03 November 2011

The West/Europe Vs India, China and the World

Q: How did Britain conquer India? Britain is as big as Karnataka (6 crore people). How did such a small country conquer such a large country as ours?
A: Technology. Britain had superior military technology. It had cannons and muskets, with which it defeated Indian armies – who fought with swords and bows-arrows.

Q: How did Britain get ahead of India in technology? After all, in the ancient age, India was the most advanced civilisation in science.

Britain conquered India in 1757, leading to the Industrial Revolution (1775–1850). The point is: Europe was technologically ahead of other civilisations (like India and China) even before the Industrial Revolution. This helped it to conquer other countries (most importantly, Britain conquered India) which in turn led to the Industrial Revolution. So the real question is –

Q: How did Europe (the West) get ahead of other civilisations – mainly India and China – in technology?
A: Division and competition.

Look at the map of Europe. There is an island: Britain. There are two peninsulas cut off from the mainland by mountain ranges: Spain (by the Pyrenees) and Italy (by the Alps). And the mainland is cut by a river (the Rhine) into two halves: France and Germany. So Europe is geographically divided into several units by rigid barriers.

Now look at the map of India. The land itself is cut off from the rest of the world by major barriers: the Indus, the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. But look at the internal geography. There are some hill ranges (the Vindhyas, the Ghats). But these are not very tall. There are many rivers (Narmada, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri). But these are monsoon-fed, so they are shallow during the summer. Thus India does not have any rigid internal barriers, like Europe does.

Finally, look at the map of China. The real China is only east China. It is just one vast river plain (of the Hwang Ho and the Yangtze). There are no internal barriers at all.

Geography decided history – and therefore everything else (economy, society, politics and culture).

In the ancient age, Europe was ruled by the Roman Empire. This was a temporary aberration. After the Roman Empire collapsed (c500 AD), Europe was divided into its several geographical units. These units then developed as separate – and permanent – kingdoms.

India was also divided into many kingdoms. But there were no rigid barriers that would act as permanent boundaries between these kingdoms – as in Europe. Therefore these kingdoms were not permanent. It was not merely dynasties that rose and fell after one another. The kingdoms themselves (ie, geographical units) appeared and disappeared continuously.

China was the opposite of Europe. Its lack of internal barriers meant it could be unified and ruled as one unit (ie, an empire) for most of its history.

Thus Europe was divided into several permanent kingdoms (which finally became countries). These kingdoms constantly fought wars against one another. To gain military advantage over its enemies, each kingdom encouraged developments in military technology. A technology developed by one kingdom would give it an advantage over the others. But only for some time. The other kingdoms would quickly adopt that technology. And the search would begin for the next technology.

Thus Europe (unintentionally) entered an upward spiral of technological development after 1000 AD. By competing with one another – for the "wrong" reasons, one could say – Europe's kingdoms as a group started pulling ahead of other more advanced civilisations (ie, India and China).

The Europeans mainly advanced in two key areas: weapons and transport. Around 1200 they learned how to make gunpowder (which was invented by the Chinese). Around 1350, the English and the French invented the cannon. Around 1500, the Italians invented the musket. And in ship making, around 1300 the Europeans invented the rudder. Around 1450 they developed the full-rigged ship, with which they could sail long distances.

We see another geographical factor at work here. Europe has a "rough" shape, and hence has a long coastline. India and China have "smooth" shapes, and hence have short coastlines. So Europe relied more on sea transport, while India and China relied more on land transport. Thus Europe focussed on sea transport technology. And the fastest sea vehicle of the Europeans – the sailing ship – turned out to be faster and more efficient that the fastest land vehicle of the Indians and Chinese – the horse.

On the other hand, India (with its temporary kingdoms) and China (with its single empire) did not have this sustained competition and technological development.

Thus by 1500, the West (Europe) had the sailing ship, the cannon and musket. With the sailing ship they could reach other civilisations, and with the cannon and musket they could defeat and conquer them. Thus Britain conquered India. This led to the Industrial Revolution – which took the West still further ahead of India, China and the rest of the world.

"The rise of the West" was the greatest puzzle of history. Eric Jones (The European Miracle, 1981) was the first historian to answer this question. I have not read this book. If you have it, please contact me :-)