welcomed this thought. The state, too, could be seen as a machine; statisticians could calculate its revenue flows and ministers could calibrate its intricate gears. But the new ways of thinking were also worrying. Natural science had taken its new turn by exposing ancient authority as arbitrary; would social science do the same to kings and the church?

If scientists were right and observation and logic were really the best tools for understanding God’s will, then it stood to reason that they would be the best tools for running governments, too. It was equally reasonable, the English theorist John Locke argued, that in the beginning God had endowed humans with certain natural rights; “Man,” he deduced, “hath by nature a power … to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate—against the injuries and attempts of other men.” Therefore, Locke concluded, “The great and chief end … of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” And if that was so, and if man was “by nature all free, equal, and independent, [then] no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”

These ideas would have been troubling enough if they had been limited to intellectuals arguing in Latin in ivy-clad colleges. But they were not. First in Paris, then more widely, wealthy women sponsored salons where scholars rubbed shoulders with the mighty and new thinking moved back and forth. Amateurs established discussion clubs, inviting lecturers to explain new ideas and demonstrate experiments. Cheaper printing, better distribution, and rising literacy allowed new journals, combining reporting with social criticism and readers’ letters, to spread the ferment to tens of thousands of readers. Three centuries before Starbucks, enterprising coffeehouse owners realized that if they provided free newspapers and comfortable chairs, patrons would sit there—reading, arguing, and buying coffee—all day long. Something new was coming into being: public opinion.

Opinion makers liked to say that enlightenment was spreading across Europe, shining illumination into dark recesses obscured by centuries of superstition. But what was enlightenment? The German thinker Immanuel Kant was blunt: “Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding!”

The challenge to established authority was glaring, but rather than fight it, most eighteenth-century monarchs compromised. They insisted that they had been enlightened despots all along, ruling rationally for the common good. “Philosophers should be the teachers of the world and the teachers of princes,” the king of Prussia wrote; “they must think logically and we must act logically.”

In practice, though, princes often found their subjects’ logic annoying. In Britain* kings just had to put up with it, and in Spain they could silence it, but France was sufficiently avant-garde (a French term, after all) to be swarming with enlightened critics yet sufficiently absolutist to imprison them and ban their books from time to time. It was, the historian Thomas Carlyle thought, “a despotism tempered by epigrams”—which made it a perfect garden where enlightenment could blossom.

Of all the books and bons mots that set Paris atwitter in the 1750s, none matched the aggressively enlightened Encyclopedia or Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, the Arts, and the Crafts. “One must examine and stir up everything, without exception and without caution,” wrote one of its editors. “We must trample underfoot all that old foolishness; overturn barriers not put there by reason; restore to the sciences and arts their precious liberty.” One bewigged rebel after another insisted that slavery, colonialism, and the legal inferiority of women and Jews were contrary to nature and reason, and from exile in Switzerland in the 1760s the greatest wit of all, Voltaire, challenged even what he labeled “the infamous thing”—the privileges of church and crown.

Voltaire knew exactly where Europeans should be looking for more enlightened models: China. There, he insisted, they would find a truly wise despot, ruling in consultation with a rational civil service, abstaining from pointless wars and religious persecution. They would also find Confucianism, which (unlike Christianity) was a faith of reason, free from superstition and foolish legends.

Voltaire was not entirely wrong, for Chinese intellectuals had already been challenging absolutism for a century before he was born. Printing had created an even broader readership for new ideas than in western Europe, and private scholarly institutes had revived. The most famous of them, the Donglin Academy, confronted the infamous thing even more directly than did Voltaire. In the 1630s its director promoted self-reliance, urging scholars to seek answers through their own judgment, not in older texts,* and one Donglin scholar after another was jailed, tortured, or executed for criticizing the Ming court.

The intellectual critique only intensified when the conquering Qing dynasty took control in 1644. Hundreds of scholars refused to work for the Manchus. One such was Gu Yanwu, a low-level civil servant who never passed the highest examinations. Gu took himself off to the distant frontiers, far from the tyrants’ taint. There he turned his back on the metaphysical nitpicking that had dominated intellectual life since the twelfth century and, like Francis Bacon in England, tried instead to understand the world by observing the physical things that real people actually did.

For nearly forty years Gu traveled, filling notebooks with detailed descriptions of farming, mining, and banking. He became famous and others copied him, particularly doctors who had been horrified by their impotence in the face of the epidemics of the 1640s. Collecting case histories of actual sick people, they insisted on testing theories against real results. By the 1690s even the emperor was proclaiming the advantages of “studying the root of a problem, discussing it with ordinary people, and then having it solved.”

Eighteenth-century intellectuals called this approach kaozheng, “evidential research.” It emphasized facts over speculation, bringing methodical, rigorous approaches to fields as diverse as mathematics, astronomy, geography, linguistics, and history, and consistently developing rules for assessing evidence. Kaozheng paralleled western Europe’s scientific revolution in every way—except one: it did not develop a mechanical model of nature.

Like Westerners, Eastern scholars were often disappointed in the learning they had inherited from the last time social development approached the hard ceiling around forty-three points on the index (in their case under the Song dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries). But instead of rejecting its basic premise of a universe motivated by spirit (qi) and imagining instead one running like a machine, Easterners mostly chose to look back to still more venerable authorities, the texts of the ancient Han dynasty. Even Gu Yanwu was as excited about ancient inscriptions as about mining or agriculture, and many of the doctors gathering case histories rejoiced as much in using them to clarify Han medical texts as in curing people. Instead of turning the Renaissance on its head, Chinese intellectuals chose a Second Renaissance. Many were scholars of brilliance, but because of this choice none became Galileos or Newtons.

This was where Voltaire went wrong. He was holding China up as a model at the very moment it was ceasing to provide one—at exactly the moment, in fact, that some of his rivals in Europe’s salons started drawing exactly opposite conclusions about China. Although they had no index to tell them that Western social development had whittled away the East’s lead, these men decided that China was not the ideal enlightened empire at all. Rather, it was the antithesis of everything European. Whereas Europeans had learned dynamism, reason, and creativity from ancient Greece and were now surpassing their teacher, China was the land where time stood still.

Thus was the long-term lock-in theory of Western superiority born. The Baron de Montesquieu decided that climate was the ultimate explanation: bracing weather gave Europeans (particularly Frenchmen) “a certain vigor of body and mind, which renders them patient and intrepid, and qualifies them for arduous enterprises,” while “the effeminacy of people in hot climates has always rendered them slaves … there reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off.”

Other Europeans went further. The Chinese were not just servile, they argued: they were a different kind of human. Carolus Linnaeus, the founding father of genetics, claimed to recognize four races of humans—white Europeans, yellow Asians, red Americans, and black Africans; and in the 1770s the philosopher David Hume decided that only the white race was capable of real civilization. Kant even wondered whether yellow people were a proper race at all. Perhaps, he mused, they were merely bastard offspring of interbreeding between Indians and Mongols.

Daring to know, apparently, was for Europeans only.


In 1937 three young scientists-in-training took ship from Nanjing, China’s capital, for England. It would have been hard enough under any circumstances to exchange their bustling, chaotic hometown (known as one of the “four furnaces” of China for its steaming humidity) for the hushed cloisters, relentless drizzle, and cutting winds of Cambridge; but the circumstances that summer were particularly tough. The three did not know if they would ever see their families and friends again. A Japanese army was closing in on Nanjing. In December it would butcher thousands of their fellow citizens so brutally that even a Nazi official caught up in the disaster was shocked.

Nor could the three refugees anticipate much of a welcome when they arrived. Nowadays Cambridge’s scientific laboratories teem with Chinese students, but in 1937 the legacy of Hume and Kant was still strong. The three caused quite a stir, and Joseph Needham, a rising star at the Biochemistry Institute, was more stirred than anyone. One of the students, Lu Gwei-djen, wrote that “the more he got to know us, the more exactly like himself in scientific grasp and intellectual penetration he found us to be; and this led his inquisitive mind to wonder why therefore had modern science originated only in the western world?”

Needham had no training in languages or history, but he did have one of the sharpest, quirkiest minds in a university famous for both. Lu became his lover and helped him master China’s language and past; so desperately did Needham fall in love with Lu’s native land, in fact, that in 1942 he forsook the safety of his college for a Foreign Office posting to Chongqing to help China’s universities survive the disastrous war with Japan. The BBC wrote to ask him to record his impressions, but Needham did rather more. In the margin of their letter he jotted a query that would change his life: Sci. in general in China—why not develop?”

This question—why, after so many centuries of Chinese scientific preeminence, it was western Europeans who created modern science in the seventeenth century—is now generally known as “the Needham Problem.” Needham was still wrestling with it when I got to know him, forty years later (my wife was studying anthropology in the Cambridge college where Lu Gwei-djen—still Needham’s lover—held a fellowship, and we rented the upper floor of Dr. Lu’s house). He never did solve his problem, but thanks in large part to his decades of work cataloguing Chinese scientific accomplishments we are now vastly better placed to understand what happened than we were in the 1930s.

As we saw in Chapter 7, China had made particularly rapid scientific and technological advances when its social development pressed against the hard ceiling in the eleventh century, but these were derailed when development collapsed. The real question is why, when development again pressed against the hard ceiling in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Chinese intellectuals did not, like Europeans, create mechanical models of nature and unlock its secrets.

The answer, once again, is that intellectuals ask the questions that social development forces onto them: each age gets the thought it needs. Western Europeans, with their new frontier across the oceans, needed precise measurements of standardized space, money, and time, and by the point that two-handed clocks had become the norm Europeans would have to have been positively obtuse not to wonder whether nature itself was a mechanism. Likewise, the West’s ruling classes would have needed to be still more obtuse not to see enough advantages in scientific thinking to take a chance on cutting its eccentric, unpredictable thinkers a little slack. Like the first and second waves of Axial thought and the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and Enlightenment were initially consequences, rather than causes, of the West’s rising social development.

The East also had its own new frontier on the steppes, of course, but this was a more traditional kind of frontier than the Atlantic, and the need for new thought was correspondingly less pressing. Natural and social philosophers did ask some of the same questions as western Europeans, but the need to recast thought in terms of mechanical models of the universe remained less obvious; and to the Qing rulers, who badly needed to win China’s intellectuals over to their new regime, the dangers of indulging radical thought massively outweighed any possible advantages.

The Qing court did everything possible to woo scholars back to state service from their private academies and fact-finding tours of the frontiers. It set up special examinations, paid generously, and flattered mercilessly. The young emperor Kangxi assiduously presented himself as a Confucian, convening a special group of scholars to study the classics with him and in 1670 issuing a “Sacred Edict” demonstrating his seriousness. He funded huge encyclopedias (his Complete Collection of Illustrations and Writings from the Earliest to Current Times, published shortly after his death, ran to 800,000 pages),* but instead of stirring up everything, like contemporary French encyclopedias, these books aimed to stir up nothing at all, faithfully preserving ancient texts and providing sinecures for loyalist scholars.

The strategy was a stunning success, and as intellectuals drifted back to state service, they turned kaozheng itself into a career path. Candidates for the examinations had to display evidential research, but only scholars with access to good libraries could master it, which effectively blocked everyone outside the narrowest elite from high scores. The lure of profitable niches as state servants was a powerful incentive to conventional thought.

I will postpone until Chapter 10 the most important question—whether, given more time, Chinese intellectuals would have had their own scientific revolution. As things actually turned out, Westerners did not give them time. Jesuit missionaries had been infiltrating China from Macao since the 1570s, and though they came to save souls, not to sell science, they knew that good gifts make for welcome guests. Western clocks were a big hit; so, too, eyeglasses. One of China’s greatest poets, whose vision had long been fading, described with joy how

Clear glass from across the Western Seas

Is imported through Macao.

Fashioned into lenses big as coins,

They encompass one’s vision in a double frame.

I put them on—things suddenly become clear.

I can see the very tips of things!

And read fine print by the dim-lit window

Just like in my youth.

The biggest gift the Jesuits brought, though, was astronomy. The missionaries knew that calendars were a weighty matter in China; celebrating the winter solstice on the wrong day could throw the cosmos out of joint just as badly as getting Easter wrong would do in Christendom. So seriously did Chinese officials take this that they would even employ foreigners in the Bureau of Astronomy if the aliens—mostly Arabs and Persians—demonstrably knew more about the stars than did natives.

The Jesuits sensibly saw this as their best route to China’s rulers. Jesuit mathematicians had been deeply involved in reforming the Catholic calendar in the 1580s, and although their astronomy was out-of-date by northwest European standards (they resolutely stuck to Earth-centered models of the universe), it was better than anything available in China.

At first all went swimmingly. By 1610 several senior civil servants, impressed by Jesuitical mathematics, secretly converted to Christianity. They openly promoted Western scholarship as superior to Chinese and translated European textbooks. More traditional scholars sometimes took offense at this unpatriotic attitude, though, so in the 1630s the Jesuits’ main backer began taking a subtler line. “Melting the material and substance of Western knowledge,” he assured his compatriots, “we will cast them into the mold of the [traditional Chinese] Grand Concordance system.” Maybe, he even suggested, Western learning was in fact a spin-off from earlier Chinese wisdom.

When the Manchus seized Beijing in 1644 the Jesuits proposed—and won—a public tournament of solar eclipse prediction. Their prestige had never been higher, and for a few heady months in 1656 it even looked as if the emperor might convert to Christianity. Victory seemed at hand, until the teenage monarch grasped that Christians could not keep concubines. He turned Buddhist instead. Traditionalists then struck back, denouncing the Jesuits’ leader as a spy.

In 1664 another trial by telescope was ordered, with the Jesuits, the Bureau of Astronomy, and a Muslim astronomer each predicting the time of an upcoming solar eclipse. Two fifteen, said the Bureau; two thirty, said the Muslim; three o’clock, said the Jesuits. Lenses were set up to project the sun’s image into a darkened room. Two fifteen came and went with no eclipse. Two thirty: still nothing. But at almost exactly three a shadow began creeping across the fiery disk.

Not good enough, the judges decided, and banned Christianity.

That, it seemed, was that—except for the niggling fact that the Chinese calendar was still wrong. So, as soon as he took the throne in 1668, the emperor Kangxi arranged a rematch. Again the Jesuits won.

Convinced of the Jesuits’ superiority, Kangxi threw himself into their teaching, sitting for hours with priests, learning their arithmetic, geometry, and mechanics. He even took up the harpsichord. “I realized that Western mathematics has its uses,” the emperor wrote. “On inspection tours later I used these Western methods to show my officials how to make more accurate calculations when planning their river works.”

Kangxi recognized that “the ‘new methods’ of calculating make basic errors impossible” and that “the general principles of Western calendrical science are without error,” but still resisted the Jesuits’ larger claims for their science and their God. “Even though some of the Western methods are different from our own, and may even be an improvement, there is little about them that is new,” Kangxi concluded. “The principles of mathematics all derive from the Book of Changes, and the Western methods are Chinese in origin … After all,” he added, “they know only a fraction of what I know.”

In 1704 the pope, worried that the Jesuits were promoting astronomy more vigorously than Christianity, sent an emissary to Beijing to keep a closer eye on them, and Kangxi, worried that this amounted to sedition, sidelined the missionaries. He set up new scientific academies (loosely modeled on the Academy of Sciences in Paris) where Chinese scientists could pursue astronomy and mathematics free from Jesuit influence. The mathematics the Jesuits were teaching, with little algebra and less calculus, was already decades behind northern Europe’s, but as soon as Kangxi cut this link with Western science the East-West scholarly gap widened into a chasm.

It is tempting to see Kangxi (Figure 9.7) as the solution to Needham’s Problem, the bungling idiot who could have brought Chinese science into the eighteenth century but chose not to. Yet of all the men (and the one woman) who sat on the Celestial Throne, Kangxi is surely among the least-deserving of such a label. Saying that the Jesuits knew only a fraction of what he knew was immodest, but not altogether wrong. Kangxi was a true intellectual, a strong leader, and a man of action (including fathering fifty-six children). He looked at the Westerners in a larger context. For two thousand years Chinese emperors had recognized that nomad war-making was superior to their own, and had usually found buying the horsemen off less risky than fighting them. When that changed, Kangxi was the first to recognize it, and personally led the campaigns that began closing the steppe highway in the 1690s. With the Westerners, things worked the other way around. Kangxi had engaged with Westerners since the 1660s, but after 1704 ignoring them started to seem less risky. Some Southeast Asian rulers had reached the same conclusion in the sixteenth century, and Japan’s shoguns followed suit by 1613. A violent, Christian-tinged uprising in Japan in 1637 only seemed to confirm the wisdom of this decision to sever links with the West. In this context, Kangxi’s decision seemed no bungle.


Figure 9.7. The great bungler? Kangxi, emperor of China, painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Gherardi around 1700

And in any case, there is another question we must ask. Even if Kangxi had foreseen where Western science would go and had promoted it, could he have kept Eastern social development ahead of Western in the eighteenth century?

The answer is almost certainly no. China did face some of the same problems as northwest Europe, and some of its thinkers did move in similar directions. In the 1750s, for instance, Dai Zhen (like Gu Yanwu, a low-level functionary who never won the highest degree) propounded something like the Western vision of a mechanical nature functioning without intentions or goals and open to empirical analysis. But Dai, an excellent philologist, always grounded his arguments in ancient texts; at the end of the day, preserving the glories of the past seemed more important in China than addressing the kind of questions that global expansion was forcing onto Westerners’ attention.

The challenges of the Atlantic frontier produced Westerners who clamored for answers to new kinds of questions. The Newtons and Leibnizes who responded won fame and fortune beyond anything earlier scientists could have imagined, and new kinds of theorists, the likes of Locke and Voltaire, traced out the implications of these advances for the social order. China’s new steppe frontier, by contrast, produced much milder challenges. The well-paid scholars in Kangxi’s scientific institutes felt no need to invent calculus for themselves or figure out that the earth went around the sun. There seemed to be much more profit in turning mathematics—like medicine—into a branch of classical studies.

East and West each got the thought they needed.


When Kangxi died in 1722, social development was moving higher than ever before. Twice in the past, in the Roman Empire around 100 CE and Song dynasty China a thousand years later, development had reached forty-three points, only to generate disasters that drove it down again. By 1722, though, the steppe highway had been closed. One of the horsemen of the apocalypse was dead and social development did not collapse when it hit the hard ceiling. Instead, the new frontier along the edge of the steppes allowed Eastern development to keep rising, while northwest Europeans, shielded from steppe migrations by the Chinese and Russian empires, opened their own new frontier on the Atlantic. Western development rose even faster than Eastern, passing it in 1773 (or thereabouts). It was a new age at both ends of Eurasia.

Or was it? If someone from Rome or Song China had been transplanted to eighteenth-century London or Beijing he or she would certainly have had many surprises. Such as guns. Or America. Or tobacco, coffee, and chocolate. And as for the fashions—powdered wigs? Manchu pigtails? Corsetry? Bound feet? O tempora, O mores! (“Oh the times! Oh, the customs!”), as Cicero liked to say.

Yet more, in fact much more, would have seemed familiar. The modern world’s great gunpowder armies were certainly stronger than those of antiquity and far more people could and did read than ever before, but neither East nor West could boast a million-strong city like ancient Rome or medieval Kaifeng.* Most important of all, though, the visitors from the past would have noticed that although social development was moving higher than ever, the ways people were pushing it up hardly differed from how Romans and Song Chinese had pushed it up. Farmers were using more manure, digging more ditches, rotating crops, and cutting back on fallow. Craftsmen were burning more wood to cast more metal, and, when wood grew scarce, turning to coal. More and bigger animals were being bred to turn wheels, lift weights, and pull better carts along smoother roads. Wind and water were being harnessed more effectively to crush ores, grind grains, and move boats down straightened rivers and artificial canals. Yet while the Song and Roman visitors would probably have conceded that many things were bigger and better in the eighteenth century than in the eleventh or first, they would not have conceded that things were fundamentally different.

There was the rub. The conquest of the steppes and oceans had not shattered the hard ceiling that the Romans and Song had encountered around forty-three points: they had merely pushed it up a little, and by 1750 there were alarming signs that development was once more straining against it. The right-hand side of Figure 9.3, showing real wages, is not a pretty picture. By 1750 living standards were falling everywhere, even in Europe’s dynamic northwest. As the Eastern and Western cores strained to push the hard ceiling upward, times were getting harder.

What was to be done? The bureaucrats of Beijing, the salon-goers of Paris, and every self-respecting intellectual in between threw out theories. Some argued that all wealth came from farming, and set about persuading rulers to dole out tax breaks to farmers who drained marshes or terraced hillsides. From Yunnan to Tennessee, shacks and log cabins crept farther into the forests where less-developed communities hunted. Other theorists insisted that all wealth came from trade, so rulers (often the same ones) poured even more resources into beggaring their neighbors by stealing their commerce.

There was immense variation, but on the whole Western rulers (who had been fighting so furiously since the fifteenth century) thought war would solve their problems, while Eastern rulers (who had generally been fighting less furiously) thought it would not. Japan was the extreme case. After pulling out of Korea in 1598 its leaders decided that there were no profits in conquest, and by the 1630s even concluded that overseas trade was merely losing them valuable goods such as silver and copper. Chinese and Dutch (the only Europeans allowed into Japan by 1640) merchants were hemmed into tiny ghettos in Nagasaki, where the only women allowed to join them were Japanese prostitutes. Not surprisingly, foreign trade dwindled.

Protected from aggression by the wide blue sea, Japan flourished until about 1720. Its population doubled and Edo grew into perhaps the world’s biggest city. Rice, fish, and soy replaced cheaper foods in most people’s diets. And peace reigned: having surrendered their guns to Hideyoshi back in 1587, ordinary Japanese never rearmed. Even the touchy samurai warriors agreed to sort out their quarrels by swordplay alone, which amazed the Westerners who bullied their way into Japan in the 1850s. “These people seemed scarcely to know the use of firearms,” one remembered. “It strikes an American, who has from his childhood seen children shoot, that ignorance of arms is an anomaly indicative of primitive innocence and Arcadian simplicity.”

After 1720, though, the picture steadily darkened. Japan was full. Without a technological breakthrough there was no way to squeeze more food, fuel, clothing, and housing out of the crowded landscape, and without trade there was no way to bring more in. Japanese farmers displayed astonishing ingenuity, and Japanese officials realized the damage that fuel hunger had done to their forests and actively protected them. Japanese elite culture turned toward an austere, beautiful minimalism that conserved resources. But still food prices rose, famines increased, and hungry mobs protested in the streets. This was no Arcadia.

The only reason Japan could take this extreme path was that China, the one credible threat to its security, moved the same way. China’s broad, open frontiers meant that population could continue growing through the eighteenth century, but the Qing, too, increasingly shut out the dangerous world across the waters. In 1760 all foreign trade was restricted to Guangzhou, and when Britain’s East India Company sent Lord Macartney to complain about the restrictions in 1793 the emperor Qianlong imperiously replied, “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures.” Further contact, he concluded, “is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire [and] … is of no advantage to your country.”

Few Western rulers shared Qianlong’s faith in isolation. The world they lived in was not dominated by a single great empire like Qing China; rather, it was a place of squabbles and constantly shifting balances of power. As most Western rulers saw things, even if the world’s wealth was fixed, a nation could always grab a bigger slice of the pie. Every florin, franc, or pound spent on war would pay for itself, and as long as some rulers felt that way, all rulers had to be ready to fight. Western Europe’s arms race never stopped.

Europe’s merchants of death constantly improved the tools of their trade (better bayonets, prepackaged gunpowder cartridges, faster firing mechanisms), but the real breakthroughs came from organizing violence more scientifically. Discipline—things such as uniforms, agreed-on ranks, and firing squads for officers who just did what they liked (as opposed to ordinary soldiers, who had always been punished brutally)—worked wonders, and adding year-round training created fighting machines that performed complex maneuvers and fired their weapons steadily.

Such orderly dogs of war delivered more kills for the guilder. First the Dutch and then their rivals eliminated the cheap but nasty tradition of outsourcing war to private contractors who hired rabbles of killers, paid them irregularly or never, then turned them loose to extort income from civilians. War remained hell, but acquired at least a few limits.

The same was true at sea, where the curtain came down on the age of the Jolly Roger, walking the plank, and buried treasure. England led the way in a new war on piracy, which, like China’s in the sixteenth century, was as much about corruption as about swashbuckling. When the notorious Captain Morgan had ignored an English peace treaty with Spain and sacked Spanish colonies in the Caribbean in 1671, his well-placed backers had helped him to a knighthood and the governorship of Jamaica. By 1701, though, the equally notorious Captain Kidd found himself hauled to London merely for robbing an English ship, and upon arriving learned that his own well-placed backers (including the king) could or would not help him. Spending his last shilling on rum, Captain Kidd was dragged to the gallows, roaring, “I am the innocentest person of all!”—only for the rope to break. Once upon a time that might have saved him, but not now. A second noose did the job. By 1718, when the navy closed in on Blackbeard (Edward Teach), no one even tried to help. Blackbeard took even more killing than Kidd—five musket balls and twenty-five sword strokes—but kill him the sailors did. That year there were fifty pirate raids in the Caribbean; by 1726 there were just six. The age of rampage was over.

All this cost money, and the advances in organization depended on even greater advances in finance. No government could actually afford to feed, pay, and supply soldiers and sailors year-round, but the Dutch again found the solution: credit. It takes money to make money, and because the Netherlands had such steady income from trade and such solid banks to handle its cash, its merchant rulers could borrow bigger sums, faster, at lower interest rates, and pay them back over longer periods than spendthrift rivals.

Once more England followed the Dutch lead. By 1700 both countries had national banks, managing a public debt by selling long-term bonds on a stock exchange, with their governments calming lenders’ jitters by committing specific taxes to pay interest on the bonds. The results were spectacular. As Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe, that epic of the new oceanic highways) explained,

Credit makes war, and makes peace; raises armies, fits out navies, fights battles, besieges towns; and, in a word, it is more justly called the sinews of war than the money itself … Credit makes the soldier fight without pay, the armies march without provisions … and fills the Exchequer and the banks with as many millions as it pleases, upon demand.

Limitless credit meant war without end. Britain had to fight for twenty years to win the biggest slice of the trade pie from the Dutch, but that victory just paved the way for an even greater struggle. France’s rulers seemed bent on achieving the kind of land empire that had eluded the Habsburgs, and, British politicians feared, “France will undo us at sea when they have nothing to fear on land.” The only answer, Britain’s prime minister William Pitt (the Elder) insisted, was to “conquer America through Germany,” bankrolling continental coalitions to keep the French tied up in Europe while Britain snapped up its colonies overseas.

Anglo-French wars filled more than half the years between 1689, when France’s first attempt to invade England failed, and 1815, when Wellington finally defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. This epic struggle was nothing less than a War of the West, fought for domination of the European core. Great armies volleyed and charged in Germany and dug trenches in Flanders; men-of-war blasted and boarded each other off the stormy French coast and in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean; and in the forests of Canada and Ohio, the plantations of the Caribbean, and the jungles of west Africa and Bengal, European and (especially) local allies fought dozens of bitter, self-contained little wars that added up to make the War of the West the first worldwide struggle.

There was daring and treachery enough to fill many a book, yet the real story was told in pounds, shillings, and pence. Credit constantly replenished Britain’s armies or fleets, but France could not pay its bills. “Our bells are threadbare with ringing of victories,” one well-placed Briton bragged in 1759, and in 1763 the exhausted French had no option but to sign away most of their overseas empire (Figure 9.8).


Figure 9.8. All the world’s a stage: the global setting of the War of the West, fought by Britain and its allies against France between 1689 and 1815. Crossed swords mark some of the major battles; the British Empire as it was in 1815 is marked by dots.

The War of the West, though, was barely half done. Even Britain was feeling the financial strain, and when a poorly thought-out scheme to get the American colonists to pick up part of the check for the war set off a revolt in 1776, France was there with the cash and ships that made all the difference for the rebels. Not even Britain’s credit could master determined rebels three thousand miles from home and another great power.

Finance could, though, take away the sting of defeat. In any reasonable world, losing America to revolutionaries who celebrated their pursuit of happiness in language inspired by the French Enlightenment should have bankrupted Britain’s Atlantic economy and ushered in a French imperium in Europe. Pitt feared as much, warning that if Britain lost he expected every gentleman in England to sell up and ship out to America, but trade and credit again came to the rescue. Britain paid down its debts, kept its fleets patrolling the sea-lanes, and went on carrying the goods Americans still needed. By 1789 Anglo-American trade was back to prerevolution levels.

For France, however, 1789 was a disaster. To win the American war Louis XVI had run up debts he could not pay, so he now convened his nobles, clergy, and rich commoners to ask for new taxes, only for the commoners to turn the Enlightenment against him, too. Proclaiming the Rights of Man (and, two years later, those of Woman), rich commoners found themselves half stage-managing and half trying to stay out of the way of an unpredictable spiral of revolt and civil war. “Make terror the order of the day!” the radicals shouted, then executed their king, his family, and thousands of their fellow revolutionaries.

Once again reasonable expectations were confounded. Instead of leaving Britain master of the West, the revolution opened the way for new forms of mass warfare, and for a few heady years it looked as if Napoleon, its general of genius, would finally create a European land empire. In 1805 he mustered his Grand Army for the fourth French attempt to invade Britain since 1689; “Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours,” he told the troops, “and we are masters of the world!”

Napoleon never got his six hours, and although he made British traders’ worst nightmares come true by shutting them out of every harbor in Europe, he could not break their financial power. In 1812 Napoleon controlled a quarter of Europe’s population and a French army was in Moscow; two years later he was out of power and a Russian army (on the British payroll) was in Paris; and in 1815 diplomats at the great Congress of Vienna thrashed out terms that would damp down the War of the West for the next ninety-nine years.

Did all these wars in the end make much difference? In a way, yes. In 1683, on the eve of the Anglo-French conflict, Vienna was again under siege by a Turkish army, but by the time the great and the good convened there in 1815 the War of the West had pushed western European firepower, discipline, and finance far ahead of anything else in the world, and Turkish armies came no more. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 the Ottomans had to rely on Britain to throw him out, and in 1803 fewer than five thousand British troops (half of them recruited locally and trained in European musketry) would scatter ten times their number of South Asians at Assaye. The balance of military power had shifted, spectacularly, toward western Europe.

But in another way, no. Despite all the battles and bombardments, real wages kept falling after 1750. Beginning in the 1770s, a new breed of scholars, calling themselves political economists, brought all the tools of science and enlightenment to bear on the problem. The news they brought back from their researches was not good: there were, they claimed, iron laws governing humanity. First, although empire and conquest might raise productivity and income, people would always convert extra wealth into more babies. The babies’ empty bellies would then consume all the extra wealth, and, worse still, when the babies grew up and needed jobs of their own, their competition would drive wages back down to the edge of starvation.

There appeared to be no way out of this cruel cycle. Had the political economists known about the index of social development they would probably have pointed out that although the hard ceiling had been pushed up a little, it remained as hard as ever. They might have been fascinated to learn that the West’s score had caught up with the East’s in 1773, but would surely have said it did not really matter, because the iron laws forbade either score from rising much further. Political economy had proved scientifically that nothing could ever really change.

But then it did.

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